There is one kind of fanatic whose strength comes from… a lunatic balance. You cannot say that there is any one thing abnormal about him, for he is all abnormal… That kind of man has no logical gaps in his creed. Within his insane postulates he is brilliantly sane… That's the kind of fanatic I'm afraid of. In ordinary times he will not be heard… but let there come a time of great suffering or discontent… and the rational fanatic will come into his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.
A hundred years ago these are the words John Buchan gives his character, Sandy Arbuthnot, to describe the typical Buchan villain, in this case Dominick Medina, who wants to take over the world. The description well fits any number of present day dictators. In this story, The Three Hostages
, and others involving Buchan's heroes Sandy and Richard Hannay, the villain gets his come-uppance. Interestingly, though, in my favourite Buchan novel, The Courts of the Morning
, the villain meets a different fate – he is convincingly re-educated by Sandy and his colleagues so that he sees the 'error of his ways'.
Some of Buchan's imperialist beliefs and attitudes would never pass muster today, especially his use of pejorative terms in the context of Jewish or black people (although in both cases he subsequently changed his views). But he was unusually prescient in his understanding of the psychological undercurrents of international conflict.
I don't think many commentators have noticed or remarked on the fact that Buchan's heroes rarely operate alone. Sure, in The Thirty-Nine Steps
for a time Richard Hannay is up against it solo, but in this and the subsequent stories it is the 'dream team' of Hannay, Arbuthnot and a host of other supporting characters who eventually win the day.
And for those who question Buchan's feminist credentials, Hannay's wife Mary and her female friends play a leading role in many of the stories. Buchan was surely aware that the myth of 'the great leader' is frequently toxic and that civilisation's best hope lay in teamwork where individuals' unique abilities are used to the full. A view we might well revisit today when we are only seeing the dark side of leadership.
Many years ago, my late husband loved the TV series of the same name, partly because he liked the theme tune: 'dadada dadadadad…' – an earworm that can get stuck in the head. For the uninitiated, it involved a duo of intelligence operators in a shadowy quasi-police organisation called CI5, bizarrely managed by Gordon Jackson who had previously played the butler, Mr Hudson, in the inspiration for Downton Abbey
, Upstairs, Downstairs
. Out of interest and as a bit of a nostalgia fest – for I rarely watch daytime television – I decided to watch a couple of repeats of the series, thinking to be amused by the now dated plots – the series finished in 1981. I was wrong on several counts.
First, Gordon Jackson was surprisingly brilliant in his role, rapidly shaking off his drippy Mr Hudson persona and playing the CI5 boss, Cowley, as a deeply ethical Calvinist Scot with an army background, who used his role to root out corruption and criminality at the highest levels. In several episodes, he convincingly justifies his actions and that of his operatives when those in official positions have lost their moral compass. And he also packs a mean punch when the villains think he's a pushover.
Second, the issues that Cowley and his organisation were up against are surprisingly relevant today – corrupt politicians, money laundering, international diplomacy gone wrong – all of these problems are still with us today. Cowley regrets the fact that his organisation is necessary, but claims that sadly, in an imperfect world, its services will always be required.
And finally, although Cowley may be the Head of CI5 and thus to be regarded as an archetypal leader, he is one of the positive sort, who has an avuncular relationship with his two top operatives and who is always prepared to listen to their views. Ultimately, though, he is comfortable with being the ultimate decision maker and regards himself accountable for success and failure. And he is incorruptible. I think John Buchan would have been happy to have created Cowley. I just wish he could be a role model for the current crop of political decision makers.
I was interested to read Gillean Somerville-Arjat's
views about mask wearing in last week's SR. Gillian isn't a fan, but makes the best of the situation by collecting a range of artistic models. It seems as though we will all be wearing them for some time yet.
I have mixed feelings – I wear hearing aids and specs (the latter I still dislike after many years of contact lenses and I mourn the fact that I had to give the lenses up – doing a PhD was not kind to my eyesight). I am always scared when obliged to wear one of the medical masks that has ear straps in case I accidentally pull out one of the astronomically priced hearing aids (why is such a wee object so expensive?) and lose it forever. So I usually wear one of those snood things that can be also used as a hat or scarf.
I have to admit that, especially worn with a hat, the mask has saved me from several long boring conversations with people I normally have to interact with out of politeness' sake, as they haven't recognised me. I recognised them, though, and I think having to wear a mask has sharpened my facial recognition skills.
For years I was pretty poor at recognising anyone from a distance, even my dear son when he played cricket as a schoolboy. Someone once asked me: 'Who's that little chubby lad batting now?' I'm sorry for the description, son, but I didn't recognise you! I'm told that difficulty in recognising faces is a result of being short sighted in one's youth.
Until the teacher at school complained that I could only read the blackboard from six inches away, I had assumed that everyone else had my limited vision, and when I acquired my first pair of spectacles, I was disappointed to realise that my mother was something like10 years older than I had previously imagined. At least I could now tell the time from the local clock in the church tower opposite – previously when asked what time it showed, my response had been 'what clock?' That was progress of a sort, I guess!
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant