‘I learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’
John Buchan, Huntingtower (1922)
Huntingtower has the true John Buchan flavour … healthy and pleasurable excitement.
Daily Telegraph (1922)
I think Huntingtower may well be the best of John Buchan’s thrillers. And since Buchan is my favourite thriller-writer of all, that means it occupies a special place in my heart.
It’s not just the story, though it does have all the proper ingredients. A beautiful Russian princess – driven into exile by the Bolsheviks – has been kidnapped by a gang of international crooks hot on the trail of her family jewels; she is imprisoned in a remote Scottish mansion, from where she has to be rescued by an odd assortment of amateur heroes. There are raiding parties from the sea, pursuits by train and bicycle, clever stratagems to outwit the villains, and outrageous odds to be overcome.
All this is as it should be, but there’s more going on here as well. This is Buchan’s first contemporary novel in the aftermath of the twin shocks of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, and he has a serious point to make about traditional British values in a time of uncertainty.
Dickson McCunn is fifty-five, a retired grocer and a Kirk elder in Glasgow. As a boy he went to work in his uncle’s shop and slowly built up a small chain of three outlets, which he’s just sold when we first meet him. A solid, responsible citizen, he has lived ‘a humdrum life,’ we’re told; ‘his feet had never strayed a yard from his sober rut.’ His mind, however, does stray, into the arms of literature: the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, the stories of Scott, Dickens and Stevenson. Because underneath the conventional exterior, there’s romance in his soul.
At a loose end, having sold the shops, and with his wife away at a spa, he decides on the spur of the moment to celebrate his new-found freedom from responsibility by going on a walking holiday into Ayrshire. He’s never done anything so impulsive before, and in his head, he’s an adventurer, even if that’s not apparent to anyone else:
He stood on his doorstep, a stocky figure in ancient tweeds, with a bulging pack slung on his arm, and a stout hazel stick in his hand. A passer-by would have remarked an elderly shopkeeper bent apparently on a day in the country, a common little man on a prosaic errand. But the passer-by would have been wrong, for he could not see into the heart. The plump citizen was the eternal pilgrim; he was Jason, Ulysses, Eric the Red, Albuquerque, Cortez – starting out to discover new worlds.
And, of course, he does soon enough find himself entangled in a romantic adventure of his own, saving a fairytale princess…
Dickson isn’t the standard Buchan hero. He didn’t go to a decent school; he’s never spent any time either in the colonies or in uniform; he’s getting on, he’s out of shape, and he lives in a semi-detached suburban home, not a country house. He’s Buchan’s closest thing to an Everyman figure, and he’s all the more believable for it.
Also unusual is the fact that he isn’t called upon to undertake absurd feats of physical endurance. Indeed, most of the action is farmed out to a fine collection of companions. These span the classes, as though Buchan is trying to fit the whole of society into his fictional force for good.
At one end of the spectrum, there are the Gorbals Die-Hards, a gang of street kids from Glasgow who make the Baker Street Irregulars look like prep-school prefects. These are children like Thomas Yownie, ‘whom no parent acknowledged, who slept usually in a coal cellar, and who had picked up his education among Gorbals closes and among the wharves of Clyde’. But despite all their disadvantages, they’re made of good stuff:
Not one of them has had anything that might be called a chance. Their few years have been spent in kennels and closes, always hungry and hunted, with none to care for them; their childish ears have been habituated to every coarseness, their small minds filled with the desperate shifts of living … And yet, what a heavenly spark was in them!
And at the other end of the scale, there’s local landowner Sir Archibald Roylance, who’s a more familiar character: ‘Two years infantry – 5th Battalion Lennox Highlanders, and then Flying Corps,’ he says of his war record. ‘Top-hole time I had too till the day before the Armistice, when my luck gave out and I took a nasty toss. Consequently I’m not as fast on my legs now as I’d like to be.’
Though he doesn’t mention it here, Roylance had served under Richard Hannay, hero of the more famous The Thirty-Nine Steps – for Buchan’s world is a strangely intertwined one that is largely ruled by coincidence. Roylance was ‘a light-hearted youth,’ according to Hannay, a ‘casual class of lad’. Now he leaps at the chance of an adventure: ‘Gad, here have I been vegetatin’ and thinkin’ that all excitement had gone out of life with the war, and sometimes even regrettin’ that the beastly old thing was over,’ he exclaims.
And then – best of all – Dickson meets John Heritage, drinking alone in a country pub and absorbed in a book. ‘A glance convinced Dickson that the work was French, a literature which did not interest him. He knew little of the tongue and suspected it of impropriety.’ Nonetheless, he gets talking to the younger man.
Heritage, it turns out, also served in the war, though, unlike Roylance, he loathed the experience: ‘Four blasted years. And I never want to hear the name of the beastly thing again.’ The fact that he didn’t embrace the excitement and camaraderie doesn’t make him a bad man, of course, but it does – we are expected to infer – suggest a disordered set of values. You can see this too in the fact that he’s a modernist, revelling in the new age; this is him assessing the impact of the war:
‘It has burst up all the old conventions, and we’ve got to finish the destruction before we can build. It is the same with literature and religion, and society and politics. At them with the axe, say I. I have no use for priests and pedants. There’s only one class that matters, the plain man, the workers, who live close to life.’
