The Stalking Cure
Author(s): Dr John B Corbett
Copyright holder(s): Dr John B Corbett
This document contains language which some may find offensive
Seivintie-ane yeir separates twa buiks that hae the selsame character, a composite pauchler, or poacher, at thair hert: John Buchan’s John Macnab wis publish’t i 1925 an Andrew Greig’s The Return of John Macnab i 1996. Baith are aye i prent: John Macnab is colleckit amang fower novels unner the title The Leithen Stories, a Canongate Classic wi an introduction bi Christopher Harvie, an Faber & Faber reissue’t The Return of John Macnab no lang syne. Baith are warks o thair time, set i the contemporarie Hielans; baith are rattlin guid yarns; the saicont, houever, casts a late 20th centurie licht on the first, shawin hou men, wummen, laund awnership, Scotland – aye, an storytellin itsel – haes aw chynged i twa-three generation. This talk’ll meander throu some o the maist kenspeckle pynts o comparison.
The plot o ilka buik is awmaist identical. I John Macnab, thrie cronies i thair mid-forties are deein o ennui, a rare seikness that anelie seems tae afflick men wha’ve been ower successfu, ower airlie. This ennui dings doun, first o aw, Sir Edward Leithen, lawer, Tory MP, and ex-Attorney General forby. Saicontlie, it cowps the feet frae Mr John Palliser-Yeates, heid o an eminent bank, aw-roun sportsman an man o business; an, thirdly, it afflicks Lord Charles Lamancha, ane-time adventurer an nou Tory Cabinet Meenister. Tae heize thair speerits, this trio turn tae poachin, unner the collective hannle o ‘John Macnab’, set up a den i the Hielan country hame o Sir Archie Roylance, a game-leggit war hero that ettles tae be a Conservative MP, since he cannae be thinkin o onythin else tae dae. They pit oot a henner, or challenge, tae thrie o Roylance’s neebours: first the Radens, auld bluid, about tae dee out, sin Alasdair Raden, the grandee, haes faithered anelie dochters. Next, they gang up agin the Claybodys: vulgur, bekilted nouveaux riches; an hinnermaist, they face aff agin the Bandicotts: a veesitin American archaeologist an his son, wha’re rentin a grand estate for the simmer. The henner rins lik this:
Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I propose to kill a stag [or a salmon as the case may be] on your ground between midnight on – and midnight –.
The animal, of course, remains your property and will be duly delivered to you. It is a condition that it must be removed wholly outside your bounds. In the event of the undersigned failing to achieve his purpose, he will pay as forfeit one hundred pounds and if successful fifty pounds to any charity you may appoint. I have the honour to be, your obedient servant, John Macnab.
I widnae scunner ye bi revealin the ootcome o the challenge, but suffice it tae say that the ennui is duly skail’t tae the fower wunds, the weel-heel’t pauchlers gain an entourage o helpers (includin hameless waif, ‘Fish Benjie’ and an athletic journalist, caw’d Crossby), an chinless wunner Archie Roylance mairries Janet Raden, saicont dochter o the landed grandee, wha’s descreivit (aye frae Archie’s pynt-o-view) as like tae an ‘adorable’ or e’en an ‘eager’ boy. Mair on that anon.
The Return of John Macnab reives freely frae the plot o the first novel: thrie cast-doun cronies (a copywriter whase wife has dee’d o a sudden on a plane flicht; an ex-Special Forces sodger in a marital crisis; and a jaundiced jyner wi left-wing political leanins) decide tae revive the henner o Buchan’s novel, this time agin ane estate awned bi a Moroccan Arab, anither estate rented bi a Dutch corporation, an a third cried Balmoral. Thair letter o challenge shaws the times haes a-chynged:
TO WHOM IT CONCERNS! You are hereby informed that, for reasons too numerous to mention but which include an excess of rain, midgies, boredom, absentee landowners and the Criminal Justice Act, the undersigned intends to take a salmon or a brace of grouse or a deer, from the estates of Mavor, Inchallion and Balmoral, respectively. This will be done by fair means during the last three weeks in August.
In addition, a wager is proposed with the owners of these estates. The game will be taken and returned to you. The loser will pay £5000 to the charity of his/her choice, and in addition undertake to vote for the political party of the winner’s choice in the next general election, which cannot come soon enough in the undersigned’s opinion.
For any further information, consult John Macnab by John Buchan. Please signal your acceptance of this wager in the letters page of The Scotsman or be damned for a faintheart, sheltering behind your money and the law.
Sincerely, John Macnab.
Insteid o haein a Fish Benjie or Crossby the journalist giein hauners, the modren-day Macnabs fin thairsels hijack’t bi a gallus quine and a sonsie, Kirsty Fowler, wha aw but taks ower the haill enterprise. Kirsty is a hard-livin, hard-luvin, hard-bevvyin thirtie-yeir-auld, wi a mirky past and an ee for a bonnie laddie. Again, I winnae scunner yous bi spylin the endin, but suffice it tae say that the fower Macnabs tine thair boredom – altho the midges and the rain bide aye, no tae mention the Criminal Justice Act. Oh, and eftir mony ups and douns Kirsty and the bereaved copywriter dowe intae the sunset thegither.
The Return of John Macnab stauns on its ain twa pins as a guid read, but it’s a better gaithert experience gin ye’ve read Buchan's John Macnab first. Greig twists and turns yer expectations richt brawlie, an the resonances atween the twa Macnabs are satisfyin, fairly. Altho they’re baith popular fiction – caw it whit ye will: romance, entertainment, boys’ ain yarn – thegither the twa Macnabs mak veeve a simple fack, near sloganised bi Tommy Sheridan at the maist raicent Scottish election: ‘Ither Scotlands is possible’. Yet an aw, some things nivver chynge.
Ane o the maist unco things about readin the original John Macnab is that the fower heroes is Tories. An there isnae a whiff o irony i this at aw. Imagine that the day: an unironic Scottish novel wi fower Tory heroes. Cud e’en Allan Massie pull thon aff? The’r nae great shock about this whan ye think on’t, John Buchan bein Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities frae 1927-35, but for an upstart scallywag o my generation it isnae a canny experience bein pit intae a readin poseetion that speirs ye tae gree wi a class formation an ideology that’s lang been out o fashion. It’s lik tryin tae read a Sunday Telegraph editorial for pleesure. Yet Buchan sweeps ye alang wi the auld-farrant verve o his screivin, an eftir aw, it’s a gey idiosyncratic vairsion o Toryism he’s espousin throu the plot an his characters; his social veesion is lik the bastard get o Disraeli an Darwin. Burchan’s politics gets aired bi Archie Roylance, himsel echoin Janet Raden, durin an improvised screed at a hustings he attends wi Lord Lamancha:
He preached the doctrine of Challenge; of no privilege without responsiblity, of only one right of man – the right to do his duty; of all power and property held on sufferance. These were the thoughts that had been growing in his head since yesterday afternoon. He spoke of the changing face of the land – the Highlands ceasing to be the home of men and becoming the mere raw material of picture postcards, the old gentry elbowed out and retiring with a few trinkets and pictures and the war medals of their dead to suburban lodgings. It all came of not meeting the challenge...
John Macnab gies the jaded aristos and social-sclimmin upsterts o the chyngin Hielans thair challenge – the collective poacher micht be ayont the law but he bides aye within the honourable code o sportsmanship. Macnab challenges the richts o the property awners an gars thaim fend thair gear in an immediate an direck wey – an i daein sae, funnily eneuch, he ratifies thair claim tae whit they awn. Janet Raden, Archie’s boyish muse, maks the connection atween the land awners an her ain forefolk, includin the Viking, Harald Blacktooth, whase banes an orrals are bein socht bi the auld American archaeologist:
When we had to fight hard for our possessions all the time, and give flesh to the sons of dogs who were our clan, we were strong men and women. There was a Raden with Robert the Bruce – he fell with Douglas in the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – and a Raden died beside the King at Flodden – and Radens were in everything that happened in the old days in Scotland and France. But civilisation killed them – they couldn’t adapt themselves to it. Somehow the fire went out of their blood and they became vegetables. Their only claim was the right of property, which is no right at all.
But civilisation killed them...thir words will bear reveesitin i due course. But this is Buchan’s political veesion, pit simply: gear is tae be held bi men – or wummen – that haes borne the gree agin challengers an sae won the privilege o property. He’s lik Disraeli i that he hauds wi the notion o a naitrul race o leaders, an lik Darwin i that he argies that thir leaders maun kemp an chaave an darg perpetuallie tae keep whit’s been won.
