A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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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.

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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.

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Cover of Greenmantle, 1916

Book cover of Greenmantle, 1916

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