January 12, 2011


John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps: John Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, was a patriotic precursor of James Bond whose appeal is undiminished nearly a century after he was created. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, celebrates this most gentlemanly of spies. (Stella Rimington, 11 Jan 2011, The Telegraph)

They have been compared to the James Bond books, and they certainly include plenty of expensive cars and other magnificent machines, which usually come spectacularly to grief. But Bond is a paid killer and a womaniser; patriotism does not obviously feature in his make-up. Richard Hannay is, above all, a patriotic, public-spirited gentleman, and that fact is key to Buchan’s purpose in writing the books and reflects his own social and political philosophy.

The rigmaroles he invents to kick-start his stories and provide the puzzle that drives them forward may at first seem simply ludicrous – vague maunderings about threats to the proper order of things from wicked people who scatter clues in such places as “a fur shop in the Galician quarter of Buda, in a Strangers’ club in Vienna and in a little bookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsig”.

These foot soldiers of villainy include people who can “put a spell on the whole Muslim world” or who possess “that gift of half-scientific, half-philosophic jargon which is dear at all times to the hearts of the half-baked”.

These tasters of sinister evils being practised in strange foreign places, which are found in all the Hannay books, are a reflection of Buchan’s own beliefs and state of mind. A moderate conservative in politics, a Presbyterian son of the manse and a good Scot, the fey side of him really did believe that civilisation’s wheels were coming off due to a clash of cultures, too many greedy men and large doses of human stupidity.

He was convinced that civilisation’s crust was thin; that hard and cynical men, operating on a global scale, were using liberal sentimentality as a stalking horse for activities which could eventually derail liberal institutions. He was not alone in thinking and warning about that, and there are many even today who would agree with him.

Against those nightmarish possibilities, Buchan champions the things he thinks best in British civilisation – education, gentlemanly and ladylike conduct, honesty, an adventurous questing, a self-sacrificing spirit and plenty of fresh air, long walks and cold baths. Could it be that these unfashionable virtues are what accounts for his enduring appeal?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2011 5:44 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus