Friday, December 18, 2009

The 78 Steps

After the adventure of The 39 Steps, dashing South African Rhodesian hero Richard Hannay finds himself caught up in the Great War. Greenmantle, first published in 1916, begins with Hannay convalescing after service at Loos, ready to take on a new and vital secret mission.

As Hannay's boss, Sir Walter Bullivant, explains in the first chapter, the Germans have got the Turks on their side under Enver. What's more, Bullivant's own son has died delivering vital intelligence on that the Hun is up to:
Kasredin cancer v. I
Hannay must find out what the bally-flip this message might mean. He soon recruits his old chums Peter Pienaar and Sandy Arbuthnot, and a new character, the American John S. Blenkinson, to head for Constantinople. It takes half the book and a pile of adventures to get there, where they discover that the prophet Greenmantle is about to unite the Moslem world under the Kaiser – and against the Brits. Horrors!

As with Hannay's earlier adventure, it's a gripping read packed with incident, villainy, pluck and extraordinary coincidence. The threat of a united Islamic world might also suggest something more; that it's relevant today. Indeed, in July 2005, Radio 4 put off broadcasting the second episode of an adaptation after the London bombings (it was transmitted later that year).

At the time, Charles Moore in the Telegraph muttered about this decision. Quoting several chunks of the book – which he himself called “unimaginably silly” – as evidence, he thought it might teach us something useful about the Middle East and the people who live there. Because, you know, it's like a text book, with Hannay an exemplar for relations with other races. Only, um, in no way whatever.

Hannay himself is a problematic hero for modern readers. For example, there's the bit where he takes over the engine room of a boat on the Danube. The captain, Hannay says,
“liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn't been a nigger-driver for nothing.”
John Buchan, Greenmantle, p. 136.
Later, Hannay and Peter Pienaar are feeling low and their whinge about the war is quite striking – but not very heroic:
“'Europe is a cold place,' said Peter, 'not worth fighting for. There is only one white man's land, and that is South Africa.' At the time I heartily agreed with him.”
Ibid., p. 164.
It's from this authoritative, enlightened protagonist that we are told about other races and nations. The character of Blenkinsop – a brash, fat, hypochondriac windbag who speaks of himself in the third-person – was apparently a bid to encourage America to join the war. He's keen to join Hannay's mission because,
“My father fought at Chattanooga, but these eyes have seen nothing gorier than a presidential election ... I did think of some belligerent stunt a year back [to get involved in the war]. But I reflected that the good God had not given John S. Blenkinsop the kind of martial figure that would do credit to the tented field. Also I recollected that we Americans are nootrals – benevolent nootrals – and that it did not become me to be butting into the struggles of the effete monarchies of Europe ... I have never seen the lawless passions of men let loose on a battlefield. And, as a stoodent of humanity, I hankered for the experience.”
Ibid., p. 18.
It's not exactly the most flattering persona with which to woo a potential ally. I couldn't help seeing him as played by Joe Don Baker in a Hawaiian shirt.

Of most fascination is the book's attitude to the Islamic world. Hannay's mate Sandy is a devotee – he's learned the languages, lived among the different factions and dresses up in the clothes. This, obviously, wins him more points among the locals than the bullying Germans and turns out quite useful at the end.

There's lip service paid to the richness and history of the Ottoman Empire and its people, but it all depends on some clunky assumptions about how easily their affections can be bought or swayed. Sandy wears the right sort of clothes at the right moment, and the whole nation-state switches sides.

Underlying this is some insidious stuff about the personality of your average Turk. Within seconds of meeting his first Turkish officials, Hannay is up in arms.
“It was the first time they tried to bribe me, and it made me boil up like a geyser. I saw his game clearly enough. Turkey would pay for the lot to Germany: probably had already paid the bill: but she would pay double for the things not on the way-bills, and pay to this fellow and his friends. This struck me as rather steep even for Oriental methods of doing business.”
Ibid., pp. 147-8.
It's not just the blanket statements about bureaucracy and corruption that's odd. Hannay is at the time posing as a German, on a boat delivering guns to use against the British. But he's too much of a gentleman to let this cheating stand:
“We had a fine old racket in the commandant's office ... I told him it wasn't my habit to proceed with cooked documents. He couldn't but agree with me, but there was that wrathful Oriental with his face as fixed as a Buddha ... Looking back, it seems pretty ridiculous to have made all this fuss about guns which were going to be used against my own people. But I didn't see that at the time. My professional pride was up in arms, and I couldn't bear to have a hand in a crooked deal.”
Ibid., pp. 148-9.
I'm surprised his comrades didn't put him on a charge for treason. But no, Hannay's too busy playing the game fair and square to think about all the people his actions will have killed. In fact, the last sequence of the book has Hannay and his mates being shelled by the Germans – it's not impossible that they're using the guns Hannay himself delivered. The pompous dick.