The political colour o The Return of John Macnab is muckle pinker. The wager o the latter-day Macnabs caws for the faw o the Conservative government, an tho ane o the Macnabs – Alastair Sutherland, the ex-sodger – is a self-parody o a Tory squaddie, at least ane ither haes a profile that wid nivver fit a Buchan hero. Murray, the jyner, is the anelie real politico amangst the modren Macnabs; his MI5 file reads as follaes:
CP member, then Trotskyite, then member of some splinter group who probably met in a phone box. Finally joined Labour Party in 1983. Probable Militant Tendency. Catholic mother, Protestant father. Atheist. John Maclean Society. Prominent in ‘Brits Out’ campaigns (a couple of murky, snatched photos from marches). Visits to N. Ireland and Irish Republic (dates to follow). Assault on police officers during miners’ strike. District Councillor, resigned over poll tax.
It’s workin-cless Murray that is the political hert o the modren Macnabs, the ane that kythes tae the ploy i the howp that it’ll heize up publicity for laund access richts out-throu the grouse shootin season. His co-conspirators are there for ither reasons.
The politics o The Return of John Macnab shaws, then, a shift tae the left, an the sympathies o Greig’s readers is planked ithergates frae thon o Buchan’s readers. Readers nouadays cannae be expeckit tae haud wi the notion o a hierarchical societie, led bi naitrul leaders wha pruive thairsels endlesslie; the ethos o Greig’s novel pynts mair towards social inclusion an access for aw. It turns out that the new Macnabs are e’en anti-bluid sports: i the hinner end, they ettle tae tranquillise, no kill, thair stag.
Yet an aw, some things dinnae chynge. Archie Roylance’s speech anent the chyngin Hielans is pruived prophetic. Greig’s new land awners are – in a slee reversal o Buchan’s imperial ethos – an Arab aristocrat an a Dutch consortium. Tae cock a snook at the stereotypes o Buchan’s ‘shockers’, the dusky Moroccan e’en maks aff wi the female lead, at least for a whilie, afore he jynes the Macnab entourage anaw. An Kirsty ettles tae explain the Macnab challenge tae Mr Van Baalen o the Dutch consortium:
‘A lot was never resolved when the old clan territories began being bought and sold like factories or shirts. And that’s leaving the Clearances out of it. The old clan chiefs didn’t own the land in a modern sense. They represented it. Held it in trust, or something – a lot of people round here still think of it like that.’ (p. 193)
Politics is there i baith novels, but neither is maistly political. As Christopher Harvie says, Buchan yaises his novel tae bandy about whit i the 18th century wid hae been cried ‘notions’ – braid social and philosophical ideas about class and privilege, richts and responsibilities. Greig alswa pleys about wi single-issue politics an issues o laund awnership an access but that’s no whit drives the twa buiks. Like Macnab, they huv ither fish tae fry.
Ane big differ atween the twa buiks is the wey they tak on the issue o sex an gender roles. As Kirsty says at a key moment i The Return of John Macnab, “There is no sex in John Macnab” – but o course there is.
The chief – leastweys nominal – heterosexual relationship i John Macnab is (as noted afore) that atween Archie Roylance an Janet Raden: war hero suin-tae-be MP and auld bluid heiress. The new Macnabs hae a guid deal o fun at Roylance’s expense, i parteeticular the wey the reader keeks at Janet thro his een:
As contrasted with her sister’s, Janet’s face had a fine hard finish which gave it brilliancy like an eager boy’s. (pp. 116-7)
Her bright hair, dabbled with raindrops, was battened down under an ancient felt hat. She looked, thought Sir Archie, like an adorable boy. (p. 168)
At least ane Macnab puzzles on thir kittle passages.
[Neil] looked at himself in the mirror and tried to think himself back into the time of John Macnab. A time when men were either single or married. A time when good girls were chaps with (presumably small) breasts. Janet Raden had been described as ‘like an adorable boy’, the same way Sandy Arbuthnot was always said to have the eyes and grace of a girl. Presumably at the time no one had sniggered. (p. 165)
Neil luiks at Kirsty wi different een:
She was unknown yet deeply familiar. A pal. Not exactly slim, graceful and boylike in the manner of Buchan’s women who were always fast on the hill, terrific with a rod and hated jazz and anything modern and over-sensitive. Chaps, really. Chaps with small, discreet breasts,
No – and he had to look away – Kirsty was a pal, a good companion on a ploy, but definitely not a chap. (p 134)
E’en sae, Greig thraws out wee hints o gender bendin, wi Kirsty an aw:
Neil got up and went to the cupboard. He emerged with a deerstalker and put it gently on her head.
