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Embarrassing but Inspiring

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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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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 graphically to me. Throughout my school days and early time at university I aspired to be a writer and publisher, just as John Buchan had been in his early life. But other things called too: travel, adventure, public service. Here Buchan showed the way: he had gone into politics and he (or more particularly his heroes Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot) had roamed over the outposts of empire and beyond, in South Africa and Central Asia. Buchan helped me to see that these two lines of activity – a literary life and a life of public service in far-flung parts – were not mutually exclusive. Buchan was always fascinated by Central Asia and particularly by Afghanistan: the North-West Frontier between ordered British India and wild Afghanistan was the cusp of empire. While still at Oxford, he wrote a little-remembered novel entitled The Half-Hearted, about a young man jilted in love who seeks glory on the Frontier in that epic struggle between the British Raj in India and Imperial Russia, ‘The Great Game’. In later books the glamour and mystery of Central Asia are recurring themes. At the opening of Greenmantle, Hannay is sent off on his daring quest with a briefing about ‘reports from agents everywhere – Turkoman merchants . . . Afghan horsedealers . . . sheep-skinned Mongols’. And in The Three Hostages the villainous Medina has learned his dark crafts from a guru ‘at the foot of the Shamsi Pass as you go over to Karkand’. No wonder I headed for Samarkand, Bokhara and Afghanistan when I could escape from my first diplomatic appointment in Moscow in the 1950s; and no wonder I found myself writing of this part of the world in books about Tamerlane, the Cossacks and the nomads of Central Asia. The other explicit region of fascination and adventure defined for me by Buchan was the Highlands of Scotland. The denouement of The Three Hostages is a battle to the death – under the guise of a day’s deer-stalking – between Hannay and Medina. Sandy Arbuthnot (Hannay’s closest friend and fellow-adventurer) owns a deer forest there, which is described in some detail in the book. Buchan was also to place John Macnab, another of his most popular novels (though not a Hannay one), in Arbuthnot’s Highland retreat and to centre the whole story on deer-stalking. It was no coincidence that this was to become my own favourite sport. The two regions – Central Asia and the Scottish Highlands – were also the stamping-ground and source of literary inspiration for a larger-than-life-sized man who was to become a friend during my time in Russia and a major influence on my outlook on life – Sir Fitzroy Maclean. This author, adventurer and public figure once told me that he too had found Buchan a seminal figure. So perhaps I was not unique in feeling the force of Buchan’s influence. But there are other distinctly unappealing elements in Buchan’s and Hannay’s world, which not only date them but which – as others have pointed out – also give offence to our sensibilities. Prime among these is an underlying anti-Semitism. Buchan – often through the voice of Hannay – is continually blaming the evils of the world on its Jewish minority. In Britain in the 1920s and 1930s he was not alone in expressing a prejudice against all things Jewish. Even such a sensitive and civilized character as Harold Nicolson was – in private if not in public – given to anti-Semitic remarks. Many in high places noted the Jewish influence in the hierarchy of the emergent Bolshevik Party in Russia and elsewhere, and resented it. Not until after the horrors of the Holocaust did some elements of educated opinion in Britain really wake up to the dangers of allowing such sentiments to go unchallenged. Another attitude which many will find offensive, and which most readers will find distinctly dated, is Buchan’s elitism. It is an attitude expressed in a fairly extreme form, going well beyond the ‘old boy network’. There is an assumption that anyone of any importance knows everyone else of importance: life is essentially one exclusive club, membership of which gives an automatic entrée not only to Society but also to the world of key decisions and excitement. In the Thursday Club (which features in the opening chapters of The Three Hostages), dukes rub shoulders with politicians, explorers, scholars and war heroes. This sort of club happily still exists (one thinks of the Beefsteak or Pratts in London) but Clubland no longer takes itself as seriously as Hannay and his friends are inclined to do. No longer is one so likely to hear of a member being described – without the glimmer of a smile – as ‘one of the six best shots in England’. There is an awareness of the validity of the world outside, which is sometimes conspicuously absent from the pages of Buchan’s novels. Be that as it may, I still find rereading the exploits of Richard Hannay a life-enhancing experience. I can see how his creator’s spirit and approach to his own and other people’s lives and careers have influenced my own. Hannay would always be one of my favourite companions – even if at times an embarrassing one.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © John Ure 2004


About the contributor

Sir John Ure has been British Ambassador in countries as varied as Cuba, Brazil and Sweden. The latest of his ten travel and historical books is In Search of Nomads. He describes his recreations in Who’s Who as ‘travelling uncomfortably in remote places and writing about it comfortably afterwards’.

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