John Buchan: The Man Who Wrote Loads of Books

Edinburgh, Literature

Since we’re drawing inspiration from some of his best writing, we thought it was only fair to give you a bit of an introduction to the great John Buchan. Best known for his spy thrillers, Buchan led a life comparable to some of his most daring characters. He drew a lot of inspiration from the remarkable events he witnessed – to help you navigate this, look out for which books he wrote at the different stages of his life.

This is the face of a man who has submitted a lot of essays in his time.

Part One: Calvinist Beginnings 1875-1895

John Buchan was born on 26th August 1875 (for the historically minded – bang in the middle of the Victorian era). He was the son of another John Buchan, a Church of Scotland minister, and Helen Jane Buchan. Like James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott and numerous other Scottish authors, he spent a lot of time in the borders area while he was growing up and appears to have developed a love for landscapes and outdoors activities such as hiking. He later listed Hogg and Scott as literary influences for his own novels.

He initially studied at Glasgow University but struggled both financially and socially until he won a scholarship to Oxford, where both his literary and personal exploits were more successful.

Friends made: No one particularly notable, but lots of sheep

Books written: none known but I suspect Buchan was the type of child who wrote one a week.

Part Two: University 1895-1900

Buchan was accepted into Brasenose College in Oxford with a scholarship to study Classics. According to some contemporary accounts, he was tremendously lively and threw himself into the full student experience. One source tells of how he rescued an American student who had a candle thrown into his pants – Richard Hannay, eat your heart out. Buchan was officially published for the first time while at Oxford, and received a First-Class Degree in Law upon graduating. He was also the President of the Oxford Union and won several prizes for his essays and poetry.

Friends made: Hilaire Belloc (Anglo-French poet and politician), Raymond Asquith (son of future PM Herbert Asquith), Aubrey Herbert (offered the throne of Albania, twice) and Sholto Douglas (famous painter who bailed out Oscar Wilde). Also, presumably, the grateful American from the candle incident.

Books written: Sir Quixote of the Moors, John Burnet of Barns, A Lost Lady of Old Years, The Pilgrim Fathers, Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People, Sir Walter Raleigh (biography), Scholar-Gipsies (non-fiction), A History of Brasenose College (non-fiction)

Part Three: London Life 1900-1914

Edmund Ironside was a spy and later Field Marshal who was famous for using disguises. He worked undercover in Southern Africa and clearly really impressed Buchan.

Without any family income, Buchan had to support himself in the years after graduating. He managed to squeeze in a quick career as a barrister, publisher and journalist at the Spectator before deciding that diplomacy and government were more suited to his skills. In 1901, he travelled to South African to work as the private secretary to Alfred Milner, then High Commissioner of Southern Africa. South Africa and its people featured in many of Buchan’s novels and this period served as his introduction to the British Empire at its outer reaches.

It’s not entirely clear what Buchan made of the Empire. On one hand, many of his characters fight valiantly to protect it and it’s often upheld in his books as the forces of civilisation and progress. On the other hand, as a committed Calvinist, Buchan was notably compassionate towards those in difficulty and was later committed to protecting minority cultures from being wiped out by Western governments. According to his granddaughter, he saw the British Empire as a natural stepping stone towards achieving a Federal system of states in alliance around the world. Certainly, he didn’t share his hero Richard Hannay’s anti-semitic and racist views – they can be more easily attributed to the common speech of the officers and diplomats he observed.

Buchan married Susan Grosvenor (cousin to the Duke of Westminster) on 15th July 1907. Despite her lofty connections, Susan was also very keen on reading and by all accounts, the two enjoyed a long and happy marriage together with several children. During this time, Buchan also entered politics for the first time and ran as a Unionist candidate for Peebles and Selkirk. He supported women’s suffrage, free trade and national insurance but ran against many of the recent Liberal welfare reforms.

