Buchan, John: John Macnab, and Greig, Andrew: The Return of John McNab

The books for discussion were “John Macnab” by John Buchan (1925) and “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig (1996).

Introducing “John Macnab” the proposer said that Buchan (1875-1940) had a long, varied and distinguished career. He would pick out some salient points, in particular to challenge the popular view that Buchan was:

–    a traditional Tory Imperialist;

–    casually racist as was typical of his times;

–   and the author most notably to be remembered for “The Thirty-Nine Steps”.

Buchan was born in Perth and raised in Kirkcaldy, but his heart lay in the Scottish Borders where he spent his summer holidays in Broughton with his grandparents. An uncle and aunt lived in Peebles.   His title, Tweedsmuir, came from that part of the Borders, as well as the names of two protagonists in this book:  Leithen and Lamancha.

He studied classics at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and had no less than six of his works published while still at University. After graduating he became a diplomat acting as PS to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa (which country was to feature in a number of his novels). On return to the UK he became a partner in Thomas Nelson, living in Salisbury Green, and editor of the Spectator.

On the outbreak of the Great War he worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau; became an officer in the Intelligence Corps where he wrote speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig; and ended up as Director of Information under the future Lord Beaverbrook.

After the War he devoted most of his time to writing, but was elected in 1927 as the Unionist Party member for the Combined Scottish Universities seat. As early as 1910 he had stood as a Unionist candidate in the Borders. However, he was quite a liberal unionist as he supported women’s suffrage, national insurance, and the reform of the House of Lords. He also strongly admired Gladstone. Archie Roylance’s speech probably reflected much of Buchan’s liberal unionist political views.

In 1935 Buchan was appointed Lord Tweedsmuir before he was sent to Canada as Governor General, in which post he died in 1940. Buchan was still held in very high regard in Canada. He argued that a Canadian’s first loyalty was to Canada not to the British Empire. He was a champion of multiculturalism – a word he invented. He argued that ethnic groups in Canada should retain their individuality and make their contribution to the nation, and that the strongest nations were those made up of different elements. He also argued successfully that his successors as Governor General should be Canadians.

He was best known for his thrillers, in particular “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (1915), which along with “The Riddle of the Sands” was the first modern thriller novel. However, arguably his best novels, as Buchan himself thought, were his historical ones. The proposer particularly recommended “A Lost Lady of Old Years”; “Midwinter” and “Witch Wood”. His lives of Montrose and Scott were also superb. Buchan indeed wrote over 100 works including poetry, essays, journalism, histories, biographies and some 30 novels. The influence of Stevenson and Conan Doyle on Buchan’s narrative skill was palpable.

The proposer had chosen “John Macnab” for this discussion, partly because it was an amusing, difficult to classify, novel, and partly because it provided an opportunity to compare and contrast it with Andrew Greig’s updated version. There was a good review in Scots of the two books on Wikipedia.

So how did the Group react? Everyone had enjoyed the Buchan – “beautifully written, fluent, and very amusing – and a brilliant idea”, “easy, humorous, rollicking read”, “a well-crafted page-turner”. But two reservations were expressed.

One was discomfort with the cast of upper class grandees and the class-conscious, snobbish society they inhabited (and which the author seemed to endorse).

The other was that the book was a lightweight jeu d’esprit (although Buchan, who worked hardest at his historical fiction, might have agreed). The characters who collectively comprised John Macnab were hardly differentiated and it was difficult to remember who was who. If you compared this book with the “most popular” books published in 1925 (most popular as assessed by contributors to the “goodreads” website) it was competing with “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and “In Our Time” by Hemingway, works of much greater substance.

