Politician, critic, war reporter — there’s more to John Buchan than a classic thriller, Laura Freeman learns 

Laura Freeman 

April 5 2019, 12:00pm, The Times 


John Buchan said the Hitchcock film was better than his book 

Back from South Africa in the autumn of 1903, John Buchan was in a pretty blue funk. Clubs, dancing, parties were as flat as day-old soda water. The Bar was not worth a tinker’s curse. The weather was liverish, the food seedy, the politicians the most bogus blackguards on Earth. 

When he thought of writing book reviews, he grumbled like a sick jackal. It made JB bite his lip to think of his manse childhood, of the fervour and poetic fancy of the Rev John Buchan’s sermons, of his mother, Helen, who let JB — “unkempt, unwatched, far-wandering, shy”; his mother would have added “unwashed” — scramble the hills and swim the waters of upper Tweeddale. He remembered the year he spent in bed aged five after a fall from a carriage that broke his skull and the rapture with which, allowed to read again, he discovered the Border Ballads, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and The Pilgrim’s Progress

As he slunk in and out of clubs in creased clothes, brown from the backveld, he remembered first coming to Oxford in the autumn of 1894. He felt he had “slipped through some chink in the veil of the past and become a medieval student”. Among his swashbuckling set, “Booms” were the fashion. It was a boom to ride horses through flooded rivers, or clamber at midnight over Oxford roofs. He read Homer, Theocritus and Demosthenes in the morning, and Walter Raleigh after lunch. In the evenings he applied himself to the greatest of games: journalism. 

From Brasenose Old Quad he sent stories, reviews and essays to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. He read manuscripts for publishers. “It is very full of ‘sex’,” JB reported of Edgar Jepson’s The Passion for Romance, “and sugary paroxysms. In a word, it is thoroughly vulgar.” He was president of the Oxford Union (“Isis Idol”) and gave his profession in Who’s Who as “undergraduate”. 

In term, there was tennis, yachting, rowing, canoeing and punting. In the holidays, mountaineering. Once, in the Highlands, he thought he was done for. Crossing a crevasse of snow and ice, he fell into a chasm and crawled his way out inch by freezing, pitch-black inch. 

He was called to the Bar — a bore — in 1901. For every brief he wrote he sent something to The Spectator or Blackwood’s Magazine and earned enough from hackwork to buy his sister Anna her first fur coat. 

South Africa and the Boer War were no picnic, but they were, JB told his fretting mother, an Adventure. Dolphins and flying fish followed the ship that left for Cape Town in September 1901. JB joined the Rand Rifles and served as a trooper, diplomat and intelligence gatherer. He rode a horse called Alan Breck through deserts of prickly pears, cactuses and wait-a-bit thorns. The “concentration camps” for Boer women and children made JB’s hair go grey. He suffered dysentery, sunburn, saddle sores and fevers. Still, it was the richest and most beautiful wilderness in the world. He hoped one day to “leave my bones there”. 

The trouble with John Buchan (1875-1940) is that one so wants him to be Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919) and The Three Hostages (1924). For the first 100 pages of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, Ursula Buchan’s biography of her grandfather, always known to the family as “JB”, the life from kirk boyhood to the Boer War is pure Hannay: page-turning, buccaneering stuff. 

After that, the pace slows. In the Great War JB joined the news department of the Foreign Office and reported from Loos and Passchendaele. He became an MP in May 1927, lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1933, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and governor general of Canada in 1935, and chancellor of Edinburgh University in 1937. An effective civil servant — with a rare imagination. 

Ursula Buchan makes a strong case for the books — more than 100 of them — and their enduring appeal. JB may have deprecated The Thirty-Nine Steps as a “dime novel” and a “shocker”, and thought the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film “better than the book”, but by 1960 his “little volume” had sold 355,000 copies in hardback and by 1965, 1.5 million copies in paperback. The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print. It has even inspired a bingo call: “39, all the steps”. Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré have tipped their hats to Buchan. 

We hear from friends, family and fellow writers. JB was “patience and courtesy itself”, “so imaginative… so punctual… the best Pal in the world”, “a young Caesar”. Those who knew him remembered “his unquenchable spirit and energy”, “his kindly and scholarly wit”, his “heart of gold”. He was a fond father, an expert flower arranger, a peerless fly fisher and an indulgent master to Spider, the tyrannical terrier. 

He rarely swore and never in front of women. He was for women’s suffrage and against big-game poaching. At first you suspect a granddaughter’s partiality, but as encomium follows encomium you can only conclude that he was a fine fellow all told. JB and his wife, Susie — “the perfect comrade” — shared a partners’ desk and called their four children “the blessings”. But the lives of scoundrels are often more interesting than those of saints and rancorous marriages more readable than rapturous ones. 

The isn’t-he-lovely stuff does become wearing and JB is immediately more convincing when he speaks for himself. Before they were married Susie told him she had heard a rumour he was a “ladies’ man”. He was outraged. “I don’t suppose any charge — except that of being Liberal — could be more shamefully untrue.” Invited to a Literary Fund dinner in 1913, he declined. “I love writers individually, but assembled in bulk they affect me with overpowering repugnance, like a gathering of clerics.” He thought Henry James’s late style like “swimming in spinach”. 

“No man,” JB wrote, “however high his spirits and rich the life within him, can hope to be a great writer save by the restraint, the pains, the hard and bitter drudgery of his art.” 

The reader finishes this biography full of admiration for the pains that he took, for the bitter drudgery that reads like effortless dash, and bidding him “good-bye, old chap”, turns again to The Thirty-Nine Steps. And there is Richard Hannay, lately back from Bulawayo, a dead man in his smoking room, a coded notebook in his pocket and a nameless, ceaseless enemy closing in over the heather. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury, 480pp, £25