Sunday, October 17, 2010

John Buchan (1875-1940)

Welcome to John Buchan Week! I'll begin things with a (not-so-quick) biography.

John Buchan, Scottish novelist, historian, politician, spymaster, governor-general of Canada, and ace publisher, is my second favourite writer, just between Tolkien and Chesterton. Buchan was the constant companion of my teenage years, and I still lend his books to everyone who will agree to read them.

Buchan was born in 1875 to a poor but respectable Free Church minister in Scotland. He went on to acquire a large family of adventurous younger siblings. With his sister Anna (who later went on to write novels under the pseudonym of O. Douglas, see photo at top of page!), of whom the neighbours said "They're all wild ones, but the lassie is the very devil", he led his brothers and sisters through a life full of mishap, adventure, and mischief. Later, in his autobiography, he said that he had a very lazy childhood--one shudders to think what constituted a busy one, since the list of things he read in that time is enormous, from Milton and Shakespeare to the old myths of the north and most classic English poetry. He was also arrested for poaching, and this tale was raked up amid a great deal of hilarity later, when he was running for Parliament.

As he grew older, his family began to wonder about higher education for their brilliant son. They were poor, and could barely afford it. John loved the soft-spoken, wise Border 'gillies'--retainers, men who were everything from scholar to hunter, who lived on big estates and were a cross between gamekeeper and stalker. He seriously considered becoming one. But the family scraped together the money, and John went to Oxford for a career in law.

John Buchan was popular at Oxford--he was both hardy of body and keen of mind, and besides several awards for athletics he won two Newdigate awards for poetry. Here he also published his first book, Scholar Gipsies, a collection of Scottish poems and legends, at the age of twenty-one. He also started some kind of kilts-bare-knees-and-Scotch-whiskey club which rejoiced in all things Scottish.

When he had finished at Oxford, he travelled to South Africa for several years--rebuilding the country after the Boer War with Lord Alfred Milner. Milner had gathered about him a clique of talented, hardy young men who travelled about overseeing public projects and generally being a kind of swashbuckling public servant. They were known as “Milner's Kindergarten.” South Africa made a deep impression upon Buchan. He travelled all over the country, working and soaking in the climate. Years later these scenes would flash into brilliant sun-soaked light, here and there in his books.

Then he went back to England and entered legal practice. He had enough money and influence by this time to meet London's upper class. He found himself one afternoon having tea alone with an aloof, snobbish, beautiful young lady called Susan Grosvenor. She thought he was conceited; he thought she was very haughty. First impressions proved wrong: she was only shy. Soon they were deep in Hegel and Plato together--and nobody was really surprised when a letter arrived. "I used to think only of my ambitions, but now everything seems foolish and worthless without you," Buchan wrote. He wanted her to marry him. She agreed: it was 1906. Her family was happy with the match, in spite of the fact that Buchan was from a Glasgow family and spoke broad colloquial Scots. It was his parents that weren't keen on it—a Buchan marrying an English woman? In spite of that, the marriage was a strong and happy one.

Buchan soon withdrew from the Bar and became a partner in the Nelson publishing company. He was gaining a reputation as a novelist--Prester John in 1910 had made him famous...Then war. Buchan became ill from a duodenal ulcer and never fully recovered, but while he was abed he ran out of 'shilling shockers' and resolved to write his own, set in the short hot weeks before the War. It was an instant hit, the first real spy story, and has not been out of print since: The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was so popular, and Buchan found out that he enjoyed writing it so much, that before the war had ended two sequels had come out: Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. Steps was a short, tautly-constructed book made up deftly as the author went along--the sequels became longer and more philosophical in tone, but they never lost the trademark Buchan suspense and exhilaration, which no other author has ever duplicated.

Buchan didn't only write the world's first spy novels during the war. He was a phenomenally busy man with a growing family to support. He wrote an enormous multi-volume history of the war and spent a lot of time as a correspondent in the trenches--seeing trench warfare up close, it would seem, rather than observing it shiveringly from the distance like many other newspaper reporters. The end of the war also saw him the head of Intelligence. He gave this up at the end of the war (during which his brother Alastair had died) and retired to the Oxford countryside, where he continued to write, publish, and run for Parliament. He was fascinated by the change in the world that occurred after the War, and many of his books (such as The Three Hostages and A Prince of the Captivity) also touch on it.

Years of peaceful happiness followed. Buchan's books sold well and he was enormously popular. One boy from Eton, having gotten his hands on the serious, philosophical Midwinter, wrote in a peeved manner to him and demanded that he 'pull himself together' and write more shockers. Buchan replied with another Hannay novel, The Three Hostages which is dedicated to the youngster. I can't help wondering what the boy thought of it--it is very much a thoughtful study of the aftermath of war.

He grew older. From Europe came the grumbles of fascism and Communism, Nazis and war in Spain. He replied with The House of the Four Winds, perhaps in between sitting in Parliament and travelling to Edinburgh as Moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly. Then one day he was appointed Governor-General of Canada, promoted to the peerage as Lord Tweedsmuir, and packed off to that country. He took on his duties eagerly, travelling with Susan to the extremes of the country and indulging his taste for mountain-climbing. The King wrote to him in concern, acknowledging that he was still an active and strong man for his age, but didn't he think it was a bit late in life to take up skiing?

Hitler invaded Poland. Buchan signed Canada's declaration of war, and slipped further into ill-health. His secretary said, "His excellency is writing a very odd book--very thoughtful and introspective." Sick Heart River, a story about death and life, and his autobiography, Memory Hold-The-Door came out early in 1941. But by that time, the writer was dead.

JB Trivia:

JB was a close friend of TE “of Arabia” Lawrence, who used to visit him on his motorbike trips after the War. Lawrence had a hard time finding peace after the war. But when he did find it, Susan Buchan was uneasy. "He is close to death, for now he sees things the way God sees them," she said. Within weeks Lawrence was dead.

When it came out JB went to see Hitchcock's famous 1935 film version of The 39 Steps. Susan Buchan was annoyed by the changes to the story, but Buchan himself was unperturbed and enjoyed it thoroughly.

JB's second favourite book after the Bible was The Pilgrim's Progress by Bunyan.

When he became Governor-General of Canada, he was made an honorary Indian chief, no doubt in the spare moments he didn't spend skiing the Rockies.

Buchan has been called “the Presbyterian Cavalier” and “the Last Victorian”.

Buchan suffered from a bad duodenal ulcer in later life and tried a lot of different cures. Once he was talked into seeing a psychologist, who after a lengthy session concluded that there was nothing he could do: he'd never met anyone else so entirely free from repressions!

The famous quotes, “It's a great life, if you don't weaken”, and “An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support” are often attributed to Buchan.

Famous John Buchan fans include CS Lewis, HP Lovecraft, Ian Fleming (natch), Mary Stewart, ND Wilson, Alfred Hitchcock, JFK, and Graham Greene.

As G-G of Canada before the second war broke out, Buchan is known to have worked with Franklin Roosevelt to develop a fiendishly clever diplomatic scheme that probably would have prevented WWII happening at all. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, however, refused to implement this plan, and history took its course.

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