Maybe he should be in Russia with the Bolsheviks, suggests Dickson, and Heritage doesn’t disagree:
‘They are doing a great work in their own fashion. We needn’t imitate all their methods – they’re a trifle crude and have too many Jews among them – but they’ve got hold of the right end of the stick. They seek truth and reality.’
Just in case there’s any doubt that he’s a thoroughly confused young man, we also learn that Heritage is a poet, with a slim volume titled Whorls to his name (he wanted to call it Drains, but even publishers of slim volumes have some standards). So what kind of poems does he write? ‘They were largely compounded of oaths, and rather horrible, lingering lovingly over sights and smells which everyone is aware of, but most people contrived to forget,’ was Dickson’s conclusion. ‘The trick seemed to be to describe nature in metaphors mostly drawn from music halls and haberdashers’ shops.’
He is, in short, the anti-Dickson, someone for whom romance is an outdated, meaningless fantasy. Or, at least, so he tells himself and anyone else who he can buttonhole. But Dickson, who was born into the working class, spots the flaw in the thinking of this Harrow- and Cambridge-educated intellectual, and puts his finger on the romantic delusions to which Heritage clings:
‘You idealise the working-man, you and your kind, because you’re ignorant. You say that he’s seeking for truth, when he’s only looking for a drink and a rise in wages. You tell me he’s near reality, but I tell you that his notion of reality is often just a short working day and looking on at a footba’-match on Saturday.’
The twin themes of war and communism run right through the novel. Unsurprisingly, the Bolsheviks don’t get a good press.
‘Lenin may be a good man,’ reflects Saskia, the kidnapped Russian princess; ‘I do not think so, but I do not know – but if he were an archangel he could not alter things. Russia is mortally sick and therefore all evil is unchained, and the criminals have no one to check them.’ If we don’t recognize this, that’s because we’re deluded about the true nature of the forces unleashed by the revolution:
‘You good people in England think they are well-meaning dreamers who are forced into violence by the persecution of Western Europe. But you are wrong. Some honest fools there are among them, but the power – the true power – lies with madmen and degenerates, and they have for allies the special devil that dwells in each country.’
In slightly less preachy fashion, the Gorbals Die-Hards provide a parodic commentary on left-wing politics; one of the members, Wee Jaikie, once went to a socialist Sunday school and learnt some marching songs that they enjoy singing:
Class-conscious we are, and class-conscious wull be
Till our fit’s on the neck o’ the Boorjoyzee.
Asked about the meaning of the last word, the Die-Hards’ leader, Dougal, can offer only: ‘I don’t ken. Jaikie thought it was some kind of a draigon.’
And, just as Buchan makes ironic references to Dickson as Ulysses, so the Die-Hards are depicted in terms that evoke the war, so that, for example, the battle tactics of Dougal are compared to those of General Gouraud, and those of Thomas Yownie to General Ludendorff and Marshal Foch. (Actually, this is a slightly odd element in the book: there’s no shortage of heroism on display from the Die-Hards, but comparisons with the Western Front can’t help but feel as though it’s diminishing the scale of the trenches.)
So anyway, the forces of good emerge victorious, and the characters learn something about themselves and their world. The Die-Hards have demonstrated that they are the equal of any man (Dougal’s assumption of command over Archie Roylance is particularly joyous), and John Heritage realizes that his modernism was misguided:
A week ago he was a cynical, clear-sighted modern, a contemner of illusions, a swallower of formulas, a breaker of shams – one who had seen through the heroical and found it silly. Romance and such-like toys were playthings for fatted middle-age, not for strenuous and cold-eyed youth. But the truth was that now he was altogether spellbound by these toys.
He even comes to an understanding that Tennyson wrote truthfully.
Most importantly, Dickson McCunn has discovered a great truth about himself. He had been reluctant to get involved, reckoning that a battle with murderous crooks was more than he could handle; but when he’s forced into action, he comes through with flying colours.
He had always been defensive of ‘the middle-classes that do three-quarters of the world’s work and keep the machine going and the working man in a job’, and he’s clearly their representative here. By the end of the story, the others recognize him as the man of the hour, even if they can’t quite work out this very peculiar and very British knight errant. ‘He is the petit bourgeois, the épicier, the class which the world ridicules,’ says Saskia, adding that there is no equivalent in her own country. And her Russian lover, Alexis can only agree:
‘He is what we call the middle-class, which we who were foolish used to laugh at. But he is the stuff which above all others makes a great people. He will endure when aristocracies crack and proletariats crumble. In our own land we have never known him, but till we create him our land will not be a nation.’
And that, ultimately, is what makes Huntingtower such a very good book. Behind the adventure is Buchan’s passionate defence of the character of the British nation: slow to action but resolute once stirred; polite to a fault till pushed too far; solid and serious enough to recognize the need for romance. It’s not an original analysis, but it’s beautifully expressed here and it’s these shared traits that unite our motley group of heroes.
Huntingtower was filmed by George Pearson in 1927, with Harry Lauder, a movie that regrettably I haven’t seen. There were also television adaptations in 1957 and 1978. Dickson McCunn returned in two further novels, Castle Gay (1930) and The House of Four Winds (1935), which are perfectly fine books. But unlike some of Buchan’s heroes – Richard Hannay, Edward Leithen – McCunn is at his best at the beginning. The later outings are straightforward adventure tales; Huntingtower is bigger and better than that.