‘I crown you John Macnab.’
She adjusted the angle and checked herself in the mirror.
‘The principal boy,’ she murmured. (p 59)
The retour o the repress’t
Presumably at the time no one had sniggered. Aye, weel let’s no snicher but ettle tae reenge a pickle mair deep intae the sindrie attitudes o the twa Macnabs. It wid be wrang tae believe Buchan wanted guile anent sexual maitters. Christopher Harvie notes that durin Warld War I, in his role as heid-bummer o British propaganda, he speired out German nationality bi readin German psychoanalysis. Nou, the British Meenistry o Information in Warld War I is creditit – gin thon’s the ward – bi Noam Chomsky wi bein mibbes the first government bodie ackwallie tae ettle tae control the minds o a haill population. We can jalouse that psychoanalysis wis taen gey seriouslie bi Buchan an his cronies. Catherine Carswell screive’t that Buchan had ‘mastered all the standard texts ‘with attention and respect’’ (Harvie, viii), an Harvie concludes frae this that Buchan kent the wark o Freud an Jung. Harvie than gaes on tae moot that Buchan wis mair disposed tae Jung’s theories nor Freud’s an says that ‘Freudian traces in Buchan are pretty limited, although the distinguished Scots psychoanalyst Jock Sutherland argued that his relationship to his mother might repay study’ (Harvie, viii).
Tae lea Buchan’s mither out o it, I’d argie that the’r still a muckle i John Macnab, that’s weel Freudian, conscious or no – an I jalouse a lot o it’s conscious. John Macnab taks a wheen o insichts frae Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, whilk was gien in 1915-17, juist as Buchan wis readin up on German psychoanalysis, an in fack John Macnab foresees a deal o whit Freud wid later screive in Civilisation and its Discontents, five year eftir Buchan’s novel. As awbodie weel kens, the basis o Freud’s theory o the unconscious is that the adult sel – or ego – sinders itsel fae the id, thon ‘reservoir of the libido’ bi divers intimmers, or mechanisms, o repression. Freud’s grand discoverie wis that this process o repression is a naitrul ane: we aw gang throu a phase whaurby we damp doun wur sauvage desires for tae integrate intae societie, tae jyne the bodie o the kirk, sae tae speak.
Buchan is licht in tone an sceptical anent psychoanalysis, baith here an i The Dancing Floor, but – dinnae mistak yersel – the speerit o Sigmund Freud infuses John Macnab juist as the ghaist o Harald Blacktooth haunts the glens. As we'll see, The Return of John Macnab taks the Freudian theme an turns it intae its late 20th century maik: faimly therapy, or, mair parteecularly, mairraige counsellin. But for nou, picter the verra first scene i Buchan’s John Macnab: an unkent patient, a man on the wrang side o fortie, is sprawled out on an easy chair afore a ‘great doctor’. It’s near the teepical Freudian scenario, a psychoanalyst bi the windae an the patient on the couch. The patient, o course, is Sir Edward Leithen an his seikness, we suin jalouse, isnae physical, as the doacter says: ‘...it’s a mind disease, to which I don’t propose to minister.’ Acton Croke, the English physician, is nae Sigmund Freud, tho his neist patient will turn out tae be Mr John Palliser-Yeates, wha exheebits the selsame symptoms o neurosis. Acton Croke’s remedy isnae Freudian neither – he advises baith his patients tae haud aff, an reive a cuddie, in a kintra whaur reivers are hingit. This is the English repone tae German psychoanalysis: acks, no wards, cures the mind that’s seik. The auld Macnabs’‘mind disease’ is discreivit as ennui, but i Freudian terms it’s ‘the retour o the repress’t’.
