Readers of this blog know that there have been several postings on John Buchan in the past, he being something of a favourite for many reasons.
As part of my post-hospital convalescence I picked up one of the Buchan thrillers I had not read before, The House of the Four Winds, and read it in short order. It is probably the weakest of the three Dickson McCunn tales and is one of Buchan’s weaker thrillers, taking place not in Britain but in the invented Central European country, Evallonia, which resembles Austria in many ways but is not. A continuation of the tale in Castle Gay, it is a wonderful hokum that involves a nasty republican government backed by sinister Marxists, about to be toppled, a self-organizing young civilian army, Juventus, modelled to some extent on Mussolini’s fascisti, a complicated way of ensuring that Prince John becomes king and, above all, a circus run by a cousin of Allison Westwater’s and Janet Roylance’s with a thoroughly likeable and useful elephant by the name of Aurunculeia. We also meet many of the Buchan heroes: Dickson himself, two of the erstwhile Gorbals Die-Hards, Jaikie Galt and Dougal Crombie, Allison who ends the novel as Jaikie’s fiancée and the Roylances.
It is a little odd that Buchan did not write any more Dickson McCunn mysteries as he was obviously fond of the characters and the ending of The House of the Four Winds requires some kind of continuation. Though most of our heroes leave Evallonia, Jaikie remains, the trusted confidant of the about to be crowned King John and an officer in Juventus. Surely, there must have been some plan to get him back to Britain, to Allison who is unlikely to be happy away from Scotland and into that great career that everybody is predicting though nobody really knows what it will be. As we never hear of him later on as a rising politician, we must assume that he did not enter British politics. Was he snapped up by Sir Walter Bullivant’s successor for the secret service? Did he become another Sandy Arbuthnot with a very different sphere of interests and talents? We never find out. (At least, not as far as I know.) Of the series characters only Archie Roylance turns up in subsequent novels either in person (Island of Sheep) or as a mentioned name (Sick Heart River). We must assume that his marriage to Janet continues to be happy.
The book was published in 1935 by which time it was clear that Evallonia is unlikely to fare well in the near future. The Communist thug Mastrovin is particularly evil but Juventus has sinister overtones and there is something slightly frightening about them. In the immediate plot they side with the monarchists and help Prince John to the throne. Also several of their leaders seem to be either part-English or educated in England. In reality, as Buchan knew well, the likes of Juventus were not led by people with Cambridge education and were not particularly gentlemanly. Another reason for bringing Jaikie home, I should have thought. Perhaps, Buchan intended to do so but did not quite get round to it.
Thank you for all the enquiries. Had to spend longer in hospital than expected but all is well that ends well and I am back home now. Blogging starts soon.
Normally they just happen. This one is being announced. Blogging is being suspended for a week or so as I deliver myself into the hands of the NHS tomorrow morning (at 7 a.m. - ouch) but hope to be out of the hospital by the end of the week. I shall spend some of my time there working on that long piece comparing Sir Harold Nicolson and Sir Henry "Chips" Channon both of whose diaries I re-read in the last couple of weeks.
This is for the historical psephologists who, I have no doubt, look at this blog regularly. Anything you ever wanted to know about elections and voting in London from 1700 to 1850 can be found on the London Electoral Website.
The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, last Prime Minister to have one as Lady Thatcher's was not one, officially. There are many clips of it available of YouTube. I chose this one because it has the moment that always brings a lump to my throat: the cranes of the East End docks bowing to the coffin as it is being taken down the Thames. The country was saying good bye to more than just one man and politician.
In the meantime, let us consider Sir Henry Channon, "Chips" as he was known to all and sundry for reasons that seem lost in the mists of his early life. He was an American born but more British than the British Conservative politician, author of three books, an inveterate socializer and party giver who knew everybody in society, politics and the arts, a man obsessed with design and beauty and, above all, a diarist. Oh yes, he was also bi-sexual.
He kept a diary, on and off, from 1918 until his death in 1958 and tried to deposit the manuscripts in the British Museum with the proviso that they should not even be looked at for fifty years according to the historian Sir Robert Rhodes James, who edited a selection of them in 1967, and for sixty years according to other sources though that seems to be merely an instruction left by his son Paul (a much more successful politician but less interesting person) in his will.
The British Museum refused to keep them as it is not their policy to keep documents that they cannot even look at for a number of years so the diaries (or most of them and thereby hangs a tale) went back to Paul Channon who, together with Chips's close friend and companion, Peter Coats, decided to have an edited version published. George Weidenfeld, coincidentally or not the publisher of Harold Nicolson's diaries, advised them to ask the young historian Robert Rhodes James to edit it and so it happened.
Rhodes James was an odd choice as he was not particularly sympathetic to Chips either personally or politically but he did seem to warm to the diarist as his work progressed. In any case, many of Rhodes James's own assumptions and prejudices date to the mid-sixties and have undergone some changes partly because of elapsing time and partly because of work done by historians on the period. After all, Rhodes James himself published a seminal book on Churchill, which went a long way towards altering perceptions and undermining the mythology that the man himself had so carefully created.
