BP Portrait Award 2014

The annual BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery. 2,377 paintings, a few sculptures and videos were entered, 55 were selected to go on show, including the prize winners, £30,000 for first prize, £10,000 second, £8,000 third. Most of the entries are oil paintings, with the notable exception of Marc Quinn’s sculpture of his own head made in blood, and a video of David Beckham sleeping. Sweet.

The standard struck me as low. A number of the portraits of famous people, where you could compare against life, were dire; many very average. I’d estimate between 10 and 20 were memorable or valid. The winners are:

I really liked the Simon Armitage portrait, and quite liked the others…

It is striking how many of the paintings, which looked crude and amateurish and unfinished when seen in the flesh, 4 or 5 or 6 feet tall, hanging on a wall, look vastly better when reduced to one inch square photos in magazines or online.

Related links

Night Without End by Alistair MacLean (1959)

Night Without End is the fifth action / adventure / thriller novel Alistair Maclean published. It inaugurates the series of books told in the first person by the kind of competent, mature, experienced, everyman hero who features in most of the rest of the novels.

It is by far the most gripping and exciting of his novels I’ve reread so far, impossible to put down, completely compelling from the first page, from the first sentence, when the half-Danish, half-Eskimo member of a scientific team on the remote Greenland ice cap hears the sound of an airplane overhead.

The plot is simple: our hero, with the bland everyman name of Dr Morris, is running a small research base high up on the Greenland ice plateau in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. It is below zero even in the pathetic shelter buried in the ice which they call their base and brutally cold outside. The plane they hear on page one proceeds to circle back and forth above them before it crash lands in the midst of the howling, freezing sleet of an Arctic storm and, before they can really prepare, the passengers need to be rescued.

You will not be surprised to learn that there is more to the situation than meets the eye and that Dr Morris, his young assistant Joss and the native Jackstraw are soon facing dangers of a kind they had not anticipated in a desperate, multi-levelled race against time through the appalling, inhuman Arctic weather and across 300 miles of the harshest lanscape in the world, to their supply base on the coast… A real cracker, sizzling with excitement and suspense, and really fast-paced, with the disasters and twists & turns in the plot coming thick & fast.

Related links

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

Cover of the 1970s Fontana edition of Night Without End

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936)

The fifth and final of the series of Richard Hannay ‘spy’ novels by John Buchan.  As usual, more interesting for its social history and the light it sheds on the mentality of the right-wing squirearchy than for the – in fact quite thrilling – boys’ adventure plot.

Plot in three parts

1. In the glory days of Empire before the Great War Hannay had an adventure which led up to him, Peter Pienaar and another young Imperialist called Lombard helping save the life of a burly Norwegian named Haraldsen, looks like a Viking and fond of quoting the old sagas. Before the final attack Haraldsen makes them swear a blood vow to defend him or his son if attacked. Thirty years later, Hannay stumbles across Lombard by accident, then across Haraldsen’s son who, we discover, is being pursued by a gang of international criminals for he not only inherited millions from his successful gold magnate father, but his father seems to have discovered a kind of Eldorado of gold right at the end of his life, a find recorded in a mysterious chunk of green jade.  Our heroes revive the pact they made with Haraldsen père and spirit Haraldsen fils to safety at Fosse, Hannay’s country pile in Gloucestershire.

2. But the vultures close in, so Hannay’s whole family with servants and Haraldsen decamp to Sandy Arbuthnot’s castle in Scotland, where they figure to be safe, and Lombard pulls off a ripping stunt in spiriting Haraldsen’s daughter away from her private school under the noses of the baddies who were about to kidnap her. After quite a lot of local colour in Scotland, with much hunting and fishing and a traditional Scots wedding, Haraldsen has one of his Norse moments and insists he returns to his Norwegian home island – the Island of Sheep – to confront his pursuers in a Last Battle, and Sandy – who has just returned from meeting and sizing up the enemy – agrees.

3. They all decamp to the Isle of Sheep, a fictional member of the fictional Norland Islands off the coast of Norway. Here the focus switches to the two teenagers, Hannay’s son and Haraldsen’s daughter, who kayak over to what they think is a government ship only to discover it is the bad guys who have cut the telephone cable from the island to the mainland. After a spell locked up, they are mysteriously released by one of the baddies and make a desperate escape in the fog back to the island only to discover the goody house is surrounded, only to go down to an inlet where – unexpectedly but rather conveniently – a hundred locals have arrived to hunt a pod of whales and who are easily stirred up at the news that outsiders are attacking one of them. Peter John, Anna and their pet peregrine falcon, Morag, save the day, hooray!

Here, at its climax, the children come into their own and the book mutates into a Famous Five adventure avant la lettre (the first FF adventure was published in 1942); also I can’t get images from Tintin and the Black Island (1937) out of my mind, and wonder what if any connection there was between Buchan and Hergé.

Lost dreams of Empire

The opening chapter is both an intriguing start to a ripping yarn and historically interesting: on the train back from London Hannay remembers the glory days of Empire before the Great War, when he mingled in Africa with white men with grand dreams of what the British Empire could be and do.

My mind went back to Lombard. I remembered how we had sat on a rock one evening looking over the trough of Equatoria, and, as the sun crimsoned the distant olive-green forests, he had told me his ambitions. In those days the after-glow of Cecil Rhodes’s spell still lay on Africa, and men could dream dreams. Lombard’s were majestic… He had had his ‘call’ and was hastening to answer it. Henceforth his life was to be dedicated to one end, the building up of a British Equatoria, with the highlands of the East and South as the white man’s base. It was to be both white man’s and black man’s country, a new kingdom of Prester John. It was to link up South Africa with Egypt and the Sudan, and thereby complete Rhodes’s plan. It was to be a magnet to attract our youth and a settlement ground for our surplus population. It was to carry with it a spiritual renaissance for England. ‘When I think,’ he cried, ‘of the stuffy life at home! We must bring air into it, and instead of a blind alley give ’em open country. . . .’ (Chapter 1)

In terms of the plot and drama, it is a crude coincidence that the fat stockbroker sitting opposite him on the train prattling about golf to his colleagues then turns out to be the very same Lombard, 25 years older, fatter and unromantic. But as social history it is a fascinating insight into how romantic and idealistic the dream of Empire was, how it captured the imagination of so many capable men – and how infinitely sad was its slow collapse and the attrition of those ideas in the difficult years between the Wars, before the final capitulation and death of that dream in the independence of India and the other colonies.

The power of that dream, and the shadow its slow decline cast over the entire ruling class of Britain, are vital parts of the social, political and cultural history of Britain in the twentieth century, and Buchan’s novels, in their shilling shocker way, give powerful insights into it, from the mind of a man who was at the heart of Imperial administration from his time with Milner in South Africa at the turn of the century to his role as Governor-General of Canada 40 years later.

Decadent Britain

There’s a section which made me laugh out loud in its right-wing triteness. One of the baddies fancies himself a great intellectual and enjoys going to parties of left wing artists and so on. Buchan gives a suitably dismissive description:

‘I got a young friend to take me to a party – golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect–terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day – the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be – perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different–it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.’ (Ch 7)

Fancy trying to teach mechanics anything. Ha ha ha ha. Their job is to fix my charabanc and know their place. And fancy the modish new BBC trying to ‘educate and inform’ the ghastly inhabitants of our dreary cities, ha ha ha. Anyone knows that only chaps who have titles, country houses and went to pukka schools are allowed to be educated.

Boys will be boys

Something about a private education seems, or seemed, to leave these men permanently immature and harking back to the halcyon days of their boarding schools. Again and again the finest moments in the chase or fight or whatever peril our heroes are in, is said to bring out a boyish brightness in their eyes, or they look like fine boys again – or they feel like boys summoned to the headmaster’s study or….  boys boys boys.

I certainly remembered one instance when Haraldsen had talked to me about a house he was building in a little island somewhere in the north, and had rhapsodized over it like a boy.

I recognized in him the boy I had known in Equatoria, and I felt as if I had suddenly recovered an old friend.

His lean, dark head and smooth, boyish face were just as I remembered them twenty years ago.

His face was so lit up and eager that I thought it was simply another ebullition of the boy in him that could not die…

When I called to him he was laughing like a care-free boy at the figure Peter John cut in Sandy’s short waders.

In the end they caught Haraldsen’s eyes, and some compelling force in them made him pull up a chair and sit down stiffly, like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s room.

Part of his cheerfulness was due to the admiration he had acquired for Sandy, which made him follow as docilely as a small boy in the wake of a big brother.

They were like schoolboys playing at pirates who had suddenly found themselves enrolled under the authentic Blackbeard.

Trouble with women

This arrested development or emotional immaturity is very apparent in their dealings with women – for Hannay/Buchan these come in three flavours, either sweet old ladies in Highland villages, adorable wives, or over-made-up slatterns. That’s it. The homosexuality which notoriously flourished in English public schools – partly due to the complete absence of women – and led to what the French called ‘the English vice’ ie spanking and bondage – made it notoriously difficult for these men to have thoughtful adult relationships with women. True, in this novel, both Hannay and Sandy are now married with young children, but women play no real role in the book.

In fact, going back a book, Mr Standfast came in for much criticism at its publication and ever since because Buchan repeatedly describes his wife-to-be as a boy, consciously or not suppressing her feminine characteristics and (comically) emphasising that she is nearly as good as a boy!

