Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Complete Richard Hannay

The first thing to say about John Buchan's Richard Hannay is that he is probably not the man you think you know; at least, if you are anything like me. My impression, formed from fragments of film adaptations and a deep suspicion of the traditional boys' adventure story (whatever that was) inculcated (probably) in earliest childhood, was of an English gentleman, an adventurer in the service of the British Empire, an insider. Richard Hannay is perhaps all these things; but he is not simply the sum of these qualities, and none of them are automatic.

Hannay is an outsider several times over. When introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps he is in London because that's what men who have made their 'pile' out in the Empire do. He's a successful mining engineer spending his fortune gained in the mines of southern Africa. Although born in Scotland, Hannay has lived in Africa since boyhood, but feels that he has exhausted its possibilities. A life of renting rooms in London and drifting through clubland without introductions leaves him frustrated. His career as an engineer has made his fortune and it is the part of his past which he introduces to us first; but he has also been a soldier and emerges from the first book as someone who takes for granted that the Second Matabele War, in the post-imperial era more easily understood as a war of colonial subjugation and expropriation, was a conflict of moral improvement both for the victors and the defeated. After the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps (initially serialized in Blackwood's under a pseudonym) Buchan extended Hannay's world into one he was already developing in his other contemporary novels and short stories, and added a circle of characters including Sandy Arbuthnot, later Lord Clanroyden, a Scottish aristocrat, traveller in the east and master of disguise; John S. Blenkiron, an American engineer and millionaire investor who acts in the British interest during the Great War; Peter Pienaar, mentioned in The Thirty-Nine Steps as "the best scout I ever knew"; Mary Lamington, nineteen-year-old intelligence operative who takes Hannay by surprise in such a way that he marries her; Geordie Hamilton, patriotic brawling Scots soldier who becomes first Hannay's batman then a loyal retainer of Sandy's; and Scots laird and baronet, enthusiastic and skilled pilot, Sir Archie Roylance. All are the stronger for being relayed through Hannay; when in The Courts of the Morning (not included in the combined volume) Hannay chooses not to join Sandy and Blenkiron in their South American adventure, the bulk of the novel feels emptier for its third person narration.

Hannay's opinions and prejudices are continually foregrounded by Buchan; Hannay emerges as a character through the gap between the limited outlook expected by those seeking to manipulate him, and Hannay's own broader view. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Scudder intrigues Hannay with his tale of Jewish conspiracy, but never entirely convinces him. His African experience is crucial. Later, in The Three Hostages, Dominick Medina entirely misreads Hannay's character, fatally for Medina's ambitions. Medina's roots in England are deeper than Hannay's, and though he is descended from Iberian exiles and is influenced by an Irish mother who holds England in disgust, it is his Englishness which is emphasised and which may lead him to consider Hannay dull and an ideal pawn. Much or most of the overseas experience with which Medina is widely credited turns out to be fraudulent, and what he has learned, he lacks the understanding to interpret beyond narrow self-interest. Frequently throughout the Hannay books, the reader is implicitly asked to contemplate how little those know of England who only England know.

The great charm of The Thirty-Nine Steps arises from its combination of travelogue and adventure story. For a substantial section of the book it appears that the events which leave Hannay a wanted man are a red herring to allow Buchan to present a series of vignettes depicting Scottish types. For Hannay Lowland Scotland is an ancestral home which he has never really known; though he returns to it in a series of crises, in The Thirty-Nine Steps, in Mr Standfast, in the second climax to The Three Hostages, and the Laverlaw section of The Island of Sheep. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannay finds an innocence in Scotland with which he is sometimes impatient - the audience for the radical candidate he finds deluded - but those who are happy with their traditional social roles are largely trustworthy and in some cases models of charity. Characters of this type appear in some form or other throughout the books. They are appropriate for a land which in Buchan's scheme for Hannay's world is a kind of Elysium, often disturbed from the outside, but which when properly maintained - as on Sandy Clanroyden's estate where Hannay and Haraldsen retreat in The Island of Sheep - can strengthen one against those who wish harm. However, to do the work one is called to do one has to leave the sanctuary of the Lowlands. England is the principal theatre of industry and the head office for the rest of the world. Disorder comes when that head office is subverted (as in The Thirty-Nine Steps) or loses sight of a clear aim (as in The Three Hostages).

The Hannay books aren't straightforwardly simplistic adventure stories either. The Thirty-Nine Steps was famously written while Buchan was confined to bed as an experiment in writing a 'shocker' - a "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible" (quoted Lownie, John Buchan, 119). There's something self-consciously genre-challenging about it - Scudder presents the plot to assassinate the Greek prime minister, Karolides, in terms of a conspiracy of cliches: anarchists, capitalists and especially Jews - but Hannay finds the truth more prosaic and more dangerous, a foreign power determined to provoke a European war at its own convenience and whose agents in Britain are long-established and skilled at hiding in plain sight within the Imperial establishment. This scenario is presented as a more realistic depiction of European power politics, helped by the anonymity of the German agents who if having something of the diabolical masterminds of pulp fiction about them seem less prone to caricature, and more threatening, because we never learn their names - at least, not in this book.