Friends made: Viscount Alfred Milner, GM Trevelyan (historian), Edmund Ironside (Field Marshal and possible inspiration for Richard Hannay), the well-to-do of London (including but not limited to: the Wellesleys, Walpoles, Balfours, Cecils, Stuart-Wortleys, Lytteltons and Talbots)

Books Written: The Half-Hearted, A Lodge in the Wilderness, Prester John, The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies, The Marquis of Montrose (biography), Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall (biography), The African Colony (non-fiction), The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income (non-fiction), Some Eighteenth Century Byways (non-fiction), Nine Brasenose Worthies (non-fiction), What the Home Rule Bill Means (non-fiction)

Part Three: Enter Richard Hannay 1914-1935

As the First World War broke out, the government rather sensibly employed Buchan in the War Propaganda Bureau. He also worked as a correspondent for The Times in France, and was later appointed as a second-lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. In 1917, he was promoted to Director of Information and assisted in writing a 24-volume contemporary history of the war. Buchan made it through the war relatively unscathed, but his younger brother Alastair was killed at Arras in 1917. It’s not clear whether he stayed involved with intelligence after the war ended, but we’d like to think that he did…

The much-spoofed The 39 Steps remains a literary classic even today, thanks in part to Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation. Also, my mum really fancies Richard Hannay so there’s that.

During this time, Buchan also wrote some of his most famous novels, focussed on the wartime hero Richard Hannay. They were initially published in serial form and were extremely popular with soldiers on the front-line. At the close of the war, he continued to publish both novels focussed on Hannay and other fictional heroes. He also became Director of Reuters news agency and Lord High Commissioner within the Church of Scotland.

In 1927, he made his first successful foray into British politics as the Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities. Here, he proposed his own form of Scottish Nationalism – he saw Scotland as a self-contained nation within the greater British Empire. He petitioned Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin to appoint him to the Cabinet, but was unsuccessful. It’s not entirely clear why this is, but know-it-alls with a phenomenal work ethic don’t tend to be very popular with their work-shy Parliamentary colleagues – that’s my best guess. Just look at Alexander Hamilton.

Friends made: Lord Beaverbrook (newspaper baron and proto-Richard Murdock figure), General Allenby and TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia to us), Lowell Thomas (American journalist), most of British High Command, Hugh MacDiarmaid (poet and Scottish nationalist), Stanley Baldwin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Hollywood star)

Fiction published: Salute to Adventurers, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Power-House, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Path of the King, Huntingtower, Midwinter, The Three Hostages, John Macnab, The Dancing Floor, Witch Wood, The Courts of the Morning, Castle Gay, The Blanket of the Dark, The Gap in the Curtain, The Magic Walking Stick, A Prince of the Captivity, The Free Fishers, The Runagates Club, Poems: Scots and English

Non-fiction published (selected!): An enormous amount of work on World War One, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir, Lord Minto: A Memoir, The Man and the Book: Sir Walter Scott, Montrose: A History (biography) Julius Caesar (biography), Oliver Cromwell (biography), The Last Secrets, The Margins of Life, The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1678-1918, The Causal and the Casual in History, The Kirk in Scotland, Montrose and Leadership, The Novel and the Fairytale, The Massacre of Glencoe, Gordon at Khartoum

Part Four: Governor of Canada 1935-1940

In the same year that The 39 Steps was adapted for cinema by Alfred Hitchcock, Buchan was elevated to the peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. This tied together his love for Scotland and Oxford, and also prepared him for appointment as Governor General of Canada on 1st June 1935. He moved his entire family out to Canada and began his tenure as Governor on 2nd November.

No, he wasn’t at Coachella. This picture has a somewhat touching back story as Buchan was awarded with an honorary title by the leaders of the First Nations in recognition of his extraordinary talents as a storyteller.

In many ways, Buchan was the ideal candidate for this position – he had a longstanding love and appreciation of Canada and had visited several times after the war. He was also well respected across Canada and, despite his failing health, he travelled the length of the country to encourage national unity. He had a particular respect and appreciation for First Nation culture and was a major early campaigner for multiculturalism as a key part of Canadian society. There is one amusing anecdote from the man himself regarding a party with some Ukranians:

“At Regina on Saturday afternoon I visited the community halls of the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Ukrainians White and Red, and the Jews, and spoke in each. The Police didn’t want me to go to the Red Ukrainians on the ground that they were dangerous Communists, so of course I insisted on going, and was received deliriously in a hall smothered in Union Jacks, and they nearly lifted the roof off singing the National Anthem.”

Perhaps his greatest success as governor was organising George VI’s tour of Canada in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. This shored up support for Britain in the face of German invasion, and strengthened relations between Britain and America which proved invaluable in the following years.

