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’.

When I was about three years old somebody gave me a small attaché case and what was then called a ‘stylographic pen’... My game was to rummage about in my case, pull out a sheaf of papers, shuffle them, and annotate them with squiggles from the stylographic pen. My expression, I think, was serious, preoccupied, statesmanlike. I did a good deal of frowning and muttering. When asked what I was doing I would reply: ‘I am being important.’

Since Buchan shared with us his daydreams, which were the daydreams of the new Imperialism, it is up to us to analyse them – the more so that they were certainly influential. I cannot but think there was a strong streak of John Buchan in the mental life of T. E. Lawrence. Had he not perhaps identified with Lewis Haytoun, the hero of The Half-Hearted (1900), scion of a long line of Highland landowners, a brilliant scholar and athlete but with a will sapped by over-breeding, a man who, to expiate an obscure humiliation, dies repelling single-handed an entire Russian army in a gorge in Kashmir? Buchan later on introduced Lawrence into his own novels, and this typifies the sort of interchange of influences we are studying – one in which Kipling and Oxford also play a part.

From the inheritance we can disentangle, first, the Oxfordian ‘most-brilliant-young-man-of his generation’ concept. Buchan’s advice to himself on his 21st birthday was: ‘Get the Newdigate, Get the Stanhope... Take strong interest in politics ... Be called to the Bar.’ The desire was to be ‘brilliant’ in the abstract, to effulge, rather than to be good at anything in particular. ‘It seems to me that JB’s spur, to begin with, was not to seek one particular kind of fame, to be clearly envisaged and single-mindedly pursued; rather it was the instinct for excellence, the desire to excel.’ But then, equally important, the desire to excel must be concealed and passed off as ‘effortless ease’. Buchan wrote of his friends at Oxford: ‘The “grand manner” in the 18th-century sense was cultivated, which meant a deliberate lowering of key in professions, and a scrupulous avoidance of parade. A careless good-breeding, an agreeable worldliness were its characteristics... To think of a career and be prudent in laying its foundations was, in our eyes, the unpardonable sin.’ What is at work here is the myth of the brilliant all-rounder, of which his immediate exemplar was his friend Raymond Asquith and the most celebrated of all was Harry Cust, the Admirable Crichton of the ‘Souls’ and of Wilfrid Blunt’s Crabbet Club. The role claimed was, evidently, ‘the complete Renaissance man’, but we can perceive this to be a deception. For what is actually presented to the world is a man who is, for someone who can fence or play cricket to international standard, a brilliant Classical scholar: a man who, for a good Classical scholar, has brilliant prospects in politics; a man who, for one cut out to lead armies to victory, has amazing knowledge of minor Caroline poets or of the novels of Trollope. It is what you might call the principle of conditional brilliance, a dummy standard being set up to enhance one’s actual achievements. The principle is immortalised in Ronald Storrs’s celebration of Harry Cust in Orientations: Cust, ‘the most brilliant of us all’, reading the Georgics while driving in his dog-cart to the Meet.

We can detect the same structure of thought, perhaps, under certain transformations. There seems some kinship with the idea that a true aristocrat will be wearing very filthy and ragged old tweeds; or again that, if you are Lord Grey and Foreign Secretary at a moment of national crisis, your heart nevertheless does not lie there but in birdwatching. In Buchan’s novels there is a nice variant, which we may call the principle of ‘not being really there’ (it recalls T. E. Lawrence to us). Buchan’s heroes tend to be in continual transit between the extremities of the Empire and, faced though you may be with them in a London club or drawing-room, only a small part of their thought will be bestowed on you, the rest is still vigilantly guarding the frontiers. They are not really there (a fact which must lend impressiveness to their conversation). William Buchan neatly catches this trait in his father: ‘In a London ballroom he was a benevolent observer, in, but not entirely of, the social scene. He liked to look in on such affairs, to reassure himself that all was still well, that the crust was still holding over the fires of disorder, of the existence of which he was always so acutely aware.’ If we take this motif in its very broadest application, a term for it is perhaps ‘romantic disproportion’: as such it is the basis of a large sector of our daydreaming life.

Buchan, like Kipling, revered experts. He once said that he thought no one could be a bore on his own subject. We may analyse this remark in various ways. There is, in the first place, the mere prestige of being in the company of experts, evoked in the club described in The Half-Hearted:

It was a small old-fashioned place in a side street, in style obviously of the last century, and the fittings within were far from magnificent. Yet no club carried more distinction in its membership. Its hundred possible inmates were the cream of the higher professions, the chef and the cellar were things to wonder at, and the man who could write himself a member of the Rota Club had obtained one of the rare social honours which men confer on one another. Thither came all manner of people – the distinguished foreigner travelling incognito, and eager to talk with some Minister unofficially on matters of import, the diplomat on a secret errand, the great traveller home for a brief season, the soldier, the thinker, the great lawyer. It was a catholic assembly, but exclusive – very. Each man bore the stamp of competence on his face, and there was no cheap talk of the ‘well-informed’ variety. When the members spoke seriously they spoke like experts; otherwise they were apt to joke very much like schoolboys let loose.

