The First Hundred Years

James Buchan

  • John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier by Andrew Lownie
    Constable, 365 pp, £20.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 09 472500 4

There is a passage in The Wealth of Nations where the author, for a moment, expresses some regret for the world of economic expediency he so devotedly describes and justifies. The division of labour, whose language is money, helps us to prosperity and liberty but at the price of atomising our picture of the world. The labourer, Smith writes, is ‘not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of the country he is altogether incapable of judging.’ Anyone who has dined recently with a Cabinet Minister will know that it is not just the labourer who is thus incapable.

John Buchan, whose grandson I am, was a late and flesh-and-blood representative of that lost epoch before economic expediency: a writer who not so much rejected the division of labour (Baudelaire and the Romantics do that) as overcame it. He fascinated his age and its successors. How was it that a Scotsman, from bankrupt provincial stock, small, sickly, of good but not Leibnizian intelligence, could nevertheless engross all the male professions of a prosperous and stagnant society, as well as most of its games? In a life of 65 years, beginning in Perth in 1875 and ending at Montreal in 1940, John Buchan was a scholar, colonial administrator, lawyer, journalist, fisherman, mountaineer, spy, publicist, businessman, squire, historian, poet, novelist, diplomatist and viceroy. People who don’t care for him always point out that he was merely good, rather than brilliant, at every thing he tried but that is not the point: the point is that he could do the things that Adam Smith said his economic Frankenstein’s monster could not. He could imagine virtue and form clear notions of private and public duty. He could live.

In Scotland, where almost everybody but the Dukes of Argyll feels they must fight their way in the world, John Buchan’s career is still an example and pattern: even though the British Empire, which gave the Scots their world stage, has disintegrated, Scots Toryism been demolished by its English counterpart and the self-consciously Scotch or kailyard school of literature regained the ascendancy. In England, or at least in the metropolis, John Buchan evokes that primordial English resentment that is the reward of all ambitious North Britons. For our family, his life is the source of both elation and despair. I think my father and his siblings had it very hard: for though each of John Buchan’s children might emulate or exceed him in one department of existence, that still left all the others. In my generation, which never, as it were, felt his breath on our heads, the division of labour has asserted itself in the most banal fashion. We plod along as lawyers, journalists, publishers, bankers, writers, public servants. None of us can read this biography without a sense of intellectual degeneracy and that is our inheritance, together with his love of adventure and weakness for tobacco.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in