Friday, 7 February 2014

Snobbery with violence: John Buchan and Al Qaeda

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I have been sick for a couple of days and stayed at home, unable to do much work. The one consolation for being sick is that reading John Buchan becomes possible. He is my comfort blanket. So I reread Greenmantle.

My mother read The Thirty-Nine Steps to me when I was five and I loved all his books. Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and his companions, Sandy Arbuthnot and Peter Pienaar, are family, though, on this reading, the fourth in the group, the dyspeptic John S. Blenkiron, is an unconvincing stage American. His American accent sounds horribly false. 

Buchan is the link between Robert Louis Stevenson and John Le Carre, but is closer to the former. How strange to see what books become classics, but a classic is simply a book that continues to sell well after its copyright has expired. John Buchan is now a classic writer, while Wyndham Lewis is forgotten and George Meredith is fading away.

Buchan is a very fine writer and is in my heart's blood, but I long ago outgrew him. I am astonished to remember that I read Buchan's novels with pleasure while at university - how young I must have been then - but only when sick can I now read them. They are far too light. They depend on a number of extraordinary coincidences and consist largely of a series of chases, something Buchan excelled at.

I got half way through Greenmantle in November 2001 while sick and then put it down, but not without noting that this book, which I had always considered deeply old-fashioned - that is a large part of its charm - had suddenly after September 11 become topical.

For those who missed out on Greenmantle in their adolescence, it is about a German plot in the First World War to organise a jihad or holy war to rouse the British Mahometans in India to fight for the Caliph against Britain. 

It was the Caliph/Sultan/Ottoman Emperor's decision (in fact the decision of the disastrous 'Young Turk', Enver Pasha) to declare war on the Allies and Turkey's subsequent defeat which led to the end of both the Caliphate, which Al Qaeda wants to restore, and the Ottoman Empire, It created the mess we have today in the Middle East. Regular readers of my blog already know my lament. If the Turks had stayed out of the war there would have been no Saudi Arabia, no Israel, no Syria or Lebanon, no Armenian genocide and Turkey might retain her huge Greek population along with a lot of oil.

 Sandy Arbuthnot's words throw light on the impulse which has led to Al Qaeda.
"The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked.....And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft... It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race."
The problem comes, Arbuthnot says, when this longing for purity and the "simplicity of the ascetic" is replaced by "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation". This sounds like Osama bin Laden.

The BBC were dramatising Greenmantle on Radio 4 when the terrible bombings took place of the London tube by, as it turned out, British Muslims in 2005. The BBC pulled the serial for fear of causing offence, though it is not clear how it might have done. Charles Moore wrote beautifully about this and about the book here.

Nowadays I feel like the protagonist of Graham Greene's wonderful The Ministry of Fear, who says, during the Blitz, apostrophising his dead Edwardian mother, 
The world has been re-made by William Le Queux
A shame Hitchcock who filmed The Thirty-Nine Steps did not film Greenmantle as he wanted to. He thought it a better book than The Thirty-Nine Steps. (I disagree. The Thirty-Nine Steps is sparer.) However, they could not agree on a price for the rights. 

Two more serious books that suddenly became topical on September 11th were Joseph Conrad's great masterpieces, The Secret Agent, the world's first spy novel, which Hitchcock improbably did film, and the second one, Under Western Eyes. Everyone nowadays should read both of them because they are about the psychology of terrorism, but Greenmantle is also a rattling good yarn. Read it if you have not outgrown rattling good yarns or if you are sick.

Alan Bennett, in his very funny first play, Forty Years On, parodies Buchan hilariously and refers to him, Dornford Yates (very droll) and Sapper (an unpleasant fascist without literary skill) as purveyors of 'snobbery with violence'. It's a sublime pun, but in fact there is not much violence in Buchan and it is of the most wholesome kind. Hannay is always a clean fighter and a chevalier sans raprocheEven when faced, in one book, with a man who holds in his hand anthrax with which he proposes to poison a town Hannay does not fire at him unprovoked. Come to think of it, Buchan is not at all a snob either, though very establishment.

Mr. Bennett borrowed 'snobbery with violence', by the way, with permission, from one Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalkwho in 1932 had used it as the title of a pamphlet. The Count sounds interesting. He was a New Zealander, who is described by Wikipedia as a 'poet, polemicist, pagan and pretender to the Polish throne'.
It was a  great surprise to me when a biography of Auberon Herbert came out called The Man who was Greenmantle and I discovered that the whole improbable story was based on historical truth. You can read about Herbert, the remarkable man who was the basis for Sandy Arbuthnot and who twice declined the crown of Albania (as did C.B. Fry, the cricketer), here.

