This edited article about John Buchan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
John Buchan once described himself as a ‘copious romancer’. Like his fellow Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, he could invent the most fanciful and even preposterous plots and make them plausible by his simple and straightforward writing. He was a born story-teller. As he said himself, if he had lived in prehistoric times, the cavemen would have given him a seat by the fire, and a special chunk of meat, as long as he told them his yarns.
Buchan was born in the Scottish town of Perth in 1875, the son of a minister and the first of five children. His mother’s family were sheep-farmers in the Border country.
Although he showed no great enthusiasm for school, he later had a brilliant scholastic career at Glasgow and Oxford Universities. In 1901 he was called to the Bar and then became the assistant private secretary to Lord Milner, Governor of the Transvaal.
Buchan’s love of South Africa was shown in ‘Prester John’, an imaginative adventure story which was published in 1910. In it he revives the legend of the fabulous Prester John, a Christian priest who, in the Middle Ages, is said to have ruled a large domain in the interior of Asia.
Buchan skilfully transfers Prester John’s mantle to an unscrupulous black ex-minister called John Laputa, who plans to lead a native uprising against the white man.
Although Laputa gradually becomes the book’s true hero, the story is told by David Crawfurd, a young man who goes to South Africa.
The novel is crammed with vividly-described scenes. In the one illustrated on our front cover, David has been captured by the rebellious Kaffirs led by Laputa and a shifty Portuguese called Henriques. As Henriques raises his revolver to shoot David, the young man’s faithful dog, Colin, gives a low growl and springs forward, sacrificing his own life to save his master’s.
During the First World War, John Buchan was Director of Information. He wrote a twenty-four volume history of the war.
In spite of the demands of his hectic public life, he managed to write some superb novels of action, including the spy-catching adventures of Richard Hannay, whose exploits are described in ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, ‘Greenmantle’, ‘Mr. Standfast’, ‘The Three Hostages’ and ‘The Island of Sheep’.
‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ the first of Hannay’s five adventures, was written by Buchan to cheer himself up after an illness. In dedicating the book to a friend, he wrote of his ‘affection for the elementary type of tale which the Americans call the “dime novel”, and which we know as the “shocker” – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. In other words, what we nowadays call a ‘thriller’.
Apart from the indomitable Hannay, Buchan created two other original heroes in Dickson McCunn, the shrewd, retired grocer who appears in ‘Hunting Tower’, ‘Castle Gay’, and ‘The House of the Four Winds’; and the lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, who is the narrator of ‘The Power-House’ and ‘John Macnab’, a delightful story of grouse-moors, salmon rivers, and poachers.
From 1927 to 1935 Buchan was Conservative M.P. for the Scottish Universities and, in 1935, on his appointment as Governor-General to Canada, he was made a peer, taking the title Baron Tweedsmuir. During these years he was still productive as a writer and published some notable historical biographies, such as ‘Montrose’, ‘Sir Walter Scott’ and ‘Cromwell’.
His last years were plagued by ill-health. When he died in 1940, the world lost a fine statesman and an even finer story-teller.
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