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Daily Mail (04/Aug/2007) - John Buchan rose to be a peer of the realm...

(c) Daily Mail (04/Aug/2007)

John Buchan rose to be a peer of the realm, yet he is best remembered for Richard Hannay, the father of James Bond

In 1914, as the Great War was preparing to envelop the world, John Buchan was convalescing from illness, a duodenal ulcer that would torment him his entire life. To pass the time, the scholar, barrister, publisher, poet, novelist, historian and colonial administrator indulged a passion for what Americans called the dime novel.

Enforced inactivity had exhausted Buchan’s stash of lurid tales of spies that stretched the incredulity of readers to breaking point but drove them relentlessly to the last page and its utterly improbable denouement.

Buchan, then 39, the finest scholarly Scottish writer of his generation, a man of intellect with six serious books to his name by the age of 20, was forced to write his own version of the genre.

In the weeks ahead, the talented polymath created his shilling shocker, which mimicked the excess of its American equivalent and introduced one of literatures defining characters Richard Hannay.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first of five Hannay adventures. For the next three generations, the courageous and resourceful Scot would be a template for every fictional spy tasked with saving the world from evil empires and megalomaniacs.

Hannay was the father of James Bond, admitted 007’s creator Ian Fleming, who added: Without him, there is no Bond.

Within weeks of publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915, the book sold 25,000 copies. It has never been out of print and still sells 10,000 copies a year. Buchan’s best known work has also been filmed in 1935, 1959 and 1978.

It was, in fact, Buchan’s 27th book in a canon of more than 100 that encapsulated fiction, biographies, poetry, children’s stories and scholarly historical works. There is even a treatise on tax laws in the eclectic mix.

The news that a fourth film is on the way, to be directed by Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning writer of Mission Impossible 2, reinforces the appeal of Buchan’s prose. London’s Criterion Theatre is also taking bookings until February next year for an award-winning stage version.

In the course of more than a century, since the publication of Buchan’s first book a tale of life in the Borders many authors have come and gone after their moment in the sun.

But Buchan’s star is rising, 67 years after his death in 1940, by which time the son of a Free Church Minister had been created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir and appointed Governor General of Canada.

And the publication of Buchan’s seminal works testifies to the magnetism of his writing. Edinburgh publisher Birlinn is reprinting a series of books, to add to new versions of his historical novels and biographies.

Hugh Andrew, managing director of Birlinn, says: "A terrific yarn is never out of fashion".

Buchan’s pre-eminence on the Internet bears out the contention. A Google search reveals 200,000 pages. Amazon, the Internet bookseller, records 639 results, only 15 fewer than the all-conquering JK Rowling and 33 more than Ian Fleming.

Mr Andrew adds: Buchan is seen as the writer of period thrillers, yet is one of our finest historical novelists. He was once seen as faded and jingoistic, but each book reveals a voracious range and depth of intellectual interests.

What seems like popular fiction deeper and more modern than we have been willing to admit and, within it all, there is the virtue of superb plotting and pacing.

Admirers of Buchan claim that range and depth are critical to his longevity. Ken Hillier, of the John Buchan Society, says: "His secret he can be read as easily by a ten-year old as a person of 60. Young readers enjoy the pace; older readers appreciate the profound aspects."

TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) said Buchan’s writing was like an athlete racing, clean and pure. Buchan was master of the simple sentence, a superb scene-setter with sense of place, who is up there with Stevenson and Scott.

Buchan’s ability to grab readers as children who then stay loyal is definitive, according to his distant cousin, Katie Buchan-Love: "The writer of the page-turning shockers had a scholarly talent that infuses his work with immense depth. His books appeal on many levels."

That puts Buchan on a par with Winston Churchill, according to Andrew Lownie, his biographer. He says: "Apart from Churchill, no one of his generation combined such a successful public life with a career as a writer."

Buchan was a barrister, politician, soldier, administrator, publisher. He a wonderful, versatile and accessible writer with hidden depths, which why his books continue to sell.

He is recognised for work that better written, more sophisticated, profound and with a greater range of literary reference than hitherto realised. But Buchan’s classical education, initially at Glasgow and latterly at Oxford, may also have led to him showing off in search of betterment, according to other scholars.

Douglas Gifford, emeritus professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, says: "When he left for Oxford, he left behind his early Scottish stories."

He was fantastically ambitious and Oxford offered a world of rich and influential friends, who accepted and respected him for his ferocious intellect. He exemplified the Calvinistic ethic.

