Culture

Imperial fiction: Dickson McCunn & Co.

‘I never met his equal for whinstone common sense. You’ve only to look at him to see that what he thinks about forty million others think also. He is the incarnate British spirit.’
– John Buchan, Castle Gay (1930)

‘The democracies have lost confidence. So long as they believed in themselves they could make shift with constitutions and parliaments and dull republics. But once let them lose confidence, and they are like children in the dark, reaching out for the grasp of a strong hand. That way lies the dictator.’
– John Buchan, The House of the Four Winds (1935)Castle Gay 2

We first met retired Glaswegian grocer Dickson McCunn in Huntingtower (1922), one of John Buchan’s very best novels, which I’ve written about elsewhere. On that occasion – as he rescued a beautiful, exiled Russian princess from the clutches of international crooks – he was assisted by a gang of street urchins known as the Gorbals Die-Hards, ‘a kind of unauthorised and unofficial Boy Scouts’. And in Castle Gay (1930), we’re reunited both with McCunn and, more closely, with a couple of his Die-Hards, now six years older and making their way in the world.

The gang has grown up and dispersed but, thanks largely to the patronage of McCunn, the individual boys are doing alright for themselves. One has a farm in Australia, one works in a Montreal bank, one is just about to qualify as a doctor, and another is soon to be ordained as a minister.

The pair whose fortunes we follow (‘the two of them that I feel are like our own bairns,’ as McCunn says to Mrs McCunn) are also succeeding. Dougal Crombie – the ‘red-haired savage’ who was the group’s leader – is now a journalist, though he despises the newspapers for which he writes:

‘They pander to everything that’s shoddy and slushy and third-rate in human nature. Their politics are an opiate to prevent folk thinking. Their endless stunts, their competitions and insurances and country-holiday schemes – that’s the ordinary dodge to get up their circulation, so as to raise their advertisement prices.’

Dougal is planning to stand for Parliament as a Labour candidate, though he has even less time for some of his political colleagues than he does for the press: ‘I have no use for the intellectual on the make, for there’s nothing in him but vanity.’ His real concern is with the future of Scotland:

‘Here am I driving myself mad with the sight of my native land running down the brae – the cities filling up with Irish, the countryside losing its folk, our law and our letters and our language as decrepit as an old wife. Damn it, man, in another half-century there will be nothing left, and we’ll be a mere disconsidered province of England.’

If the SNP had then existed (it was launched four years after the novel was published), it would perhaps have been a more obvious political home for him.

Meanwhile, Jaikie Galt (formerly Wee Jaikie) was always Dickson’s favourite, and has been ‘virtually adopted’ by the grocer. ‘The boy had speedily become at home in his new environment, and with effortless ease had accepted and adapted himself to the successive new worlds which opened to him.’ Now he’s coming to the end of his time at Cambridge, and has already represented Scotland at rugby. He’s a less intense young man than Dougal, with a larger capacity for congeniality. ‘I like so much that I haven’t a great deal of time for hating,’ he says. ‘I’m not a crusader like you, Dougal.’

Both are adventurous, outdoor types who relish a spot of derring-do, and, as we join them, they are about to embark on a walking holiday in the Lowlands. At which point – this being John Buchan – they find themselves plunged into a preposterous and far-fetched plot with plenty of derring to be done.Castle Gay 1

The story is about various exiles from Evallonia, a country somewhere in east-central Europe (the debt to Anthony Hope’s Ruritarian romance The Prisoner of Zenda is unmistakeable). Evallonia became a republic in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, but there are deep divisions in the nation: one faction looks towards the Soviet Union for inspiration, while another would like to see the return of the monarchy, ‘at present represented by an attractive young Prince’. The latter are encouraged in their aspirations by a British newspaper proprietor, the splendidly named Thomas Carlyle Craw, who has consequently become – at a distance – a big player in Evallonian politics. He also has a house in precisely the part of Scotland that Dougal and Jaikie are visiting. Which is why the district is suddenly full of rival Evallonian groupings, both communist and monarchist.


Actually, all this stuff is a bit silly and not really worth worrying about, save that it gives Dickson McCunn – who has a streak of romanticism a mile wide – a chance to imagine that, by helping the young prince, he has been transported back to the old, Jacobite days. The scene in which he assists the escape of the Evallonian pretender, who is in fancy dress as Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, is delightful:

As the Prince unbuttoned his ulster to get at his cigarettes, Dickson saw the flutter of tartan, the gleam of silver, the corner of a blue riband. In that moment his spirit was enlarged. At last – at long last – his dream had come true. He was not pondering romance, he was living it.

