and Edinburgh Philosophical Institution Lecture: Richard Hannay 100 Years On
given by Lester Hillman
Three things drew Lester to the character of Richard Hannay as created by John Buchan : exploring Buchan's military insights, the large part played by aviation in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and a familiarity with London locations such as that featured in "The Three Hostages" with its focus on the Gospel Oak district and a mythical tree. From these there has grown an interest that spans such activities as lectures, articles, themed walks and research.
1917 was a particularly momentous year in Hannay’s life for in “Mr Standfast” he met his fellow spy and future wife Mary Lamington and visited what was to become their home at Fosse Manor. A Brigadier with a DSO he emerged from arrest masquerading as a private to become a Major-General heading a division and in meeting Field Marshal Haig was clearly on his way to a knighthood. And he found time to stay in the Pentland Hotel, which Buchan located on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.
The presentation on 19th May, 82nd anniversary of the death of T E Lawrence, offered a reminder of Buchan's part in facilitating the legend of Lawrence of Arabia helping cameraman Harry Chase and reporter Lowell Thomas, who chronicled his exploits and recognised Lawrence's ”genius for backing into the limelight”. Lawrence's robes are in the limelight at the National Army Museum, which reopened on 30 March this year after a three-year refurbishment. Another figure in the background was Erskine Childers, author of “The Riddle of the Sands”, a RNAS Intelligence Officer in Cairo, passionate about the value of air assets, he was awarded a DSC but after the war his Irish Republican sympathies ended in his execution by firing squad on 24 November 1924.
The RAF Museum at Hendon is celebrating next year’s centenary of the RAF, which in April 1918 became the first separate air force in the world. Maybe it was the attack on the German Gym at St. Pancras by a Gotha bomber on 7 July 1917 that prompted the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to change its name ten days later to the House of Windsor, with the stripping of British titles from German relatives. Now the German Gym has reopened as a German restaurant and looking around King's Cross today actual travel seems to have been eclipsed with fantasy travel, judging by the queues to be photographed at Harry Potter’s platform nine-and-three-quarters.
Founded in 1979, the John Buchan Society held its annual event on 24/25 March this year at the Salutation Hotel Perth in the presence of grand-daughter Ursula Buchan, with a visit to Kirkcaldy where Buchan and his sister Anna (also a novelist writing as O Douglas) were brought up. There was time to descend the local steps which many link to Buchan's iconic tale. The 39 Steps Alehouse at Broadstairs commemorates Buchan’s recuperation at the town which he called “Bradgate”. A theatre adaptation at the Criterion in London ran for over nine years. Despite women being almost non-existent in the book, the adaptation got through three thousand pairs of stockings. A much-vaunted Spy Museum recently proposed across the road has not happened, denying Hannay a further run in the West End.
Four film versions were made, in 1935, 1959, 1978 and 2008, the first one directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat being hailed the 21st greatest British film of all time. Hitchcock gives Hannay Canadian links and was perhaps a nod to Buchan’s Governor-Generalship . Buchan may have written the first work of fiction featuring air reconnaissance from a powered aircraft. The monoplane and secret aerodrome also made Hannay speculate on the role of aircraft in a maritime context. Did Buchan ever meet aviation pioneer Claude Grahame White? If so, the room where they may have met at Hendon was illustrated in the presentation. It was in South Africa that Buchan encountered Edmund Ironside (1880-1959) from Edinburgh, acknowledged as the role-model for Hannay. Sir David Henderson from Glasgow who also had a Intelligence background, became a pilot at 49 and probably inspired Peter Pienaar, the old Boer scout that seems to have been a kind of father-figure to Hannay. Buchan's war role bought him into contact with Field Marshal Haig.
The post-war life of Hannay was taken forward in “Island of Sheep” which focused on his son, and “Sick Heart River” published posthumously offers a hint of his future. Modern admirers have included Rolling Stone Keith Richard, who in September 2016 selected “The Thirty-Nine Steps” for his Lost Weekend on BBC4. A last survivor from the Buchan era was Clare Hollingsworth, who on 26 August 1939 (Buchan's birthday) flew to Warsaw via Berlin. Days later she would break the news of German troops massing on the Polish frontier. She died as rece 10 January 2017 aged 105. The future Lord Haw Haw went from London to Berlin on the same day, maybe he was on the same flight from Hendon.
Buchanology is alive and well today. the John Buchan Society has about 450 members with some 65 attending the Perth weekend. The Society supports the John Buchan Story Museum in Peebles, with other activities that include book exchanges and study weekends . This October Robert Harris hopes to bring out a new story “The Thirty-One Kings” in the style of John Buchan. With so much contemporary resonance it is tempting to offer a Hannay family Facebook update. But would that be fake news?