I his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud sterts aff on his explore o the indiveedual’s relations wi ceevilisation. I Freud’s opeenion, the ack o kythin tae ceevilised societie necessitates the repression o sindrie preemitive ettles or wants. Aw Buchan’s heroes is the epitome o civileesed men, ilkane at the heicht o his pooer an influence, an ilkane maun therefore hae dune a muckle amount o repressin tae get whaur he is. Ilkane is a bachelor, forby. Nou, the maist pouerfu o wur instincts is, of course, libidinal impulses that are replanked toward goals that are ‘socially higher and no longer sexual’. I the First o the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud says, ‘we believe that civilization is to a large extent being constantly created anew, since each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society repeats this sacrifice of instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community’ (15.23). Houanever, the individual whiles suffers a ‘retour o’ the repress’t’ an sae displays neurotic symptoms, for ensample, ye micht be as restless as a hen on a het girdle, or shaw symptoms o hysteria or anxeeitie. I the case o Buchan’s thrie Macnabs, neurosis is manifestit as ennui. Ceevilisation canna mend this ‘mind disease’ if anelie because it is ceevilisation. As Janet Raden micht say, ‘Civilisation kills us’ – a gey subversive thocht for a guid Tory screivin in 1925, mair subversive nor Bolshevism, richt eneuch. But, as Janet gaes on tae say, ‘That’s not politics, it’s the way nature works.’
Ennui is amang the narcissistic neuroses, lik melancholia an megalomania, gey kittle tae sort bi Freud’s ‘bletherin cure’ sin the patient haes sterted tae withdraw frae ither fowk. Acton Croke daes weel tae speak wards tae Leithen an Palliser-Yeates that incline thaim tae action. The John Macnab challenge acks as a kin o displacement, allouin thaim tae replank thair atavistic desires intil a ploy that, houever sportsmanlik, taks thaim outwith the law, outwith ceevilisation an its discontents – that allous thaim tae hunt, shoot an fish for real, kennin that they’ll get mair nor thair heid in thair hauns tae play wi, gin they’re catch’t.
The ither characters i John Macnab faw intil Freudian stereotypes in ane wey or anither. Fish Benjie, the atavistic urchin, is part beast (or leastwyes fish), part human, an represents the inner wean that aw the Macnabs maun address an sublimate, gin they are tae cantle up an win free frae thair debilitatin neurosis. Fish Benjie lives roch, athout faither nor mither (faither deid, mither ill an needin Benjie’s care – but let’s no get ower Oedipal about this), outwith the constraints o ceevilisation, an he disnae haud e’en wi the rules o sportsmanship laid doun bi the adult Macnabs. He is the ur-Macnab, an the hinnermaist phrase in the novel is his richt name: Benjamin Bogle. A ‘bogle’, mind, is a supernaitrul trickster, an can be read as a symbol o the id. The Viking Harald Blacktooth is an unceevilised warlord, anither symbol and e’en an incarnation o the primal id. John Macnab, the composite pauchler, is Blacktooth’s verra reincarnation – a Benjamin Bogle in adult claes – the site on whilk the thrie bourgeoises and aristos can projeck thair ain repressed impulses.
At first Archie Roylance disnae quite fit this picter. He’s ower young an no successfu eneuch tae be tholin the neurotic ennui o the ithers. An indeed, his neurosis is different – a trauma neurosis o the kind that Freud got parteecularly interestit in as an affcome o the First Warld War. Altho Archie awns at ane pynt tae quite enjoyin the War, he has been boadilie woundit an, lik his thrie pauchlin cronies, his sex drive haes been – comically – divertit. Buchan does mak affectionate fun o Archie – and psychoanalysis:
I am at a loss to know how to describe the first shattering impact of youth and beauty on a susceptible mind. The old plan was to borrow the language of the world’s poetry, the new seems to be to have recourse to the difficult jargon of psychologists and physicians; but neither, I fear, would suit Sir Archie’s case. He did not think of nymphs and goddesses or of linnets in spring; still less did he plunge into the depths of a subconscious self which he was not aware of possessing. The unromantic epithet which rose to his lips was ‘jolly’. (p. 43)
Tho Sir Archie is unawaur o possessin an unconscious self, a practisin psychoanalyst micht say his dooble trauma – leg smashed twa times, aince i the war and again whilst racin cuddies – accounts for a latent homosexuality that is ‘ceevilised’, that is, transferr’t intil a socially-acceptable form, bi his luve for the boyish Janet Raden. She, mind, is nocht anelie the heiress o an auld faimly but alswa the advocate o the weys o Harald Blacktooth, ane o wur symbols o the primeval id. The consumation o Archie and Janet’s passion, at the hinner end o the buik, wi aw the Macnabs in attendance (includin Fish Benjie) gies closure tae this Freudian narrative o neuroses sublimated an sorted, no bi a ‘bletherin cure’ but whit micht be cried a ‘stalkin cure’. John Macnab haes gien the narcissists a means o satisfeein thair repress’t instincts: in the course o the thrie ploys (compulsive behaviour gin ever sic there wis?) lawers and bankers haes turn’t pauchlers, Etonians haes turn’t tramps, adults haes turn’t bairns, and Cabinet Meenisters haes turn’t Vikings. The mairraige at the climax symbolises that aince mair the libido haes been successfully repress’t and ceevilised institutions haes been reassertit. O course, the institutions haes nivver raellie bin disruptit – in a richt honest exchange late i the buik, it’s pyntit out tae the Macnabs that thair reputations haes nivver ackwallie bin unsiccar – gin they wis catch’t, thair class wid hae steek’t ranks around thaim, an kep thair rid faces dern an hidlin. But – as Freud wid later say o releegion – it’s the illusion that maitters.