The Three Hostages
also draws attention to the artifices of the thriller. The character of Dr Greenslade recalls Scudder, and prompts in Hannay a discussion of the way a thriller is constructed; it seems a neat joke when we learn that following the Great War Hannay's secret service contact Sir Walter Bullivant is now Lord Artinswell, and thus in terms of his signature has moved from 'B' to 'A'. The confrontation across the wild landscape of Machray, while awkward in the context of the main narrative, is called for because Buchan, through the revulsion of Hannay, has built Dominick Medina into such a fiend (if one brought down by his own arrogance) that the convention of the exercise demands that Medina seek swift personal vengeance.

Both The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep are disappointments after Mr Standfast, presented as the centrepiece of the Hannay novels in the five-book Penguin combined edition, and with some justification. Both it and the second instalment, Greenmantle, read like the work of a government propagandist, which they were; but there has been a decided shift in tone and content. Greenmantle, like The Thirty-Nine Steps, takes place in a world where women are distant and mysterious - Hilda von Einem is a threat to Hannay because he has little experience of women, and she almost destroys the world-travelled but ascetic Sandy Arbuthnot. The German commander, Von Stumm, plays up to the stereotype of the physically heavy, privately effeminate officer. The book fulfils the role of reminding its readers of the importance of the Ottoman Empire as a theatre of war, and the contribution of the Russians, whose commander at Erzerum turns out to be a Russian grand duke who had once hunted with Peter Pienaar in South Africa in 1898; the Russians are thus marked as familiar and knowable.

Mr Standfast was written at the close of the war, and while Greenmantle was set in a war where combat was still thought of in terms of cavalry charges, Mr Standfast was completed once the war was over, and shows how Hannay, who is largely having a good war, deals with the deleterious effects it has on the home and western fronts. For John Buchan, successful people are adaptable ones who find something to do in changed circumstances and excel through that adaptability; Peter Pienaar is such, having trained as a pilot at an advanced age and emerged as one of the best fighters in the air, only to be shot down over Germany and one leg ruined. He is later allowed to move to Switzerland which further marks him as a non-combatant; his turn of phrase has become more elliptical and philosophical. He is one of two Fisher King figures, the other being Lancelot Wake, the conscientious objector whom Hannay first meets among the pacifist colony in "the garden city of Biggleswick" (itself a mocking of over-idealistic town planning) and whom he again encounters on Skye, and who gradually earns from Hannay a slightly uncomprehending respect. Wake eventually joins Hannay and his party on the western front as a messenger, and is killed from a shrapnel wound to his groin. Hannay's self-satisfied consignment of Wake to perpetual virginity, after Hannay has won the hand of the teenage spy Mary Lamington, comes to signify his silent recognition of Wake's status as a Grail prince, though he does not know it. There is a contrast between the honest conflict of the men on the front line, and the corrupting nature of the world of espionage; Graf von Schwabing, the chameleon-like survivor of the Black Stone defeated by Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, once captured, is not handed over to the authorities but instead offered the chance of redemption by taking his place on the front line alongside British and French troops, where the extreme circumstances would not allow him to reinvent himself one more and disappear. Redemption as a theme emerges through the books; Medina turns away from the possibility in The Three Hostages, but hard work and a morally uplifting goal transform Haraldsen and to some extent restore both Hannay and Lombard in The Island of Sheep.

Much as The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep fail to live up to the promise of Mr Standfast, they do express an aimlessness felt in Britain and Europe after 1918 which affects certainties Hannay felt in the first two books. While Greenmantle treats the Turks and Arabs with cultural condescension, the Britain of the later novels has similar vulnerabilities to Buchan's portrayal of the Ottoman Empire; the Imperialist assumptions have been swept away; even the metropolitan territory is fragmented, with the independence of the Irish Free State, and new leisure activities have sprung up, incomprehensible to Hannay, as barriers of rank and race are eroded. While an adventurer who respects risk-takers - the 'sportsmen' of the earlier novels - Hannay also takes for granted heredity, that peoples and classes have distinct characters shaped across generations. The Island of Sheep sees Haraldsen's thirteen-year-old daughter Anna assuming a natural and unchallenged leadership over the people of the Norlands, over whom her maternal ancestors had exercised lordship for centuries. She is also female and in the later novels the married Hannay is obviously less familiar with women, though he does not know his wife well enough to realise that she will have her own plans independent of his instructions and look for the eponymous three hostages herself.