John Buchan died on 6th February 1940 after suffering severe head injuries following a stroke. He received an extraordinary amount of tributes on both sides of the Atlantic, and his ashes were returned to Oxford. The most personal was the naming of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in British Columbia – for a man who loved adventures in the untamed wilderness, there could be no finer gift.

Friends made: George V, George VI and family, Mackenzie King (Canadian PM), Franklin D Roosevelt, a lot of Canadians

Books written: The House of the Four Winds, The Island of Sheep, Sick Heart River, The Long Traverse, The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy, Augustus (biography), The King’s Grace (non-fiction), Naval Episodes of the Great War (non-fiction), The Interpreter’s House (non-fiction), Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (non-fiction), Memory Hold-the-Door (non-fiction), Comments and Characters (non-fiction), Canadian Occasions (non-fiction)

While you’re here…

We hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy exploration of one of Scotland’s finest authors (it’s not our fault – the man wrote over 100 books!). We’ve been working on our own rather exciting project and we are very excited to finally introduce it properly. Inspired by John Buchan’s masterpiece Mr Standfast, we will be bringing our very own spy adventure to the Fringe and you (yes, you) can be a part of it. Follow this link to grab tickets and feel free to contact us for more information at hello@simplyspiffing.co.uk. 

Further reading:

Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury 2019
John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier, Andrew Lownie, Thistle Publishing 2013
John Buchan: A Biography, Janet Adam Smith, Hart-Davis 1965
https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/b/johnbuchan.html
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/2lWTsMM9FyLFMSTgCtrl91k/john-buchan
https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2015/03/in-pursuit-of-john-buchan/

Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We think John Buchan would be pretty pleased with this.

A Brief History of Escape Rooms

Edinburgh

Ah yes, the great Escape Room. They’ve swept across the world in the last few years, followed by a trail of awkward selfies with weird props and increasingly confusing themes (see below…). But where did they come from?

“In 1203 AD, a mysterious tale reached the shores of England. Sailors spoke of a room containing riches beyond imagination, that could be accessed if the seeker was brave, clever and quick enough to find them. But if they failed to escape within one hour…they would be trapped in an underground bunker forever, doomed to die amongst the puzzles they failed to solve.”

– William of Newburgh, Anglo Saxon Chronicler and Historian

It was at this moment that Susan remembered how much she hated mazes.  Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

I made that bit up. There are no Escape Rooms in Anglo-Saxon chronicles (as far as we know) and their origins are somewhat more prosaic. Treasure hunts and puzzles have existed in some form or another since…well, since one person knew where something was but wanted to make it harder to find. Labyrinths and mazes provide some early examples – treasure maps are another. Socialite Elsa Maxwell was credited with the invention of the treasure hunt as a party pursuit – in her own words, it was a good opportunity to pair people off and create mischief as they inevitably disappeared into bushes and hooked up. Something to consider when choosing a partner for an Escape Room.

A more recognisable version of Escape Rooms arrived with platform video games – designers carefully built levels to make players hunt for clues and solve puzzles. (Personally, I still remember the summer of 2001 when I spent weeks on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on Gameboy Color and still couldn’t find the Asphodel Root. Message me if you want to know where it is). Another possible inspiration came in the form of game shows such as Jungle Run and The Crystal Maze, which became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. They involved interlinked challenges and teams were rewarded for solving puzzles and obtaining special items to help them along the way. And who could forget Trapped! – that borderline-creepy show on CBBC which made small children solve puzzles to escape an old man, all whilst one of their friends was secretly sabotaging them. Nowadays, you can achieve the same effect by taking the most unhelpful person you know as part of your Escape Room team.

Most Escape Rooms come equipped with an equally Sardonic Games Master. Photo: The Crystal Maze

The culmination of this came with Crimson Room, a video game designed by Toshimitsy Takagi and released in 2004. It featured room-based challenges, and forced the player to collaborate in order to progress through different levels. In 2007, the Japanese company SCRAP took this concept one step further and created real-life escape rooms, based around different themes. From here, the concept spread across Asia and into Europe, eventually reaching across the globe.

Escape Rooms in Popular Culture

Escape Rooms are now sufficiently popular across the globe that they’ve started to crop up in popular culture. They’ve appeared on shows as diverse as Modern Family, Brooklyn 99, Conan O’Brien, My Little Pony, Castle, The Big Bang Theory and even Sherlock in one form or another. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the horror genre’s affinity with problem solving (looking at you, Saw), an escape room themed film (imaginatively entitled Escape Room) was released in 2019, with a sequel to follow in 2020.

