August 26, 2023, is the 148th anniversary of the birth of John Buchan. Born in Perth in 1875, the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister and his wife, Buchan attended the University of Glasgow as a scholarship student, then moving on to Oxford where–according to Wikipedia (which can sometimes be trusted to get basic facts of this sort right, especially when they present with verifiable attribution)–he did very well and mixed with luminaries such as Hillaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith, and Aubrey Herbert. Subsequently, he was elected president of the Oxford Union. (
Sort of diminishes the whole “classism” business as the basis of British society, don’t it?)
Ignore that last bit. Off message. Nevertheless–as they say–“an inconvenient truth.”
Post-university, Buchan was recruited by the British army to draft intelligence communications for headquarters staff, and then he entered upon a successful diplomatic, political, and publishing career ranging from administrative positions in South Africa to election as a Conservative member of parliament, to a job as editor of The Spectator. Along the way, he sat for a law degree (although he never practiced), got married and raised a family.
In March of 1935, King George V approved the appointment of John Buchan–by then a prolific and popular author who’d (amongst several other honors) been elevated to the peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield–to the post of Governor General of Canada. During his years in that position, he earned a reputation as a rather independent support of Canadian national identity, once saying that
a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada’s King
and that ethnic groups
should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character…[and that] the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.
John Buchan died in February, 1940, after striking his head on the rim of a bathtub. He was given a state funeral in Ottawa, after which his ashes were returned to Elsfield, Oxfordshire for burial.
My own encounter with John Buchan began quite simply, and in my uncle’s bedroom. (He wasn’t in it, so fear not; this post isn’t venturing into bizarre or unnatural territory.)
I was twelve or so at the time, and a boarding-school pupil at The Abbey School in Malvern Wells. My parents and my sister were in the United States, and I spent free weekends and holidays with members of my family still in the UK. One of them was my Granny Molly, who lived in Birmingham.
When I stayed with Granny and Grandpa, I slept up on the third floor, in what had been–in his youth–my uncle’s bedroom. At the side of the bed was the bookshelf, still populated with his childhood favorites. And that’s where I discovered–among others–Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, my uncle’s deep interest in birding, and a few other treasures.
One of which was The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was the novel which had an interesting backstory and which introduced the character Richard Hannay, who went on to become the hero of four other of Buchan’s books. I’ve read all of them (recommend!), although I’ve barely scratched the surface of the dozens of volumes of fiction and non-fiction compiled by Buchan over the years.
But it’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (written in 1915) on which his reputation still rests. It’s a book Buchan wrote while recovering from an illness, and which–in the dedication–he described as “the shocker, the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities…[reflecting back to the days] when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.” Fifty years earlier, and had it been published in installments, I like to think, The Thirty-Nine Steps might have been called “a penny-dreadful.”
Its apotheosis in modern culture probably occurred in 1935 with the Alfred Hitchcock film staring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Although there have been several other (purported) adaptations since, none of them has remotely approached the success of this one:
Happy Birthday, John Buchan. And, thank you for being such a happy memory of youth, life, family, and culture.
Additional note for those who find it difficult to believe that “striking one’s head on the rim of a bathtub” could lead to a catastrophic head injury and subsequent death, as it did in Buchan’s case: My granny Molly (the very same!) had a huge cast-iron tub in her (otherwise) rather primitive bathroom. I tripped on the linoleum one day, when I was very young, and struck (thankfully) just my chin on the rim. The scar remains to this day. I don’t think such serious injuries are inevitable in these days of acrylic and fiberglass tubs, but long ago they weren’t that uncommon.