She seemed little more than a child, and before the war would probably have still ranked as a flapper. She wore the neat blue dress and apron of a V.A.D. and her white cap was set on hair like spun gold. She smiled demurely as she arranged the tea-things, and I thought I had never seen eyes at once so merry and so grave. I stared after her as she walked across the lawn, and I remember noticing that she moved with the free grace of an athletic boy. (MS Ch 1)

I puzzled over this till I realized that in all my Cotswold pictures a figure kept going and coming – a young girl with a cloud of gold hair and the strong, slim grace of a boy, who had sung ‘Cherry Ripe’ in a moonlit garden. Up on that hillside I understood very clearly that I, who had been as careless of women as any monk, had fallen wildly in love with a child of half my age. (MS Ch 5)

With a child – not a woman. The grace of a boy – not a woman. Although Buchan goes out of his way to prove his wife every bit as capable (or more) than Hannay, the impression remains nonetheless that she is a cracking chap and would have been a godsend to the First Eleven – er, with a few extra bits thrown in which we needn’t dwell on.

Play the game

It is a cliche that public schoolboys were encouraged to play games at the expense of intellectual pursuits, and that the spirit of team sports, abiding by rules, playing for the team etc, were directly related to the mentality they were expected to bring to running the greatest empire the world had ever seen. the famous quote, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game’, is the famous line from Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1892 poem Vitaï Lampada.

Huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ It is fascinating to see how this mentality works out in practice, for almost every aspect of Hannay’s life really is referred to as a game. His ordinary, non-perilous-adventure activities are all based around ‘games’ with rules: lots of hunting, whether it be stalking deer, fishing for trout or shooting ducks in Norfolk – and of course all the animals you’re hunting are themselves game – there are precise rules on how to do it, and not only that but the rules extend to the relationships you have with the servants who help you, ghillies and groundsmen and fly fishing suppliers and the owners of inns near good hunting, shooting and fishing territory.

Etiquette There are also, obviously enough, precise rules around etiquette, about how one dresses for dinner, or informally, or for sports activities, and how one comports oneself in public and at dinner, where strict rules surround what is eaten with what, and what is drunk with what, and when at which course, and then what subjects are permissible and which taboo, for a room full of like-minded men smoking their pipes after dinner.

Life as games All this means that when adventure comes along, it too is turned into a game, or rather into a series of mini-games, each of which can be controlled and conceived of as games. Thus when Hannay pretends to allow himself to be hypnotised by the baddie in The Three Hostages, it is part of the game. Whenever he and allies realise they’re in peril they’ll say ‘the chase is on’, the game has started’. Notoriously, our chaps described the rivalry between Russia and Great Britain at the borders of India and in Afghanistan as the Great Game. And in the two Great War-related novels, Greenmantle and Standfast, the War itself is conceived as a gigantic game, made up of myriads of smaller games,  offensives and ‘shows’, all of which must be played by rules which are comprehensible and definable, at least to the officer class who all went to the same schools – if not quite so obvious to the ‘lions’ who were led to slaughter in their millions.

War, business, adventure, Empire, crime, love, sport – almost all human activities can be turned by these huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ elite into a game.

‘He wasted a lot of time in that barren game, and more than once nearly had his throat cut, and then he was lucky enough to turn up on the Rand when that show was beginning.

Albinus looked a workmanlike fellow who had been at the game before, and even Troth made a presentable figure for the wilds.

He didn’t get much beyond a few klipspringer and bushbuck, but it was a good game area, and he lived in hopes of a kudu.

‘They visited the Island of Sheep – this was the name of Valdemar’s place – and, when they found it empty, pretty well ransacked the house, just like so many pirates from the sea. But they did no mischief, for they were playing a bigger game.’

‘He doesn’t appear to care for money so much as for the game.’

‘I felt somehow that we had the game in our hands, and had got over the worst snags.’

His opponents’ game was the old one of the pack, learned when their ancestors hunted on the plains of Asia.

‘Oh, nonsense!’ I said. ‘We’re not here cadging hospitality. We’re all in the same game, and this is part of it.’

‘I see what your game is, and I don’t like it either.’

‘The Skipper knows that game too well. If we try to double-cross him he’ll shoot.’

Another way of thinking about Hannay’s racism, his racist contempt for the excluded and the outsiders which I considered in my previous post, is they are outsiders because they don’t play the game (whatever the particular game happens to be). They are either completely outside the gaming culture – like Africans, Indians and natives everywhere – or they are white but perversely refuse to play the game like, in Hannay’s opinion, socialists, Germans or – worst of all – Jews.

And this refusal to join in the White Man’s game mentality, with its elaborate rules and etiquette, can only mean one thing – it can’t be that they think the game silly or are playing their own game – it must be that the refusers are wicked degenerates, or helpless half-wits who are the pawns of wicked degenerates. And that precisely describes the gang in The Three Hostages who are more or less stooges of the wicked mastermind Medina – or the gang in Island of Sheep, who are more or less weak-minded pawns of the real wicked baddie, Jacques D’Ingraville (‘Foreign blighter is he, Sandy? Yeees, doesn’t surprise me.’).

Master and servant

Chapter 4, which explains how Hannay and Pienaar and Lombard came to be blood brothers with Haraldsen, is set in pre-War Africa.  All the blacks ie the  native inhabitants of Africa, are referred to as ‘boys’, if they are working for our heroes, or ‘Kaffirs’ if they’re the 99.9% of the population who aren’t. Both these terms would develop nastier and nastier overtones of domination and racism as the century progressed and white men’s hold upon Africa came to seem more and more perilous.

Similarly, Hannay in England or Scotland knows where he is in his relations with other white men – either they’re of his own class, or they are servants of some kind, butler, gardener, groundsman, ghillie, driver, beater, help on a shoot or fish.

The same thing applies as with the concept of ‘the game’ which is that, there is a set of clearly defined relationships which a posh man can have with other Brits, almost all those of master and servant, all of which carry an etiquette and rules for both parties. It is when Hannay steps outside the easy master-servant relationship he is used to that he is nervous and becomes generally critical if not nasty. For example, the population of most of the UK is a mystery to him; all city-dwellers belong to the ghastly middle classes or, worse, the violent working classes unless that is, they are redeemed by being in the Army – in which case the rules and regulations surrounding Army life immediately kick in – thus Hannay is at sea when caught in a fight with a drunk Scots Fusilier in Mr Standfast – but when he meets the same man and is wearing his general’s uniform he is immediately able to patronise and control him and, indeed, persuade him to become his manservant which – in these wish-fulfilment fantasies of the upper-classes – the working class man (Geordie Hamilton) is immediately happy to do.

But introduce him to the mixed lower-middle-class society of pacifists and artists in Biggleswick, or to the would-be artists described in the BBC quote above,  or to the nightclub clientele in The Three Hostages, then Hannay is all at sea, then his limited world-view struggles to cope with the chaotic realities of an unpredictable population of 50 million fellow human beings most of whom along with the nature of their lives and struggles for money and food and shelter and love – due to the blinkers wrapped round him from birth –  are a complete mystery to him, then he reduces them to crude ciphers, dismisses them as half-baked or naive, and his anxiety about not being able to define his relationship to them, not being able to incorporate them into one of his games, comes out in abuse and insults, often crudely racist – in references to a nigger band, a dirty Jewess, greasy Dagos, the hoydenish Irish and so on.

Playing the game is fine if you’re inside the game, involved in the game. But eventually the 99% of the Empire’s population who were excluded from the game decided the situation was no longer tenable. Thus these books, the confident, well-written and frequently thrilling expressions of an ideology its author thought would never die, are now not only quaint ripping yarns but museum pieces pored over by scholars exploring the psychopathology of a vanished culture.

Related links

Jacket cover of The Island of Sheep

Jacket cover of The Island of Sheep

The Three Hostages by John Buchan (1924)

Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, was always a posh pukka public schoolboy hero; his ‘let’s biff the blighters, Sandy!’, ‘oh hooray! another grand show!’ style is part of the semi-comic appeal of the Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, novels in which he is a relatively junior, unknown, everyman figure.

However, by the time of Mr Standfast, Hannay is a Lieutenant-General in charge of his own division of the British Army during World War I, and his schoolboy pluck begins to seem out of keeping for a man responsible for so many others’ lives. My favourite parts of Standfast was not the far-fetched plot, but

a) the slow beginning where Hannay goes undercover in one of the new garden suburbs to hobnob with pacifists and conscientious objectors, then goes on to meet working men in Glasgow, both of which shed fascinating light on social attitudes during the Great War
b) the very end, the description of the 1918 German Spring Offensive, where Hannay’s division has to hold the line outside Amiens, which is genuinely gripping

Setting and plot

This, the fourth Richard Hannay thriller, is set in the early Twenties and the volume of all the pukka, jolly-good-chaps characteristics of the earlier books have been turned up until it almost reads like a parody.

Our hero is now Sir Richard Hannay KCB, OBE, DSO and Legion of Honour, married to the beautiful clever Lady Mary whom he met in Mr Standfast, and living the quiet life of a country squire in his venerable Gloucestershire pile. From here he is only very reluctantly enticed back into an adventure by the combined forces of his old friends in the police, his pleading wife and the parents or lovers of the three unfortunates who have been kidnapped by a dastardly gang of international crooks. These three hostages (hence the title) are being held in order to silence their relatives while the baddies carry out some kind of wicked international crime which, frankly, is never explained.

Exaggerated

Everything in the book feels stereotyped and exaggerated: Hannay is no longer just an ordinary chap who is plunged into sudden adventure (as in the The 39 Steps), he has become for Buchan an embodiment and epitome of everything that is good and solid and traditional and conservative about British life. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He knows the local nobs from the annual shoots or fishing trips or balls given by the Lord Lieutenant. Up in Town he meets everyone at his club or strolling down Pall Mall or is invited to join the most elite club in the land, the Thursday Club with just 15 members, half of them cabinet members.

… and in the few minutes while the men were left alone at table I fell into talk with an elderly man on my right, who proved to be a member of the Cabinet. (Chapter 4)

All his friends have similarly gone up in the world, including the dashing Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of Greenmantle who turns out – in line with the novel’s emphasis on the rootedness of Britain’s squirearchy and class system – to be heir to a title.