The ‘stalkin cure’ is whit drives the narrative o Andrew Greig’s The Return of John Macnab an aw. I winna labour the pynt but Greig is weel awaur o the therapeutic value o a guid challenge. The couple at the core o this buik, Neil an Kirsty, hae baith luivit and tint, and baith hae commitment issues. The squaddie, Alasdair, haes a wife that’s havin an affair wi her hang-glidin instructor i Chamonix (a locale that’s alswa mention’t i passin i John Macnab). They hae communication issues – whit’s mair, Alasdair, lik Erica Jong, haes a byordinar fear o fleein. Thair issues gets resolve’t whan, makin a jynt getaway involvin a hanglider an a brace o grouse, Alasdair owercomes his phobia, an the couple crash-launds amangst the trees. Awmaist direckly, conjugal relations is resume’t. I mean, hou Freudian can ye get?
The fourth modren Macnab, Murray, is blithlie mairriet on the surface, but comes tae the knawledge that, as he says, ‘I’ve been anaesthetized wi politics and forgot...’ (p. 282). His dochter, Eve, is the wyce, instinctive child represented bi Fish Benjie i the first novel: still an aw, her oncomin sexual instincts gets focus’t on Neil, and, we’re tell’t, i later life she alswa shaws obsessive compulsive behaviour:
And Uncle Neil with his sadness and gentleness and understanding towards her, all thin and dark and blue eyes glancing at her as she sat forgotten, the man she could never marry and the man she would always marry, whoever she married. (p. 123)
The auld pauchler, John Macnab, aince mair gies the fower main modren characters space tae wark out thair proablems, mair or less. As the narrator concludes, ‘Four incomplete people came together and for a while made a nearly unstoppable whole’ (p. 305). The stakes micht no be sae heich i this novel – eftir aw, a copywriter, saloon singer, squaddie and jyner dinnae represent the acme o ceevilisation i the wey Buchan’s characters dae – but Greig compensates bi uppin the ante an makin the hinnermaist wager agin a rael-life character, HRH Prince Charles hissel, aw happit up in his kilt an directin his gillies while Special Forces chiels hotter an bizz about, airm’t tae the teeth, ettlin tae tak out suspeckit terrorists. Unlike the first Macnab – the saicont ane is in rael danger o haein his life, nivver mind his reputation, taen awa. Still, gin The Return of John Macnab doesnae feenish wi a mairrage symbolisin the renew’t sublimation o repress’t instincts, it at least feenishes wi howp for a blithe heterosexual relationship (its 90s social inclusiveness agenda graunts howp, via a subplot, for a blithe homosexual relationship atween the barmaid an her pairtner anaw). The blitheness o the relationship lippens on ane o thaim stertin up a new ploy, unkent at the endin, but aiblins that’s the moral o The Return o John Macnab, as it is o John Macnab – and o Freud – i some weys ceevilisation kills us aw, an tae be fulfill’t, we need whiles tae fin means o jinkin an joukin its yoke, or we’ll end up a dysfunctional, neurotic midden.
