Wednesday, March 30, 2005

John Buchan: The Three Hostages

John Buchan is a now a largely forgotten writer. However, he retains a small group of admirers, and they have formed a John Buchan Society to preserve his memory; their web site contains a mass of useful information.

Buchan was born in 1875, in Scotland; he was the son of a Calvinist minister. At one time he had to walk three miles to school each day, and three miles back, but he eventually made it to Oxford University.

From then on Buchan had a varied and high-powered career in both public and commercial life. At various times he was, for instance, a government administrator in South Africa, a director of Reuter’s, and a Member of Parliament. He was briefly the head of the UK intelligence service, and when he died (in 1940) he was Governor-General of Canada.

Given such a record of activity at a high level, it is surprising that Buchan ever had any time to write anything, but write he did: over a hundred books in all, of which about forty were fiction.

In my youth Buchan was famous as a thriller writer, and it is one of his thrillers that I want to discuss today: The Three Hostages.

First published in 1924, The Three Hostages features one of Buchan’s regular heroes, Richard Hannay. When the book begins, Hannay is just turned forty years of age, not long married, with a young son. After distinguished service in the first world war, he has retired to the country to fish and shoot. Before long, however, a national crisis arrives, and Hannay is told that His Country Needs Him. Reluctantly, Hannay has to respond to the call of duty.

The plot of The Three Hostages is pure blood and thunder; it is a melodrama. It is, however, an exceptionally intelligent and well told melodrama, and the reader is effortlessly carried along.

The main reason for discussing the book today is that it reveals how remarkably percipient Buchan was about future developments. When he wrote the novel, Buchan was approaching fifty, and had mixed for years at the highest level of UK politics and business. He was a well travelled and widely experienced man. It is nevertheless surprising to find how clearly he saw the problems that were developing in Europe.

I have argued elsewhere that the two world wars in the twentieth century effectively made the English people at least partially insane. Buchan saw it too, even in the 1920s. ‘Have you ever realised,’ one character asks Hannay, ‘the amount of craziness that the War has left in the world?’

Later, another character speaks of the dangers of propaganda. ‘Dick, have you ever considered what a diabolical weapon that can be – using all the channels of modern publicity to poison and warp men’s minds?’ This, please note, was written ten years before the appointment of Goebbels as Hitler’s propaganda minister.

The rise of Hitler, or a fanatic like him, is also foreseen. ‘In ordinary times he will not be heard, because, as I say, his world is not our world. But let there come a time of great suffering or discontent, when the mind of the ordinary man is in desperation, and the rational fanatic will come by his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.’

At one point, Hannay meets a German whom he knew in the war, but is on good terms with. The German tells Hannay that Germany is now (in the 1920s, remember) no place for a moderate man. ‘You foreign powers have hastened our destruction, when you had it in your hands to save us. I think you have meant well, but you have been blind, for you have not supported our moderate men and have by your harshness played the game of the wreckers among us.’

So, one way and another, The Three Hostages is in interesting and entertaining read. It borrows, of course, from the past: the villain of the book has a touch of Svengali about him. And Buchan himself was borrowed from by his successors: Ian Fleming learnt from him.

But one cannot, I suppose – and I say this with a deep sigh – one cannot leave Buchan without touching, briefly, upon his alleged ‘anti-semitism’ and racism.

It is perfectly true that the 2005 reader, who has had an awareness of political correctness injected into his veins, will wince a bit at some of Buchan’s throwaway remarks. There are references, for example, to a ‘nigger band’ playing in a nightclub. And there are indeed derogatory references to Jews, as in the description of the same nightclub’s clientele: ‘the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women… mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos.’

Before we get too excited about this, we do have to remember that we are talking about the English (a term which in this instance includes Scottish) upper classes here. Buchan married into the aristocracy, and he mixed with the greatest in the land. It is undeniable that, in the 1920s and 1930s, such people were typically arrogant, and were dismissive of almost everyone on earth apart from those few who came from their own select background. See the film Gosford Park if you want to know how they treated their servants.

Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that words such as Frog (for Frenchman), and Wog (for an Arab) were in frequent use well into my lifetime. Indeed, when I was a boy we were sometimes cautioned that ‘Wogs begin at Calais’. In other words, you can’t trust anyone but an Englishman; and you can only trust him if he went to the right sort of school.

With the benefit of hindsight such attitudes are unattractive; but in their day they were commonplace, and it is a little hard to abuse Buchan for being a man of his time.

Once anti-semitism, in its virulent form, appeared in Nazi Germany, Buchan was quick to condemn it publicly; so much so that Hitler promptly added him to the list of men who, after the proposed German invasion of England, were to be imprisoned for ‘Pro-Jewish activity’. In due course Buchan realised the sensitivity of some of his earlier (and entirely trivial) references to Jews, and eliminated them from his later work. If you wish to know more, the issue has been dealt with in Roger Kimball’s valuable essay on Buchan.

It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if such a remarkable body of work, by such a remarkably far-sighted man, were to be ignored, or, worse, condemned, on the strength of a few lines here and there.

Should you be interested in the history and development of the thriller, The Three Hostages is a book you should read.

5 comments:

Sarah said...

Now that is the sort of introduction to a writer that will actually motivate to go look for their books. I think, in response to the PC comments, that those of us who would find such derogatory terms uncomfortable need to learn to ignore them, or at least note the context in which they were written, in order to gain an understanding of literary fiction.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Ironic. I am the Grumpy Old Man. Not the sincerest form of flattery, but independent invention.

May I add that at least one of Buchan's books was made into a well-known film?

Grumpy Old Man said...

Further to films based on Buchan's work. Here's a list of nine or so, with links.

Melodramatic books actually lend themselves to film, which must condense the words and plot elements.

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Philip said...

One of the most interesting aspects of Buchan's writing is how he both shows and validates the core values of his time such as courage, loyalty and civic responsibility. Today one does notice the comments which might be construed as racist by a modern audience but they are nowhere nearly as vitriolic as those which appear in a wide range of novels published in the 1920s