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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 12 April 2020

"Greenmantle" by John Buchan

Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is recuperating from his exploits at the Battle of Loos in the First World War when he is recruited by the Secret Service to go behind the German lines to find out how the Kaiser plans to start an Islamic jihad to save the Ottoman Empire and open up a second front against the British. From this potentially promising start the plot becomes a bizarre succession of opportunities for Hannay and his companions to demonstrate their derring-do and for unbelievable escapes from tight situations.

This is incredibly boys' own stuff and marred by the jingoism and unthinking racism that characterised so many boys' adventure stories of the time. War, for example, is "the only task for a man." More disturbingly, honour and decency are regarded as playing "the white man". The real sourness of these attitudes is that they are so ingrained as to be unconscious.

It also seems to owe a certain debt to The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers which is a much better written book with some very ironic humour. The scene where Hannay meets the Kaiser seems very similar to the scene in which Carruthers (of the Foreign Office) spies on the Kaiser in Riddle.

The only humour in this book derives from a comic American character who is perpetually complaining about his dyspepsia and his "duo-denum" and who demonstrates incredible sang-froid by playing endless games of Patience in the face of death, although when clambering over a roof and suffering from vertigo "I could hear him invoking some unknown deity called Holy Mike." (C 18). I suspect this attributes were enough in Buchan's day to constitute character.

The story is, of course dated, and not just in its breathtakingly chauvinistic attitudes. Technology also dates. In one scene, the hero steals a car and drives off in it. He has to start it ... using a starting handle. When he is fleeing his enemies in it he reaches a dizzying fifty miles per hour.

There are moments when the cliches are so extreme that I wondered whether Buchan was laughing at himself:

  • "I may be sending you to your death, Hannay - Good God, what a damned task-mistress duty is!" (C 1)

There was one wonderful moment when the narrator spoke directly to the reader with a gnomic (at least to me) reference to a third party which made the point perfectly: "He was in Swaziland with Bob McNab, and you know what that means." (C 3) Well, no actually, I don't, but I can guess.

Some great moments:

  • "Besides, how big is the risk? About one o'clock in the morning, when you can't sleep, it will be the size of Mount Everest, but if you run out to meet it, it will be a hillock you can jump over." (C 2)
  • "I was half a head shorter than him to begin with, and a man does not feel his stoutest when he has no clothes, so he had the pull on me in every way." (C 6)
  • "He had proceeded to get drunk. ... He had a head like a rock, but he got to the required condition by wild mixing. He was quite a gentleman in his cups, and not in the least violent, but he was apt to be very free with his tongue." (C 6)
  • "To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts." (C 8)
  • "The woman's face had the skin stretched tight over the bones and that transparency which means under-feeding." (C 8)
  • "I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere." (C 10)
  • "That lady's a very different proposition. The man that will understand her has got to take a biggish size in hats." (C 12)
  • "Politics is like a chicken-coop, and those inside get to behave as if the little run were all their world." (C 13)
Ethically challenging for the modern reader: a product of the culture of the time.

April 2020; 343 pages

Books by John Buchan reviewed in this blog:
  • My very favourite: a historical novel set in Scotland which proved that Buchan really could write: Witch Wood
  • Weird plot, terribly un-PC but with some wonderful characters, a laugh aloud speech, and a real feel for the joys of hunting: John Macnab
  • Well written but with the most ridiculously bonkers plot and some horrible classism, racism and anti-semitism: The Three Hostages 
  • A wonderful description of the Scottish countryside and some fantastic characters and some brilliant counterpointing: Huntingtower
  • Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War 

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