Empire loyalist

John Buchan’s labours not only served the public good: they provided the raw material and characters for his thrillers

Lawrence James

It was hard to dislike John Buchan. His generosity of spirit, sharp intelligence, effervescent conversation and ability to listen sympathetically won him friends and admirers. They included George V, Stanley Baldwin and humbler people among whom he moved with approachable ease and courteous familiarity. Buchan also attracted mavericks, most notably his hero and friend T.E. Lawrence and the firebrand Glaswegian MP, Jimmy Maxton. Beyond those who knew him personally were the millions who, during his lifetime and after, read his thrillers, listened to them on the radio or watched them in the cinema and on television.

Buchan’s detractors obliquely reflected his virtues. Academic historians resented his successful poaching in their coverts. The dead wood on the Tory backbenches distrusted the cleverness and liberal sympathies of the member for the Scottish Universities. Clement Attlee recalled “a romantic Tory who thought Toryism better than it was”.

This was true, but Attlee had overlooked Buchan’s flexible pragmatism and tolerant spirit, both of which he attributed to his Scottish forebears and upbringing. A son of the manse who revered Sir Walter Scott, Buchan saw in Scotland the triumph of rational compromise. His Scotland was a nation that had emerged from an extended conflict between the romantic, aristocratic Cavaliers and the “democratic” and egalitarian Presbyterians. He freely acknowledged each strand in his own thought. Yet, these incompatibles had somehow become fused to create a shared national identity.

Buchan was convinced that this process could be repeated in South Africa, where he served as a trainee proconsul during the last phase of the Anglo-Boer war. His task was to assist the reconstruction of the defeated Boer republics. He worked assiduously and discovered a flair for brokering compromises between opposites. Like the Scots, South Africans could find their own distinct and defining nationhood. Buchan even went as far as insist that this state should embrace its black as well as its British and Afrikaner population; conventional imperialists were shocked. Moreover, he argued, all the dominions should strive to foster their own peculiar character, self-esteem and patriotism rather than be satisfied, hand-me-down Britishness.

Today, Buchan’s imaginative and enlightened imperialism would be condemned by that self-appointed kangaroo court which automatically finds the British Empire guilty of gross enormities. Yet for him, the majority of his countrymen and women and millions of its subjects that empire was a force for progress that was forever advancing. This was why, in 1934, Buchan strongly supported legislation to accelerate Indian self-government.

By this date, Buchan’s industry and energy had propelled him into that elevated circle which ran Britain and her empire. In 1936 his official career reached its peak and: recommended by the King, he was appointed Governor-General of Canada and ennobled as the first Lord Tweedsmuir. He was delighted by the peerage.

Buchan’s labours not only served the public good: they provided the raw material and characters for his thrillers. Peter Pienaar, a canny Boer, adept in bushcraft, rubs shoulders with Bullivant, the omniscient intelligence supremo behind a Whitehall desk. There are also the natural men of action,  hungry for adventure such as Sandy Arbuthnot and sundry sporting lairds. Buchan believed that heroic impulses existed in all classes. They were revealed by plain folk like Dickson McCunn, a retired Glasgow grocer, and his gang of Gorbals lads (the “Diehards”) who show daring and resourcefulness in Huntingtower (1922). And, of course, there is the durable Richard Hannay, a Rhodesian mining engineer whose latent grit and ingenuity surface when he is suddenly and reluctantly entangled with a knot of German spies in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). By making his heroes ordinary men and women, Buchan gave his thrillers a universal quality and he wrote with pace and gusto.

For Buchan, the Great War was a public emergency where heroes sprang from nowhere. In Mr Standfast (1919), the effete pacifist Lancelot Wake is transformed into the courageous stretcher-bearer who wins a posthumous Victoria Cross. Buchan’s wartime work in intelligence and propaganda exposed him to the industrialised slaughter of the trenches and made him aware of the hidden world of espionage and subversion. This forms the background for Greenmantle (1917), in which Hannay goes underground to help thwart the Sultan/Caliph’s jihad against the Allies. T.E. Lawrence, who did so much to frustrate that holy war, later told Buchan that his fiction was close to the truth. It was, for Buchan in London would have known all about the secret machinations of the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Lawrence, the daydreaming young archaeologist  turned dashing guerrilla leader with a knack for handling Arabs, could have been a creature of Buchan’s imagination.

The post-war period needed more heroes in the Buchan mould. His civilised and confident world order had been fractured by war and Europe faced new perils as the traumatised masses succumbed to brutal creeds and upstart saviours. Buchan was repelled by communism, Fascism, Nazism and the “mob leaders” who used them to seize absolute power. He particularly loathed the class politics of the Left and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, which persuaded him to throw his weight behind Zionism and the slowly expanding Jewish settlements in Palestine.

New dangers provided Buchan with a new breed of villains: the murderous Bolsheviks in Huntingtower and the devious Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages (1924), a plausible, superficially agreeable and talented man of affairs who masterminds a secret, worldwide criminal organisation bent on fomenting discord and revolution for profit. Medina’s successors would be Ian Fleming’s Blofeld and Spectre.

Buchan’s thrillers exploited contemporary events (and anxieties) which made then extensions of his political life. Both are integral to this excellent book in which Ursula Buchan has balanced her grandfather’s public and literary achievements with his family life and internal tensions. He emerges as a thoroughly decent man and she as a brilliant biographer.

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