I had seen his elder brother’s death in the papers, so he was now Master of Clanroyden and heir to the family estates, but I didn’t imagine that that would make a Scotch laird of him. (Ch 4)

The three hostages are, in their way, supposed to stand for everything fine and noble in Hannay’s world – a dashing young man just up at Oxford and desperate to get into the cricket team – a beautiful young woman engaged to a French fellah Hannay knew from the Division during the last show – and a schoolboy at Eton (which Hannay’s own son, the puppet-like Peter John, is down for, inevitably).

The schoolboy is clearly intended to be a model child – and draws forth from Lady Mary, throughout the book, gallons of maternal concern – which makes the description of him all the more revealing – and nauseating. The tearful parent, noble old Sir Arthur Warcliff

… showed us a miniature he carried with him – an extraordinarily handsome child with wide grey eyes and his head most nobly set upon his shoulders. A grave little boy, with the look of utter trust which belongs to children who have never in their lives been unfairly treated. Mary said something about the gentleness of the face. ‘Yes, Davie was very gentle,’ his father said. ‘I think he was the gentlest thing I have ever known. That little boy was the very flower of courtesy. But he was curiously stoical, too. When he was distressed, he only shut his lips tight, and never cried. I used often to feel rebuked by him.’

And then he told us about Davie’s performances at school, where he was not distinguished, except as showing a certain talent for cricket. ‘I am very much afraid of precocity,’ Sir Arthur said with the ghost of a smile. ‘But he was always educating himself in the right way, learning to observe and think.’ It seemed that the boy was a desperately keen naturalist and would be out at all hours watching wild things. He was a great fisherman, too, and had killed a lot of trout with the fly on hill burns in Galloway. And as the father spoke I suddenly began to realise the little chap, and to think that he was just the kind of boy I wanted Peter John to be. I liked the stories of his love of nature and trout streams. It came on me like a thunderclap that if I were in his father’s place I should certainly go mad, and I was amazed at the old man’s courage.

‘I think he had a kind of genius for animals,’ Sir Arthur said. ‘He knew the habits of birds by instinct, and used to talk of them as other people talk of their friends. He and I were great cronies, and he would tell me long stories in his little quiet voice of birds and beasts he had seen on his walks. He had odd names for them too. . . .’ The thing was almost too pitiful to endure. I felt as if I had known the child all my life. I could see him playing, I could hear his voice, and as for Mary she was unashamedly weeping. (Ch 2)

The excluded

The corollary of all this tight inclusiveness, of the clubbishness of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant squirearchical elite, is that it defines itself by everything it excludes, which is an impressively big list starting with:

  • the entire working and middle class of the nation (unless they are suitable as servants or butlers)
  • all political parties who aren’t on the side of good old England and good old country squires
  • all foreigners – except other white men from the Empire or the occasional ‘darkie’ who becomes an honourable white man by being a crack shot or good fisherman

It is fascinating to watch Buchan blame almost all the woes of the troubled years after the War on foreigners: for example, as a thick-headed Imperialist he cannot for the life of him see why the Irish want to leave the British Empire and establish their own nation:

‘Look at the Irish! They are the cleverest propagandists extant, and managed to persuade most people that they were a brave, generous, humorous, talented, warm-hearted race, cruelly yoked to a dull mercantile England, when God knows they were exactly the opposite.’

In fact, the baddie at the heart of the novel, the spider spinning vast webs of evil and crime, the Blofeld, the Mr Big, turns out to be of Irish descent and his Irishness racially, genetically predisposes him to crime.

‘This is how I read him,’ Sandy went on. ‘To begin with, there’s a far-away streak of the Latin in him, but he is mainly Irish, and that never makes a good cross. He’s the déraciné Irish, such as you find in America. I take it that he imbibed from that terrible old woman – I’ve never met her, but I see her plainly and I know that she is terrible – he imbibed that venomous hatred of imaginary things – an imaginary England, an imaginary civilisation, which they call love of country. There is no love in it. They think there is, and sentimentalise about an old simplicity, and spinning wheels and turf fires and an uncouth language, but it’s all hollow. There’s plenty of decent plain folk in Ireland, but his kind of déraciné is a ghastly throw-back to something you find in the dawn of history, hollow and cruel like the fantastic gods of their own myths. Well, you start with this ingrained hate…’ (Ch 10)

On the surface the man they’re talking about, Dominic Medina, is the handsomest man in England, the best shot in England (after the King), a leading poet of the new school, and an MP with a promising political career ahead of him, and so, improbably, on. But behind this facade, lurks a devil incarnate etc, who is using ancient Eastern techniques of hypnosis to bend the most important people in Britain to his will.

History is a record of conflict

There’s a strand of right-wing thinking which is convinced this country is a great nation with a great history which has somehow been dragged down to its present sad and tawdry state by them; if only we could get rid of them, if only we could leave the EU, if only we could get rid of red tape, if only we could get rid of all these immigrants, then England would return to being the paradise it was, er, back, er, in, you know, those far-off golden days.

This thick-headed attitude refuses to acknowledge that history is a history of conflict and struggle – in the past week I’ve been walking across Kent where monuments indicate that the first neolithic farmers lived in a society of violence and conflict, that the Romans invaded and conquered the Britons, that the Saxons invaded and conquered the post-Romans, that the Danes invaded and attacked the Saxons, that the Normans invaded and conquered the Saxons, that the Normans fell out among themselves during the civil wars of King Stephen’s and King John’s reigns, that the peasants revolted in the 14th century, that the country was riven by the Wars of the Roses for much of the 15th, that the entire social fabric of the country was turned upside down by Henry VIII’s dictatorship, that the Great Rebellion of the 17th century led to battles across all the kingdoms of Britain and to the execution of the king, that we were invaded and conquered by a Dutch king in 1688 and then by German kings in the 18th century against whom Scottish rebels rose up in 1705 and 1715 and 1745, that we were then involved in a 20-year war against the French during which many intellectuals and workers sided with the revolutionaries, that peace brought such misery there were riots and rebellions across the land which led to the agricultural disturbances of the 1810s and 20s and into the mass movement of the Chartists, which led to the organisation of trades unions and political parties which by the 1880s were calling for armed overthrow of the entire existing social order in England, which led to the Liberal reforms just before the Great War when Parliamentary government almost collapsed, and that the Great War itself was followed by an era of Depression and economic hardship among the majority of the population, which in turn led to the General Strike.

To ignore the evidence of history, to refuse to see that conflict and struggle for power and money have characterised most of English history, and instead to sit on the lawn of your Gloucestershire manor house admiring the servants stocking the pond with fish and shoeing your horses and preparing another fine dinner and imagining that there is some kind of timeless peacefulness about England, is dunderheaded idiocy. You are in the privileged position of having servants and workers to do things for you, and so do all your friends, and so you assume it is normal and natural.

But if you are this kind of thick-headed squire – the kind of empty-brained ignoramus that PG Wodehouse started satirising in his Jeeves & Wooster stories, starting in 1915 – if you can’t accept that violence and conflict is intrinsic to human nature and society, then the only explanation for all the violence and wickedness in the world is that it must result from conspiracies of wicked men.

And thus you are led to believe that these others – the non-white ones, the causes of all this mayhem – are somehow inferior, morally, spiritually etc and it is this inferiority, this moral degeneracy, which leads them to conspire and revolt against a social order which is, well, so obviously super and just right for you and the fragrant Lady Mary and sweet little Peter John.

These ‘lesser breeds’ of Kipling’s notorious poem, need to be kept in check like the Germans or managed like the various dark-skinned savages under the supervision of other white men like yourself, until they have reached the lofty eminence of the English public schoolboy who knows how to play cricket, the game and life, according to the rules.

Instead of which the long-hoped-for victory in the Great War did not lead to a New Jerusalem but seemed to have unleashed a new world where ‘standards’ had collapsed: in politics there was Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, economic collapse in Germany; in society there was a flood of new culture, from awful negro jazz to all sorts of ghastly modern art and music and literature. Far from leading to the restoration of the status quo ante, with sound British cricketing virtues re-established in Blighty and around the world, victory in World War I seemed to have ushered in a completely new, far more threatening and chaotic world, both at home and abroad. And to those unused to thinking of history as a history of class struggles or struggles for power and resources, the post-war chaos could only be read as the result of wicked conspiracies, conspiracies by dastardly bad men – by them.

This is my theory as to why the racism and anti-semitism which mar the earlier Hannay books have, in this fourth, post-War, offering, become too pronounced and intrinsic to the plot to be laughed off.

Nigger

I went to bed fuming. This new possessory attitude, this hint of nigger-driving, had suddenly made me hate Medina. (Ch 7)

We paid five shillings apiece for a liqueur, found a table and took notice of the show. It seemed to me a wholly rotten and funereal business. A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle, and sad-faced marionettes moved to it. There was no gaiety or devil in that dancing, only a kind of bored perfection. Thin young men with rabbit heads and hair brushed straight back from their brows, who I suppose were professional dancing partners, held close to their breasts women of every shape and age, but all alike in having dead eyes and masks for faces, and the macabre procession moved like automata to the niggers’ rhythm. I dare say it was all very wonderful, but I was not built by Providence to appreciate it. (Ch 7)

It was the dancing-club which I had visited some weeks before with Archie Roylance. There were the sham Chinese decorations, the blaze of lights, the nigger band, the whole garish spectacle. (Ch 13)

Dago

‘I suppose he’s some sort of a Dago.’
‘Not a bit of it.  Old Spanish family settled here for three centuries. One of them rode with Rupert.’ (Ch 3)

Ah. Rode with Prince Rupert. How much more white could a man be?]