His speaking voice was interesting, the strangulated tone of the self-improved. And he was snobbish. He interjects even in his thrillers phrases in Greek, Latin and old French, which he refuses to translate.

I’ve been re-reading his work and there is irritation when you run across them. There’s no doubt he used writing to take him where he wanted to be. Buchan’s intellect would take him from a manse to the Governor Generalship of Canada. It was an amazing journey, which began in 1875. He was born in Perth, the eldest of five children of the Rev John Buchan and his wife, Helen.

The family was from the Borders, a magical place for the young Buchan, which he would depict beautifully in his writing. Many years later, when Buchan was Tory MP for the Scottish Universities from 1927 until 1935, his parliamentary colleague, Walter Elliot, remembered how Buchan could write about the small hidden green valleys of the Borders until they closed round you.

As a child, Buchan moved to Fife and then to Glasgow, where he won a scholarship from Hutchison’s Grammar to Glasgow University to study Arts. His prodigious talent carried him to Oxford, where the sons of the rich and powerful became friends.

By the age of 20, he had written six books and had been given an entry in Who's Who, describing his occupation as undergraduate.

His friend, Lord Lothian, said he was one of the most versatile men of his time and he was spoken of as a future Prime Minister. Inevitably, he gathered Oxfords glittering prizes President of the Union, the Newdigate Prize for Poetry and a first in Classics. While still at Brasenose College, he became literary adviser to publisher John Lane, which introduced him to important writers.

His fierce intelligence endeared him to all and, by his final year at Oxford, he had a set of successful companions that included Raymond Asquith, son of a future Prime Minister.

Such friends offered Buchan a way into the powerful social circles of the day. Most significantly, this inculcated a sense of the importance of male companionship notable in Buchan’s thrillers.

By the time he left Oxford, he had published nine books. He was called to the Bar in 1901, but he found the Law boring. In his twenties, he became a private secretary to Lord Milner, who was given the job of rebuilding South Africa after the Boer War. Buchan was enchanted by Africa and made it the backdrop for Prester John, his 1910 novel about an uprising thwarted by a Scottish hero.

On his return, he married Susan Grosvenor, a descendant of the Duke of Westminster. His marriage was the bedrock of his life and he would say his achievements were as dust compared to life with an incomparable wife.

With a family to support, he joined the publishing firm of Nelson, where he actively promoted Scottish writers. Hugh MacDiarmid, the poet, described him as Dean of the Faculty of Contemporary Scottish Letters.

With the First World War on the horizon, it was not long before a man of Buchan’s ability was recruited. Denied active service, he was seconded to the intelligence community, where he excelled, becoming Director of Intelligence.

The war broke his health. He was shattered by running a Whitehall department and by the deaths of his brother and many friends. So Buchan retired. During the next 15 years, he combined a career as a writer with being an MP, a period during which he wrote 30 books of biography, fact and fiction, including two more Hannay novels.

Professor Gifford adds: "By this time, there is no doubt of his place in the canon of literary figures. As well as the thrillers, he was a great biographer. His work on the Duke of Montrose is still the best and he wrote a multi-million word epic on the First World War within four years of the event."

Toward the end, his work became reflective. His last book, Sick Heart River, in which one of his enduring heroes, Sir Edward Leithen, is dying, has great biographical depth. However, in spite of Buchan’s literary achievement, Richard Hannay’s shadow still lay over the writer, who survived to see Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, starring Robert Donat.

In 1935, when the film was released, Buchan was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir and given the reins of power in Canada where, for five years, until his death from a stroke, he was a much respected figure.

However, Buchan’s legacy has been tainted by accusations of anti-Semitism. Mr Lownie adds: "It is a pity Buchan’s admirers have to be defensive over the misconceptions."

His books are scattered with disparaging comments about Jews. The most celebrated is Scudder’s remarks in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The character says: "The Jew is everywhere. If you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real job, ten-to-one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath chair with an eye like a rattlesnake." It’s worth looking at this in context. It has to be remembered that they are not the remarks of Buchan or Hannay, but Scudder. And Scudder’s remarks are dismissed by another character, Walter Bullivant, who tells Hannay: (Scudder) had a lot of biases. Jews for example made him see red. One has to be aware of the conventions of the period and not be trapped by historical relativism. The attitude of fictional characters may offend, but they reflect attitudes of the time.

Buchan was, in fact, a committed Zionist. When the Nazis published a hit list of British figures who would be imprisoned, Buchan was singled out for pro-Jewish activity. When he died, the editor of The Times said he had never before received so many letters of genuine grief and respect. People described him as the most complete and serene person they had known.