The Uisses o Leiterature
At this pynt I wahnt tae step back a wee, an spend a puckle – twa-three – meenits thinkin on whit the twa John Macnabs haes tae tell us about the uisses o stories in airlie an late 20th century Scottish societie, an hou thae stories are tell’t.
First o aw, Sir Edward Leithen, Archie Roylance, Kirsty Fowler, Alasdair Sutherland an the lave arenae case studies in psychoanalysis – they are characters i fiction. This fack is plain as parritch, but it is warth statin anew. Bi subjeckin fictional characters tae psychoanalysis, we are ackwallie projeckin wur ain interpretations ontae mere wards – wards dream’t up bi John Buchan and Andrew Greig. We can dae this – an some o us mak a career out o’t – but the reasons whitfur is no awthegither obvious. Anither wey tae tak a Freudian sklent at leiterature is tae speir out its role i the sublimation o wur ain neuroses, for, as Freud said, we aw huv thaim. We cannae aw gang out an stalk a deer, shoot a brace o grouse or e’en fush a saumon tae damp doun wur ain ilkaday neuroses – thae days whan we’re grupp’t bi ennui, anxiety or hysteria, or e’en a compulsion tae redd out the house ower an ower an ower. Whit we can dae in thir situations is read a buik about stalkin a deer, shootin grouse or fushin saumon. We can identifie wi ane or mair o the characters, and ack out imaginatively the retour o the repress’t. Freud includit leiterature alangsides wi dreams, jokes an e’en sklytes o the tongue as outlets for wur normal atavistic impulses. The leiterary devices o metaphor an metonymy are linked wi twa mechanisms o repression that turn up i dreams: condensation, whaurby twa dream elements gang thegither intae ane, an displacement, whaurby a threitenin impulse (e.g. sex) is transferred intil a different ane (e.g. gaein eftir a saumon wi a fushin-wand). Enackin wur atavistic impulses i the warld o wur imaginations is ane wey o sublimatin wur instincts. Popular leiterature is a ceevilisin force, or – as George Orwell suggestit in 1984 – it micht be seen as a mechanism o repression.
Thocht o this wey, John Macnab can be related tae a haill genre o popular fiction that ettle’t tae ceevilise British readers i the airlie 20th century. The maist kenspeckle ensample o this is the Boys’ Own Paper, the comic that cam out ilka wick frae the Echteen Echties, whan Buchan wis but a bairn, til the 1950s, weel eftir he wis deid. A lot has been screive’t about the Boys’ Own Paper an hou it learnt British weans hou tae be guid imperialists bi engrainin intil thaim a code o values, shawin thaim man-bodies tae emulate, an giein thaim uissfu knawledge tae cairry til Africa an India an the ither outposts o Empire. Twa pages o an airlie edeition, reproduce’t frae the Web, shaw the massive, hardy, Buchanite faces o ‘Men Who Are Talked About’ – Thomas Edison, inventor; Sir John Lubbock, Bart., MP, FRS, a banker, scientist and politician; Edward Whymper, artist and Alpine adventurer; an the late Charles Darwin, whase pouers o observation are respeckit, altho his theory o evolution is gien short shrift.
The coamic alswa gies furder information anent ‘Strange Weapons and Stranger Ways Of Using Them’, includin ‘that terrible weapon of South America, the lasso’. John Macnab links intae this genre o bairns’ fiction bi sairvin up an adult fable o whit the bairns o Empire micht dae gin they’ve borne the gree, an fun that it saurs o ass. It alswa accounts for the happenin xenophobia and anti-semitism ye fin splattered out-throu Buchan’s fiction. His John Macnab hauds wi a veesion o popular leiterature that haes it sublimatin the readers’sexual and atavistic instincts i the grand cause o Empire. Buchan’s neurotics maun reive a cuddie whaur reivers are hingit ... or come tae Scotland and pauchle a saumon, afore duly reaffirmin the institutions o ceevilisation.
