Peter Worthington talk

Peter introduced John Buchan, elevated to Baron Tweedsmuir, as a ‘Family Man’ despite his reputation as a novelist, historian and politician.  Perhaps a reflection of being the ‘son of the manse’ and his clear humanity in his actions. This was perhaps most evident in his last role as Governor General of Canada where the native Indians made him a Chief of the Blackwood Tribe with an Indian name that translates as ‘Teller of Tales’.  However, this humanity is evident in a number of the tales given below.  This includes the naming of his most famous of books, Thirty Nine Steps.  Buchan was recovering from illness and recuperating in a seaside house on top of some cliffs when writing the book.  His six year old daughter, who naturally insisted on counting the steps down to the shore, counted thirty nine steps presenting Buchan with a gift of a title!  It was with sadness we learned that Buchan’s death at 64 was caused by a severe head injury after a slip in the bath. He was Governor General at the time and the Reverend Alex Ferguson concluded on behalf of the nation that ‘All Canada mourns’.

It was clear Buchan was a remarkable man.  He attended Glasgow University where he couldn’t afford to graduate.  However, he won a scholarship to Oxford University to do Classics.  It was there his writing career began even before he graduated in 1900. There hewould have made connections important to his future career in diplomacy and government.  His early career took him to South Africa during the Boer War.  On return to the UK Buchan entered journalism and dabbled in politics. However, with his background, the First World War found him in the propaganda war for government before he moved into the Intelligence Service.   Here he ended up in the equivalent position to ‘M’ by the end of the war.  After the war he turned to historical subjects and novel writing. However, in 1927 he became an MP for the Combined Scottish Universities, a novel constituency.  Later again, in 1935 he was enobled to the peerage to garnish his appointment as Governor General of Canada.  And, all the while, during these many demanding appointments Buchan managed to write a hundred books.  Some of which are still in print!

That Buchan had a sense of humour showed through in a sketch drawn by during his honeymoon.  He’d married Susan Grosvenor in 1907, a relative of the Duke of Westminster’s family, although of an impoverished branch, and they went to the Alps for their honeymoon.  Buchan’s drawing was of his wife half way down a cliff face on an abseil line entitled Madonna of the Rocks’.  Grounds for an early divorce this author thinks!  Despite this they settled happily to Elsfield Village near his alma mater, Oxford University, and raised four children.

Buchan’s first posting was to South Africa in 1901 posted by Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for Southern Africa.  His key role was to improve the lot of the Concentration Camps largely filled with women and children.  His most successful action was to dramatically improve the hygiene of the camps and reduced disease and pestilence.  Buchan’s South African experience provided him with the background for another of Buchan’s famous books, Prester John.  Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that his spy thriller books such as Thirty Nine Steps and Green Mantle benefitted from his WW1 experiences.  Interestingly Peter observed that in Buchan’s book Mr Standfast that there was a plea for Conscientious Objectors (1919) where his humanity once again showed through.

Peter’s narrative took an interesting diversion to tell us about the ‘Tale of Three Men’.  Buchan’s Wartime military activity had resulted in him making the acquaintance of TE Lawrence (of Arabia fame) and Captain William Earl Johns (of Biggles fame).  It turns out that Buchan had been aware of the great work Lawrence had done in the Middle East.  They became friends and met regularly.  However, Lawrence’s Middle Eastern fame resulted in him being hounded by the press.  So to find obscurity, he applied to join the Air Force.  WE Johns, the recruitment officer, unfortunately for him, refused to have him.  However, with friends in high places, Capt Johns was overruled and Lawrence became AC2 Ross.  In time his identity was revealed and he ended transferring to the Royal Tank Corps as Trooper TE Shaw.  However, he was very unhappy there and petitioned to get back into the Air Force.  He applied to Johns again without success.  Here Lawrence sought Buchan’s help and he was readmitted to the RAF.  Once again his notoriety resulted in him being identified so the RAF posted him to India where he remained for a few years.  However, in time rumours of espionage activities started to circulate and he had to return to the UK.  This was a fascinating tale of coincidences.

In 1935, on the eve of Buchan’s appointment to General Governor of Canada, Lawrence wrote to him tongue in cheek to say that you ‘are too good to be a figure’.  However, he tangentially expressed the view that Oliver Cromwell would have approved.  Peter believes this was meant in the sense that Buchan would be a good representative of the people.  Strange to relate, a few months later Lawrence tragically died in a motor cycle accident bringing the friendship to an end.  

Buchan had developed warm feelings for Canada because he had followed the fortunes of the Canadian forces as a journalist during WW1.  Indeed it was the Canadians who sought Buchan as the next General Governor.  He took his position seriously and made it his goal to travel the length and breadth of the country.  What certainly impressed Peter was Buchan’s efforts to engage with the indigenous Indians.  Buchan on tour in Nova Scotia met Grey Owl, a writer and naturalist.  Here Peter showed us a photograph of Buchan wearing his Chieftain Indian clothes topped with a magnificent feather headdress.  The Buchan family had the headdress restored at the cost of two thousand pounds and briefly lent to the Buchan Museum.  Peter was clearly disappointed that it was returned to the Russell Coats Collection.  They are now reduced to displaying a £70 fake with Peter observing that the original had been insured for £30,000!

Peter’s talk was followed by a lively question and answer session.  There were questions about Buchan’s books, his politics (a liberal conservative), sense of humour, concentration camps and TE Lawrence.  A reflection of how Buchan’s life story had struck a chord.  One of the members observed the intriguing parallels between Buchan and Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.  Both had propaganda and spy type war time roles and both were writers of spy thrillers.  Peter’s response was that Buchan’s heroes were more about brain than brawn which drew wry smiles!  

This was a very enjoyable talk about a remarkable Scotsman, a prodigious author, and who became one of the British establishment as well as a respected statesman.  Many thanks are owed to Peter for sharing Buchan’s life and achievements with us.

Peter Worthington talk