Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The 1st Baron of Tweedsmuir

John Buchan is haunting me.  I would say he was stalking me, but he has been dead for over sixty years.

Here are the facts of our relationship, if you can call it that.

I knew one of John’s stories long before I knew his name.  That one is The Thirty-Nine Steps, famous for having been turned into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.  I didn’t learn his name until, in the course my research into the Protectorate of British East Africa, I came across a word I did not know: “greenmantlish.”  It was used to describe an anecdote in a memoir, published in 1929 by a Brit who had been a policeman in Nairobi in 1908.  

When I looked up the word, I found that Google had never heard of it—a fact amazing in itself since most of the terms I google get hundreds of the thousands of hits in a few seconds.  “Greemantle,” without the “ish” yielded about 216,00o hits in .34 seconds.  The first was a Wikipedia entry that featured the name of Richard Hannay.  I recognized that moniker right away.  “Greenmantle” was the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps and second in a series of five novels with Hannay as the main character.

Hannay had been on my mind, because during the previous year I had watched the Hitchcock film and a BBC miniseries based on The Thirty-Nine Steps.  I was boning up on the story in preparation for seeing a brilliant Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival staging of a hilarious play based on the same story, but more a spoof of Hitch’s film than Buchan’s novel.

Then, once again in the midst of my research into British East Africa, I came upon the old chap again, this time in relation to books he had written about World War I in Africa.  (The characters in my upcoming series will have to endure that debacle as time goes on.)

Once John Buchan turned up for the third time, I figured I’d better find out more about him.  Here’s a précis of what I have learned:

John Buchan, 1st Baron of Tweedsmuir PC GCMG GCVO CH was born in 1875, the son of Scot’s clergyman.  He studied at Brasenose College Oxford, took a degree in law, but never practiced at the bar.  He became instead a novelist, historian, Member of Parliament, and eventually became Governor General of Canada.  He began his diplomatic service in Southern Africa.  During his long political career he supported free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the powers of the House of Lords.  Between 1896 and 1940 (the year he died), he wrote thirty-five novels (mostly adventure stories, mysteries, and thrillers) and fifty-two works of non-fiction, averaging two books a year while keeping his day job!  HOT STUFF!

© 2013 Annamaria Alfieri


  1. The first volume in the series I edit for McFarland is _John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction_ (2008), written by Kate Macdonald, a former editor of the _John Buchan Journal_. The book includes the well-illustrated entry "_The Thirty-Nine Steps_: On Radio, Screen, and Stage."

  2. Annamaria---If you want more information about Buchan may I recommend Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars:A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918? It talks about those people who supported WWI and those who dissented. Buchan is presented as a propagandist for the war. It is fascinating and wonderfully written.