Thirty-nine Steps, I Counted Them

On the hottest day of this remarkably hot summer, I chanced to be in Peebles, and stepped out of the seething cauldron of Peebles High Street into the cool tranquillity of the John Buchan Museum.  Well worth a visit.  Compared with Abbotsford, the grandiose pile of Buchan’s great literary hero Sir Walter Scott, this is a modest collection of memorabilia that would easily fit into a crofter’s cottage, yet I found the exhibits endlessly fascinating, particularly those pertaining to Buchan’s work in Intelligence during the First World War.

I’ve been an avid fan of Buchan ever since one memorable Friday afternoon in Primary VII, when Mrs Miller opened at page 1 of The Thirty-Nine Steps and started to read to us:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.  I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it…

The British weather makes Richard Hannay liverish, and he has more or less decided to go back to the Cape.  But he gives the Old Country one more day.  And what happens?  Well, Scudder turns up at his door, and he’s off on the first of five adventures.  I gobbled them all up.  They are marvellous.

Intrigued by the pattern of Buchan’s life, while in the John Buchan Museum I bought John Buchan, A Biography, by Janet Adam Smith (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965).  It is a splendid book which offers comprehensive coverage of the writer’s life and works, and paints a picture of a man of warmth and integrity.  You can’t help but be overawed by the scope and breadth of his endeavours.  Buchan’s CV is remarkable.  Born in Perth in 1875, a son of the manse, he attended Glasgow University, and subsequently Brasenose College in Oxford.  He read classics, or “Greats”.  He started to write and to publish while he was an undergraduate, and it appeared that the literary life beckoned him, yet he seemed to make a decision early on that writing, albeit that he might be prolific, would not be his main preoccupation. After Oxford he went out to South Africa as an administrator, one of “Milner’s men”, or “the kindergarten” as they were called because they were all so young.  When he came home, he went into publishing.  Then the Great War came, and he ended up running the Ministry of Information.  Later, he was to be deputy director of Reuter’s, then MP for the Scottish Universities.  He married Susan Grosvenor and started a family.  And all the time, he wrote.  Essays, newspaper articles, novels, history, biography.

But he was to avow that politics was his abiding passion.  Nevertheless he lacked the partisanship he might have needed, steadfastly to pursue the career of a professional politician.  He was always “above the battle”.  He wanted to enter public life but he was bored with party squabbling.  He was never given a cabinet appointment.  In 1935 he was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir and he became Governor-General of Canada.  All the time, he was plagued with ill health.  He gave his character John Scantlebury Blenkiron a duodenal ulcer and this is likely to be what he himself suffered from.   He was never really free of it.  That is perplexing, because had he been alive today he might well have been cured by a week’s course of antibiotics.

In Canada, despite his poor health, he travelled widely, visiting the ordinary inhabitants of the remote regions of the north.  His last novel, Sick Heart River, describes the last adventure of the lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, the recurring character who first appeared in The Power House, and who most resembled Buchan himself.  He too travels to the Canadian outback despite being terminally ill.  Buchan suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died in Montreal on February 11th, 1940.  His autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door (published in the US as Pilgrim’s Way and a favourite of JFK) was published in 1940.


Buchan remains steadfastly in print.  Doubtless he would have wished to be remembered for his biographies of Scott and Cromwell and Montrose, but it is really Richard Hannay who made Buchan world famous, just as James Bond made Ian Fleming world famous forty years later.  Yet for Buchan himself, the Hannay books appear only to have been a diversion.  He called them “shockers” – his word for thrillers.  He had read widely in the genre, and he made up his mind that he could make a far better fist of it.  So that’s what he did, while pursuing several careers outwith the cloistered world of letters.  A remarkable feature of Buchan’s life is the ease with which he appeared to move between social strata.  He seemed equally at ease with the King, and Stanley Baldwin, as with Ramsay MacDonald and indeed with the Red Clydesiders whom he depicted in Mr Standfast in the character of Andrew Amos.  He also forged a close relationship with President Roosevelt whom he saw as the only world figure big enough to avert the impending catastrophe in Europe in the late 1930s.  He worked with Roosevelt, preparing a memorandum for the President, in an attempt to bring about a conference of world leaders.  But Mr Chamberlain dismissed the idea without even bothering to tell his cabinet about it.  Instead he went off to Berchtesgaden, confident that he could manage the Fuhrer perfectly well himself.

Of course, the Hannay books are dated; they are of their time.  In Peebles, I picked up an ancient edition of Mr Standfast, opened it at random, and read Richard Hannay’s appalling utterance:

And to my joy, one night there was a great buck n***** who had a lot to say about “Africa for the Africans.”  I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit. 

(The asterisks are mine.)

Curious to know how modern editions of Buchan deal with unacceptable language, I popped into Waterstones and consulted the Richard Hannay Omnibus published by Wordsworth Classics in 2010.  The “great buck n*****” is replaced by “big black man”.  In other words, the books have been censored.  A poor editorial decision?  I can hardly reprimand Wordsworth Classics when, after all, I’ve just censored myself with all these asterisks.

I venture to say that Buchan is not Hannay.  Hannay is a creation.  He is a man of action, a Big Bruiser underestimated by his adversaries, because they fail to notice the rich seam of imagination and creativity in his consciousness.  That much he shares with his creator.  Hitchcock, who made The Thirty-Nine Steps famous through film, recognised the originality of the atmosphere of Hannay’s world, the world, indeed, of “atmosphere”, the Double Bluff, the thinness of the veneer of civilisation.  “Capering women and monkey-faced men”, and “A general loosening of screws”.  Men in ulsters emerge from shooting brakes in country estates, and you sense a world of conspiracy, a civilisation far more fragile than it appears, and a world teetering on the brink.

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