But there are further advantages in the company of experts. For you cannot be expected to exchange views with experts, or have an ordinary intelligent conversation with them: you have merely, restfully, to listen. Or, on the other hand, you don’t have to listen at all. Experts are a labour-saving device, they do your thinking for you, and social life has something to learn here from the Indian caste system.

Buchan’s own experiences with experts were not always happy. On a visit to Canada in the winter of 1924 he was impressed by the warmth of the houses; and ‘someone, some-where’, says William Buchan, ‘explained (no doubt with the non-boringness of the true enthusiast)’ a new type of central-heating equipment known as the Pipeless Heater, a very large zinc bottle which sat under the hall floor and puffed ‘a breath like a dragon’s’ in every direction. ‘The immediate result... was that most of the white-painted pine wall-panelling in the morning-room and drawing-room cracked clean down the middle. Tortoise-shell and ivory inlay in cabinets began to buckle. Worst of all was that, unless you leant over the banisters and gazed down at the grille, or stood right on top of it, you did not really feel much warmer.’ The story has a happy ending, for, if I am not mistaken, the Pipe-less Heater gave Buchan the idea for an admired tale, ‘The Wind in the Portico’. It concerns a man (a crank, and no scholar) who owns a priceless manuscript of Theocritus and under its influence adds a home-made Classical temple to his West Country mansion and begins to practise pagan sacrifices there. He is playing with fire, as the narrator tells him. Mysterious and supernatural winds rage in his temple portico (vaguely reminiscent of the Pipeless Heater); and eventually he incinerates himself on his own altar. The story is included in the second volume of The Best Short Stories of John Buchan, excellently and informatively edited by David Daniell.

In Buchan’s social outlook there is a strong ‘zoological’ streak (somewhat recalling Kipling). It is strong in The Half-Hearted, which I happen to have been rereading. People in this novel belong to ‘kinds’. Lewis Haytoun, when unhappy over a love-affair, behaves ‘after the fashion of his silent kind’ and gives no sign of his sorrow. Some tipsy Cockney picnickers, who annoy the heroine Alice Wishart, are described thus: ‘They were dressed in ill-fitting Sunday clothes, great flowers beamed from their button-holes, and after the fashion of their kind their waistcoats were unbuttoned for comfort.’ The message of the novel is the need for escape from the shallow complexities of European politics, fruit of weak nerves and ‘the cult of abstract ideas’, to the deeper issue which underlies them, which is the eternal conflict of different ‘kinds’. When such a conflict is actually fought out, between the hero Lewis and a worthy opponent, the stateless international agitator – Marker the one with his ‘kindly, humorous, cultured’ face ‘with strong lines ending weakly, a face overbred, brave and finical’, and the other ‘with the hungry wolf-like air of ambition, every line graven in steel’ – Lewis’s friend George Winterham is delighted that ‘two such goodly pieces of manhood should have found a meeting-ground’.

I think that ‘zoological’ is a fairer label than ‘racialist’ for Buchan’s vision, as indeed maybe even for Kipling and his ‘lesser breeds without the law’. Though we should never forget that, under the Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the Boer War, a treaty for which Buchan’s hero Lord Milner was largely responsible, the political rights of blacks were explicitly postponed till the Boers themselves should attain independence. The ‘zoological imagination’ failed here.

How the zoological runs through Buchan’s ideas, though, and indeed through his son William’s book. (I remember Marx’s complaint, about ‘this zoological way of looking at things which has its corresponding science in heraldry. The secret of the nobility is zoology.’) In the Buchan scheme, human characteristics are best explained by ‘blood’ – by Celtic ‘blood’ or French ‘blood’ or the like. Again, according to it, a certain type of individual is ‘bred’ by a certain kind of landscape. (Georgian nature-poetry is intensely important for this Scottish refugee to the Cot-swolds.) Even Oxford University, according to William Buchan, ‘breeds’ its alumni, such as Walter Pater.

The outlook, if you consider it, is coherent. Just as the explanation of human phenomena is to be looked for in externals, like blood and landscape and breeding, so the value of human attainments is located in externals – they are to be esteemed as ‘prowess’ and for their power to make the onlooker gape. It was fitting that Buchan’s career should culminate in public posts devoted exclusively to externals – the High Commissionership of the Church of Scotland and the Governor-Generalship of Canada. William Buchan says loyally that ‘even JB’s remarkable powers of organisation must have been strained to the limit,’ with only seven months in which to prepare for Canada. There was so much to think of. For instance, the photograph frames, monogrammed and coroneted, in solid silver or shagreen, to be bought from Mappin and Webb’s. And the very special Armstrong-Siddeley, with a ceiling designed for top-hats. And then, the plumes ...