Round the skirts of the hall was the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women drinking liqueurs and champagne, and mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos the flushed faces of boys from barracks or college who imagined they were seeing life. (Ch 13)

He was just starting to prospect, when he saw a little dago whom he recognised as one of the bar-tenders. (Ch 15)

Jew

And it is repellent and ugly to see Hannay/Buchan returning again and again to blame the great whipping boy of the first half of the century, the Jews. Why is Buchan at such pains to identify people as Jews and why does the word always appears as an insult in the novels? One of the three hostages is, in fact, the son of a wealthy Jew:

Paddock met me in the hall and handed me a card, on which I read the name of Mr. Julius Victor. I knew it, of course, for the name of one of the richest men in the world, the American banker who had done a lot of Britain’s financial business in the War, and was in Europe now at some international conference. I remembered that Blenkiron, who didn’t like his race, had once described him to me as ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. (Ch 2)

He began by saying very much what Dr. Greenslade had said the night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man, could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric – a hideous, untameable breed had been engendered. You found it among the young Bolshevik Jews, among the young gentry of the wilder Communist sects, and very notably among the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland. (Ch 2)

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I wasn’t much taken by him. He’s too infernally un-English. I don’t know how he got it, but there seems to be a touch of the shrill Levantine in him. Compare him with those fellows to-night. Even the Frenchmen – even Victor, though he’s an American and a Jew – are more our own way of thinking.’ (Ch 7)

The place was very empty – only about a dozen, and mostly a rather bad lot. Archie asked what right he had to carry off the girl, and lost his temper, and the manager was called in – the man with the black beard. He backed up Odell, and then Archie did a very silly thing. He said he was Sir Archibald Roylance and wasn’t going to be dictated to by any Jew. (Ch 14)

Archie is the young air ace who helped Hannay out in Mr Standfast; as with Arbuthnot, it is typical of the snobbishness of this novel that he turns out to come from a rippingly upper-class family.

Buchan is solidly of his time and class in accepting the common belief that the Bolshevik revolutionaries were somehow all Jews. A lot of them were, but a lot of them weren’t, but either way it wasn’t their ethnicity that counted – the Russian revolution wasn’t caused by Jewishness! It was the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary theory and practice which not only seized power in Russia but threatened for a while to do the same in Poland and even Germany. Hannay/Buchan cannot see or understand that.

‘Think of it!’ he cried.  ‘All the places with names like spells – Bokhara, Samarkand – run by seedy little gangs of communist Jews.’ (Ch 1)

Yes, all those places which should be accessible to upper-class white men like Hannay and his pukka friends to treat as adventure playgrounds, now being run by the people who live there – outrageous!

The plot

The plot is twaddle which doesn’t make sense even on its own terms – a shadowy criminal organisation which links American financiers with Greek traders with Baku oilmen etc is on the verge of some never-defined ‘liquidation’. This is just the conspiracy theory background – the plot quickly boils down to focusing on one charismatic baddie in London who

a) unnecessarily takes three random hostages
b) unnecessarily sends a clue about their whereabouts in a poem (!) to the authorities
c) unnecessarily takes Hannay into his confidence once he’s convinced he’s hypnotised him to become one of his ‘followers’

This allows Hannay and his trusty lieutenants, Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance, plus his beloved wife Lady Mary, to solve the riddle, track down the hostages, and foil the dastardly ‘liquidation’, whatever that was going to be.

Thriller motifs

More interesting than the paper-thin plot is the literary interest of observing how many of motifs of the thriller genre Buchan established or popularised: car chases and crashes, hostages, hair-raising mountain climbs, breakneck airplane stunts, sinisterly empty chateaux, germ warfare, as well as the fundamental trope of a shadowy secret criminal organisation with tentacles reaching up to the highest in the land.

Social history

And full of social history. If the opening chapters of Mr Standfast give a sense of the range of opposition views about the Great War, then The Three Hostages gives a fascinating insight into the mindset of right-wing, philistine, Imperialist landed gentry of the 1920s.

Ireland The Irish are somehow deluded to want their own country – and are depicted as lazy, good-for-nothing, violent fanatics.

Bolshevik Russia turns out to have been seized not by revolutionaries with a clear political and economic theory, but by dirty Jews.

India 

We would have drifted into politics, if Pugh had not asked him [the Right Honourable Sandy Arbuthnot] his opinion of Gandhi. That led him into an exposition of the meaning of the fanatic, a subject on which he was well qualified to speak, for he had consorted with most varieties.

‘He is always in the technical sense mad – that is, his mind is tilted from its balance, and since we live by balance he is a wrecker, a crowbar in the machinery. His power comes from the appeal he makes to the imperfectly balanced, and as these are never the majority his appeal is limited. But there is one kind of fanatic whose strength comes from balance, from a lunatic balance. You cannot say that there is any one thing abnormal about him, for he is all abnormal. He is as balanced as you or me, but, so to speak, in a fourth-dimensional world. That kind of man has no logical gaps in his creed. Within his insane postulates he is brilliantly sane.’

It was Brits like this, with this unsophisticated racist mindset, who were still running India and simply couldn’t understand Gandhi or Jinnah or, in the end, the entire nation they were put in charge of.

Psychoanalysis It is a surprise to see psychoanalysis mentioned early on in the book – in fact it provides a basis for the plot insofar as its popular versions brought to the fore the themes of madness and sanity and the idea of the unconscious, savage or primitive mind. This proves to be the crux of the plot, that Medina’s success is due to him exerting a deeper-than-hypnotic control over various high public officials.

But, typically, Buchan mentions psychoanalysis only to pooh pooh it – though he doesn’t mention it, psychoanalysis was of course the invention of his least favourite people, the Jews – and he has that stock character of English fiction, the bluff 18th century country doctor, explain that of course there’s nothing new in this psychoanalysis stuff – ‘Why, you know old chap, we knew about that all along, no need for some damn foreigner to tell us Brits.’

‘Take all this chatter about psycho-analysis. There’s nothing very new in the doctrine, but people are beginning to work it out into details, and making considerable asses of themselves in the process. It’s an awful thing when a scientific truth becomes the quarry of the half-baked.’ (Ch 1)

Summary

If the novel were retitled ‘A pure white English virgin, a young sportsman up at Oxford and a virtuous public schoolboy are threatened by an Irish degenerate, nigger bands, filthy dagos and grasping Jews’ it might give a more accurate flavour of this thrilling, fascinating and appalling text.

Related links

Cover of an early edition of the three Hostages

Cover of an early edition of The Three Hostages

Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919)

I always felt that I was a better bandit than a detective

Third and longest of the five Richard Hannay novels, set against the backdrop of the Great War as it entered its 4th and crucial year. Its length is its terrible weakness as, instead of depth or subtlety, Buchan just piles on incident after incident until the plot becomes completely untenable and almost incomprehensible. As just a sample, Hannay

  • goes undercover in a garden village of pacifists
  • goes undercover in working class Glasgow, gets involved in speeches and fistfights
  • goes undercover across Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye
  • is involved in spying and fighting in secret coves on Skye
  • adopts the identity of a travelling salesman of religious books
  • is chased by police around Edinburgh, jumps a train south, escapes from that into a troop train
  • flies south in a commandeered airplane and crashes
  • takes command of a film shoot re-enacting a scene from the War as he makes his escape through the set
  • returns to command of his brigade in France
  • breaks into a mysterious french chateau and discovers germ warfare
  • is trapped in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, escapes
  • disguises himself as a Swiss peasant
  • climbs an inaccessible Alpine pass
  • is involved in a life-or-death race to capture Germany’s leading spy
  • takes command of his brigade against the Germans’ 1918 Spring offensive

Buchan’s war work

At the outbreak of war Buchan – at that point editor of The Spectator and popular novelist, well-known for his pro-Empire views – had gone to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau. He worked for a bit as French correspondent for The Times. Early in 1915 he was commissioned to write an official history of the War in monthly instalments to be produced by the publishers he was a partner in, Thomas Nelson & Son, hence named Nelson’s History of the War. This started in February 1915 and was eventually published in 24 volumes. Buchan was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and given access to the official documents to write the work.

Around this time he was also commissioned to write speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig, Head of the British Army. In 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau was subsumed into the Foreign Office at which point Buchan can be said to have officially joined the FO’s Intelligence Department. As a result of his achievements in all these tasks, in February 1917 when the government established a Department of Information, Buchan was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of it – Buchan called it ‘the toughest job I ever took on’.

Propaganda

Given Buchan’s role at the heart of the Allied Propaganda effort you might expect the Hannay novels to be unmitigated propaganda, but they’re not. In this novel as in Greenmantle, he goes out of his way to be fair to his opponents, to respect their intelligence and to discriminate between good Germans and bad Germans.

In fact Buchan makes the first hundred pages of this novel a kind of tour of the opposition camp: he is told, on a rather flimsy pretext, to pretend to be a South African sceptical of the war and ingratiate himself with pacifists and conscientious objectors and all the domestic opponents of the war. The stated aim is that some fiendish mastermind is feeding information to the enemy via a network of spies and Hannay is tasked with establishing himself as an opponent of the war in order to sniff our the traitors. But it gives Buchan the opportunity to do systematic pen portraits of Bloomsbury pacifists and COs and very interesting it is. Apart from its other value, as insight into the period, it contains an acid portrait of a whiny novelist generally taken to be DH Lawrence.