I knew I was feeling much better last night when I skipped most of the last two chapters to reach the end. But it was fun to have remet old friends.

Now I have returned to Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, a highly acclaimed historical novel set in Burma, which is much more adult, very easy to read but no-one can know whether it will be read in a hundred years' time and the statistical chances are slim. It has in fact a lot in common with Greenmantle, including an exciting plot and the themes of war and imperialism. For Buchan the British Empire is good, for Ghosh bad, Buchan's heroes are thoroughly chaste and know nothing of women, whereas The Glass Palace has plenty of sex, but both simply reflect the ideas of their times, without original thinking. People do not read novels to be asked to reconsider conventional ideas.

A lot of Buchan's conventional ideas seem to me sound, especially his strong belief in the great men theory of history, which I remember Alan Bennett mocks very amusingly. Marxists, who see history as propelled by class struggle, tend to hate the great men theory and yet the history of Marxism-Leninism is not about great historical forces. It is about Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and some others. Let's not forget Pol Pot too.  

The story of Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and the beautiful, evil Hilda von Einem is very far-fetched, but so is the real history of Lenin's plots, which remade the world. If only Richard Hannay had been able to stop Lenin as he stopped Hilda von Einem and the Black Stone how much misery we should have been spared. If Sandy Arbuthnot, who knew many curious places and people in Aleppo, were in Syria now, in one of his impenetrable disguises, we should be much safer.

18 comments:

  1. A superb post, thank you. Peter Hopkirk's history of the "secretly-Moslem" Kaiser's planned jihad, On Secret Service East of Constantinople, suggests Buchan drew on Intelligence sources for the book. Mark Steyn, forever being hounded by the feeble-minded, recently penned a thought-provoking tribute to John Buchan

    http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/365754/vice-regal-page-turner-mark-steyn

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    1. I read it in 1995. Fascinating information but Hopkirk's interest seems to be in writing a real life Buchan story rather than in what I call history -serious analysis. I therefore did not want to read anything else he wrote. He writes for people who like good stories not historical insight. The most exciting book I ever read - absolutely NO exaggeration - is Lt Colonel F. M. Bailey's Mission to Tashkent. And every word is true. I couldn't put it down. Hopkirk uses Colonel Bailey as one of his sources.

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    2. Ha, that is interesting. I Bought "Mission to Tashkent" back in October, but I haven't found time to read it yet. I confess I 've found the odd factual error in Hopkirk's books, and I'm an amateur.

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  2. I first read Lord Tweedsmuir some 50 years ago. Now, in my middle 60s, I still reread him with pleasure, except that I read him on my Kindle instead of a book. As far as I'm concerned, he never gets old!

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    1. He is timeless, agreed, Father, but I personally grew too old for him. But I am too old for most thrillers and detective stories unless they are written by Raymond Chandler or Michael Innes or someone like that. For me the author that I enjoyed as much as 7, at 17 and now at 50 is Hilaire Belloc.

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  3. 'Sapper' has enormous literary skill! Thomas Tallon

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  4. Potocki was dedicated to publishing an enormous amount of poetry and political writing, all self-published and all printed by hand on his own printing press. He adopted this after a commercial publisher he had used as a young man had reported his poems to the police as obscene and he served a prison sentence as a result - possibly the last English prosecution of the kind. Supported by a small private income, he devoted himself to literary and related work; he was notably the first to bring to Western notice the massacre at Katyn. He was also, utterly irrationally, a dedicated anti-Semite. He was a great lover of women and had two wives, numerous mistresses and several children; he was also a pagan devoted to Apollo, and was quoted by Cyril Connolly in The Times as describing religion as "beauty and one's friends". He was descended from one of the last kings of Poland; in the 1930s, when living in Islington, he used to walk the streets in a red medieval cloak and sandals. He spoke around thirty-two languages fluently and believed that the Maoris were the master race. He also published material for Lord Aldington at one point, but as was typical for Potocki, the two fell out.

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  5. I personally think that Greenmantle is the best of the Hannay novels. Much in the same vein is Dennis Wheatley's, The Eunuch of Stamboul, published in July 1935. Another good read but rather light by today's standards.

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  6. Greenmantle, like many of Buchan's books, is more about the idea than the story. And as an idea, a happening, a riot of colour, adrenalin-fueled emotions and vivid characters, it stays with you till the end . . . when by the accident of the story the Prophet, the Twelfth Imam, does appear to his people as the conspiracy had designed, but in real life riding with the Russians into Erzerum as the countryfolk fall to their knees at the sight of him . . . and disappears into the fog of battle.

    And anybody who hadn't worked out that Hilda von Einem set out to seduce her prophet but ended up actually falling for him in traditional style, as he had fallen for her but - of course - could not prejudice his mission or his loyalty to the home country by admitting it or doing anything about it, is missing a lot of the tension in the story.

