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

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1 Comment

  1. I’m afraid I don’t agree with you about Buchan’s views in this book (The Island of Sheep). To be sure, his age had its problems – but when you examine our era, it seems to me we have even more. At least Buchan tried to examine what it meant to be on the ‘right’ side. Up until the 1960s there were many ‘Sandy Arbuthnots’ about (I married one!) and despite their shortcomings they could teach the present generation a thing or two about loyalty and duty.

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