Iain's Leisure Reading

John Buchan - The Richard Hannay novels   

I really like Hitchcock's famous 1935 film "The Thirty-Nine Steps" starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay. There have been later film versions versions too. I have also enjoyed stage plays of "The Thirty-Nine Steps". All in all, its a good story. By chance, browsing in a charirty shop, I came upon an onmibus book of all John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels, and thought I would give it a go. Why not ?

In the 1950s, when we lived in Aberdeen, a friend of my parents worked as lady's companion to Lady Tweedsmuir - and when the family were away, we visited their grand house and grounds - Potterton House, near Balmedie in Aberdeenshire. So I guess that is a sort of connection to the author - I have visited one of his son's houses near Aberdeen.

The author of these Richard Hannay books is John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, 1875 to 1940. He was a most distinguished politician, historian, and career diplomat who served as Governor General of Canada. He was born in Perth, in Scotland, the first child of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and was brought up in Kircaldy, Fife, but spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in the Scottish Borders. There he developed a love of walking and of local wildlife. He entered Glasgow University with a scholarship, studied classics, wrote poetry, and became a published author. In 1895 he moved on to Brasenose College, Oxford, won prizes for his poetry, and was elected president of the Oxford Union. After a brief legal career, Buchan simultaneously began his writing and diplomatic careers, and served as colonial administrator in various colonies in South Africa. He had a hugely varied, brilliant life - he worked as a correspondent for "The Times", wrote political speeches for politicians, was president of the Scottish Historical Society, was a friend of the rich and famous, and was honoured by his country many times. And of course, all of this rich very full life informed his writing.

Buchan's most famous creation was the adventurer, soldier, and spy, Richard Hannay - or rather Major-General Sir Richard Hannay, KCB, OBE, DSO, Legion of Honour to give him his full title. Richard Hannay was born about 1877, his father was Scottish who had German partners, and he spoke German fluently from the age of 6. He became a mining engineer, lived in South Africa, and served in the Imperial Light Horse in the Matabele wars, and served as an intelligence officer in the Boer wars. He served in WWI, and is injured, and so on, and so on. In short, Richard Hannay is a creation of his times, and must be seen and judged in that light. Perhaps a lot of the books are a bit dated now, which is a great pity, because they are great tales of adventure from the days of colonies and empire. We should know our history.

The Thirty-Nine Steps,     (1915)

I read this book in Jan, 2017.

This is the first of five stories featuring our own boys hero Richard Hannay . It is dated, set in a period of Empire, with toffs and servants, and opens with Richard Hannay, a clever ex colonial chap back in London, but finding his life a bit dull, and he wants an adventure to cheer himself up.

It's 1915, the great war is about to break out, and so begins a very famous adventure, retold in film and on the stage. In the book, unlike the film, there is no love interest. The "Thirty Nine Steps" also has a completeely different meaning, book v film. In the film the villian had a missing finger. In the book, all the fingers are there, but the eyes are hooded.

Richard mixes with high company here - eg the head of the admiralty, but is never out of place. By reason, logic, and a cool head under pressure, Hannay takes command of the situation, and saves the nation.

It is easy scoff at such antics in these sceptical jaundiced times. But if we set the piece in its time, it all works well, and I thought it was a terrific story.

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Greenmantle,     (1916)

I read this book in Jan, 2017.

Some books I read quicky, turning pages to see what happens next. Sadly, this was not one of these books. Greenmantle is a lovely adventure story full of strong characters, written at a time of war when the enemy was clear. But the story and the writing are now dated. Lots of place names were quite unknown to me, and John Buchan includes lots of foreign words to add authenticity, but it doesn't help.

The "n" word is used here, but I am not going to use 21st century sensitivities to criticise an author writing in his time. He lived when he did, spoke as he did.

Richard (Dick) Hannay is called in to help Sir Walter to tackle a mission that claimed the life of Sir Walter's son. Hannay has to go to the East, and find out what is afoot - there are reports of some German / Turkish plot to unite Islam and have the Muslims fight against Britain, and it's ally Russia. Dick Hannay is helped by two chums - Sandy and the American Blenkiron. Along the way, Dick's old colonial chum Peter Piennar joins the crew. Its a true, old fashioned, adventure yarn, full of patriotism, love of country, and self sacrifice.