But was it really true that Buchan fully bought into the gilded life of the upper classes he was describing? Some detected a note of reservation, a distancing of the author from some of his characters. There was the ironic reference to Lamancha – son of a Marquis – having every disadvantage of birth. It was surely tongue-in-cheek for Janet Raden to spot John Macnab was really a gentleman because he was wearing an Eton prize badge. Admittedly there was some snobbery in the portrayal of the nouveau riche Claybodies (although by the end they became more sympathetic). But the women in the novel came through strongly, and the characters with most energy were a woman, Janet, and Fish Benjie, the artful dodger. Arguably Buchan was foretelling a different type of society in which women and the working classes were to play a bigger role.

Hold on, were we not over-intellectualising something that was written with the intention of being an entertainment? Well, not necessarily: even if we knew what Buchan’s intentions were (and he had a very active and wide-ranging intellect), the meaning of a work of literature is often very different from what the author intends to put into it.

One of the clearest signs of a more serious meaning was at t where Claybody explains to them that they were never at real risk of any public embarrassment. This point was given surprising weight, and highlighted the author’s awareness of their privileged position. It would be going too far to suggest that there was an element of satire in the book, but the author was certainly “knowing” about the social background of his characters.

A shadow cast over the jolly jape was that of the First World War. The three heroes of John Macnab plus Archie had all fought in it. The imagery – particularly in the poaching scenes – was full of allusion to the War, right down to the Flanders mud. The characters’ attitude to ordinary soldiers who had fought in it was central to the moral distinctions drawn between the John Macnab heroes and the non-combatant Claybodies. (Denis Healey has remarked on the difference in real understanding of working people between those who had fought in war and those who had not).

Another point given considerable prominence by the author was the political philosophy expounded by Janet and taken up by Roylance, although it was wrapped up in a comic scene worthy of P.G. Wodehouse. They argued that the landowners had to take up the challenges of the new post-War era if they were not to disappear. The ennui suffered by the three heroes of the collective John Macnab was not just a plot device but a common condition in the twenties in the wake of the War (as evidenced, for example, in Huxley’s novels).

While it was true that it was difficult to separate out many of the central characters, it was normally the case that a novel with a complex plot had little character development, and vice versa (this point is elaborated in our discussion of P. G. Wodehouse  in November 2008). And in this case, although the characters might have little depth, the plot kept you avidly turning pages to see how the tale would finish.

(Phew, just time for a quick refreshment before they were off again on to another book…. whatever next, three books)?

Introducing the second book, “The Return of John Macnab” by Andrew Greig, the proposer said that Greig had started as a poet before turning to fiction. His other most well known novels included “Electric Brae”, “That Summer”, and “Romanno Bridge”. He had also written books on climbing, which gave him good background for writing the Return, which the proposer felt was a good update.

So what did we make of Greig’s Return? On the positive side, it was a bright idea to update the novel, and he had cleverly brought it into a modern setting. It had more of a political edge, but remained a page-turner. He had a real feel for the modern Scottish Highlands, and a deep knowledge of mountains and mountain sports.

Some of the descriptive writing was good, reflecting his background as a poet. His philosophical reflection on metaphors for life – not like the sand disappearing through an hour-glass, but like a tree putting on rings of experience, and at its broadest before dying – was engaging.

Kirsty  – taking on and developing the journalist role played in the original by Crossby – was an excellent and very intriguing character. Her relationship with Neil, and Neil’s struggle to move on from the death of his wife, had the stamp of authenticity.

The author created a fine climax, with a real sense of drama and danger of death (although the gravity of the danger jarred with the jesting tenor of the rest). And the cameo appearance of Prince Charles was amusing.

Alas, we also had plenty to say on the negative side. The relentlessly jaunty, would-be-youthful, tone grated. Some of the dialogue hit false notes. The coherence of the tale was lost as he endlessly explored the relationship problems of the protagonists. He even indulged in some passages of Housemanesque self-pity on behalf of a narrator who, confusingly and unnecessarily, did not identify himself until the end. And it grated to have the novel end with a plug for the follow-up.

