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February 12, 2008

John Buchan - the author of Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast - has much to tell us about the problems facing the world today, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

If we want to understand the problems facing us today, we could do much worse than re-reading John Buchan, argues Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

Not long ago John Buchan could be dismissed as the quintessential imperial dinosaur. There seemed no place in modern Britain for the apparent racist, the uncomplicated imperialist, Scotch Unionist, polymath, MP, and writer who ended his days as Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor-General of Canada. His classic heroes in Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, seem relics from another age like the Clubland cut-outs of Sapper and Bulldog Drummond.

In our post-9/11 world, however, Buchan suddenly seems less quaint. Our contemporary heroes, say Mark Etherington of Revolt on the Tigris or Rory Stewart of Occupational Hazards seem to leap off the pages of a Buchan "shocker"; they resemble Sandy Arbuthnot more than the "cool Britannia" announced in 1997.

Moreover, Buchan was more than the jingoistic cheer-leader of myth. He was a deeply empathetic novelist and historian. To be sure, his few female characters were generally rather wooden; they had to be added to at least one film adaptation.

But Buchan's ability to get under the skin of all sides in the story of these islands was unsurpassed. Witness his treatment of the Royalist and Covenanting standpoints in Montrose, the tour of the home front and the statement of war aims in Mr Standfast and the extraordinary exploration of "Old England" in Midwinter.

Even the Irish, at whom his fictitious characters take frequent and plausible aim, are sympathetically portrayed in the historical works. Not for nothing did Buchan's most recent biographer, Andrew Lownie, call him the "Presbyterian Cavalier".

Moreover, Buchan was the master of plot progression and perspectival sleight of hand. In John Burnet of Barns, for example, the reader is inexorably sucked into seeing the chief female character as a "scarlet woman", versed in "all the wiles of her sex", only for her to be progressively revealed as deeply wronged by her conspiring husband.

It is with some interest, therefore, that one turns to Patrick Barlow's adaptation of Buchan's first bestseller The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which had a successful run in London, winning the Lawrence Olivier Award. Unlike many of Buchan's other "shockers", it is set entirely in Britain, thus eschewing the exotic locations of Greenmantle, The Courts of the Morning and Prester John. It was written in 1914 as an attempt to take Buchan's mind off a persistent ulcer which had afflicted him since 1912 and ultimately kept him out of active service in the First World War.

Barlow's version has very little to do with Buchan. Instead the production is an extended homage to the classic Hitchcock movie of 1935, shot against the background of looming war in Europe, reminiscent of the context in which the novel was penned. It is all very professionally done, with near-perfect execution.

All the characters are played by four actors, and the necessary changes are often rung very inventively. If the overall effect is a little shallow, there are also some playful allusions and accretions to the story. For example the hiding place behind a waterfall (which I don't remember in the book) calls to mind Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, via the Day-Lewis movie, while the stilted dialogue between the hero and heroine is surely intended to echo Brief Encounter, perhaps via Alan Bennett's History Boys.

For the cognoscenti, the play's director adds, as the curtains close, the 60s TV theme of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The only thing that jars a little is the relentless slapstick send-up of Scotland and the Scots, which would have horrified Buchan.

Disappointingly, the play was no post-modern reflection on what - say - Buchan/Hitchcock can tell us about the war on terror. If there were references to Afghanistan and Iraq, they passed me by.

For that sort of inspiration. one must turn back to the novels themselves. Greenmantle after all, is a meditation of the power of political Islam and how it can be manipulated to the disadvantage of the West. The Thirty-Nine Steps, with its sinister "Black Stone" organisation determined to plunge the European nations into fratricidal war, is at root a plea for international understanding above the surface flag-waving. And if that seems to bring the great "romancer" into Michael Moore territory, George W. Bush could surely identify with the wholesome progress of the pilgrim hero in Mr Standfast.

What is most remarkable about Buchan - beneath all the bonhomie and the commonsense - is his ability to make us stop and think, and at times even to chill. Thus Richard Hannay suddenly finds himself wrenched from his bachelor comfort zone in London's clubland, and thrown into a world where nothing is what it seems, not the respectable laird-Professor he tracks down in the Scottish moors, nor the policeman who arrests him.

Buchan's characters inhabit a deeply stable world, but they are all deeply conscious of its fragility, even and perhaps especially the villains. As the evil genius Andrew Lumley remarks in The Power House, the first Buchan I read back in the1980s:

you think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.
Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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