McCunn’s contribution to the plot, though critical, is small. The real focus is elsewhere, with Dougal and Jaikie. Also dragged into the action is Alison Westwater, daughter of Lord Rhynns, a very Buchan kind of gal, with her ‘slanginess and tom-boyishness’. Jaikie approves very much, reflecting that ‘a jumper and a short tweed skirt made a girl look so much more feminine than flowing draperies’. The two don’t quite become one, but we’re left in no doubt that that they will do so, in the fulness of time.

The strongest element, though, comes with Thomas Carlyle Craw, whose backstory is fleshed out in fine fashion. The son of a Presbyterian schoolmaster, he started out in newspapers as a columnist before launching his own journal, the Centre-Forward:

Thomas was an adroit editor. He invented ingenious competitions, and offered prizes of a magnitude hitherto unknown in British journalism. He discovered three new poets – poetry was for the moment in fashion – and two new and now completely forgotten humourists.

He then branched out into other titles: The Country-Dweller, Mother England, the View and – particularly profitable – a children’s halfpenny paper. Politically, he hedged his bets domestically (‘He supported, and mildly criticised, whatever Government was in power’), and was anti-communist internationally:

He was furiously against any recognition of Russia, but he demanded that judgement on the Fascist régime in Italy should be held in abeyance, and that the world should wait respectfully on the results of that bold experiment.

And in a prefiguring of Howard Hughes, he does everything he can to remain out of the limelight, becoming a virtual recluse:

In the palatial offices which he built in the neighbourhood of Fleet Street he had a modest flat, where he occasionally passed a night behind a barbed-wire entanglement of secretaries. But for the rest he had no known abode … he guarded his seclusion with a vestal jealousy. He had accumulated a personal staff of highly paid watch-dogs, whose business was not only the direction of the gigantic Craw Press but the guardianship of the shrine consecrated to its master.

Now fifty-eight years old, he owns a string of titles, including the newspaper for which Dougal writes, much to Dougal’s disgust:

‘There’s no bigger humbug walking on God’s earth to-day than Thomas Carlyle Craw. I take his wages, because I give good value for them. I can make up a paper with any man, and I’ve a knack of descriptive writing. But thank God! I’ve nothing to do with his shoddy politics.’

Dougal’s never met his employer, but – this being Buchan – you won’t need me to tell you that they’re thrown together by improbable chance. Dougal becomes responsible for Craw’s safety as they’re dragged into the Evallonian squabbles, and eventually the two men reach an understanding. Better yet, Craw’s voyage of self-discovery leads him to love, in the shape of Alison Westwater’s widowed aunt, a woman of sound cultural taste:gorbals (Scotsman 17-07-1930)

She had never heard of Marcel Proust, but she could have passed a stiff examination in Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Walter Scott. Morris and Burne-Jones had once enchained her youthful fancy; she could repeat a good deal of the more decorous parts of Swinburne; she found little merit in recent painting, except in one or two of Sargent’s portraits. Her only musician was Beethoven, but she was a learned connoisseur of Scottish airs.


It’s a good action-filled romp and, if it’s not one of Buchan’s strongest novels, it’s still never less than entertaining. ‘Col. Buchan spins just the sort of yarn we have come to expect from him,’ read one review. ‘Castle Gay comes at just the right time, before we go on holiday. A little later and we might be demanding something more solid in the way of literary fare.’

Most of the best lines come from Jaikie. At one point Craw tries to explain his philosophy of life to the young man:

‘If we live by reason only we must often take a dark view of the world and lose hope. But the irrational instinct is always hopeful, for it is the instinct to live. You must have observed the astonishing cheerfulness of the plain man, when the intellectual despairs. It was so in the War. Optimism is not a pre-condition of thought, but it is a pre-condition of life.’

Jaikie, who is the very embodiment of optimism, is unconvinced by this, coming as it does from a wealthy and powerful man who’s had an easy life. ‘To declare oneself an optimist, without having been down into the pit and come out on the other side,’ he concludes, ‘looks rather like bragging.’

Elsewhere, Jaikie articulates Buchan’s distrust of the political ideologies espoused by those unlucky enough to have not been born British:

‘When a foreigner gets a notion into his head he’s apt to turn into a demented crusader. They’re all the same – Socialists, Communists, Fascists, Republicans, Monarchists – I daresay Monarchists are the worst, for they’ve less inside their heads to begin with.’

This is the serious point behind the high jinks in the Lowlands. Back then, in the dawn of the Great Depression, it was hard not to be concerned by political developments in Europe since the Armistice, by the rise of dictators from both Left and Right. And Buchan responds by advocating British decency and common sense. In Huntingtower, this was explicit; here it’s treated in a more lightweight manner, but Dickson McCunn, the everyman who – as Jaikie says elsewhere – has ‘the heart of a boy and the head of an old serpent’, is still the standard-bearer. If he is less central here than in Huntingtower, he remains the repository of wisdom: ‘Those who set out to lead the mob,’ he suggests, ‘are apt to end by following.’Four Winds 2


‘Mr Buchan sketches Scottish character, Scottish country-house life, and the charms of a Scottish countryside with the now familiar delightful sympathy and humour,’ noted The Scotsman in its review of Castle Gay, and it’s an important point. The first two McCunn novels are firmly rooted in Buchan’s homeland, much more so than any of his other fiction with a contemporary setting. Which makes The House of the Four Winds (1935) – the final volume in the McCunn trilogy – a slightly strange development.

Many of the same characters are back, but this time they’re spending a summer in central Europe for a variety of reasons. Dickson McCunn has had a health scare, and is packed off to Switzerland to be examined by a consultant. ‘You never heard his name, of course,’ his doctor explains, ‘but he is a therapeutic genius of the first order.’ Indeed, he’s ‘the greatest diagnoser in the world’. Of course he is. Buchan doesn’t like to deal with anyone but the exceptional, and if they are unknown to the general public, doing their work quietly and diligently, then so much the better.

Meanwhile, Dougal – who is ‘now a force, almost the force, in the Craw Press … a power behind the throne, and the more potent because few suspected his presence’ – has come to look into the current situation in Evallonia. His friend Jaikie, ‘the most famous three-quarter back in Britain’, is on a European walking tour, as he tries to work out what path his life should take. And Alison Westwater, the object of Jaikie’s adoration, has been summoned by her parents to Austria, where her father has broken his leg and needs company. None of these is aware of the others’ presence in the region, though inevitably they all find each other.

Also pitching up is Sir Archibald Roylance – commonly known as Archie – who is a familiar figure in the Buchan universe: he’d already appeared in Huntingtower, in the Richard Hannay story The Three Hostages (1924), and in the Edward Leithen yarn, John Macnab (1925). ‘Sir Archie is the most imperishable thing God ever created,’ as one character observes. He was seriously wounded in the war, and has recently become a Conservative MP, in which capacity he has ‘already made a modest mark. He spoke infrequently and always on matters which he knew something about – the air, agriculture, foreign affairs – and his concise and well-informed speeches were welcomed amid the common verbiage of debate’. He’s been sent to Geneva for ‘the usual Disarmament Conference’.

And finally on the British side, there’s a splendidly promising new character, Randal Glynde, ‘a cross between a bandit and a bard’, who writes poetry in mediaeval Latin (‘It is the best tongue for a vagabond,’ he shrugs), and ‘has been everything in his time from cow-puncher to film star, not to mention diplomat, and various sorts of soldier’. He’s Alison’s cousin, and Jaikie meets him at a party in London, where his first impression is that ‘his eyes were the most intelligent that he had ever seen, eyes which took in everything, and saw very deep, and had a mind behind them that did not forget’.Four Winds 1

The next time we encounter Glynde, he’s wearing ‘an old tunic of horizon-blue from which most of the buttons had gone, a scarlet cummerbund, and flapping cotton trousers which had once been white’, and he’s riding an elephant through the towns and villages of central Europe, as the proprietor of a circus. In this guise, he passes the first-floor room of an inn occupied by Jaikie, a coincidence dismissed with Buchan’s usual nonchalance: ‘Had this been an episode in a novel,’ observes Glynde, ‘it would have been condemned for its manifest improbability.’


All of these eventually make their way to Evallonia, which remains politically unstable. The republicans are still in control, but the monarchists are gaining in strength. Meanwhile, a new element has emerged, a movement named Juventus which is typical of that ‘uprising of youth’ seen elsewhere in Europe:

‘It does not know what it seeks. It did not know the hardships of war. But it demands of life some hope and horizon, and it is determined to have the ordering of things in its hands. It is conscious of its ignorance and lack of discipline, so it seeks to inform and discipline itself, and therein lies its danger.’