It’s pretty likely that the craze is here to stay. If you’re new to it all, just to start you off we’ve found some the weirdest escape room themes out there:

  • Komnata Quest – an “adult” escape room aimed at couples (would love to know the divorce statistics on this one)
  • The Black Book – find very specific evidence of Government corruption (In case you couldn’t get enough of Bodyguard and felt like you had to BE Richard Madden. Sex with the Home Secretary not included)
  • Escape the Plane! (Samuel L Jackson not included)
  • Pet-Snatched! Rescue the Pet-napped Emu (and question your life choices?)

Why are you talking about Escape Rooms on a theatre blog?

I’m so pleased you asked. We’ve got something quite exciting in store for Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019. It involves spies, quests and enough running around alleyways to make Elsa Maxwell very happy. Keep your eyes peeled for more information in the next few months…

Cover photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Ruminations on Gallantry

Edinburgh

A guest post from cast member Tom who has some thoughts ahead of the opening night of A Gallant Life next week. Unlike the rest of the company who have a variety of qualifications, predominantly in history, English and theatre, he has a degree in philosophy  (although we try not to hold it against him). You might be able to tell… 

The Oxford Dictionary offers two definitions of ‘gallantry’; the first is “courageous behaviour, especially in battle”. Given the historical and contemporary tendency for men to outnumber women in the military, this gallantry of medals and machismo leaves little room for anything but the masculine. The second definition is “polite attention or respect given by men to women”, explicitly reinforcing the quiet presumption that gallantry and its rewards lie firmly within the domain of men. 

Not until the 1st of January 2014 did women eclipse men in the number of state honours bestowed by the Crown, an impressive 61% of the roster. But just ten years prior, 34% of recipients were female, 28% in 1994, and only 17% in 1974. This trend for underreporting the contributions of women to the sustaining of societies and the expansion of empires runs right through to the birth of western literature; as Mary Beard notes in her book ‘Women and Power’, the primary introduction of the Odyssey’s female lead, that of the protagonist’s wife Penelope, is one of silencing and implied powerlessness; and it is her own son who wields the malignant self-righteousness to which men have been accustomed against her – “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all…for mine is the power in this household”. Whilst it may not be surprising that women in the 12th century BCE were being unjustly treated, this tale is one of the foundational texts in European culture. It may be possible to extricate the misogynistic mores of history from our present state. But such associations do not die quietly, or without cost, and for many who enjoy positions of influence and privilege, they see no incentive to do so.

Where do Muriel Thompson, and all the women engulfed in the Great War who were not permitted to see battle by an establishment saturated in the bitter syrup of patriarchy, fit into this? A Gallant Life is a small window onto a planet at war with itself, throwing light on the lives of a few who were willing to risk everything. Not to destroy their enemy, but to rescue as many as could be saved from the maelstrom soon to be known as ‘The War to End All Wars’. These women did so even as their efforts were ignored or abhorred by the very sovereign powers intent on delivering humanity into suffering never before seen. Muriel herself was a pioneer not just on the battlefield, but on the racetrack, as one of the foremost drivers of her day (an activity condemned by some as dangerously unfeminine, as it is in some countries to this day). While it is true that they were eventually honoured in their own time, their story has largely been forgotten from the history books they helped to write. We hope with our production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018, that we may change that, and keep the spirit of the women of the war, alive in the 21st century.

 

The Six Types of Flyerers at the Edinburgh Fringe and How to Deal With Them

Edinburgh

Picture the scene. It’s the first week of the Edinburgh Fringe. You know that you need to get down the Royal Mile to see a show you’ve booked at the space, which is apparently a feminist mime reinterpretation of unpublished Oscar Wilde letters (your friend is in it). But to get down there, there is one obstacle in your way.

Well, a couple of thousand obstacles in your way.

Flyerers. A persistent, difficult and dangerous species which have the power to make you feel guilt, frustration and deep confusion. Here is the unofficial guide to the different breeds and how exactly to handle them.

