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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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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 British colonial possessions. By the time the story begins, a boyish Sandy Arbuthnot has already been hardened by a ride through Yemen, ‘which no white man ever did before’, says Sir Walter Bullivant, head of Britain’s Secret Service. ‘The Arabs let him pass, for they thought him stark mad and argued that the hand of Allah was heavy enough on him without their efforts. He’s blood-brother to every kind of Albanian bandit.’ Sir Walter has agents everywhere: ‘Pedlars in South Russia, Afghan horse-dealers, Turcoman merchants, pilgrims on the road to Mecca, sheikhs in North Africa, sailors on the Black Sea coasters, sheep-skinned Mongols, Hindu fakirs, Greek traders in the Gulf, as well as respectable consuls who use cyphers’. As they plunge into this exotic free-for-all, the pair’s determination to give the Hun a bloody nose remains a gentlemanly one, tempered by a healthy respect for their enemy: ‘Here was the German of caricature,’ says Hannay of Stumm, their bull-necked foe, ‘the real German, the fellow we were up against. He was as hideous as a hippopotamus, but effective. Every bristle on his odd head was effective.’ Hannay seems more put out, however, by the cruel, effeminate tendencies of Stumm, of whose drawing-room he says, ‘It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality.’ Later, our hero scents – and does not like – a forerunner of the slick-haired, strutting Italian Fascist, embodied in a Turkish officer named Rasta who strides away ‘like an impudent boy’ after one run-in with the square-jawed Hannay – ‘and it was all I could do to keep from running after him. I wanted to lay him over my knee and spank him.’ Language has changed in the forty years since I first read these lines: now, of course, they raise a titter – as might Buchan’s description of a sea crossing: ‘a week ago I was tossing in a dirty little hooker coming from Constanza.’ What I do now notice on returning to Yates and Buchan after so long is a difference between the two men in terms of substance. John Buchan’s loftier sides must have passed me by when I was a boy reading what he termed his ‘shockers’ – Buchan as barrister, colonial servant, diplomat, biographer, historian, Governor-General of Canada, man of letters and friend to men like T. E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert, who is said to have inspired the character of Sandy Arbuthnot; whereas Dornford Yates, who also wrote well, whose plots work just as smoothly and who was likewise extremely successful in his own lifetime, now seems gelled in his own aspic. Both men were barristers. John Buchan, a son of the Manse, went to Hutchesons’ Grammar in Glasgow, then on to Glasgow University before going up to Oxford, industriously writing and publishing as he went, and taking a First in Greats in 1899. Yates started at Harrow in the same year. A Third-Class degree from University College, Oxford, meant that his lawyer father had to ‘fix’ him a pupillage to H. G. Muskett, in 1908. Perhaps this, and a career at Harrow dogged by the lingering shame of an embezzlement swindle perpetrated by his great-uncle, made him seem defensive and judgemental throughout his life, and turned him into a heavy-handed husband to two wives. John Buchan seems to have been more socially at ease: he kept his Scottish accent, rejoiced in the Borders dialect, and made a happy marriage to Susan Grosvenor, whose father was a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Dornford Yates’s women tend either to be hopelessly vulnerable like Jenny, his heroine in She Fell among Thieves (the narrator’s adulation of Jenny’s ‘childlike’ nature might today tempt a social worker to reach for the telephone), or indescribably evil and manipulative like his châtelaine, Vanity Fair, in the same novel. Members of the fair sex should not really be socked on the jaw but, in Yates’s novels, foreign ones occasionally are. Whereas, in Greenmantle, Buchan merely has his evilly seductive anti-heroine Hilda von Einem blown up by a German shell fired by the Turks. ‘I never knew that anything could be so light,’ says Sandy Arbuthnot, as he carries her body tenderly to a shallow grave. Had they or hadn’t they? one is tempted to ask. To me, Dornford Yates never quite convinces as a countryman with mud on his boots. Instead, he always seems to be peeping into grand smoking-rooms from beyond the pane: perhaps he was influenced by the manners of characters drawn by his cousin, H. H. Munro (Saki); with their silken languor, cigarette-holders and drawing-room