Friday, August 05, 2005

Greenmantle by John Buchan

Still anxious to understand the world we live in, I turned from Conrad's The Secret Agent to John Buchan. Greenmantle is set during the First World War and tells of a German attempt to raise the whole of Islam in support of Turkey, thus defeating Russia on the Eastern front and turning the course of the war.

There was another reason for reading Greenmantle. The BBC Radio 4 was dramatising it in two parts and had aired the first when the bombs exploded on 7 July. The second part was pulled from the schedules. It was not just pulled without explanation: as far as I could tell, you would never have known from listening to the radio that the second part had been due to be broadcast at all.

Perhaps there was an announcement of some sort, because Charles Moore wrote in the Daily Telegraph (another version here if you need it) that:
A small news item this week announced that BBC Radio 4 had dropped its dramatisation of John Buchan's Greenmantle from the schedule. It contained "unsuitable and insensitive material" at this difficult time. A different reaction, you may remember, from the one the BBC displayed to another of its programmes: Jerry Springer - the Opera.
Having praised the BBC for holding firm over Jerry Springer, I have to say that Moore is right to draw this parallel and that its conduct over Greenmantle was weak, wet and rather sinister.

Enlightened readers are supposed to find Buchan either funny or fascist - there is a wonderful parody of him in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On. Yet he is quite capable of surprising you with how fair and liberal his views are. You come to scoff and leave impressed.

Take this conversation between the hero Richard Hannay (you may know him from The Thirty-Nine Steps) and Sandy, a figure who owes something to T. E. Lawrence - but see here. (Bennett suggests he was known at school as "Tee Hee Lawrence" because of his high-pitched, girlish giggle.)

Sandy Arbuthnot asks:
"Dick, did you ever hear of a thing called a superman?"
"There was a time when the papers were full of nothing else," I answered. "I gathered it was invented by a sportsman called Nietzsche."
And just when you are ready to laugh comes:
"Maybe," said Sandy. "Old Nietzsche has been blamed for a great deal of rubbish he would have died rather than acknowledge."
For one of the remarkable things about Greenmantle is its fairness to the Germans. Early in the book Hannay is being hunted in Germany and takes refuge in the cottage in the forest. The occupants are a mother and three children: the man of the house is away fighting the Russians.

Narrating this almost idyllic episode, Hannay says:
That night I realised the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard the hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter's cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany's madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children's bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.
It happens that the mirror image of this incident can be found in the children's adventure story Not Scarlet But Gold by Malcolm Saville. A Shropshire woman recalls giving a German spy shelter in her cottage during the Second World War. A reminder of how strongly Buchan influenced this school of writing.

If Buchan is fairer to Germans (and German philosophers) than one would expect, what of his attitude to Islam?

I cannot find the passage I want, but Charles Moore quotes it for me:
One message of the book is the importance of understanding cultures different from our own. This produces a sympathy with Islam. Sandy, who knows "something of the soul of the East", explains that: "The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. " 
And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft ... It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race. 
"The problem comes, Buchan/Arbuthnot says, when this longing for purity is perverted. The "simplicity of the ascetic" is usurped by "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation". The danger comes when "you can get the same language to cover both". Isn't that quite a good way of encapsulating our problem today?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I had been trying for some time to flesh out this idea of the bombing cultists being driven mad by language, but I didn't expect to find it in John Buchan.

Political Refugee from the Global Village said...

I enjoyed this. Yes I see all the reasons why liberals would jeer but Buchan is a very decent man and a very good prose writer. I am taking advantage of having flu to reread Greenmantle - it is unreadable by adults except when sick.

Political Refugee from the Global Village said...

You might like this: John Buchan and Al Qaeda