The mercenary often moves in a pack, making them considerably harder to avoid.
photo credit: byronv2 Fringe on the Mile 2016 052 via photopin (license)

The Mercenary
This breed of flyerer has been hired by a show to flyer on their behalf. Maybe the show is that rare show which will make enough money to justify this extravagance. Maybe the organisers couldn’t face the Royal Mile everyday. It isn’t for the weak. Either way, mercenaries are likely to have little to no idea about the show they are advertising. They probably couldn’t tell you where or what it is, let alone how much it costs and how on earth to get there. They usually have obnoxious hoodies.
How to deal with them – they are easily dissuaded by people with little to no interest in their show. A simple “no thank you” and a hasty retreat ought to do it.

The Hunter
This particular beast will clock you as you are walking down the mile. If you fit into their target demographic (which is usually broad), they will approach you tactically, cutting off all avenues of escape. If by some miracle you manage to avoid them, they are likely to chase you down the Mile until you accept a flyer as a way of shaking them. It’s entirely possible that if you don’t take a flyer, they will follow you around for the rest of the day out of sheer persistence.
How to deal with them – just take the flyer. There is no getting out of this one and there are plenty of bins around further away. Just don’t throw it away in plain sight of them or they will begin the chase again.

The Snob
Every so often, you will get flyered by someone who acts as though they’re bestowing a truly wonderful gift upon you by giving you their flyer. You should be grateful to share Mile-space with this particular thespian and they will let you know that. They might even make disparaging remarks about being forced to flyer for audiences. Even though their profit-share is about as likely to be profitable as the Tories are to increase Arts Funding.
How to deal with them – they’re probably too lazy to flyer you anyway but avoid getting into a conversation with them about the show, for fear of being subjected to a description of their commitment to method acting.

Flirt to Convert
This one is easy to spot. Their costume looks good and they know it. They are attempting to bring in an audience through sheer animal magnetism. The male edition is a particular favourite amongst older women – vaguely cheeky remarks and lots of getting far too close to the person you are flyering. They’ll probably promise to come and see your show too, which is a blatant lie unless there is any chance of sex.
How to deal with them – this one really depends on whether or not it’s worked on you. If you’re into what they’re offering, by all means go and see their naked ventriloquist Cabaret set entirely to the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain. Otherwise, smile politely, and accept that you are very unlikely to see them at any of your shows, regardless of what they’re promising.

Just to prove how edgy his show is, this man is wearing an ineffectual blindfold. But think of the ART.
photo credit: byronv2 Fringe on the Mile 2016 0227 via photopin (license)

GCSE Drama Students With A Lot Of Feelings
Also pretty easy to spot, mainly because they’re actually not going to try and flyer you. Instead, they will recreate crucial, emotional sections from their piece about identity/dystopia/emotions/shouting indiscriminately/fear (delete as appropriate). The scenes are often threatening and/or confusing, but by golly they’ve got a lot of feelings and they’re keen to share them. With anyone who will pay. Their parents think they’re wonderful.
How to deal with them – this group may not actually try to flyer you at all. They are often quite happy to stand in the middle of the mile and shout things for a few hours, then go away pleased. You might get one earnest looking fifteen year old run up to you and ply you with one but most of them prefer to have feelings.

Stunt Flyerers
Similar to the GCSE students but almost more concerning in that they are adults. So they know what they’re doing and they probably funded it themselves. Stunt flyerers can be found shouting off-putting things like “Worst show on the Fringe” and “You will hate it”, which are not wholly inaccurate. Other variations include terrible puns, such as pretending their flyer is a telephone (it isn’t) or a piece of litter (it is). Sometimes they will just make themselves and everyone else feel very uncomfortable, by doing something faux-outrageous and really rather silly, like tying yourself up or pouring wine over your own head repeatedly. (A rare exception to this is the actual stunt acrobats on the mile who are usually extremely talented. And also smug)
How to deal with them – Walking round most of them will do the trick since they don’t want to break the illusion of being mad/uncomfortable/angry simply to catch a punter who isn’t utterly enthralled.

The Hungover Flyerer
If you happen across this sorry soul, have mercy. They are in their own personal hell, surrounded by bright lights and noisy people after a late night and too many pints in C Main. No need to approach; they would probably rather not have an audience today anyway.
How to deal with them – keep a respectful distance. If requested, take a flyer, offer your condolences and move on.

Disclaimer: this post was written entirely in love. I love the Fringe, and I
even love the madness of the Royal Mile. For anyone headed there in 2017, I am a self proclaimed Hunter and I pride myself on getting anyone to take a flyer from me. Happy flyering!