DH Lawrence

Aronson, the novelist, proved on acquaintance the worst kind of blighter. He considered himself a genius whom it was the duty of the country to support, and he sponged on his wretched relatives and anyone who would lend him money. He was always babbling about his sins, and pretty squalid they were. I should like to have flung him among a few good old-fashioned full-blooded sinners of my acquaintance; they would have scared him considerably. He told me that he sought ‘reality’ and ‘life’ and ‘truth’, but it was hard to see how he could know much about them, for he spent half the day in bed smoking cheap cigarettes, and the rest sunning himself in the admiration of half-witted girls. The creature was tuberculous in mind and body, and the only novel of his I read, pretty well turned my stomach. Mr Aronson’s strong point was jokes about the war. If he heard of any acquaintance who had joined up or was even doing war work his merriment knew no bounds. My fingers used to itch to box the little wretch’s ears. (Chapter 2)

England, my England

I read the book as I was walking the North Downs Way in Kent, and I was struck by Hannay’s descriptions of rural England; repeatedly the hero goes for walks or comes to places in the Cotswolds so beautiful that he is enraptured. I enjoyed these descriptions so much that I read the first 50 or 60 pages several times:

The small Ford car… carried me away from the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree…

… Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.

In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days…

… Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniature lake. By the water’s edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.

It was singing the old song ‘Cherry Ripe’, a common enough thing which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowed countryside…

…For the rest I used to spend my mornings reading in the garden, and I discovered for the first time what a pleasure was to be got from old books. They recalled and amplified that vision I had seen from the Cotswold ridge, the revelation of the priceless heritage which is England. I imbibed a mighty quantity of history, but especially I liked the writers, like Walton, who got at the very heart of the English countryside…

In the afternoons I took my exercise in long tramps along the good dusty English roads. The country fell away from Biggleswick into a plain of wood and pasture-land, with low hills on the horizon. The Place was sown with villages, each with its green and pond and ancient church. Most, too, had inns, and there I had many a draught of cool nutty ale, for the inn at Biggleswick was a reformed place which sold nothing but washy cider. Often, tramping home in the dusk, I was so much in love with the land that I could have sung with the pure joy of it…

Sweet and kind

There’s a sweetness and kindness to Buchan’s spirit, he is good at countryside and good at quick pen portraits of the strangers he meets.

Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office…. I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves. (Ch 5)

 For complicated reasons Hannay has gone undercover to try and figure out how secrets are being smuggled to the Germans and this brings him to the Highlands and, eventually, to the Isle of Skye. But not before his enemies get the police to put out an alert for him and he is hunted across the Highland countryside rather as in the Thirty-Nine Steps. He is picked up by well-meaning local gentry with whom he suddenly returns to his full military bearing and in this mode meets the son, who has been invalided out of the war.

The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards. (Ch 5)

The last battle

The book is in two parts, which adds to the sense of bittiness, of numerous hair-raising escapades strung together on very slender threads and coming pell-mell. Once again there’s a volta or switch of emphasis, when the German spy ring which had been the focus of the first 200 pages, which had seemed so dangerous and all-encompassing – is suddenly swept up with no problems, including its dastardly ringleader, who had metamorphosed into all the Bad Men who started this beastly war.

All the previous shenanigans are completely overshadowed by the last 30 pages or so of the book which are a genuinely riveting account of the German Spring offensive, Germany’s last throw of the dice which almost penetrated the thin Allied lines and opened the way to Paris. I can’t discover how accurate Buchan’s account is of Hannay’s fictional division holding the line outside Amiens, but the stress and anxiety and the detail of reinforcements and the terrible casualties and the high stakes make for a genuinely gripping climax to an otherwise chaotic and exhausting novel.

Related links

Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This is the second of Buchan’s five thrillers told in the first person by the bluff, straight-talking South African mining engineer-cum posh chap Richard Hannay. Whereas the Thirty-Nine Steps which is about foiling a German plot to smuggle military secrets out of England, is set just before the outbreak of the Great War, this sequel was written between February and June 1916 and is very much set during the Great War: the  plot starts in November 1915 and goes on into early 1916. (NB In June 1916 Buchan joined the intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in July the first installment of the Greennmantle appeared in Land and Water magazine. Buchan’s role working for British propaganda is worth bearing in mind when reading any of his books, and I will discuss more fully in the next blog post, about Mr Standfast.)

The plot

Hannay is joined in his adventure by three friends: Sandy Arbuthnot, a dashing hero who is blood brother to half the tribes of bedouin and gypsies throughout the Middle East (‘He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before.’); Peter Pienaar, a grizzled old big game hunter friend of Hannay’s from South Africa; John S. Blenkiron, a tubby and extremely knowledgeable American on our side.

Sir Walter Bullivant, the senior intelligence man who came to Hannay’s aid in the Steps, now informs them there is a dastardly German plot to cause a muslim uprising against the British in the Middle East and beyond, down the east coast of Africa. Our heroes are tasked with finding out who’s organising it and stopping it.

This rather vague commission leads them to plan to journey via separate routes to Istanbul to find out everything  they can along the way, rendezvous, and come up with a plan. While Blenkiron travels in style through Germany posing as an outspoken opponent of the War and of the Allies and Sandy plans his own mysterious journey via the Med, Hannay poses as a disgruntled South African Boer ready to throw in his lot with the Germans, and this leads him to be presented to the sinister Hun General von Stumm, to overhear vital conversations, and then to escape and go on the run through the winter snows of Germany, involving extremes of physical endurance, car chases, fake identities and so on.

Plot shift – a volta?

In the Alistair MacLean novels I identified the frequent use of an abrupt volta or shift, whereby the hero reveals he is something completely different from what he’d led us to believe for the first half of the text. Something similiar though less calculating happens in the Thirty-Nine Steps: the first half of the plot is driven by Hannay’s need to hide from the German spy organisation until he can get news to the authorities about their plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister on a state visit to London. But in the last chapter or so, the Greek PM is assassinated and, suddenly, it doesn’t matter because it has become a much more chamber affair of a German spy impersonating the First Sea Lord – an incident Hannay happens to witness through incredible coincidence as he happens to be waiting outside the meeting to see Bullivant, the head of British intelligence. It is only by the slenderest of accidents that Hannay spots this and realises the true meaning of the fragmentary message about the 39 steps ie they are steps down to the sea from a coastal house for a German spy to escape taking the information the imposter has learned at this high-level meeting.

Well, the same thing happens in Greenmantle. The first half or more relates Hannay’s dashing adventures in wintry Germany, before he finally makes it to Istanbul where our heroes meet up and establish that a new muslim prophet has arisen and is being steered and managed by a fiendish German mastermind. BUT then the book’s focus changes. Whereas the uprising had formerly been a general jihad of all muslims in the Middle East, now it becomes focused on the battle around the eastern city of Erzerum where the Russians are besieging the Turkish Army, bolstered by German forces – and then, in exactly the kind of slender coincidence on which the Steps turned, Hannay – escaping over rooftops from pursuing soldiers – accidentally sees the General poring over plans before leaving the room, so – in a typical moment of dash and pluck – Hannay opens the window, nips across the room and snaffles the plans, returns to the window, and completes his rooftop escape. The plans turn out to be the enemy deployments around Erzerum and, in a further adventure, our heroes smuggle them through enemy lines to the Russians who, thus informed, are able to storm the city and capture that front.

(Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that the final scene, the climax of the book, where the attacking Cossacks not only rescue Hannay and pals from being shelled by the wicked von Stumm, but also lend them horses so they can lead the cavalry charge into Erzerum, is genuinely exciting and thrilling.)

A small world of toffs

The upper class world Hannay inhabits is small: everyone of importance in England knows everyone else or has heard of them via the public school network; and similarly, everyone abroad is connected with that network somehow, creating an international matrix of acquaintances. For example, when Peter Pienaar arrives after perilously crossing the front line between the Turkish and Russian armies, it is absolutely classic that the Russian general he is presented to turns out to be a decent feller who he once went wild game shooting with in Matabeleland. Of course.  In this world there are only two or three hundred people of note who all went to school together or are related to each other or a few foreigners who one has had scrapes with.

This small world is, to quote Auden, ‘everso comfy’. It is part of the childishness of these thrillers not only that our chaps will get out of their scrapes, but that their and our values are correct, the only decent ones – and shared by all good-hearted people everywhere ie all the upper crust people or chaps who’ve knocked about and done a bit of hunting. There is none of the anxiety or alienation which has struck most writers as characteristic of the 20th century world. This uber-confidence is most apparent in Buchan’s amazing prose style.

Style

People say Buchan’s adventures are fast-paced. Sure, things happen and, after a generally slow start, at an accelerating rate – but I suggest the sense of ‘pace’ is created by his amazingly crisp and no-nonsense style. By pacy I mean his ability to describe a person, place or situation in a minimum of words, with precise, well-turned phrases. This lack of dawdling, no hesitation or doubt, this ability to say things fast, creates a sense of speed even when not much is actually happening. The opening sentences are:

I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled. (Chapter 1)

Setting: breakfast, pipe, marmalade. the same super-English atmosphere of cosy domesticity that characterises Sherlock and Watson. Actions: flung, whistled; aristocratic gestures of nonchalance, calm, confident, urbane. This is the tone throughout, the unflustered Englishman. When they meet to plan it is in Claridges, the Savoy, their club.

There was a motor-car waiting—one of the grey military kind—and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey. (Ch 5)

Pace, speed, flung. Cars were relatively new and almost as soon as they were invented they were being stolen and involved in high speed chases: Hannay steals one in Germany and then another in Turkey. Here he is ditching his stolen car, sounding like Raymond Chandler 20 years later.

Presently I came on a bit of rough heath, with a slope away from the road and here and there a patch of black which I took to be a sandpit. Opposite one of these I slewed the car to the edge, got out, started it again and saw it pitch head-foremost into the darkness. There was a splash of water and then silence. Craning over I could see nothing but murk, and the marks at the lip where the wheels had passed. (Ch 7)

Pen portraits and memorable scenes

The precision and briskness of his style lends itself to acute pen portraits and memorable scenes, written with verve and clarity. Probably the most tremendous is when he is accompanying von Stumm as a potential helper and ally, and finds himself being presented to the Kaiser himself!

