John Buchan Feature Article 2013
Feb 10, 2013
Places & Faces Magazine
It's the curse of the novelist that when their greatest work becomes a popular stage show their name becomes subtly detached from it in the public mind. Les Miserables is Cameron Mackintosh's triumph more than Victor Hugo's; An Inspector Calls' long-run is down to Stephen Daldry as much as JB Priestley. And God doesn't get much of a billing for Jesus Christ Superstar.
This fact of theatrical life is particularly regrettable in the case of John Buchan, the author of The 39 Steps (1915), as his was a life crowded with incident quite unrelated to the adventure story which would define his literary legacy. The famous moment in Patrick Barlow's adaptation when the hero Richard Hannay billows his own coat as he runs on the spot towards an uncertain destination seems like an apt metaphor for an author who so comprehensively succeeded in making his own weather and energetically charting his own course.
For all his political achievements, John Buchan was a hard person to pigeonhole.
He was born in Scotland as the son of a minister (like Gordon Brown) and was educated first at Glasgow (like Vince Cable) and then at Brasenose College, Oxford (like David Cameron). He was elected President of the Oxford Union (like William Gladstone), implying a desire to court popularity, but later trained as a tax lawyer, which rather implies the opposite.
He was an avid imperialist but also a fierce Scottish Nationalist (passions which weren't in contradiction at the time).
He had a true Tory belief in the free-market but also supported women's suffrage and limiting the powers of the House of Lords.
The Thirty-Nine Steps reached the status of cultural icon when Alfred Hitchcock made it into a film 20 years after its publication but this was, in fact, not a faithful telling of the novel at all. Several key moments were Hitchcock's, not his.
Buchan, in short, was a blizzard of contradictions arising from a whirlwind of a career.
While the journey from precocious schoolboy to university scholarship to the bar might imply a typical trajectory towards the political offices that he would later hold, Buchan was equally active pursuing his literary ambitions. He had already published eight books by the time he left university and remained prolific for the next four decades. The 39 Steps may have secured his place in history but he had written 11 novels before it, not to mention eight non-fiction books.
Ironically given his voluminous output, one of his key successes during a stint working for a publishing house was to get his bosses at Thomas Nelson & Sons to publish pocket-size editions of major works of literature. The minimalism of Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation of The 39 Nine Steps would surely have been something he'd have approved of.
Despite his proven literary talents, Buchan saw his calling elsewhere and joined the Army during which time he functioned as a speech-writer for Sir Douglas Haig (another Brasenose alumnus) who would command the 100 Days Battle that would ultimately bring the Great War to an end.
Following a stint in South Africa (a posting which would inspire much of his literary output), in 1917 he was asked to be the government's Director of Information, reporting to one of the great icons of the period, Lord Beaverbrook (later the founder of the Daily Mail). Buchan found the experience of applying his talents with fiction to the service of war propaganda less appealing than he hoped. His time as the Bernard Ingham or Alastair Campbell of his day was, he later remarked, ‘the hardest job I ever had’ - a not inconsiderable statement from a man whose non-fiction output included a twelve-volume history of Admiral Nelson.
Even so, like the heroes of many of his novels, Buchan was clearly destined to fly high. Long-since having married into the aristocracy (his wife Susan would also have a creditable writing career) and having four children, he was made the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir on being appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935. During the abdication crisis a year later (the Canadian implications of which he had to navigate), the new Lord Tweedsmuir found himself serving three Kings in 12 months, an early chance to demonstrate the political dexterity that would ultimately earn him widespread popularity.
By the time he died in 1940, John Buchan had more than 100 books to his name as well as 12 letters after it. He was granted a state funeral by Canada - an extraordinary honour - before his ashes were flown back to Britain.
But of course it was with Hitchcock's version of his greatest work - released in the same year as he became Governor General - that Buchan's work received the widest recognition. That was ultimately, though, Hitchcock's baby. Patrick Barlow and Maria Aitken's rendering of the story, though, much more closely reflects what Buchan intended.
On his death in 1924 Mackenzie King (then the Canadian Prime Minister) said of him: ‘I know no man I would rather have as a friend, a beautiful, noble soul, kindly and generous in thought and word and act, informed as few men in this world have ever been.’
Maybe he had a greater legacy than The 39 Steps after all.