In October 1921, when lecturing on The Study of History
, John Buchan, the author, historian and polymath par excellence, reflected on the art of what he called 'historical portraiture'. This was the year in which Agatha Christie published her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
. As JB – as his friends and family called him – explained, the past was 'not an unfeatured wilderness where the only personalities were generals on horseback, judges in ermine and monarchs in purple'. He concluded that historians are now 'subtler in our psychology and attempt to understand the great figures of the past, clothe them with flesh and blood, and to see in their minds the eternal motives which govern human conduct'.
Avid, and long-suffering, readers of my ramblings for Scottish Review
will know that I belong to what Peter Hennessy calls the 'Max Bygraves school of history': I possess the 'I wanna tell you a story' impulse that has shaped generations of contemporary historians. In addition to those of Hennessy of Nympsfield and Bygraves of Rotherhithe, my other guiding historical maxim comes from Buchan in his posthumously published memoirs, Memory Hold-the-Door
, when he reflects that 'in the cycle to which we belong we can only see a fraction of the curve'. As JB once remarked, a deep and enduring regard for the past has been both 'an article of creed and a principal source of my pleasure in life'.
From the time of his enrolment at the University of Glasgow, JB was a prolific and lyrical historian, penning over 100 published works in the next 47 years – of which only about 40 are works of fiction – and approximately 1,000 newspaper and magazine articles.
In my mind, the best endorsement of JB's skills as an academic historian is the high regard in which he was held by both Gilbert Murray and G M Trevelyan, the last great Whig historian. Trevelyan, in particular, believed Buchan to be the pre-eminent 'good popular writer and real historical scholar' in an age when the majority of 'histories were written only for specialists'.
What is most remarkable is that, unlike his contemporary Winston Churchill – who was born just nine months before JB – Buchan was unable to draw on what David Reynolds calls 'the equivalent of an academic research group while also acting as an international statesman'.
In addition to being appointed the 'Dean of the Faculty of Contemporary Scottish Letters' by Hugh MacDiarmid, JB was a One Nation Conservative – an acolyte of 'Honest Stan' Baldwin, the great weather-maker of British politics between the World Wars – and an austere and dutiful public servant. From his earliest administrative experiences as one of Lord Milner's Kindergarten of Civil Servants who began the reconstruction of South Africa after the Boer War, JB was a pivotal figure in the politics and diplomacy of his time. As Christopher Harvie once wrote, JB was 'a worshipper of success, a man of uncomplicated Bunyanesque religious belief and of culturally nationalist leanings, but with solid (if dampish) Tory politics'.
The best example of JB's role as an active participant in the events and processes whose frenzy he was seeking to distil followed his appointment as the 15th Governor General of Canada by King George V. As the King's representative in the Great White North, JB – who had what Ursula Buchan calls 'a strangely strangulated so-called Kensington voice with just a hint of Scots in the rolled Rs' and pronounced the name of his new dominion as 'Kenadaaa' – was required to open parliament, deliver the equivalent of our Queen's Speech from the throne, ask the leader of the largest party to form a government and give Royal Assent to the Canadian Parliament's legislation.
Constitutionally, his job was 'two-fold – to interpret Canadian public opinion in Britain, and to translate British opinion in Canada'. Socially, as such a public figure, JB believed that the Governor General was required to 'perpetually entertain and be entertained', be 'accessible to all men' and be a 'perfervid son of each town and province'.
His death just seven months before the end of his Governor Generalship has deprived us of his own assessment of his time in Canada. However, my fellow Buchan devotees have been blessed with both his private diaries and monthly reports to Kings George V, Edward VIII and George VI. Whilst the chronology of the run-up to the Second World War has been subjected to more intense historical scrutiny than any other period in our recent history, Buchan's letters to the three Kings provide historians with a rich insight into the 'hidden wiring' of Canadian Government just prior to the greatest stress-test in the British Empire's almost 300-hundred-year lifetime.
Whereas JB's diaries recount, in short punchy sentences, the day-to-day activities and ever-decreasing weight of a frail and fatigued man – whose long-standing digestive disorder compelled him to spend extended periods in bed and live on poached eggs and warm milk – his letters are free-flowing and highly descriptive. When compared to traditional, formulaic diplomatic dispatches, they highlight how unusual JB was as a writer in one of the most significant diplomatic postings in the Empire. For, as Vincent Massey, then High Commissioner for Canada and later the first Canadian-born Governor General, observed, Canada 'spread itself before him like a book, and it was his happy faculty to turn the pages of that broad volume with vivid and eager interest, and to give an interpretation of what he saw in its pages'.