At the far side of the station a train had drawn up, a train consisting of three big coaches, chocolate-coloured and picked out with gold. On the platform beside it stood a small group of officers, tall men in long grey-blue cloaks. They seemed to be mostly elderly, and one or two of the faces I thought I remembered from photographs in the picture papers.

As we approached they drew apart, and left us face to face with one man. He was a little below middle height, and all muffled in a thick coat with a fur collar. He wore a silver helmet with an eagle atop of it, and kept his left hand resting on his sword. Below the helmet was a face the colour of grey paper, from which shone curious sombre restless eyes with dark pouches beneath them. There was no fear of my mistaking him. These were the features which, since Napoleon, have been best known to the world.

I stood as stiff as a ramrod and saluted. I was perfectly cool and most desperately interested. For such a moment I would have gone through fire and water.

‘Majesty, this is the Dutchman I spoke of,’ I heard Stumm say.

‘What language does he speak?’ the Emperor asked.

‘Dutch,’ was the reply; ‘but being a South African he also speaks English.’

A spasm of pain seemed to flit over the face before me. Then he addressed me in English.

‘You have come from a land which will yet be our ally to offer your sword to our service? I accept the gift and hail it as a good omen. I would have given your race its freedom, but there were fools and traitors among you who misjudged me. But that freedom I shall yet give you in spite of yourselves. Are there many like you in your country?’

‘There are thousands, sire,’ I said, lying cheerfully. ‘I am one of many who think that my race’s life lies in your victory. And I think that that victory must be won not in Europe alone. In South Africa for the moment there is no chance, so we look to other parts of the continent. You will win in Europe. You have won in the East, and it now remains to strike the English where they cannot fend the blow. If we take Uganda, Egypt will fall. By your permission I go there to make trouble for your enemies.’

A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare. ‘That is well,’ he said. ‘Some Englishman once said that he would call in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. We Germans will summon the whole earth to suppress the infamies of England. Serve us well, and you will not be forgotten.’

Then he suddenly asked: ‘Did you fight in the last South African War?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘I was in the commando of that Smuts who has now been bought by England.’

‘What were your countrymen’s losses?’ he asked eagerly.

I did not know, but I hazarded a guess. ‘In the field some twenty thousand. But many more by sickness and in the accursed prison-camps of the English.’

Again a spasm of pain crossed his face.

‘Twenty thousand,’ he repeated huskily. ‘A mere handful. Today we lose as many in a skirmish in the Polish marshes.’

Then he broke out fiercely.

‘I did not seek the war … It was forced on me … I laboured for peace … The blood of millions is on the heads of England and Russia, but England most of all. God will yet avenge it. He that takes the sword will perish by the sword. Mine was forced from the scabbard in self-defence, and I am guiltless. Do they know that among your people?’

‘All the world knows it, sire,’ I said.

He gave his hand to Stumm and turned away. The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe … (ch 6)

Similarly, he meets the leader of Turkey, Ismail Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and effective leader of the Ottoman Empire in both Balkan Wars and World War I.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend—he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword. (ch 13)

Racism

Anti-semitism No point denying it. Hannay is given to quick stereotypes of all sorts of races and nationalities – it’s part of the speedy summing-up of people and places which is an aspect of his upper-class English confidence and of his style. Nonetheless, his comments about Jews go above and beyond this stereotyping to have an unpleasant, vengeful flavour.

In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises. (Ch 6)

Poor old Peter had no greatcoat, so we went into a Jew’s shop and bought a ready-made abomination, which looked as if it might have been meant for a dissenting parson… Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again. (Ch 11)

Blacks There is one stunning reference to blacks which recalls Hannay’s character as a man who’s spent a lot of time in South Africa based, of course, on Buchan’s own time as assistant to the High Commissioner in South Africa from 1901 to 1903.

He liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn’t been a nigger-driver for nothing. (Ch 9)

Whites the corollary of these stereotypes of other races is, if you like, a stereotype of the good white man, phrases which assume his unquestioned place at the top of the racial pyramid. In particular I was startled to read the phrase ‘like a white man’ used to denote, well, being a sound chap.

That fellow gave me the best ‘feel’ of any German I had yet met. He was a white man and I could have worked with him. I liked his stiff chin and steady blue eyes. (Ch 4)

Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem. (Ch 5)

Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man. (Ch 14)

Good Germans

But Buchan is wise enough not to belabour the stereotypes: in the race across Germany section of the book he goes to great lengths to describe good Germans: the engineer Gaudian is honest and open. There is a maybe sentimental but nonetheless moving account of the poor woman who takes Hannay in in the depths of winter and allows him to have his malaria bout in her quiet attic room and in return Hannay carves toys for her poor children. And there’s a long sequence where Hannay manages to get a berth on a set of barges from Essen which is chugging south through Austria and, as he does so, gets to know the captain and crew and gets, as usual, to like them.

It is one of Hannay’s endearing qualities that he is quick to see the good side of people, or to admire them, even if he disagrees with them or they are sworn enemies.

Gynophobia

As with She, Rider Haggard’s classic boys adventure story about the Eternal Woman, Greenmantle suggests the English public school boy has made little or no progress in being able to accept or understand women as women. Buchan’s Hilda von Einem must run Ayesha a close second in the stakes of being a shocking collection of feminine (and sexist?) clichés.

Although she’s meant to be the wicked mastermind behind the whole uprising plan, the entire new prophet-von Einem-muslim uprising part of the plot doesn’t come alive for me. It is the monstrous General von Stumm and the intense period Hannay spends with him in Germany, and then the long escape through the snow, and the long barge ride down the Danube, and then von Stumm’s magical reappearance in Erzerum to chase and corner Hannay and chums on an isolated hilltop, it is these elements of the book which have real life because they are the physical tests and tribulations which are the core of the good thriller – the sense of a fit man pushed to the physical and mental limit – and are described with such vividness.

I must have run miles before the hot fit passed, and I stopped from sheer bodily weakness. There was no sound except the crush of falling snow, the wind seemed to have gone, and the place was very solemn and quiet. But Heavens! how the snow fell! It was partly screened by the branches, but all the same it was piling itself up deep everywhere. My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body. I stumbled on blindly, without a notion of any direction, determined only to keep going to the last. For I knew that if I once lay down I would never rise again. (Ch 7)

Jihad and the muslim world

A hundred years after this novel speculated about a muslim uprising in the Middle East against the Western powers, the forces of ISIS are storming through Iraq and claiming Syria as part of the Caliphate. Is it a topical subject, or just a subject which never goes away in the muslim world, a world which seems to permanently long to return to the imagined purity of some fictional middle ages. What is a bit more characteristic is Buchan/Hannay’s assumption that this is a world only Brits can really understand – unlike the blundering Germans and – later – Americans.

Buchan knows his and Hannay’s limits, so he gives the role of special insight into the Arab mind, and into the muslim prophet who is called Greenmantle, to fellow hero Sandy Arbuthnot:

‘I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too – a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror…  It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them – these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I’m inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!

Probably critics would damn this and Buchan’s entire approach as Orientalist ie assuming Western superiority to a stereotype of the corrupt, lazy East. But it feels to me an accurate enough dramatisation of that mentality, of the mentality of the jolly rugger captain whose soul is captured by the simplicity and purity of bedouin life and becomes a devotee of Arab culture, from Sir Richard Burton to the TE Lawrence who was making a name for himself among the Arabs just as Greenmantle was published.

Related links

Cover of Greenmantle, 1916

Book cover of Greenmantle, 1916

The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Famous ripping yarn, the first novel to feature the dashing hero Richard Hannay, I’d forgotten it is set in the last months of peace before the outbreak of World War I, with Germany the enemy and the threat of war hanging over every sentence. Buchan wrote it in bed while suffering from the duodenal ulcer which was to plague him all his life. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.

Plot

Richard Hannay is 37 and bored. He’s back from South Africa where he made his pile as an engineer and has returned to the old country. His neighbour Franklin Scudder accosts him with a cock and bull story about some kind of conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Greek premier which intrigues Hannay enough to let him stay in his flat for safety but, returning a day later, he finds Scudder dead. Hannay takes his pocket book and escapes to King’s Cross and thence by train to the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, with a view of staying at liberty till he can return to London and warn the authorities.

This begins a long drawn-out chase and pursuit across Scotland countryside which sees Hannay sleeping rough, stealing cars, incongruously roped into giving election speeches, donning multiple disguises, getting captured by the baddies – who happen to have a Scottish base – and escaping by dynamiting his way out of his prison, before escaping back to London to warn the authorities and then leading them to the south coast resort which turns out to be the location of the thirty nine steps and foiling the enemies’ plans at the last moment.

The plot doesn’t bear too much examining. It’s not at all clear why he has to go to Scotland of all places to lie low. And it’s a whopping coincidence that the baddies happen to have their base in just the part of Scotland he decides to go hide in and that, in all the hundreds of square miles of heather to choose from, he happens to stumble straight into it.

And the initial mainspring of the plot – preventing the assassination of the Greek Prime Minister – which drives the flight to Scotland and all sorts of complications, not only fails but is casually cast aside (his assassination is mentioned in one throwaway line towards the end) to be replaced by a completely new thread: Now a member of the Black Stone gang impersonates the First Sea Lord in order to attend a high level meeting about Britain’s sea defences and it is only because Hannay happens by almighty coincidence to be sitting outside that very meeting, that he recognises the imposter as a member of the baddy gang (even though none of his erstwhile colleagues do!) which sets in motion the final chase to the villa on the south coast.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Hitchcock movie completely rewrites the plot, not least to lumber Hannay with an attractive female co-star for most of the film (no women at all in the original). In the movie the Thirty-Nine Steps is a secret organisation of spies dedicated to overthrowing Britain etc. In the novel they are the steps from a coastal holiday house down to the beach where, at high tide, 10.17pm, the German spy carrying plans of Britain’s war preparations will be picked up by boat and spirited off to the Fatherland. In the book the climax comes when Hannay captures the spies as they try to descend the steps; in the movie it comes in a crowded theatre in the West End.

The shilling shocker

Buchan is candid in his preface to friend about the genre he was writing in:

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. (Preface)

And the characters are well aware of the type of text they’re appearing in (just as Philip Marlowe feels he’s in a dime novel and Alistair MacLean’s characters refer to Hollywood dialogue and ham acting of the baddies they’re up against):

”The Black Stone,’ he repeated. ‘Der Schwarze Stein. It’s like a penny novelette. (Ch 7)

I wonder when this genre was named, when it became known: were Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels ‘shockers’ and ‘dime novels’ in 1888? [No. See Wikipedia link below.] And who created, who were the godfathers of the mythos of glamorous travel and adventure? [Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling.]

The novel includes an innkeeper with frustrated literary ambitions bemoaning his boring life and wishing he saw more of the world – a character which allows Buchan to situate the text relative to its forebears.

‘Nothing comes here but motor-cars full of fat women, who stop for lunch, and a fisherman or two in the spring, and the shooting tenants in August. There is not much material to be got out of that. I want to see life, to travel the world, and write things like Kipling and Conrad. But the most I’ve done yet is to get some verses printed in Chambers’s Journal.’  (Chapter 3)

By God!’ he whispered, drawing his breath in sharply, ‘it is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.’ (Ch 3)

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. (Ch 9)

Local colour

The novel is as interesting for the insights it gives into life at the time as for the ‘plot’: London, as so often, as at the start of the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, is portrayed negatively:

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. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. (Ch 1)

Anti-semitism The text contains some shockingly anti-semitic comments. They aren’t incidental but intrinsic to Buchan and Hannay’s ideology, the casualness with which they sum up and categorise nations, whether the Germans or Boers or, as here, Jews.

When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’ (Ch 1)

Casual racism which none of us would dream of today.

It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit. The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago. (Ch 4)

No sex please we’re British No women characters. The word ‘woman’ occurs just six times in the text: there’s a fat woman in the 3rd class railway carriage to Scotland, then a few women shopkeepers. This is emphatically a man’s world.

Style

As you can see Buchan’s prose style is perfect for the job, clear and crisp and unhesitating (compare and contrast the hesitancies and infelicities which mar almost all Alistair MacLean’s books).

Natural scenery It is easy to overlook but Buchan describes natural scenery with a quick practised eye which the setting of rural Scotland gives him plenty of opportunity to do.

If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. (Ch 7)

And since a good deal of the novel amounts to a prolonged chase across the Dumfries & Galloway region of Scotland, there is page after page of wonderful nature description.

Pukka His style is not only clear and lucid and swift. It is larded with the attitude and vocabulary of the upper-class public school chap of the day, revealed by the pukka, posh phraseology of almost every sentence.

It was about the beastliest moment of my life, for I’m no good at these cold-blooded resolutions. Still I managed to rake up the pluck to set my teeth and choke back the horrid doubts that flooded in on me. I simply shut off my mind and pretended I was doing an experiment as simple as Guy Fawkes fireworks. (Ch 6)

Nostalgia The combination of pukka phraseology and crisp confident description, often of a kind of rural idyll for which we 21st century city dwellers pine, along with his depiction of a simpler, more innocent world, drenches the novel with nostalgic appeal, over and above the supposed thriller elements.

I found a pretty cottage with a lawn running down to the stream, and a perfect jungle of guelder-rose and lilac flanking the path. (Ch 7)

I think it’s the clarity and evocativeness of these descriptions, along with the Antiques Roadshow innocence, which overcome our qualms about his racism and misogyny, and help conceal the wild coincidences of the plot. Above all it’s his flashing swift style which makes the books still so readable a century after their first publication.

The road led through a wood of great beeches and then into a shallow valley, with the green backs of downs peeping over the distant trees. After Scotland the air smelt heavy and flat, but infinitely sweet, for the limes and chestnuts and lilac bushes were domes of blossom. Presently I came to a bridge, below which a clear slow stream flowed between snowy beds of water-buttercups. A little above it was a mill; and the lasher made a pleasant cool sound in the scented dusk. (Ch 7)

Related links

Cover for the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Cover the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Dennis Hopper – The Last Album @ Royal Academy

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) made his first movie appearances opposite James Dean in two classic films, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956).  Dean encouraged the young Hopper to pursue his interest in photography, a passion crystallised when his wife bought him a camera in 1961.

Throughout the 1960s he documented his life and travels not only as a Hollywood actor among other stars such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, the gorgeous Paul Newman…

Dennis Hopper Paul Newman, 1964 Photograph, 16.64 x 25.02 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Paul Newman, 1964
Photograph, 16.64 x 25.02 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

…  but also, as an amateur artist himself, in touch with the Californian avant-garde, as well as the New York pop scene of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

Dennis Hopper Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963 Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963
Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

As a well-connected bohemian Hopper was in a position to  document (and take part in) some of the most interesting events of the 1960s, including the Civil Rights marches led by Dr Martin Luther King…

Dennis Hopper Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965 Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

… as well as the earliest hippy happenings and festivals, and the show features a number of photos of the pop groups who provided the soundtrack to the Summer of Love.

Dennis Hopper Untitled (Hippie Girl Dancing), 1967 Photograph, 34.29 x 23.37 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Untitled (Hippie Girl Dancing), 1967
Photograph, 34.29 x 23.37 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

Other subjects include: motor bikes and the Hell’s Angels (he was a keen biker himself), and shots of the poverty-stricken Mexico which attracted all bohemians for being so much the opposite of the rich, bourgeois US.

In 1969 all his interests came to a head when he co-wrote and directed the classic independent film Easy Rider, the story of a couple of long-haired bikers driving across some of America’s most spectacular desert scenery. It was as his writing & directing career took off that, by his own account, he put his camera down and never picked it up again.

Hopper scholars (there are scholars of everything and everyone nowadays) calculate he took some 18,000 photos during his active decade. Throughout the 1960s he exhibited photos along with art works at various small Californian galleries, but this exhibition is based on 400 or so pics he chose to display at a large show in the early 1970s which was intended as a definitive overview.

The photos

There are many really wonderful photographs here, well-framed and composed, capturing moments and people in that candid 1960s black-and-white way. The Hollywood stars look magnificent. The hippies look stoned. the pop bands look s oyoung. The bikers look hard. Mexico looks squalid. And many of the shots reek of that peculiarly American atmosphere of blighted urban locations, that urban rootlessness of freeways and billboards and motel signs and jaded women and raddled drunks at bars, Raymond Carver’s America.

Dennis Hopper Double Standard, 1961 Photograph, 17.45 x 24.87 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Double Standard, 1961
Photograph, 17.45 x 24.87 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

The lost 60s

But overall the show made me desperately sad. The idealism of 1966, when the Loving Spoonful and Jefferson Airplane provided the soundtrack to clean-cut college kids rallying to the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King’s crusade for freedom, seems as remote to our time as the Middle Ages. In the early 1970s the spirit of New American Cinema and various alternative types of rock or folk lived on in art and culture along with the dream of somehow changing the world, of liberating our minds, of creating a new society – but by the mid-70s had declined into cocaine abuse and heroin addiction, flares and mullets, exploitation movies like Carrie, the scandal of Nixon’s resignation, American defeat in Vietnam etc.

The election of Ronald Reagan in the States and Mrs Thatcher in the UK in 1979 signalled a new era, the cutting back of state-funded welfare, the unleashing of unbridled finance capitalism, and inaugurated thirty years of neo-liberal economics which have entrenched in place a super-well-paid executive class looking down on a poverty-stricken underclass, have crushed cultural and artistic experimentation – except to titillate the jaded palates of the international oligarchy with marinaded sharks and diamond-encrusted skulls – done little or nothing about racial prejudice, not lifted a finger about rampant environmental destruction and wasted a trillion dollars turning Iraq into the beacon of freedom and democracy we see today.

Dennis Hopper Leon Bing, 1966 Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm The Hopper Art Trust © Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. www.dennishopper.com

Dennis Hopper
Leon Bing, 1966
Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust. http://www.dennishopper.com

Almost everything Hopper and his free-spirited pals thought they stood for has been crushed and defeated and that, to me, is what these often beautiful and evocative photos say. The freedoms to explore and experiment, to live and think and talk and create differently, have vanished like morning dew.

The romanticisation of a black and white hobo lifestyle now looks like a movement with its tiny origins in the Beat ethos of the 1950s, which became a nationwide craze in the later 1960s, died a long slow lingering death through the dreary 1970s, and is now an object of awed wonder to us late-comers, to later generations who not only enjoy Hopper’s often magical photos, but marvel at the hope and optimism of him and his subjects.

You should go and see it.

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Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2014

The Royal Academy Summer exhibition is always a joy because there are so many exhibits (this year 1,262) and so many artists (200?) that you are not having to focus on some eminent artist’s life and career (eg Matisse or Malevich) but are liberated to stroll around and look at what you fancy in any order you fancy and to like or dislike whatever you fancy.

That said, this year’s selection seemed less interesting than the last few years’, maybe because I’m becoming familiar with the same old faces (or styles), maybe because contemporary art really is surprisingly limited in scope and invention. For me a couple of themes emerged:

Copies

At some period in the past (18th, 19th centuries?) Art was responsible for making iconic images. Admittedly, most people’s everyday lives were dominated, image-wise, by the kind of folk art shown in the current Tate Britain exhibition. But ‘high art’ routinely created great and iconic images which were copied, parodied, set the tone.

