John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier

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The words—which occur in the opening pages of John Buchan's Greenmantle —are uttered in a secret office near Whitehall, in London, as Sir Walter Bullivant briefs Richard Hannay on the extreme hazard and implausibility of his upcoming mission to save the empire.

John Buchan, the Presbyterian Cavalier

Even at that age I preferred Bullivant's style to the affected gruffness of "M" as he summoned Commander James Bond to a confidential session on the newest Red Menace supervillain. In several respects Buchan is as different from Fleming as chalk is from cheese. The hero Hannay is uninterested in sex, revolted by all forms of cruelty, and ill at ease in the modern world of cleverness and greed and deceit. He is a late-Edwardian version of the strong, silent type that upheld chivalric values while playing "The Great Game," and he is doomed to see most of his friends immolated in the trenches of the Western Front.

But Buchan spanned the gap between Kipling and Fleming, and his stories furnished a crossover point for beginning readers between the straightforward "adventure" book and something resembling the adult novel. I like to think that they still do, and this in spite of their occasional preposterousness "There are some things," Hannay reflects near the beginning of Mr. Standfast , "that no one has a right to ask of any white man". Buchan's following in America probably derives chiefly from The Thirty-Nine Steps —the first of the Hannay tales, and the one that was famously transferred to celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock.

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Here one has a very well shaped thriller, with many vertiginous shifts of plot and scene, a dastardly set of foes, and a game played for exceedingly high stakes. The reliance on coincidence or the fortuitous is often questionable, but the results at the same time are never quite incredible. And the hero is, as I hinted before, more of an innocent abroad than a calculating agent. He is actuated principally by loyalty, either to friends or to country, and when he meets sheer evil, he is often baffled as well as repelled.

This innocence may or may not be the counterpart of his creator's rather alarming sense of integrity. What is a modern and wised-up reader to make, for example, of Hannay's encounter again in Mr. Standfast with the lovely Mary Lamington: "I didn't even think of her as pretty, any more than a man thinks of the good looks of the friend he worships"? Since Mary is also described as having a boylike grace of movement, even the least jaded attention is inevitably drawn to what is apparently being disowned.

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We do not nowadays think of the British Secret Service as a place where the polymorphously perverse was unknown. One of the merits of Niall Ferguson's recent work on the British Empire is the reminder it provides of how Scottish that empire was. Not only did the Scots provide a vast proportion of the soldiers and miners and ship's engineers of the system I have seen it argued that Scotty on Star Trek is a tribute to this grand tradition , but several colonies bore a distinctly Caledonian stamp.

Even today a visitor to New Zealand or Canada is bound to notice the influence of Scottish architecture and of the Scottish educational and religious heritage; and in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the city of Blantyre, in Malawi, the imprint of Scotland is to be felt in numerous distinctive ways. The battle flag of the Confederacy, indeed, displayed the cross of Saint Andrew; and I recently read an account of the revolution in Texas in which one of the proclamations under discussion featured a stirring line from the poetry of Robert Burns—the more impressive because it was unattributed and assumed to be familiar in the context.

Scotland, Christianity, and empire were the air in which Buchan moved.

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Born to a struggling minister of the Free Church of Scotland a congregation that had seceded from the established local church and stood for a flinty Calvinism , he revered the epic story of David Livingstone as a missionary in Africa, went out to serve as a member of Sir Alfred Milner's governing team during and after the Boer War, was elected to Parliament as a Scottish member on a liberal Conservative and Ulster Unionist platform , and ended his days in with the title of Lord Tweedsmuir and the office of governor-general of Canada.

In his fiction Highland and Lowland dialects are employed in almost every chapter, and there are recurrent allusions to Scottish vernacular poetry and song.

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The famous contrast in the Scottish character is between the dour, stoic, and economical and the romantic, passionate, and rebellious. Buchan was a salient instance of this contradiction, which expressed itself mainly in the contrast between his life and his writing.

He was continent in all matters; punctilious as to time and bookkeeping; deeply attached to his national Church; and a tightly buttoned scholar, civil servant, politician, and diplomat. Forever associated with the classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan wrote over a hundred books, including a series of 'shockers' as he called them, children's books and tales of the supernatural.

He has been a law student, a journalist contributing to the Times and Spectator, a parliamentary candidate from Scotland, and has worked in publishing.

The First Hundred Years

A Council Member of the John Buchan Society, he has written introductions to several Buchan novels and has edited collections of Buchan's poetry and short stories. He now lives in London. Grand Eagle Retail is the ideal place for all your shopping needs! With fast shipping, low prices, friendly service and over 1,, in stock items - you're bound to find what you want, at a price you'll love! Please view eBay estimated delivery times at the top of the listing.

We are unable to deliver faster than stated. NOTE: We are unable to offer combined shipping for multiple items purchased. His extra-curricular enthusiasms included support for the authenticity of the Jerusalem site known as 'Gordon's Calvary'. Conan Doyle, though foiled in his bid to kill off Sherlock Holmes, became an historian of the Boer War and devotee of spiritualism and psychic research.

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John Buchan spent more time on serious biographies and histories than on the thrillers that remain in print, more than 50 years after his death while serving as Governor-General of Canada. He had also been a Tory member of parliament before becoming Lord Tweedsmuir and was a notable lay theologian. Like Conan Doyle, and much more than Rider Haggard, Buchan created works of art from what might otherwise have been a mixture of pleasant relaxation and useful remuneration.

The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle achieve a classic perfection of their kind. Moreover, Buchan brought to thrillers set anywhere from Scottish deer-forests to the Transvaal highveld by way of the Danube something of Sir Walter Scott's capacity to extract the most from atmosphere and environment.

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There is more to Buchan than this, and in one important respect he differs from Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. In Buchan's case his beliefs, dilemmas, and interpretations of history are reflected in his thrillers as well as in his 'serious' writing and the speeches and lectures of his public life. And in his case it is not always possible to keep a rigid distinction between what was written for fun and profit and what conveys an earnestly high moral and artistic intent. Perhaps that is as it should be in a son of the Scots manse who, even when he lived in a manor-house near Oxford, retained his attachment to the Kirk.

He also wrote a notable analysis of the Scots religious tradition to mark the Presbyterian reunion in which shaped the present Church of Scotland and shortly afterwards was Lord High Commissioner -- the royal representative -- to the reunited Church's General Assembly.