Briar Pipes v. Balkan Sobranies

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In the early 1960s my boyhood was enlivened by the novels of John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir, 1875–1940) and Dornford Yates (1885–1960). Their ‘clubland heroes’ were clean-cut ex-soldiers who spent their hols socking swarthy Balkan jaws with relative impunity before excellent Continental train services, or fast cars, whisked them home to play croquet and smoke cigars.

Though the world of Buchan characters like Sandy Arbuthnot and Richard Hannay had vanished by the time I was at prep school, their milieu was still just about accessible. The author was a late Victorian – like my grandparents, one of whose friends told how, in late nineteenth-century Vienna, she and her brother had crept down after bedtime one evening to a gallery overlooking a ball held by their parents, where they witnessed two swordsmen fighting a duel on an upper landing. As tales of this sort trickled down into my imagination, Dornford Yates’s (real) Austrian province of Carinthia – a place ‘where duels could still be fought with machine guns, without attracting attention’ – and Ruritania, Anthony Hope’s (invented) Mittel-European state and the setting for The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau, never seemed far away.

Nor did a redolence of the First World War, as my maternal grandfather would occasionally re-enact the Battle of Jutland, deploying – and sinking – squadrons of sauceboats and pepper pots on our dining-table; and as so many limbless men were still around, hand-pedalling themselves in bath-chairs or telling watery-eyed tales of gassed men and horses, events that chimed with Buchan’s descriptions of the battles for Loos and Erzurum in Greenmantle (1916).

Despite its date, this novel seems curiously free of anti-German sentiment, as Sandy Arbuthnot (a prototype James Bond) and Richard Hannay (the book’s narrator) battle to sabotage a German plot to subvert the Islamic faith and use Muslim fanatics to undermine Br

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About the contributor

Christopher Hamilton grew up in Galloway before moving to Florence, where he served as a goldsmith’s apprentice. Constitutionally unemployable, he now divides his time between London and Burano, near Venice, writing, translating, working in precious metals, and exploring the shallows with duck shooters and fishermen.

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