Amusingly enough, Rhodes James's own political career was not dissimilar from Channon's though he does not seem to have known quite so much and so many people. He was a backbencher under a Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) with whom he was out of sympathy, became a PPS at the Foreign Office and after his retirement from the House (which Chips did not do) lobbied unsuccessfully for a peerage, ending up with a mere knighthood.
It seems extraordinary to anyone who reads Chips's diaries that on publication they were dismissed as not much more than social gossip with some prurient hints of carefully excised passages and attacked bitterly by the author's enemies, one of whom was Randolph Churchill. The latter, something of a failure, who is brilliantly and not exactly flatteringly described by Chips at various times, wondered angrily why a young historian should jeopardize his career by editing this stuff. The young historian and, even more, the young politician, son of the diarist, wondered that, too, for a while.
Then things changed. As Rhodes James describes in the Preface to the 1993 edition:
So damning were the reviews that serious historians did not bother to read the diaries. One such was A. J. P. Taylor. Years later, with nothing much else to do on a wet afternoon, he began to read them and was so rivetted that he finished them at one sitting. He then publicly applied the adjective "classic" to them, and wrote me a particularly warm letter of congratulations for my editing.These calls went unheeded. Instead, the ultra cautious Paul Channon laid down instructions that they should be kept out of the public eye for another ten years, a somewhat ridiculous idea as nobody mentioned in those pages could possibly be alive any more. Their descendants are but if we are to worry about their feelings, nothing much can be written or published in modern history apart from accounts of battles and lists of legislative proposals.
Gradually, many more people came to share Alan Taylor's revised estimate that this was a social and political document of real importance as well as a compulsive read and enormous fun. there was a call for the complete diaries - which begin in early 1918 - to be published.
The 1993 edition is a lazy one. It is nothing more than a reprint of the 1967 one with a short new Preface by Rhodes James, in which he gives an explanation for the break-down of Chips's marriage (his meeting with Peter Coats in 1939, who became his close companion till his death and his wife's subsequent affair with and post-divorce marriage to a Czech airman) and also an odd story about the last volumes of the diary.
The 1967 edition ends with an entry in the autumn of 1953 and an editorial note that, although Chips went on with his life as before despite mounting health problems, he ended his diary then. This seemed inherently unlikely as he would have wanted to record the various political events of the mid-fifties, not to mention his own knighthood of 1957. And so it proved to be.
In 1991 the last volumes of the diary that did carry on till almost Chips's death appeared in a car boot sale in Essex (would Chips have been amused?) and the purchaser, realizing their value and importance, sold them on to Paul Channon. The assumption is that these had been stolen from Peter Coats's suite in the Albany though why they were in his possession, what else had been stolen and why Mr Coats did not mention this fact to Robert Rhodes James in the mid-sixties remains unexplained.
Despite the Preface, the original, as it turns out, erroneous last editorial note is still there in the 1993 edition. That is what I mean about it being lazy.
It really is time for an adventurous publisher to think about publishing the diaries in full with good notes by a reliable editor who will not intrude his or her personality. Chips knew everyone, was present at many important events and wrote about them all. It may be that his own estimation of how important his various private conversations, intrigues and parties is completely wrong or, perhaps, he did play an important part behind the scenes, or, as is most likely, the truth lies somewhere between the two.
His acid descriptions will amuse and cannot be feared as the people he wrote about are beyond human reach. (Chips died in 1958.)
In addition, his information about many supposedly secret events and developments was often completely accurate (much to his editor's surprise), his predictions frequently came true and his political understanding not to be dismissed lightly, as I hope to show in my long(er) blog about his and Harold Nicolson's diaries.
Not by me as I did not know either of these two men each of whom, in his own way, contributed a great deal to Conservative politics.
First, the colourful and highly opinionated Lord McAlpine of West Green, known for many things such as his euroscepticism and his exceedingly successful fundraising for Thatcher, his sociable habits and his art collection, his writing and, more recently, the new business of running a hotel in Italy. There was also the question of wrongful accusations of paedophilia in 2012 by someone who ought never have been taken seriously and the story of Sally Bercow making an idiot of herself, again.
Here is a selection of articles and obituaries: Wikipedia's long biography, the BBC's reasonably fair obituary, a fascinating interview in the Guardian some years ago, a highly salacious piece in the Daily Wail that lip-smackingly brings up the accusations in great detail while piously informing us that Lord McAlpine got his apologies and damages even from the egregious Mrs Bercow, and, of course, the obituary in the Daily Telegraph.
A somewhat less controversial figure has also died, just a day after Lord McAlpine: Sir Christopher Chataway, former world record holder of the 5,000m, one of the first men to run the 4-minute mile, the BBC's first Sports Personality of the Year, TV journalist, politician, businessman and Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. (Have I forgotten anything? Makes one tired just to list his many doings and achievements.)
The BBC, as expected gave a fulsome obituary but even the Guardian said nice things as, naturally enough, did the Telegraph.