Its danger upon danger, lucky escape after lucky escape , bravado bluff , and a mysterious female siren Von Einen who casts a hypnotic spell on most men she meets. Sandy falls under her spell, but Dick is immune. Greenmantle is the new prophet to unite Islam - but events conspire differently.

Against all the odds, our heroes happily prepare to die for king and country - but somehow win through. In spite of everything, I ended up thinking it was a terrific yarn. It's a pity it is not read more often - but perhaps updated by a sympathetic editor.

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Mr Standfast,     (1919)

I read this book in Aug, 2018.

This is book three in the Richard Hannay adventure stories by John Buchan. They are good stories, full of danger and narrow escapes, and packed with action, but they are of their time. I guess they are not read much anymore, but I think if you meet the stories half way, and try to adjust to the period and language, you open a window to times gone by. It's interesting to read how we used to be, how things used to be. This book was published in 1919 just after the first world war, and a lot of the action takes place in the desparate fight as the country battles to survive, and countless patriots die for king and country. It's a period of great bravery and heroic sacrifice, and John Buchan sets the scene very well. We open with Hannay now a brigadier general leading his men, the salt of the earth and heroes every one, on the Western Front in France as Germany threatens to sweep them aside. Hannay is called back to help smash a fiendish spy chain that is causing terrible damage, and this is the main part of the story. But when eventually the spies are caught there is still quite a bit of the story left. I liked it that Buchan returned Hannay to the terrible war - the spy story was not allowed to diminish the overall fight of the terrible 1914-1918 all out war.

Up to now there has been little love interest in Richard Hannay's life, but here he meets and falls in love with Mary Lamington, a clever 19 year old heroine. Hannay is about 39 I think, so there is quite an age gap. Mary is a real heroine, a female John Hannay. We meet once again Hannay's dearest chum, a comrade of many a skirmish, Peter Pienarr. Peter has been having his war adventures too - he has taken to the air, become a famous pilot with many dog fight kills to his name, but at the start of the book he had been shot down, and taken prisoner. He has a shattered useless leg, and is captive in some German war hospital. However his letters get through, and Hannay longs to meet Peter again. Buchan writes movingly about war time comradeship - of a bond that is so real, and can never be broken. Love is the wrong word, but the good company of a true comrade beats all. Of course Peter does turn up to play an important part in this story, even with his smashed leg. The American Blenkiron is also back on the scene, health very much improved, and leading the hunt against the German master spy. This spy is suspected to be a Mr Ivery, and Hannay opens the story with a Scottish adventure where he is in disguise hunting and being hunted - and pulling off a succession of marvellous escapes, always finding help when needed. Sometimes the help comes from an old chum of Hannay's - he has lead a full life and has a network of old friends who turn up to save the day, time after time.

Mary had had a premonition that not all of our heroes will make it to the end of the story. She predicts "the best of the best" will be sacrificed. Hannay tells himself he cannot be the "best of the best", and so he carries on regardless. The action switches to France, Italy, and Switzerland - and treks up dangerous mountain passes in blizzard conditions. Always though, we wonder who is not going to make it. Might it be Mary, or Blenkiron, or perhaps Peter ? The book ends touchingly with the "best of the best" laid to rest in an orchard in Britain by the survivors of our gang. Throughout there had been many references to the book "Pilgrim's Progress" - an allegory as well known and as well read at the time as the bible. On the run, Hannay could use quotes from the "Pilgrims Progress" to identify himself as one of the spy hunters, and to send messages in code. Hence the title of the book - "Mr Standfast." The book ends at the fresh grave with another quote from Pilgrims Progress. I have changed the quote slightly so as not to spoil the story for anyone : -

"So the "best of the best" passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for the best of the "best of the best" on the other side"

Yes the book is dated, yes it was a book I read slowly (not a good sign), but gosh what a great yarn, and what a great evocation of terrible times and a terrible war that was suposed to end all wars, but didn't. Let's have a toast to heros and heroines who sacrificed so much. Of course, we must read these books.

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