Hannay's attitude to the enemy is also odd. The Kaiser – who he meets in the story – and the ordinary folk are all rather decent, but carried along by the fanaticism of a few angry madmen. (A bit like Doctor Who fandom on the internet.)

Stumm is a short, cross, stupid bully who might well have hailed from Sontar. When Hannay is shown into Stumm's rooms, there's also a heavy suggestion about his private life.
“At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing-room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, the evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. The room seemed a horribly unwholesome place, and I was more afraid than ever of Stumm.”
Ibid., pp. 94-95.
Perhaps this is Hannay protesting too much. Later we meet one of only two women in the book, the villainous ice queen von Einem. Hannay gets confessional, and it's so peculiar it's worth quoting in full:
“Women had never come much my way, and I knew about as much of their ways as I knew about the Chinese language. All my life I had lived with men only, and rather a rough crowd at that. When I made my pile and came home I looked to see a little society, but I had first the business of the Black Stone on my hands [in The 39 Steps], and then the war, so my education languished. I had never been in a motor-car with a lady before, and I felt like a fish on a dry sandbank. The soft cushions and the subtle scents filled me with acute uneasiness. I wasn't thinking now about Sandy's grave words, or about Blenkinsop's warning [about von Einem], or about my job and the part this woman must play in it. I was thinking only that I felt mortally shy. The darkness made it worse. I was sure that my companion was looking at me all the time and laughing at me for a clown.”
Ibid., p. 212.
Two pages later, having talked to her a bit, he is feeling bolder and I thought for a moment they might snog. But no, his response is more twisted weirdness:
“I see I have written that I knew nothing about women. But every man has in his bones a consciousness of sex. I was shy and perturbed, but horribly fascinated. This slim woman, poised exquisitely like some statue between the pillared lights, with her fair cloud of hair, her long delicate face, and her pale bright eyes, had the glamour of a wild dream. I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but I longed to arouse her interest. To be valued coldly by those eyes was an offence to my manhood, and I felt antagonism rising within me. I am a strong fellow, well set up, and rather above the average height, and my irritation stiffened me from heel to crown. I flung my head back and gave her cool glance for cool glance, pride for pride.”
Ibid., p. 214.
It's not just about his manhood being stiff with irritation. There's a whole load of stuff about power and dominance, and which of the races will blink first. A bit later, Sandy helpfully explains that, according to “a sportsman called Nietzsche” that,
“Women have got a perilous logic which we never have, and some of the best of them don't see the joke of life like the ordinary men. They can be far greater than men, for they can go straight to the heart of things. There never was a man so near the divine as Joan of Arc. But I think, too, they can be more entirely damnable than anything that ever was breeched, for they don't stop still now and then and laugh at themselves ... There is no Superman. The poor old donkeys that fancy themselves in the part are either crackbrained professors who couldn't rule a Sunday-school class, or bristling soldiers with pint-pot heads who imagine that the shooting of a Duc D'Enghien made a Napoleon. But there is a Superwoman, and her name's Hilda von Einem.”
Ibid., 231.
The book finishes with our heroes being bombarded by the enemy, and playing a weird game of chicken, refusing to flinch before Stumm and von Einem. The villains' resolve breaks first, and they die in the skirmish of their own making. Stumm is shot in the back; von Einem our heroes try to bury respectfully, what with not fancying her at all.

It's a strange book, full of weird, naïve and convenient assumptions about the people of the Middle East and the things that make them tick. And that would be quite fun had it not proved such a disaster as a foreign policy in the post-war period, and now.

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