Kirsty and Neil did seem real characters with an interesting hinterland (perhaps based on people known to the author or his own experience). However, most of the other characters were either stereotypes (Murray), implausible (Alasdair and Jane and their unconvincing reunion on the moors), or politically correct (the lesbian Shonagh and the Arab Aziz).  And did he need to harp on so obsessively about Buchan’s praise of boys and small-breasted women?

One of our members gave up on the book by page 100. He had been put off by sentences such as:

“The air smelled like white wine ought to taste but doesn’t unless you’ve a lot of money to burn, and he felt fifteen years younger.” (Chapter 5); and

“The light didn’t do anything so dramatic as break that morning.  It was more as if somewhere up in the gantry of the hills, a giant hand slowly pushed a lighting rheostat from closed to open.”

The latter seemed particularly bad, as he says the light wasn’t doing anything dramatic, and then evokes a theatrical metaphor (lights coming up on a lighting gantry) to describe it. (Chapter 7) What was he thinking?  Did his editor read this and say nothing?

Or was our largely negative reaction because you got bored of the plot of the poaching games by the time you were on the sixth one? …Oh really, would you feel that way if it were a sixth bottle of wine?

There was a feeling that Greig – who started off writing poetry and climbing literature, and had written a good book on golf courses – was not too comfortable writing fiction. Perhaps that was why he had hit on the idea of doing a “remake” of the plot of someone else’s book? Certainly those who had read “Romanno Bridge”, which followed on from this book but with an original plot, found it pretty disappointing both as a follow-up and as a self-standing work. Like “The Return of John Macnab” it had flashes of quality – in the idea for the plot, and in some of the poetic and philosophical asides – but it did not function well as a work of fiction.

So, your correspondent ventured, some good tasty bits but rather lost overall in a soggy mass, a bit like a Gregg’s prawn sandwich? Oops – instant silence and intense glares for interrupting the literati….

who moved on to compare the two books.

Greig’s version revealed a rather different structure of ownership of Highland land in 1996, with foreign owners  – Arab and Dutch – outnumbering the one British (and royal) owner. This compared with a couple of Scottish aristocrats owning land in the Buchan version; one self-made English businessman; and just one foreigner, an American. Greig was writing in 1996 before the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the right to roam legislation, and his concerns about the new offence of aggravated trespass, although accurate for the time of writing, already had a dated feel.

(At this moment I idly examined my empty glass and bottle, but to no effect as the debate was in full spate….)

John Macnab has similarly moved from an upper class group of jolly good chaps, with subordinate support from a woman and a tinker, to a group of equals that is more broadly based in class terms, and in which women have a major role to play.

One interesting difference is that John Macnab is in no danger in Buchan’s version, as Claybody is at pains to stress, whereas he is in mortal danger in the Greig version with the “Shoot to Kill” policy of the Security Services.

However, the biggest difference is that Buchan is a major writer at the height of his powers, writing with assured poise in a genre in which he is very comfortable.  Andrew Greig by contrast seems somewhat uncomfortable and gauche as a novelist, and obscures his updating of the novel – intrinsically a very interesting idea – with some unproductive diversions. However, the comparison of the two versions had proved an intriguing exercise, and it had been a particular pleasure to revisit Buchan, whom many of us had not read for many years.

(I put my glasses on, lifted the bottle, and scrutinised it against the light….)

 What were other examples of updating famous works of literature? And were any very successful? We had recently discussed Posy Simmonds’ version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” (May 2009), which was very successful in its own terms. New versions of Shakespeare plots were ten-a-penny in Hollywood and of varying success. And it was widely believed that Shakespeare himself updated an earlier version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, which would make it the most successful updating of all.

So on they went, wondering if a yet newer John Macnab had been responsible for the theft of a watercolour from the Signet Library after a New year function, returning it unharmed after a couple of weeks…….discussing a John Macnab jape for the MBG to carry out (watch the press for news of this)… and then segued to the causes of the First World War and the impact of Prince Bertie on the alliance with the French….

I tried turning my glass upside down and shaking it. “I say, fancy a drop of  Talisker?” said the host….Result! Capital fellow!