The Island of Sheep concerns a grudge from Hannay's youth in South Africa coming back to haunt him and his old comrade Lombard; it is perhaps the difficulty of finding things for Hannay plausibly to do in South America that excludes him from The Courts of the Morning. The Island of Sheep is concerned only tangentially with the politics of the 1930s, as Haraldsen's father's dream of a society invigorated by a return to Nordic values could be a comment upon Nazi Germany. It's a regret that Buchan didn't live to write a Hannay novel set in the Second World War - the transformations which that conflict would have wrought on Hannay (who, like his creator, might have moved from an Imperial to an internationalist perspective, and would probably be more sensitive about the casual use of derogatory nicknames for ethnic groups) and his friends would have been entertaining.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Press Gang - first thoughts

I've recently started watching Press Gang, the first television series written by Steven Moffat, which ran on ITV between 1989 and 1993. As I've written elsewhere, when the first series began the location was too close to home, as I'd just spent a year as one of the editors of a school newspaper initially affiliated with a local weekly. I would have loved the staffing levels and the collective enthusiasm displayed by Lynda Day's team.

Press Gang has a format built on shifting sands at the frontiers of the plausible, but which is kept alive by the cutting wit of Steven Moffat's writing and the energetic belief of the cast in what they are doing. Matt Kerr, an important character seen only occasionally, is a well-known journalist who has made the unexpected career move of moving to a local paper, where he spins off a weekly Junior Gazette produced by students from the local secondary school. The Junior Gazette's staff are initially extracted from the school's cleverest and most motivated pupils, but by the time the first edition approaches Matt Kerr is complaining that all the problem kids have been thrust in his direction too, such as Spike, American and therefore uninhibited by British reserve and also the perpetrator of an unmentionable act at the school disco. Dexter Fletcher's Spike becomes the romantic interest for Julia Sawalha's Lynda, however much she refuses to acknowledge it. The large workspace used by the Junior Gazette looked, plausibly, like an abandoned compositor's room; while early episodes of the first series look back to classic early twentieth-century depictions of the newsroom, where even the telephone is exotic (the Junior Gazette shouldn't have one, by agreement with Matt Kerr - an odd prohibition but the absence of the phone helps an episode or two along) later ones acknowledge the arrival of networked computers, as used by tetraplegic contributor Billy Homer.
Discovering Press Gang now is to look into as vanished a world as my long-ago late-1980s sixth form. ITV original children's production has long disappeared, and it's difficult to imagine the demographic-strangled CBBC commissioning this now. Too quirky for a Five commission, its entrenchment in the heightened reality of children's television makes Press Gang unlikely Channel Four material, post-Hollyoaks. The large cast alone dates it. There is an absence of toilet humour, but a sprinkling of cheery sexual innuendo every so often which marks Press Gang's attitude to growing up as an experience where enjoyment can be found amidst the anguish; unlike the by-the-numbers earnestness in what I've seen of Tracy Beaker or the hand-holding of The Sarah Jane Adventures, there is little need to heavily signpost the lessons learned by the characters.

As well as providing invaluable support for a young writer and a young cast to show how good they were, Press Gang is about teenagers coming to grips with adult responsibilities, and how the road to self-knowledge is a dangerous one, sometimes fatal. At eighteen or nineteen, I saw Lynda as repellently self-assured; two decades on, she seems very vulnerable. The self-assurance is a veneer, used for comic effect - as in her repeated insistence that she has no particular interest, romantic or otherwise, in Spike - and for tragic, such as her failure to realise how serious David Jefford's alienation actually is, prompting the harangue which leads to David's suicide in Monday-Tuesday. Lynda sustains it by her capacity for self-protecting tunnel vision, which propels the narrative of Breakfast at Czar's as she ignores the evidence which would confirm that the Junior Gazette has been misled by head of the council planning committee. How far her decision to shut the team in the office all night, so they can produce a new edition in a few hours, is consciously motivated by the fact it prevents Spike going on a date with the 'obvious' Charlotte is something Lynda could not and would not answer.

Lynda stands for integrity; opposite her is Colin, the Junior Gazette's head of sales and briefly (in Shouldn't I Be Taller?) her successor as editor. Colin's principal role is comedic - he is the class clown, his outfits get louder, and his schemes more grandiose across the season and a half. Where Lynda stresses the Junior Gazette as a responsible, campaigning 'Voice of Today's Youth', Colin learns the lessons of the red-tops and for one horrible issue has the team produce the sensationalist Gaz. A later episode has Colin build up his stooge Fraz into a chess prodigy so he can stage a chess match against local chess phenomenon Suzi Newton, played by Abigail Docherty whose general physical resemblance to teenage mathematician Ruth Lawrence, a semi-regular fixture in the media in the mid- to late-1980s, is exploited by her performance and her costuming.

The regular cast of Press Gang were all on cusps of careers at this point. Some had become established television faces as children, but would move away from regular exposure after Press Gang, like Mmoloki Christie or Kelda Holmes. Lee Ross and Charlie Creed-Miles are among those who have established solid working careers; Lucy Benjamin was in EastEnders for a while, Dexter Fletcher is rarely without period costume these days, and Gabrielle Anwar has emerged from Hollywood startletdom into leading roles on American television. Julia Sawalha is rarely off British television screens.

I'm currently a few episodes in to season two, and so have yet to see the Junior Gazette cut its ties with school and become a fully commercial enterprise in the later seasons. More when I have done so.