Despite JB's dour, typically tight-lipped Victorian demeanour, these highly-expressive missives to London – written once a month after his arrival at Wolfe's Cove on the St Lawrence River in Quebec in November 1935 – demonstrate that Buchan shared one of his most devoted followers, John F Kennedy's ability to turn a telling phrase. As JFK's foremost biographer, Robert Dallek, wrote of his subject, JB did not speak (or for that matter, write) in soundbites, 'he spoke in literate paragraphs, and his speeches were filled with references to history and literature that have all but disappeared from contemporary political discourse'.
George V's death in January 1936 and the abdication crisis that followed meant that all bar 12 of JB's letters were to his final sovereign, King George VI. However, his correspondence with George V details JB's first official visits to Montreal and Toronto, Canada's Christmas traditions, as well as a new Reciprocity Treaty (which sought to remove trade barriers between Canada and the United States). Likewise, JB's letters to Edward VIII focus on the foundation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, his assessment of Canadian nationalism after meeting French-Canadians during a visit to the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and reform of the League of Nations.
Many of the letters deal with JB's tour across his new fiefdom's 3.8m square miles, with Buchan reflecting on Canada's people and landscapes after visiting what he called 'the back parts, in the most informal way'. In addition to his thoughts on Canada's flora and fauna and notes about fishing, JB's letters focus on agriculture and industry, as well as towns and settlements across the country.
After Edward's abdication in December 1936, the bulk of JB's missives to George VI concentrate on JB's dealings with US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, JB's plans for a royal visit to Canada, and his concept of Canadian national unity in light of the rising tide of Nazism, which he compared to an 'oozing of filth from the gutters'. Despite the oft-repeated claim that JB was an ardent supporter of appeasement, his letters and public addresses demonstrate that he was keenly aware of the threat posed by what he always referred to as the 'dictatorships' – namely, Germany and Mussolini's Italy.
As Britain's closest link with the United States, JB was a key component of the Peace Initiative, which President Roosevelt suggested to Neville Chamberlain in January 1938. The Peace Initiative sought to make the United States a key international powerbroker, by encouraging small, neutral nations to agree 'essential and fundamental principles' to prevent war. In Buchan's words, the President was seeking to 'do something to safeguard civilisation before it crashes'.
JB was also keen to keep Canada and the British Empire out of another European conflict, telling his mother-in-law in early 1938 that his dominion had 'no interest in this miserable struggle of communism and fascism in Europe', with JB suggesting to Mackenzie King that the Britain's imperial possessions should act as peacemakers, rather than becoming embroiled in a 'dog-fight' and 'wrangling of ambitious mob-leaders' in Europe.
Although JB certainly sympathised with Chamberlain's mission to avoid global conflict, he was not completely averse to war, concluding, in June 1939, that there was 'no hope of the dictatorships getting back to an even keel without a smash with the democracies'. In the years leading up to war, Buchan also drew inspiration from the American Civil War, which concluded just a decade before his birth. In a speech in 1926, JB noted that one of his great heroes, Abraham Lincoln, had 'fought to prevent democracy making a fool of itself' and argued that 'if that noble but most brittle polity is to be preserved, we have not done with the fight'.
As the third Lord Tweedsmuir – JB's second son, William – remarked, JB's letters demonstrate that he had an 'acute – and I would argue, Calvinist – appreciation of evil and its perpetual presence', seeing life as 'something lived on a constantly changing frontier, which must be guarded and fought for unremittingly if evil were not to triumph'.
John Buchan died in February 1940, after suffering a slight stroke while shaving, but his influence over Canada's national life in one of its most transformational periods was profound and his contribution to its national unity was, arguably, more lasting than that of many of its elected politicians. Throughout his Governor Generalship, JB exercised his powers, akin to those of a constitutional monarch, tactfully and with immense reserves of intellectual curiosity and, as JB himself once wrote of his fellow Borderers, Canadians admired him for his 'reality coloured by poetry, stalwart independence sweetened by courtesy and his shrewd kindly wisdom'.
As Dr Mary Brown
wrote in last week's edition, we might do well to revisit JB's example in an age when we are only seeing what Dr Brown calls 'the dark side of leadership' in the United Kingdom.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly