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
Saturday 29 July 1995
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 2 Pub landlord captures moment customer falls over on CCTV – just like Del Boy did on Only Fools and Horses
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 How to gain confidence and maximise your sexual potential
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: We're back alright, but on very familiar ground
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
Eurovision 2015: What date is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Game of Thrones, season 5 episode 4, review: Sansa in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
Andy McSmith's Sketch: Feisty audience is the real star of an enlightening show