    Buchan was, of course, well acquainted with the reality of the situation he wrote about. When he says [speaking through Sandy]

    'The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked'

    he is quoting the famous proposition of Ibn Khaldun, that civilisation happens when the nomads sweep in out of the desert and take over . . . civilisation. [Ibn Khaldun never seemed to notice how illogical that was]. Then, as Sandy and our great philosopher say, the tribes stagnate under the influence of . . . civilisation and become corrupt because being civilised weakens a man :) and they need a new generation of nomads to come out of the desert and destroy the corruption of civilisation so they can start the cycle of decadence and destruction again, clean and fresh and new.

    And yes, this is the 'new revelation and great simplifying' of groups like al-Qaida.

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  7. Paul, I may have the brain of a cornflake and the attention-span of a goldfish, and that's on a good day, but I only realised, coming back that I've been commenting on your, personal, written by you, blog post.

    Doh.
    Apologies. It was great, and I should have said so.

    I liked the post on psychopaths, too :)
    regards,
    Ellie

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    1. Thank you very much. Your comment was brilliant. Please encourage me to write my book.

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  8. It's one of the greats, written at a time when life seemed to be simpler, clearer - and where a man could make a difference. That's true of the Thirty-Nine Steps, too .

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  9. I enjoyed the Buchan books in my teens and later, although there were remarks about Jews in several of them that made me uncomfortable. I don't have a copy of Greenmantle although I remember reading it but I do have a few of the others - Free Fishers, House of the Four Winds, and Sick Heart River, of course, as I am a Canadian. Nothing like reading these posts to inspire another reading adventure so I guess I'm off to the library to have a Buchan search.

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    1. Buchan did not have any malice to Jews or negroes but he did believe some races were superior though not necessarily for any genetic reason - the English and Scots, the South African Dutch. He probably considered Americans an Anglo-Saxon race. Hannay says of himself in Greenmantle that he had been 'a niggerdriver'. I do not find this in the least objectionable any more than the word 'nigger' is in Huckleberry Finn or The Nigger of the Narcissus. Autre temps..

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    2. This is what happens when you try and judge 1914 by the mores of 2014. Hannay had every reason to believe that the Anglo-Saxons were a race above most others. Almost everything of significance in the preceding one thousand years had been derived from them and their efforts.
      Dr James Nemo

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    3. The English and the Jews are very remarkable races indeed - I think the two greatest in history. Buchan would add the Scots too.

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  10. Buchan was very much a man of his times but his novels could teach some of todays writers more than a little. Shockers he called them rather than the modern term thriller and I imagine they did just that in their day
    N.J. Slater

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  11. I also read Buchan when I have the flu. My two favourite passages from Greenmantle:

    '...'Germany's simplicity is that of the neurotic, not the primitive. It is megalomania and egotism and the pride of the man in the Bible that waxed fat and kicked. But the results are the same. She wants to destroy and simplify; but it isn't the simplicity of the ascetic, which is of the spirit, but the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilization to a featureless monotony. The prophet wants to save the souls of his people; Germany wants to rule the inanimate corpse of the world. But you can get the same language to cover both. And so you have the partnership of St Francis and Messalina. Dick, did you ever hear of a thing called the Superman?'

    'There was a time when the papers were full of nothing else,' I answered. 'I gather it was invented by a sportsman called Nietzsche.'

    'Maybe,' said Sandy. 'Old Nietzsche has been blamed for a great deal of rubbish he would have died rather than acknowledge. But it's a craze of the new, fatted Germany. It's a fancy type which could never really exist, any more than the Economic Man of the politicians. Mankind has a sense of humour which stops short of the final absurdity. There never has been, and there never could be a real Superman ... But there might be a Superwoman.'

    'You'll get into trouble, my lad, if you talk like that,' I said....'

    And:

    '...Sandy gripped my shoulder and was shouting in my ear:

    'They're coming, Dick. Look at the grey devils ... Oh, God be thanked, it's our friends!'

    The next minute we were tumbling down the hillside, Blenkiron hopping on one leg between us. I heard dimly Sandy crying, 'Oh, well done our side!' and Blenkiron declaiming about Harper's Ferry, but I had no voice at all and no wish to shout. I know the tears were in my eyes, and that if I had been left alone I would have sat down and cried with pure thankfulness. For sweeping down the glen came a cloud of grey cavalry on little wiry horses, a cloud which stayed not for the rear of the fugitives, but swept on like a flight of rainbows, with the steel of their lance-heads glittering in the winter sun. They were riding for Erzerum....'

    World War as school football - you have to be ill to read it but then it's a tonic.

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