Man of Fiction, Not Action

By West, Richard | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Man of Fiction, Not Action


West, Richard, The Spectator


THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES, VOLUMES I-III

by John Buchan,

edited by Andrew Lownie

Thistle Publishing, L20 each

Like many people who early on in life were enthralled by The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and (rather less so) Mr Standfast, I never afterwards found a John Buchan book which gave me the same delight. It is not that he lost his inspiration, his way with words, or his skill at evoking favourite places such as the Scottish moors, the Cotswolds, South Africa, and the murky underworld of the `Great Game', or eastern espionage. All these ingredients can be found in Buchan's later books, but not the magic of Greenmantle.

Nor is it easy to warm to Buchan the man, as he comes across in the biographies, such as Andrew Lownie's recent The Presbyterian Cavalier. He is a snob and an anti-Semite, and, if not exactly a Scotsman on the make, he put the lazy English to shame by having six books published and getting his name in Who's Who while still an undergraduate, and afterwards making careers in law, politics, journalism, imperial administration and the secret service. Yet unlike his fictional hero Richard Hannay, Buchan himself was not a man of action. He went to South Africa not as a miner or pioneer but as one of the bureaucrats of the odious Alfred, Lord Milner, the man largely responsible for the Boer war. Because of ill health, Buchan was not a soldier during the first world war, or even a secret agent like Somerset Maugham in Switzerland, but a propaganda chief. Buchan's career was not as thrilling as that of the two real-life Richard Hannays, Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart in revolutionary Russia and Sir Fitzroy Maclean in Yugoslavia. His might have ended his career by going back to South Africa to repair some of the damage done by Milner to Anglo-Boer relations but instead became Governor-General of Canada. As the `Presbyterian Cavalier' of Downie's title, Buchan was torn between Jacobite Highland romanticism and Calvinist Lowland ambition. Although his writing is modelled on that of Robert Louis Stevenson, Buchan would not have chucked his career to live on a South Sea island.

Buchan's biographer, Andrew Lownie, continues the work of rehabilitation by editing the complete short stories, ranging in time from the Yellow Book of the 1890s to unpublished posthumous works, or items from the Aberdeen University Magazine and Scottish Mountaineering Journal. Some have already appeared in short-story anthologies, along with the work of such masters as Kipling, Conrad and Stevenson, but one of the most enjoyable and surprising, `The King of Ypres', was previously published only in the Manchester Evening Chronicle and the Cape Argus. It tells how a drunken Scotch soldier became for a few days the provost and law-giver of Ypres during a lull on the Western Front.

There is plenty of ripe stuff here for devotees of Scottish blood sports: Ye ken the way o' the thing. Yae man keeps yae side of the hill and the ither the ither, and the beasts gang between them, back and forrit . . . It's no easy work, for the skin of the craturs [hares] are ill to tell from the snowy ground and a man takes to hae a gleg afore he can pick them out, and a quick hand ere he can shoot.

The early stories include a grim account of a game-keeper caught in a poacher's trap, and a shepherd dying alone in his hut without even the comforts of Calvinism: He saw the bare moorland room, he felt the dissolution of his members, the palpable ebb of life. …

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