Friday, 16 September 2016

Battered Penguins - Huntingtower by John Buchan




Huntingtower is a story whose central character is not Buchan's more famous creation, Richard Hannay, but the slightly more complex, far less dashing figure of Dickson McCunn.

The novel is set in Scotland just after the First World War. Dickson McCunn has just retired from thirty-five years in charge of a large shop in Glasgow and decides to set off on a walking holiday in the highlands of Scotland. Puzzlingly, Buchan provides him with a wife, who is not accompanying him, as she likes to holiday at something called a "hydropathic", a place McCunn loathes. A moment of regret allows the reader to discover that "Once he and his wife had had similar likings, but they had taken different roads since their child died." This unsettling fact remains entirely in the background, a faint hint of something rather sad, beneath what is essentially a highly romantic adventure story.

McCunn soon finds himself "pitchforked out of ... that old happy world ... the cosy inn, the Compleat Angler, the Chavender or Chub" and instead drawn into a complicated but exciting plot involving a Russian princess and some terrible baddies. He, together with the urchins known as the Gorbals Die-Hards and a couple of others, eventually saves the day, needless to say.

It is all very enjoyable escapism and wonderfully unselfconscious in the display of prejudices and attitudes that would probably not pass muster were the manuscript to appear in a publisher's office today - to pluck one example out, this piece of dialogue should suffice:"I think you are worse than a coward. I think you are a cad." There is evidence of insight into character - "Now it is an odd trait of certain mild people that a suspicion of threat, a hint of bullying will rouse some unsuspected obstinacy deep down in their souls" - and understanding of humanity in general - "civilisation anywhere is a very thin crust". There is quite a lot of good food, which I've recorded elsewhere on this blog. There are some rather good sayings - someone is described as a "Bit hairy about the heels" and on a stormy day someone observes, "the wind's enough to take the wings off a seagull".

The Gorbals Die Hards "those gallant little boys", are a wonderful invention, that "ring of small shockheads ... so tiny, so poor, so pitifully handicapped and yet so bold in their meagreness", The repudiation of the fear Dickson has that he is too old to act is very comforting for older readers and the verse he sustains himself with:

What's a man's age? He must hurry more, that's all;
Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold:
When we mind labour, then only, we're too old - 
What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?

is worth keeping in mind, at least the first two lines anyway.

Similarly the contention that what makes Dickson so terrific is that he is "what they call the middle class ... the stuff which above all others makes a great people ... [that] will endure when aristocracies and proletariats crumble" is very satisfying if you too are middle class - and few who read and enjoy Buchan will be anything else.

But perhaps what turns the book from merely enjoyable to great is this passage:

"...he glanced towards the just-vacated chair. 'Australian,' he said.
'How d'you know?'
'Can't mistake them. There's nothing else so lean and fine produced on the globe today. I was next door to them at Pozieres and saw them fight. Lord! Such men! Now and then you had a freak, but most looked like Phoebus Apollo.'

Such wisdom, such truth. Did I say this was a rollicking adventure story? I was wrong - it is a magnificent work of literature, natch.

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