The Earnestness of Being Important

P.N. Furbank

  • John Buchan: A Memoir by William Buchan
    Buchan and Enright, 272 pp, £9.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 907675 03 4
  • The Best Short Stories of John Buchan. Vol. II edited by David Daniell
    Joseph, 240 pp, £8.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2121 X

The nice thing about John Buchan is that he was on the side of books. He thought, it is true, that he ought to have been a Guardian, shaping the Empire, or dominating Cabinets, or, at worst, ‘a power behind the throne’. However, after his spell in Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’, the nation didn’t seem to want him in the Guardian line, so he did the next best thing and became an entertainer. And with what success! There were, above all, his own thrillers: he went on producing them, roughly once a year, through thick and thin, with honourable zest, when political or proconsular ambitions might have whispered to him to desist. Then there was Nelson’s (Seven-penny) Library, of which he was to a large extent the creator, and which must rank in significance with Penguin Books and the Everyman Library. It took some vision, as well as business talent, to bring together A. E. W. Mason, George Douglas, Raffles, Gissing, Henry James and Jack London in the same series, and in the name of pleasure. One sees that the middlebrow had still not quite secured its grasp upon Britain.

One’s sense of Buchan the man, as derived from the excellent and engaging memoir by his son William, is of someone vastly enjoying life. How else could anyone have done so much and covered so much paper – more than a million words in Nelson’s History of the War alone? But then the consciousness of giving pleasure on such a scale (and it is no myth, I am sure, that The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle were life-preservers to men in the trenches) must have some effect on your life-processes. Buchan was in fact quite a sick man, with a badly disordered stomach (in his photographs he looks the picture of puritanical misery, but apparently that has to do with his false teeth). Nevertheless, the man whom William Buchan depicts is decidedly euphoric. Also nice. As a father he was, it would seem, a very distant presence, but a thoroughly benevolent one, and a figure of fascination to his children – anyway to William. He was, plainly, a man living a daydream, a most absurd but highly enjoyable daydream: one can scarcely begrudge it to him even if one ought to. How beautifully his son evokes Buchan, in his own mind the intrepid man of action, the Guardian, the important person awaiting his call: ‘He is dressed for London, in a dark suit with a lighter stripe, a double-breasted waist-coat, narrow trousers, with a stiff collar to his shirt, and a tie with a small pearl pin. He sniffs the air and peers, seeks, moving quickly and economically, almost with a fencer’s lightness (although this step was learned in boyhood on the Border hills), examines the Alberic Barbier and settles, perhaps, for one perfect ivory bud.’ He displayed, says William, ‘absolute concentration on the matter in hand, however apparently trivial’. For instance, there was the ritual of the cigarette-case: ‘It held, I suppose, ten cigarettes; but to see JB select one you might think that each had a separate and distinct personality. His hand would hover above the open case for an appreciable time before the choice was made, and the cigarette chosen was by no means always the one at the end of the row. Then followed further actions: the case was closed, the cigarette tapped on its lid until, after perhaps half a minute, it would be ready to be smoked.’ It is no wonder that William’s favourite game as a young child was one called ‘being important’.

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