We all remember the first novels we read of our own volition, unprompted by parents or schoolmasters: in my case these were John Buchan’s stories of the adventures of Richard Hannay. We were in the throes of the Second World War and so First World War novels had a special relevance. When, therefore, half a century later, a reviewer of one of my own books said that the narrative read like ‘something out of Buchan’ (though he may not have meant it as an unqualified compliment), I regarded it as the ultimate accolade: Buchan had been a role model and Hannay was my hero.
Now I have gone back to the Hannay novels and have found that there is even more to their influence than I remembered. Of course The Thirty-Nine Steps is a cracking good yarn: an assassination followed by a close pursuit by both cops and robbers, against a background of impending war. The others are all (almost) equally good and have a special resonance today. Greenmantle, with its plot of an Islamic revolt against the Western world order, has modern relevance. The Three Hostages, with its plot centering on an international criminal conspiracy to blackmail the Establishment, is not a million miles away from today’s menacing drug barons and rogue arms-dealers. Mr Standfast and The Island of Sheep maintain the same undefined but sinister conspiracies that we recognize as motivating the villains of Ian Fleming. All this makes the Hannay novels enjoyable reading in the twenty-first century.
But there was much else in them that was to influence the shape of my own life. Fundamental to Buchan’s attitude (and by extension to Hannay’s) is the awareness that romanticism and classical order are compatible, that a life of adventure and a life of scholarship are not contradictory, that a role in public life and a literary existence can be complementary. Of course others had demonstrated all this before, but no one had portrayed it so gra
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