Thursday, June 16, 2011

John Macnab by John Buchan

By now you all know that I am The World's Biggest John Buchan Fan. It's a hard life, but I manage. The problem with Buchan is that he wrote so very, very many must-read books, most of them absolutely unique. My first recommendation for The One John Buchan Book You Absolutely Must Read If You Read No Others was Huntingtower, but now as I sit thinking about it, I'm tempted to change my vote to John Macnab.
One summer in London, three middle-aged public figures meet at their club, each complaining of overwork, fatigue, and boredom. The first is Sir Edward Leithen, prominent MP and ex-Attorney-General (whose other adventures are narrated in The Power-House, The Dancing Floor, The Gap in the Curtain, and Sick Heart River). The second is John Palliser-Yeates, the head of an eminent banking firm. And the third--Charles, Earl of Lamancha--is a Cabinet minister. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the three gentlemen enlist the help of Buchan regular Sir Archie Roylance to help them in their harebrained scheme. This will be no mere hunting-trip: what is needed is a spot of adventure, something with real risk in it. Poaching! Three great estates border Archie's. Leithen, Palliser-Yeates, and Lamancha issue a challenge to their owners:
Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I propose to kill a stag—or a salmon as the case may be—on your ground between midnight on ---- and midnight ----. The animal, of course, remains your property and will be duly delivered to you. It is a condition that it must be removed wholly outside your bounds. In the event of the undersigned failing to achieve his purpose he will pay as forfeit one hundred pounds, and if successful fifty pounds to any charity you may appoint. I have the honour to be, your obedient servant JOHN MACNAB.

Now it's up to the composite Macnab to poach their animals out from under the noses of three bemused landowners, three small armies of determined poacher-hunting gamekeepers and one inquisitive journalist, all without being exposed as three incredibly respectable leaders of society who have suddenly gone insane...
It is in this book that John Buchan shows his true genius. It's true that when his heroes are being hunted over the Highlands by sinister German spies, his stories are pretty thrilling. But though the people doing the hunting in John Macnab are nice old Scots gillies and it's not lives but (at most) reputations at stake, the book somehow still manages to be as thrilling as ever. Many authors can't even manage to make life-or-death stories exciting, but John Macnab with its suspense, adventure, and dash of romance is as unputdownable as Greenmantle or Mr Standfast.
One thing that sets John Macnab apart from Buchan's other books is its sense of humour. Buchan had a wonderful dry wit and I've often laughed over his books, but this one is just hilarious, like the part where “John Macnab” disguised as a hobo is finally caught and manages to explain almost everything away...except his Old Etonian watch-chain.
Oh, I should have guessed,” the girl lamented. “For, of course, I saw he was a gentleman. He was in horrible old clothes, but he had an Eton shield on his watch-chain. He seemed to be ashamed to remember it. He said he had come down in the world—through drink!”
Archie struggled hard with the emotions evoked by this description of an abstemious personage currently believed to be making an income of forty thousand pounds.
The best thing about John Macnab is that in with all this froth and fun Buchan includes a serious, even a profound discussion of the nature of property. The three estates from which John Macnab intends to poach are possessed by Alastair Raden, the last of an ancient family stretching back to the Viking Harald Blacktooth whose barrow is being excavated on the estate; the Bandicotts, Americans who are renting for the summer; and the Claybodys, vulgar nouveaux riches. The story is set in a Scotland which is passing away; the old families, like the Radens, who only have daughters left, are dying out or selling up while their places are being taken by new money and foreigners. Poaching, tomb-excavation, Archie Roylance's attempts to get elected to Parliament, and new money collide into one theme:
Nobody in the world to-day has a right to anything which he can't justify. That's not politics, it's the way nature works. Whatever you've got—rank or power or fame or money—you've got to justify it, and keep on justifying it, or go under. No law on earth can buttress up a thing which nature means to decay.”
D'you know that sounds to me pretty steep doctrine?”
No, it isn't. It isn't doctrine, and it isn't politics, it's common sense. I don't mean that we want some silly government redistributing everybody's property. I mean that people should realise that whatever they've got they hold under a perpetual challenge, and they are bound to meet that challenge. Then we'll have living creatures instead of mummies.”
Although Archie and others compare Janet Raden's “steep doctrine” to Bolshevism, it isn't socialism Buchan means. For what Buchan thought of Communists, read Huntingtower; I'll only say he disagreed with them entirely. What Buchan favours is more akin to capitalism, though perhaps a better word for his position is Christianity. The Claybodys, who by industry have hauled themselves up to the peerage from humble and despised beginnings, have money and power; but the Radens, who have owned their land for a thousand or more years, will fade away and disappear because unlike the Claybodys, they haven't used what they were given. The lesson is akin to that of that of the Parable of the Talents: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The Radens are fading, but unlike others, Janet has not forgotten what made the Radens great, what gave them their land and money in the first place. They earned it, just like the Claybodys earned theirs. And they'll lose it, because for many years, they haven't justified it. But that's OK. Janet has learned her lesson, and the Roylance clan will be stronger and more purposeful because of it...
Oh, and to find out what the Roylances do on their honeymoon, read The Courts of the Morning.

Gutenberg etext of John Macnab


Mark said...

What a fun review to read! I loved reading this book! I discovered Buchan purely by accident. I was searching for a different author, saw one of his titles, "A Salute To Adventurers" and decided to check him out. I still haven't read that book but I have read the entire Hannay series, Witchwood(which I thoroughly enjoyed as well) The I started on the Leithen series with "The Power House" and am currently winding down "The Dancing Floor." So maybe I'm not the "biggest" Buchan fan, but I intend to work my way through them. He was really a terrific writer.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Mark! I have a review of Salute to Adventurers here on this blog--it's one of my favourite Buchans.

Wasn't he a terrific writer? But I won't bore you. Anytime you wish to be bored by discussion of John Buchan, just come and click on my Buchan tag...


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