Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Battered Penguins - The Three Hostages by John Buchan

I first read The Three Hostages when I was about 11 years old, during an Easter holiday at Trebetherick in Cornwall, beside a warm fire, while eating Cornish splits and jam and clotted cream. I think it must have been the trappings of the experience that made me recall the book with such fondness as, having just read it again, I cannot imagine that I can have followed the text with any real understanding at that age.

That being said, provided you are able to overlook the routine casual xenophobia - "I suppose he's some sort of a Dago", asks one character cheerfully, for example - and anti-semitism that seems to have been regarded as normal before World War Two, plus the unquestioned belief in British superiority that runs through the text - and I do realise that for many, many people none of these things can be overlooked - it is still a very enjoyable book.

The story is the third in the series Buchan wrote about Richard (Dick) Hannay. At the start, the reader is introduced to Hannay, happily retired, enjoying country life with his wife and young son, his social life peopled with men with names like Archie, whose idea of a good time is spending a fortnight in Scotland watching "a pair of nesting greenshanks". Before very long however poor Hannay is forced to leave his rural idyll and return to the fray, to defend the weak and the innocent from encroaching evil - and even to enlist Archie, among others, persuading him to abandon the pleasures of bird watching for a time.

The challenge Hannay and his friends face comes in the form of a man called Medina who, despite Hannay noticing, bizarrely, (presumably some kind of reference to phrenology?) that he has "the roundest head I have ever seen except in a Kaffir'', fascinates him "as a man is fascinated by a pretty woman" (make of this - and of the other homoerotic elements attached to the Hannay-Medina relationship - what you will).

I assume that Buchan chose his villain's name, which is also that of one of Islam's most important sites, very deliberately, with the intention of conjuring up an immediate hostility in his reader toward the Oriental "other". However, although East and West and their lack of shared vision are mentioned from time to time, the struggle that evolves seems more to be one of collective psychology. While Hannay's wife observes that she doesn't "believe that Dick has any subconscious self", his creator appears to have been reading a lot of Freud before writing this novel. An early chapter is even titled "Researches in the Subconscious", and the reader is left in very little doubt that the real danger facing British society at the start of the story arises from the psychological hangover of the First World War*. The balanced healthy communal psyche in existence before the war needs to be reestablished, replacing the unbalance of the psychologically concussed state of post-war society.

The threat posed by post-war mental confusion is first articulated by Dick's friend Dr Greenslade:

"Have you ever realised, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?” … Greenslade's face had become serious. “I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I'm fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn't got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years. With most people it's rather a pleasant kink – they're less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it's pukka madness, and that means crime ... It's a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of screws. Oddly enough, in spite of parrot-talk about shell-shock, the men who fought suffer less from it on the whole than other people. The classes that shirked the War are the worst ... The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted. Something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it … The civilised is far simpler than the primeval”

This characterisation of the world is then reiterated by a figure called MacGillivray, who I think is the head of something like MI5: 

“He began by saying very much what Dr Greenslade had said the night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man, could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric – a hideous, untameable breed had been engendered … moral imbeciles, who can be swept into any movement by those who understand them. They are the neophytes and hierophants of crime, and it is as criminals that I have to do with them. Well, all this desperate degenerate stuff is being used by a few clever men who are not degenerates or anything of the sort, but only evil. There has never been such a chance for a rogue since the world began.”

MacGillivray goes on to expound on Lenin:

:Take Lenin for instance … He appeals to the normal … to the perfectly sane. He offers reason, not visions – in any case his visions are reasonable. In ordinary times he will not be heard, because, as I say, his world is not our world. But let there come a time of great suffering or discontent, when the mind of the ordinary man is in desperation, and the rational fanatic will come into his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.”

He also appears to be quite prescient in his prediction of a Hitler-esque leader rising up and taking charge of a nation's collective soul:

Your fanatic of course must be a man of genius … And genius of that kind is happily rare. When it exists, its possessor is the modern wizard … the true wizard is the man who works by spirit on spirit. We are only beginning to realise the strange crannies of the human soul. The real magician, if he turned up today, would … dabble in … the compulsion of a fiery nature over the limp things that men call their minds … the great offensives of the future would be psychological … the most deadly weapon in the world is the power of mass-persuasion.”

There is something sadly absurd and comical, (I suppose some may say offensive) about MacGillivray's arrogant comments on developments in British foreign policy:

"Lord' he cried, 'how I loathe our new manners in foreign policy. The old English way was to regard all foreigners as slightly childish and rather idiotic and ourselves as the only grown-ups in a kindergarten world. That mean that we had a cool detached view and did even-handed unsympathetic justice. But now we have got into the nursery ourselves and are bear-fighting on the floor. We take violent sides, and make pets, and of course, if you are -phil something or other you have got to be -phobe something else. It is all wrong."

If these quotations create the impression that the book is unexciting and preachy, that is actually far from the truth.  Dick, having no subconscious, listens to all this theorising and then plunges into the excitement of a typical Hannay adventure. There is much dashing about. There are many close shaves in tight places. There is  general mystery and derring do. 

The result is very entertaining and not unenlightening, as Buchan sprinkles insights, original turns of phrase and aphorisms through the text:

"England ... demands wholeheartedness in her public men. She will folow blindly the second-rate, if he is in earnest, and reject the first-rate if he is not.”

"The civilised is far simpler than the primeval”

"the limp things that men call their minds 

"The most deadly weapon in the world is the power of mass persuasion" 

and, my favourite, 

"We are all, even the best of us, egotists and self-deceivers, and without a little comfortable make-believe to clothe us we should freeze in the outer winds"

If you doubt the depth of Medina's evil nature, I assume his wickedly sexist suggestion that female suffrage meant a rise in the number of right wing voters will persuade you:

"There is a might Tory revival in sight, and it will want leading. The newly enfranchised classes, especially the women, will bring it about. The suffragists didn't know what a tremendous force of conservatism they were releasing when they won the vote for their sex.”

And, should you wish for relevance then I present you with Hannay's words, near the end of the drama, when he finds himself in a very tight fix indeed:

"I had chosen to set the course, and the game must be played out here and now. But I confess I was pretty well in despair and could see no plan"

If that isn't an exact parallel for the position Britain finds herself in today with regard to Brexit, I don't know what is. 

SPOILER ALERT: And, don't worry, there is hope, for Hannay emerges from his dangerous moment, (although, I have to admit, not entirely unscathed. 

*the book being written only in the 1920s, the First World War is referred to merely as the War, which adds a kind of poignance to things


  1. Were we precocious ? I read all John Buchan's books from the age of ten onwards. Sick Heart River was my favourite. I can't imagine my great-grandchildren would even think of tackling the amount of reading we did......but there was only radio to distract us then.

    1. Was it precocious? I remember it just being comfortable and quiet and no one would ever tell you that you should be doing something else - except in good weather, when you should be outside. I think I read a lot of books where I only really understood the atmosphere - in Three Hostages mostly a love of England - and not much of the content. Or at least that's how it seems to me when I look at a book like that now. I will try Sick Heart River.