Tales from the camp-fire

He wrote the best adventure stories of the century and was a brilliant political orator, but considered himself a failure. Patrick Cosgrave considers John Buchan; John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier by Andrew Lownie Constable, pounds 20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some years ago I was at a party to launch a book by Emmanuel Shinwell. The little speech of praise was given by Robert Boothby. I had come from the House of Commons, where I had listened to a depressingly bad speech by Edward Heath. I lamented the low standard of parliamentary oratory in our day, and asked Shinwell and Boothby whom they would nominate as the best speaker they had ever heard in the Palace of Westminster. They spoke simultaneously. "John Buchan", they said.

I had weaned myself on Buchan's novels. I was familiar with his great biographies, notably Montrose and Walter Scott. I knew and was puzzled by the fact that, though an enthusiastic parliamentarian, he had never achieved the high office he desired. But the best parliamentary speaker these two veterans of democratic combat had ever heard? Surely that was a bit much?

This, like many other questions about this amazing man, is answered by Andrew Lownie in his wonderful new book. Lownie explains, even more convincingly than Janet Adam Smith in the hitherto standard biography, how Buchan's successes in life never satisfied his inner yearnings. He wanted to be a Fellow of All Souls. He wanted to be a government minister. He wanted to be recognized as a serious historian, poet and literary critic. He was angry when his biography of Montrose was illreceived, and rewrote it, with a testy introduction defining his sources and their value: he had read more relevant material than most academic historians read in a lifetime.

Lownie explains Buchan's inner sense of failure with greater insight than any previous writer. Buchan failed to get his fellowship, and failed to become a minister. But he was twice Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland, an indispensable intermediary between Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald, and he ended his life as Governor General of Canada. Still, there remained with him a sense of unfulfilled potential. Lownie - correctly in my view - attributes this to the Presbyterian side of his character, which drove him on to ever and ever more unattainable heights, just as his cavalier character gave him an insight into the romantic side of life unequalled by any British writer save Stevenson and Scott.

Then, of course, there were the novels. Buchan says he wrote them to make money, and they certainly funded many projects, including the restoration of a temple in the grounds of his Oxford house, Elsfield. He also likened himself to a Stone Age storyteller, who would be given the choicest piece of mammoth at the campfire of an evening because he could enthrall. In dedicating his most famous novel The Thirty-Nine Steps to his business partner, Tommy Nelson, Buchan wrote that they shared a love of the "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." He enjoyed writing them but never re-read any until the last weeks of his life when, his wife recorded, he was found in Government House, Ottawa with a copy of Greenmantle. He told her it was quite good.

That most perceptive of literary critics, T E Lawrence, had a more profound opinion. He wrote to Edward Garnett (principally about the only one of his novels that Buchan did take seriously, A Prince of the Captivity) that, "For our age they mean nothing; they are sport, only; but will a century hence disinter them and proclaim him the great romancer of our blind and undeserving generation?"

It is not yet a century hence, but everything Buchan wrote - beginning with his early story "The Powerhouse", and going on through The Courts of the Morning to The Three Hostages - has its prophetic echoes for our own time, from kidnapping to terrorism, from mindful violence to the possibility of the destruction of civilisation. Withal, this prodigiously gifted man had a modest estimate of his own powers. In his withdrawn personality - oddly mixed with a great gift for camaraderie - he modelled himself on one of the lesser characters in The Pilgrim's Progress, Mr Standfast, whose name he gave both to a novel and to its central character, the Boer hunter, Peter Pienaar. When Standfast dies in Bunyan's great book, as when Pienaar dies in Buchan's, "all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side''. Trumpets should now sound for Buchan; and I will sound one of my own for Andrew Lownie, who has brought this most extraordinary man to life in a way no previous writer has.