By contrast, many of the best images in this exhibition were copies of artefacts in the real world which owe their greatness to the original designers. Examples include the striking painting of a Lego figure by Belinda Jane Channer (£4,000), a painting of a raptor made striking by Jurassic Park, Martin Craig-Smith’s characteristic outlines of a violin, a spotlight, a takeaway coffee cup, David Mach’s pin sculpture of a Snow Leopard or playing card collage of a dollar bill – The paper it’s printed on – which both owe their power to the beauty of the object and which prompt only momentary impressment at the ingenuity of the media before you blink and forget them.

My point being that, an aspect of contemporary art is its overshadowedness by the dense jungle of images and artefacts we see, consume and interact with all day every day.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Pride of place in the entrance vestibule was given to Cake Man (above, centre), a life-size mannikin made of Dutch wax, African printed cotton, globe head, steel baseplate, leather, gold, polyester and plaster by Yinka Shonibare RA and costing £162,000

Clichés

I saw a lot of the same thing: Anthony Green’s cutout Beryl-Cook-like paintings of domestic settings, often with a naked lady, often with the artist’s comically intrusive eye present; Norman Ackroyd‘s wonderful watercolours of the Shetland scenery; a big black painting that reminded me of Rothko, lots of slant-eyed naive art that reminded me of Picasso, lots of nudes – always nude women – photos where contemporary people act out classical paintings, satirical versions of Edwardian children’s illustration except the figures are taking drugs or giving the viewer the finger, big splurge paintings, colourful ones incorporating stylished images or photos from pop culture, a cloak made from wine bottle labels, foot-tall statuettes of human-satyr figures with big penises, small prints of a robin and kingfisher etc.

Paula Rego, Prince Pig's Courtship  Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm © Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Paula Rego, Prince Pig’s Courtship
Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm
© Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

My overall impression was how very, very hard it is to establish a voice, to do something new, to  make yourself heard above the jungle hubbub of thousands and thousands of other artists all working old themes and ideas and styles and media.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Writing

In the surrealists and especially in Jasper Johns, when I discovered him at school, I was immensely excited at the use of text in paintings, random phrases from packing boxes or flags etc seemed to me to lift painting out of its classical limitations and make its interaction with the actual world I live in seem limitless. However, even this has become dull. Incorporating text in an artwork has gone from explosively subversive to stiflingly, Victorianly preachy.

Thus works which told us ‘We work in the dark’, ‘Waste not the remains o the day’, all schools should be art schools’, ‘More poetry is needed’, ‘A splash of red paint is needed’, along with two big whiteboards onto which were painted, respectively, a radio 4 interview by Eddie Mair with David Nott, a doctor who served in Bosnia (on the left in the first photo, above) (price £100,000), and an open letter to Michael Gove pleading for more art education in schools (on the right in the photo below) by Bob and Roberta Smith (£36,000). What seemed to me ‘subversive’ and exciting in the 1970s has become a series of committee meeting memos and action points.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Architecture

There’s always an architecture room which I think of as the Room of Shame. In my humble opinion architecture has completely failed the people of Britain, creating inhuman and soul-destroying blocks of flats and windswept shopping precincts the length and breadth of the land, like the horrible town centres I recently visited of Ashford and King’s Lynn. This room always strikes me as darkly satirical because it is full of fantastical science-fiction fantasies of outlandish buildings, a handful of which will be built by international superstar architects like Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, while each year hundreds of thousands of little brick boxes are created in soul-less estates and plastic cul de sacs in the Thames Gateway or outside ruined horrible cities.

It is for this reason that I very much liked the big (5 foot square?) photo by Jooney Woodward of Rhoose Point, a new estate on the Welsh coast, a characterless alien set of plain suburban brick houses plonked down next to the coast with no thought for context or setting, with one desolated-looking kid walking through its dead drives. That is the architecture which is created year in, year out to make Britain the dull and boring country it is.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

In this room I quite like the hoopy metal sculptures. a hanging sculpture of numerous profiles of human faces which you can’t make out against the wood doorframe, and the two photographs to the right of the central door, which are views of the same rural scene in spring and winter. But too much of the rest seemed undistinguished and samey.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Funny

Two pieces made me laugh out loud: Martin Creed’s work number 398 which is a shaped fluorescent tube. As far as I know American minimalists were displaying fluorescent tubes in the 1960s, so this is an antique idea, but he had shaped it to read ASSHOLES and the bluntness and simplicity made me laugh. And in the same room was a microphone with a hairbrush instead of a microphone. A quick simple chuckle but hardly going to set the world on fire.

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist's proofs), 2006  Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm  Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist’s proofs), 2006
Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm
Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

What I liked

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Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian art @ Tate Modern

This is the first major retrospective of Malevich’s art in thirty years, and the first one ever in the UK. It brings together over 100 works from collections in his native Russia and all across Europe and the US and gives a really comprehensive sense of his artistic achievement and development, allowing a good assessment of his place in 20th century art. The story is relatively straightforward in outline:

  1. Kazimir Malevich (pronounced with a hard ‘a’ as in hay) was born in 1879 in Kiev. By the turn of the century he was painting realistic portraits of his family, of Russian landscapes, agricultural workers and religious scenes, when…
  2. He gains access to rich Russians’ collections of contemporary French artists and immediately experiments with everything he sees, Gauguin’s primitivism, Seurat’s pointillism, Matisse’s colouring, Moreau’s symbolism, Picasso’s cubism.
  3. Just before the First World War he has taken all these ingredients and, along with other avant-garde Russian artists creates cubo-futurism – the style of French cubism and Italian Futurism applied to Russian life, especially peasant life.
  4. In 1913 he collaborates on an avant-garde opera called The Victory Over The Sun in which strange beings destroy the sun in order to create a new realm beyond space and time: his designs for the opera still survive and the exhibition features a film of a staged performance in American in the 1980s. His works become more and more abstract, until…
  5. His Great Breakthrough: in 1915 he paints his famous Black Square, the final end of 500 years of naturalist, of figurative painting; Year Zero; the advent of complete abstraction. The painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work. It is a talisman which art historians like to imagine hanging over the 20th century like a challenging enigma, like a huge question mark…
  6. One room of the show recreates as far as possible the precise hanging of a famous avant-garde exhibition held in 1915 and titled The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10
  7. Beyond the Black Square he spends a few years developing the style he called Suprematism (named because he modestly thinks it is the perfection of the new art). Coloured abstract shapes float on a cream background, with no sense of perspective, no shading, no relation to anything. Not unlike Kandinsky’s experiments with shape and colour at the same time…
  8. After the Bolshevik revolution and in the optimistic years which follow Malevich paints paintings where painting itself disappears, dissolves, his abstract shapes become whiter and fade out until he abandons painting altogether and creates futuristic plaster models of ideal buildings which he calls architectons, with names like Gota, Alpha, Zeta…
  9. In the 1920s he takes up a teaching post at Vitebsk and a large room is dedicated to the teaching charts, pamphlets and paraphernalia of himself and colleagues and students as they tried to apply the principles of abstract art to the new Soviet society.
  10. By the end of the 1920s Stalin is securely in control of all aspects of Soviet society, has launched the first Five Year Plan which will involved forced collectivisation of farms, famine and starvation across great swathes of Russia and the Ukraine, plus the creation of the Gulags to hold the hundreds of thousands and then millions of criminals, saboteurs etc who the Security Forces are encouraged to arrest. It is during this period that Malevich makes his Return to Painting and his controversial Return to Painting. the man who heralded the End of Figurative Painting begins to paint lots of figurative paintings, predominantly of peasants, but peasants transformed by Suprematism into eerie faceless mannekins.
  11. The works from the final five years, from his arrest in 1930 (and release a few months later) to his death in 1935 remain controversial. Some elements – like the realistic faces of portraits of himself, his wife, his father and others – seem a capitulation to the strictures of Socalist Realism ie the communist Party’s demand for art the masses could understand. But many other paintings, especially the unnervingly half-abstract ones of peasant workers, have an eerie surrealist quality. They aren’t as distinctive as the suprematist works which ensure his reputation, but there are still powerful and haunting things here in his final works.

In this early self-portrait he has depicted the artist as stern hero, the non-naturalistic colouring of the jacket and especially the green shadow on the face taken from Matisse; the semi-abstract female nudes in the background from Gauguin.

From this period I also liked:

Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait 1908-1910 State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait 1908-1910, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Faster and faster he assmiliates all the French avant-garde styles, for example:

  • An Englishman in Moscow, with its slightly surreal cubism
  • The Mower with its conversion of the human form into shiny geometric shapes as if becoming a robot, in line with the movement of Cubo-Futurism, with its co-option of Marinetti’s futurist fantasy of people turning into machines!
  • Peasant Woman with Buckets, a type of primitivism which was to become much more common later in the century
  • Taking the harvest (1912)

All hurtling towards – the famous Black Square. (After selling the original breakthrough Black Square, Malevich had to make several more in order to be able to exhibit them.)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1929 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

And after the square comes a flood of Suprematist works:

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all. They are flat, as flat as the painting’s surface, and empty of meaning.

Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 1916, Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 1916, Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum

After several years and scores of colourful Suprematist abstracts, following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 Malevich begins to pain paintings in which painting itself dissolves.

 

And during the same period he produces a number of architectons, hints at a new socialist architecture.

And then there is the final period, the return to figurative painting, some with realistic faces, but many of haunting faceless mannikins. In one way a return to the sketches he made for his avant-garde opera in 1913, in others they tie in with the weird mannikin figures being produced by other artists in the 30s like Salvador Dali or de Chririco.

Kazimir Malevich, Woman with Rake 1930-32, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Kazimir Malevich, Woman with Rake 1930-32, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

But there is a matching set of paintings with similarly flat abstract clothing but hyper-realist Socialist Realism faces: are they a capitulation or a strange hybrid of abstraction and kitschy totalitarian art?

Right to the end his art is distinctive and hard. It is not a sympathetic art. In all its forms it demands a certain intellectual approach. It is not art to relax to.

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