Friday, December 30, 2011

Notes of a gentleman traveler ii

     Did I really fall asleep last
     evening, reading John Buchan
     stories? Did I really see a
     park derelict, claiming to be
     a South American president, 
     disarm 2 assassins while loll-
     ing in his underwear in Ned
     Leithen's Mayfair flat, with
     schoolboy badinage on thor-
     oughbred racing? 

Just as Leithen credited the tramp's story by appraising his underwear, "which seemed to be of the finest material," I knew this was a Buchan story when Sir Edward pronounced him, "not a wastrel." Who knew, back in the 1920s, that Lord Tweedsmuir's writings would go through an entire cycle of imperial ascendancy and embarrassment in fewer than three generations, only to emerge in the 21st Century as the stuff of the acutest penetra-tion of goddy blogs and fashion publicity, alike? I don't know that he's in for the kind of rediscovery Graham Greene made of Kipling and Stevenson, but plainly Bruce Weber has figured him out.

   The capital of the undergarment
   is nostalgia and its chaplain is
   John Buchan. Snowy as the purely
   driven is his past, more formid-
   able than vanity is his idolatry
   of chums. It's not for us to ask
   if it's OK; it goes on and on. 

A vigorous Presbyterian, Buchan's
gentleman is almost always wholly
self-made, but of obviously pref-
erred whole cloth, requiring only
a brush with some scoundrel to e-
licit the spark of native flint,
casting a permanent aura which his
kind will decipher, instantly.

The history of the brand name, 
Abercrombie & Fitch, is prob-
ably not the fall of man it has
seemed. (I still comfortably wear
several garments I acquired in
college when A&F were yar). The
sale of boytummies on the backs
of boy heroes is not quite new. 

Buchan wrote the same story a dozen hundred times. A boy, always alone, is sometimes in uniform but usually at greater risk on surreptitious assignment. He feels his heroics in public school sports were unremarkable but we all know better, and so, in the end, does he. He is the boy who can pose credibly as the village idiot and lead a resistance movement, say, or crush a revolt in the raj; and we never stop to wonder why the boors he is humbling never get around to noticing the sublime set of his jaw, the steadiness of his gaze, the affecting frolic of his cowlick - until it is too late to reckon their awesome power.

I have his entire oeuvre, if that is not too grand a term, in first editions from my father's boyhood, and I admit I've been reluctant to chuck it all for Frank O'Hara - to cite another literary partisan. There's almost never a lady in the entire opus (there wasn't, in his most famous Hannay story, The 39 Steps, until Hitchcock supplied one). Yet, to this day, I'll slip beneath the covers late at night with a paragraph or two of extremely simplified, serenely racist and appallingly imperialist stuff. Buchan's tales of clubmen in their youth are a lullaby any boy, anytime, will understand.

John Buchan
The Runagates Club
Dedicated to Lady Salisbury
  Sing a Song of Sixpence:
  Sir Edward Leithen's Story
Houghton Mifflin, 1928©

v   Bruce Weber

i   et passim  Derek

ii  Jeremy Young

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