Andrew Greig is likely auld eneuch tae hae seen a puckle o yallowin Boys’Own Papers, or Boys’ Own Annuals leein aroun; an, like Edward Whymper, Greig is an outdoors type, haen screiv’t anent his mountaineerin ploys afore turnin tae novels. Yet his John Macnab nae langer bides in a Scotland that is pairt an paircel o whit Donald Mackenzie cries ‘the early afternoon of the Empire’. The Return of John Macnab haes mair ‘ordinar’ fowk as heroes and heroine (altho they’re aw still infuriatingly guid at awthin they’re caw’d tae dae, frae fushin tae abseilin tae playin the electric organ...) an as the novel progresses, a key ward that comes back time an again is ‘trust’. Greig’s novel doesnae sae muckle pit its readers in the poseetion o sublimatin their neuroses tae reaffirm the institutions o Empire (altho he does spell ‘radge’ as ‘raj’! – p. 120). Like Freud, an mair nor Buchan, Greig blurs the bounds atween reality and imagination: as notit airlier, HRH is a minor character, an the narrator echoes anither character bi sayin i the hinnermaist chapter, ‘Everything I have told you is true. You must decide whether to believe that or not’ (p.27). I the style o late 20th century novels, Greig’s narrative perspective sclithers this gate and that, and he plays gemms wi fack an fiction: Kirsty scaulds Murray whan he yaises a fower-letter ward bi luikin up frae her Sunday Post an sayin, ‘Here, you’re not in a Jim Kelman novel now’ (p. 101). The Return of John Macnab is maistly about helpin readers sublimate their neuroses juist tae get oan better wi their chosen maik. Greig kens the leemited pouer o fiction tae ackwallie fulfil the wushes it steers up, and wycelie, he deleevers ‘nothing so clean cut as an ending’ (p. 312).
Finally – sin this is a collogue o dominies – cud yous yaise thir twa novels in cless wi a group o hormonal adolescents whase ain libidos are scantlins contained bi onie form o sublimation? Aye, I think an howp sae, wi the follaein provisos. I dinnae think nouadays ye can sairve John Buchan up strecht wiout giein yer scholars an angle or twa. The anes I’ve suggestit here micht wark for the mair intellectually curious: what wis the ideological purpose o popular fiction for bairns an adults in Buchan’s day? Compare that tae the popular romances and coamics o the day. And for wannabe psychoanalysts, gie them a crash-course on Freudian thocht an creeticism: the concise and accessible web introduction bi Dino Fellugi has been yaised liberally in this presentation. Then the dirtier-mindit can huv a field-day expoundin on whitfur Kirsty is aye staunin in doorweys, or whitfur it’s virginal Eve wha fins the convenient ‘slot’ in the brae that will enclose John Macnab on ane o his forays (pp. 131-2).
The Andrew Greig novel is easier tae read an enjoy an blether about wiout ower muckle contextualisation, tho it is mair fun gin ye’ve read the Buchan, an sin it is set in 1995, ye micht hae tae explicate mirkie cultural references, like what in the wide yird the cratur ‘Noel Edmonds’ micht hae signifeed! I’ve certes hid fun wi thaim, an I trust ye’ll hae the same.
Boys’ Own Paper, 1st ser. 4 (1881-1882), pp 764-6: ‘Men Who Are Talked About’ and ‘Strange Weapons and Stranger Ways of Using Them.’ Facsimile available frae JR Topham’s site, access’t on 6th August, 2003 <http://www.sciper.leeds.ac.uk/index/sample/bop/boppages764-66.htm>
Buchan, John, 1925, John Macnab, colleckit in The Leithen Stories, wi an introduction bi Christopher Harvie, Canongate edn, 2000.
Chiriac, Jean, n.d., ‘Symbol and Symbolism with Freud and Jung’ trans. Michaela Cristea, Access’t August 6, 2003, <http://www.freudfile.org/psychoanalysis.html>
Edwards, Owen Dudley (1999) ‘John Buchan's Lost Horizon: An Edinburgh Celebration of Glasgow University’ in EJ Cowan and D Gifford (eds) The Polar Twins, John Donald, pp 215-253 [Endnote 29 gies a wyce but scantlins comparison o Buchan an Greig]
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Freud, Sigmund, 1915-17, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis trans J. Strachey, Liveright edn, 1989.
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Harvie, C (1991) ‘Second Thoughts of a Scotsman on the Make: Politics, Nationalism and Myth in John Buchan’ in Scottish Historical Review, April
Lownie, A (1995/2002) John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier Pimlico
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Smith, JA (1965/1985) John Buchan: A Biography Oxford Paperbacks
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