Quick Review: “John Macnab” by John Buchan.

Back to the Buchan for me. I enjoy the Hannay novels greatly (dodgy Tory politics and off-colour remarks about jewish and black people aside). At his heart, Buchan is a master of plot and pacing. There is absoloutely no beating around the bush with this writer: He knows where he’s going and he never loses the reader on the way.

As with Hannay’s best stories, then, so with John Macnab. Unlike the Hannay books, the tone here is lighter by dint of a more light hearted plot. Set at the time of its writing in the 1920s, the book concerns three men (an emminent barrister,  a Cabinet Minister and a City bigshot) all of whom are in their early 40s. They are rather jaded and suffering from enuui, a sense of everything being too easy in life and of nothing providing them with much of a challenge any more.

I suppose I too would be more than a little bored and on the lookout for some diversion, if I were able to do my job with my eyes closed and had no money worries whatsoever. Strictly speaking, these aren’t the most engaginng characters in the world. We have a barrister who doesn’t really care about his clients’ cases; a Cabinet Minister who feels like he’s on autopilot (at one point Buchan descrbies him giving an off-the-cuff speech which is all waffle, consisting of platitudes stiched together from previous speeches given elsewhere); and a City high flier who I can imagine being more interested in watching raindrops fall down a window pane than counting his dough). How the heart bleeds.

Nonetheless, Buchan’s storytelling skill manages to invest this upper class ragbag with enough inherent interest to keep the story going. What these three need is an escape. Together they cook up a plan based on a tale they hear, about a man who a few years previously felt rather the same way. His way out was to poach fish and deer from properties that bordered his Highland property.

Duly inspired, these three pillocks of the establishment decide they will spend the late Summer at a Scottish property belonging to a younger acquaintance. Collectively adopting the pseudonym of John Macnab, they write to the owners of three neighbouring estatyes, informing two of them that a stag will be taken on a set date, and telling the remaining one that a salmon will be taken. By giving advance notice of the date, ‘Macnab’ is giving the owners’ fair warning, thus turning the whole criminal enterprise a sporting air.

What follows is a (of course) superbly written and flowing tale that never ceases to engage. And of course this being a Buchan adventure tale, the success of the enterprise is always in doubt, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ nature of the task forming the core of the narrative.

Along the way there are a couple of comments about jews and a few asides onTory politics, but these are altogether less dodgy than the like in the Hannay books. There’s also the whole concept of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, things that some find distasteful but which here, of course, are discussed as if they’re as natural as making a killing in the City without one’s heart being in it, conducting court cases with one’s eyes closed, or feeling bored by one’s Cabinet level job. But then this is world Buchan knew and inhabited. Take it or leave it, we can’t change it.

All in all, then this is a classic Buchan. Read it with a sense of irony from our 21st century perspective, or just take it for what it is. Either way, if you try it you’ll more than likely enjoy it.

Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall: Gibbon it ain’t but there’s plenty of monkeying around.

evelyn waugh

Bad hair day: It seems that Boris Johnson copped a lot more than just his political attitudes from the young Evelyn Waugh.

The title of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel echoes Gibbon, but there the similarity ends. Gibbon’s book was a long account of what happened to the Roman Empire after the death of Marcus Aurelius, right up until the fall of Constantinople. It put forth the whole story and attempted to draw attention to the significant patterns in the fabric of time.

Waugh’s book by contrast is the equivalent of a young fogey taking a look at the social fabric of his time (1920’s Britain) and scrawling “balls to all this” across it with a large permanent marker pen.   The novel is the ‘history’ of an unfortunate young mug at Oxford by the name of Paul Pennyfeather. One night he has the misfortune to encounter the Bollinger Club (the Bullingdon Club in other words) who true to form are on the piss and on the warpath. They debag Pennyfeather and chase him  around the Quad, resulting in his unfairly being sent down for lewd and immoral behaviour.

From here Pennyfeather’s life takes a variety of odd twists and turns. Yes there is a plot, but it’s fairly basic and more of an excuse to present a series of comic set-pieces. I could summarise it, but the book’s so short you could almost read it in less time than I could take to describe it.

I liked the book and I did laugh out loud in places. Ultimately it was an agreeable way of passing the time, but dare I say that’s about it for me. I recently watched an old BBC “Face to Face” interview with Waugh, and something he said about his books made me think most of Decline and Fall.

Interviewer: You say all that is good in the world comes from God; you don’t seem to find very much which is good in the modern world – you’ve seen it consistently as a decadent world, have you not?

Waugh:  But there’s good in a decadent world.

Interviewer: Yes, but your purpose in life is what? To castigate or to chronicle the decadent world? Do you see a purpose in your books – are you trying to scourge us into reform?

Waugh: Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, I’m just trying to write books.

Interviewer: Yes, but nonetheless no-one who is as intellectually coherent as you are can write books even just as finished polished objects without having a certain purpose in mind, I suspect.

Waugh: Quite unconscious. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit down and say ‘I will now write a book to reveal the horrors of the gangs in this district’ or something like that.

“I’m just trying to write books”. I tend to take that comment more or less at face value. I think that in Decline and Fall he set out his stall pretty well for the rest of his career, at least where his writing in a comic idiom is concerned. In other words he was just trying to make people laugh. No more, no less, and in Beckett’s phrase “make sense who may”.

Is there any other apparent motivation behind the book? I suspect his intent was broadly to satirise and to mock. Although it’s a very funny book, the humour is often described as black. I’d go further than that and say that it’s caustic to the point of being corrosive. Taking the mick out of almost everyone in the book, regardless of race, creed, colour or class, often makes for very funny writing. Ultimately it doesn’t really get you anywhere either. Hogarth would go down as a satirist with a moral purpose. Waugh by contrast has more in common with the Marx brothers. In other words, any one is fair game and damn the consequences.   Writers like Waugh in Decline and Fall mode, I suspect, don’t give a monkey’s about that, and just want to poke fun. Again something that stood out for me from “Face to Face”:

Interviewer: Looking at yourself, because I am sure you are a self-critical person, what do you feel is your worst fault?

Waugh: Irritability.

Interviewer: Are you a snob at all?

Waugh: I don’t think.

Interviewer: Irritability with your family, with strangers?

Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything.

In other words this was a man who appeared to get wound up and stressed by the slightest thing. Fortunately for him, and for some of us, he was able to take that negative energy and make it into caustically funny prose.
In conclusion it’s worth pointing out that contrary to his denial, I think he was a snob, and a dreadful one at that if Decline and Fall be considered Exhibit A. However, it is precisely this contempt for the lowly, the snooty, the inadequate, the banal and the silly that invests Decline and Fall with its manic and angry energy.