The members of Juventus wear green shirts (‘It’s funny what a big part fancy haberdashery plays in the world to-day,’ muses Archie), and there’s a danger that, if they can’t be drawn into the monarchist camp, they might turn to fascism.

The real power in the movement, ‘the soul of Juventus’, is Countess Araminta Troyos, who dresses in scarlet and is nicknamed the Blood-Red Rook. She has ‘ambition enough for half a dozen Mussolinis,’ but she’s not looking to become queen herself:

‘She’s old-fashioned in some ways, and doesn’t believe much in her own sex. Good sane anti-feminist. She wants a man on the throne of Evallonia, but she’s going to make jolly well sure that it’s she who puts him there.’

Jaikie first hears of her from Alison, who paints ‘her in colours which suggested a cross between a vampire and a were-wolf. Wild, exotic, melodramatic and reckless – that had been the impression left on his mind. And women were good judges of each other.’

Then there are the others. Most of the Evallonians from Castle Gay are back, including the prince, as well as some new ones, most notably Count Paul Jovian, who Jaikie knows from Cambridge, where he had not (initially, at least) been popular: ‘he was so noisy and strange and flamboyant’. And then there’s…

‘As a matter of fact, the dramatis personae is far too long,’ noted one reviewer, and they were probably right. In a novel of just 85,000 words, it’s all a bit crowded. The plot, too, is unnecessarily convoluted and – with Dickson McCunn brought in as a lookalike for the prince’s uncle – is such a shameless steal of The Prisoner of Zenda that the estate of the recently deceased Anthony Hope would have been entitled to ask questions.

‘Not even the warmest admirers of Mr Buchan’s work claim that his recent novels have been up to the standard of his earlier,’ admitted another reviewer; ‘they have shown lack of care and time and even suggested a failing in the power of invention. But here is proof that the last at least is not true, and that he still has the old magic at his command when he likes to use it.’

As in Castle Gay, the tone is light. ‘There was a puzzle to solve, where wits and enterprise could come into play’ reflects Jaikie, ‘but the atmosphere was opéra-bouffe, or at the best comedy.’ He’s a little disappointed in this, and in fact, he’s not keen on Evallonia at all: ‘It was too hot for him, too scented and airless.’ But then things turn nasty and he’s in his element again, doing some derring.

artwork-mccunn


In retrospect, it’s hard not to see in Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds the story of Jaikie preparing himself for conflicts yet to come. ‘When I was a small boy I was rather a hardy citizen,’ he reflects.

‘Then Mr McCunn civilised me, which I badly needed. But I didn’t want it to soften me. We are living in a roughish world today, and it is going to get rougher, and I don’t want to think that there is any experience to which I can’t face up. I’ve been trying to keep myself tough.’

To this end, he’s already been on a series of adventures: trading old rifles for walrus ivory on Baffin Island, twice serving as ‘a deck hand on a Grimsby trawler – first to Bear Island and then to the Whales’ Back,’ and walking ‘from Cambridge to Oxford within a day and a night’. (Google Maps calculates this latter would take 25 hours, and even Jaikie felt the effects: ‘I was lame for a fortnight and couldn’t play in the Welsh match.’) As Alison tells him: ‘It looks as if you were as neurotic as a Bloomsbury intellectual, though in a different way.’

But he’s not neurotic. He’s just aware that the time is coming when Britain will have to stand up to aggression, and he will be needed. When the war with Germany finally comes – when the roughish world gets rougher – he’s going to be nearing thirty, and, ‘already a force for mischief in Europe’, he’ll be ready to play his part.

And, happily, he’ll have Alison to give him strength. Because in The House of the Four Winds they pledge their love to each other. Although he ‘knew less about women than he knew about the physics of hyperspace,’ he still knows enough to recognize that Alison is perfect for him. Indeed, no Buchan hero could resist a woman who, when offered a cigarette, refuses in such wonderful style. ‘I don’t smoke,’ she says. ‘If I did it would be a pipe, I’m so sick of the cigarette-puffing hussy.’


see also:

artwork-imperial-sands
The Riddle of the Sands
artwork-imperial-four-feathers
The Four Feathers

 

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