bitchery, Balkan tobacco was about as close as they ever got to jaw-thumping intrigue. Whereas Yates clearly sympathizes with a character sent down from Oxford for beating up Commies, Buchan enjoyed an eclectic circle of friends – socialists and Communists among them – and displayed throughout his life a profound love of nature and of humankind, helping others whenever he could, and taking great delight in the young. Yates studs his books with painted women and expensive cars. His obsessive admiration for Rolls-Royces is in stark contrast to the rather absent-minded hiring of Fords by Buchan’s characters and their taste, like Buchan’s own, for worn-out tweeds and broken briar pipes. Buchan’s men of action seem less sanctimonious than Yates’s in their desire to right a wrong, and more inclined to have fun in the process. Both men suffered from ill-health and neither had what their characters would have considered a satisfactory war: a decent wound, an appropriate decoration and promotion upon return to the front. But where Dornford Yates seems to have remained embittered, John Buchan went on to make good in public and private life, without forgetting his roots. Having grown up in the Scottish Borders, he brings to life parts of Galloway which were still untamed during my childhood there and he beautifully describes the Highlands I later came to know. Of all his books, my favourite is John Macnab (1925). It reveals an ‘off-duty’ Buchan, at ease with himself and with nature and in the sort of company he most adored: keepers and ghillies who were not just subservient, Celtic ‘Uncle Toms’ or blindly loyal soldier servants like Yates’s Bell and Carson, but men he and his peers revered: fiercely independent and tough, with extraordinary knowledge of their terrain. ‘The only way to deal with the Germans was naked bluff,’ says one character in Greenmantle; ‘they lack the larger vision . . . you couldn’t cheat the Boche, but you could bluff him.’ How splendidly and quintessentially British is the double-standard whereby our well-wrought deception of a foreigner is a source of pride, while his deception of us is nothing but a low, filthy, foreign trick. In John Macnab, this practice of deception is pure fun. Ex-Attorney General Sir Edward Leithen, merchant banker John Palliser-Yeates and Lord Lamancha abandon the ennui of clubland for the Highlands where, in letters signed with the nom de guerre ‘John Macnab’, they bet landowners contiguous to their host (the diffident, ‘g’-droppin’, game-legged Great War hero Sir Archibald Roylance DSO) that they can take two stags and a salmon from under their noses – the bag to be delivered to them and all proceeds of the bet to be given to charity. The outraged victims put up their best defences . . . but to no avail. Society and grand affairs of state are put aside upon the arrival of Sir Archie’s stalker, Wattie Lithgow, who like Buchan himself is a Scottish Borderer. A reserved man of few words, with no time for boasting or waffle, and upon whose immense wisdom and knowledge of the deer forest the three miscreants must depend absolutely if they are to succeed, Wattie embodies all the values that Buchan holds most dear. When the three sportsmen are introduced to him, Wattie says gravely, ‘I ken all about the gentlemen . . . I was readin’ Mr Yeates’s letter in The Times about the debt we was owin’ America, and I mind fine Sir Edward’s speeches about the Irish Constitution. I didna’ altogether agree with him.’ The fundamentally classless and disobedient nature of the Highlander is in the blood of the love interest too. A laird’s daughter, Janet Raden, makes a typically subversive tirade against her own class:

‘We’ve lived there’, she said, ‘since Harald Blacktooth – at least papa says so. But the end is very near now. We are the last of the Radens. And that is as it should be, you know.’

‘I’m hanged if I see that,’ Sir Archie began, but the girl interrupted.

‘Yes, it is as it should be. The old life of the Highlands is going, and people like ourselves must go with it. There’s no reason why we should continue to exist. We’ve long ago lost our justification.’

‘That’s what the Bolsheviks say,’ said the puzzled Sir Archie.

‘Then I’m a Bolshevik. Nobody in the world today 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.’

In this book about old values, Janet Raden catches Sir Archie in the end. Wonderfully, he falls in love with her just as she has tumbled into a burn, her old tweeds soaked through and her hair in a mess. She’s Buchan’s kind of girl. Mine too.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Christopher Hamilton 2010


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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