By J. William Galbraith
Originally published in The Dorchester Review print edition, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2020 issue, p. 109.
URSULA BUCHAN'S biography of her grandfather, reviewed in the last issue of The Dorchester Review, enriches our understanding of John Buchan, the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, particularly about his wife, Susan. The book has received excellent reviews with a few exceptions that would surprise no one: I referred obliquely to The Guardian with a few quotations in my review. Quite outrageous, however, is the review (Feb. 20, 2020) by the London Review of Books.
The LRB was founded in 1979 and has been edited since 1992 by the now octogenarian Mary-Kay Wilmers, whose family money keeps the paper running. In 2014, The Guardian interviewed Wilmers in her offices on the top two floors of a Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. With views out both sides, Wilmers reveals that on one side she likes to see what “the nurses get up to” in their accommodation at University College Hospital, but she doesn’t much like the view out the other side which looks out on a spire of a Hawksmoor church. This story could give the impression she is a voyeur who dislikes historic architecture, however, translated into Guardian language it means she “retains both an insatiable curiosity about people (the nurses) and a healthy disregard for received opinion (the church).”
In “The Manners of a Hog,” Christopher Tayler launches his attack with a throwback, indeed 67 years back, referring to a 1953 book by journalist Richard Usborne called Clubland Heroes, then in the vanguard of the modernist onslaught against, among others, John Buchan.
Tayler is an LRB contributing editor and his manner is to wallow in a world of fiction, delightfully dissecting the “old-fashioned” language, as he describes it, of characters in Buchan’s Great War novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast. It is a spurious approach. He opens with a lengthy quotation from The Thirty-Nine Steps, oft repeated as evidence of Buchan’s supposed anti-Semitism, citing words from a short-lived character at the beginning of the novel. It should be obvious that novels will reflect the times in which they are written. These three works reflect the fears, international affairs, conspiracy theories, prejudices, and anti-Semitic language of their time — anti-Semitism that unfortunately still prevails within the British Labour Party (see “Did Hitler read Hobson?” in this issue). Interestingly, The Thirty-Nine Steps is 42nd on a list of the 100 best novels written in English. Ironically, it is for The Guardian that Robert McCrum, a regular scribe there, compiled the list in 2014-15 and who writes that the novel, “with its sparse, contemporary prose, is hard to put down.”
WITH A HAUGHTY tone, Tayler begrudges that “perhaps there’s more life left in Buchan’s Great War-era dreamscapes” than “we decadent cosmopolitans think.” It is a lament that becomes more malodorous when he refers to conservatives whose imagination is nourished from “somewhere in the cultural compost heap [from which Buchan’s work] ... “might still be releasing nutrients.”
While Tayler does acknowledge that Buchan wrote “a great deal more than the Hannay books” — so much so that it appears Tayler envies Buchan’s vast productivity — he gives only three passing references. One comes from Buchan’s Canadian novel, Sick Heart River, in which there is a call by one character for “a brotherhood of all men, white and red and brown” that echoes his last Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep. While this may not be phrased exactly as it would be today, as an encapsulation of liberal sentiment of the day it is pitch-perfect and, after all, not far from the mandate of the United Nations.
Tayler’s dogged approach keeps an unbalanced focus on the war novels, so evocative of the time and society in which they were written, in order to leave the impression Buchan himself was racist and anti-Semitic.
However, I believe that to know the views of any author requires examining their speeches and correspondence but also, more importantly, their actions both public and private. Buchan demonstrated a deep and broad humanity throughout his lifetime.
Buchan’s private and public advocacy for the Jews and a Jewish homeland during the 1920s and 1930s are largely absent from Tayler’s text. The two examples he does cite — that Buchan “condemned the persecution of German Jews” shortly after Hitler came to power and that he “earned himself a place in a Nazi handbook”, for “Pro-Jewish activity” — are far less significant to Tayler than the fictional world where “Hannay and Buchan’s other characters continue to obsess uneasily about Jewishness.”
In the real world Buchan worked closely over many years with Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who became the first president of Israel. As an MP in Britain, Buchan was chairman of the Parliamentary Pro-Palestine Committee. As Governor-General he is described in a 2001 history of the Jewish experience in Canada as the “most visible supporter” of the Jews in Canada and of a Jewish homeland.
Tayler does list some of Buchan’s real-life activities that meet with his approval — supporting women’s suffrage, helping establish the National Library of Scotland, promoting education and workers’ rights — but these are qualified or prefaced with a snide remark such as: “In public life, though, he was less inclined to play the arch-reactionary,” as if the novels revealed a secret bigot. Tayler is a would-be Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians purported to expose the “real” character of great men and women.
BELITTLING BUCHAN’S vice-regal appointments, Tayler says he “was shuttled off into ceremonial flummery,” in 1933-34 (as Lord High Commissioner representing the King at the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland), and in 1935 as Governor-General of Canada. This flippancy is a gross exposé of Tayler’s ignorance or intentional bias. Buchan’s many significant contributions to Canada at many levels go unremarked by Tayler, who cites “a few visits to the frozen north” with a sneer worthy of the most privileged nabob.
In the real world, Buchan played a role in drawing President Roosevelt closer to Britain. But Tayler offers more dismissive and misleading treatment, saying Buchan’s efforts to strengthen ties “were hampered by the fact that Buchan needed the king’s permission to visit the US.”
Buchan’s contributions to Canada and to the trans-Atlantic relationship were anything but flummery. Indeed, this period of Buchan’s life was arguably his most important. Tayler, with his focus on literature, is perhaps blind to the art of real-world diplomacy among world statesmen. He falls back on worn-out modernist and ideological arguments, partly because he has also neglected to inform himself of the many critical reappraisals of Buchan that continue to be written and which Ursula Buchan so well documented in her biography.
During the Covid-19 lockdown The LRB has been offering free articles online from its archive under the series title of “Diverted Traffic.” However in publishing Tayler’s biased and ignorant review, The LRB has strayed into the wrong lane.
[Originally published in The Dorchester Review print edition, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2020 issue, p. 109.]