Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Twenty-Two Steps

by Rachel Gillies

I returned from the Common Room about ten o’clock on that January morning, pretty well disgusted with life.  I had been three weeks back at school, and was fed up with it.  The weather was dank, the reports in the newspapers made me sick, I had run out of mince pies, and the amusements of Portsmouth seemed as flat as a Red Bull left standing in a House base.  “Rachel Gillies,” I kept telling myself, “you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.”

I was just opening the door to the Library when I noticed a man at my elbow.  I had not seen him approach, and the sudden appearance made me start.  He was a solid character, with floppy hair, a shapeless cardigan and deceptively kindly-looking brown eyes.  I recognised him as the occupant of a classroom on the ground floor, with whom I had often passed the time of day on the Library stairs.

“Can I speak to you?” he said.  “May I ask you a favour?”  He was steadying his voice with an effort, and the Year 7 essays in his hand were shaking.

“I’ll listen to you,” I said.  “That’s all I promise.”  I was getting worried by the attitude of this nervous-seeming chap. 

There was a cup of coffee on the Library counter and he took a large gulp, almost cracking the mug as he set it down. 

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m a bit rattled.  You see, I happen at this moment to be desperate.”

I sat down in my chair and inspected what was left of the coffee.  A smile flickered over the man’s careworn face. 

“I reckon you’re a cool customer and not afraid of reading good old-fashioned thrillers,” he said.  “I need help worse than any man ever needed it, and I want to know if I can count you in.  Have you ever read any John Buchan?”

I looked up sharply at that.  “What makes you think I might have done?”  I asked.

“A man – Scudder?  Sadden? – told me I could depend on you.  You see, there’s an important date coming up and I must have a piece in Portsmouth Point in time for it.  It’s 75 years since John Buchan’s death, and we have to make sure the right people know about it.”  

I looked thoughtful and the man in the cardigan pressed his point.  “Can I leave it with you?  Some sort of tribute – whatever you like.”  With that he left the Library, leaving the doors swinging and papers fluttering in his wake as he went down the stairs to G4.  One step, two steps, three…

I sat back, drumming my fingers idly on the Library Signing-in folder, and picked up a pencil to chew on as I thought about my past– a past in which the works of John Buchan had played a much greater part than they did in my present jaded existence.  I gazed unseeingly at the book displays, more cheerful than I had been for the past month.  Things did happen occasionally, even in this God-forgotten metropolis.



John Buchan did indeed die 75 years ago, on 11 February 1940, at the age of 64.  In his not terribly long life he had been a prize-winning scholar at two universities, a lawyer, an imperial administrator in South Africa at the end of the Boer War, an intelligence officer during the Great War, a noted and prolific author, an MP, a publisher and, at the time of his death, Governor-General of Canada.

There is no question that Buchan's best-known book is The Thirty-Nine Steps, but in addition to what he called his "shockers" he wrote histories, biographies, essays, poetry, memoirs - and a ground-breaking work entitled The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income, which I must admit I haven't tackled yet.

The Thirty-Nine Steps - an early book but by no means Buchan's first (he had a good number of publications under his belt while still an undergraduate) - was published in 1915 and found an immediately appreciative audience eager to read of dastardly German plots being foiled by stout-hearted, resourceful individuals who overcome impossible odds, survive the most thrilling and improbable of adventures and win through just by being - well, stout-hearted and resourceful.


I started reading Buchan as a teenager, after seeing the 1978 film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps – the ideal film for a gloomy Sunday afternoon or a wet camping holiday but only very loosely based on the original story.  I romped through Buchan’s adventures, meeting other memorable and much-loved heroes: Sandy Arbuthnot – ridiculously courageous, talented and dashing; Dickson McCunn – retired grocer with a penchant for international intrigue; Edward Leithen – measured, thoughtful, uncomplaining. 

I’ve always had a weakness for a ripping yarn and Buchan’s are among the best, combining high adventure and an absorbing narrative with an immensely strong sense of place and (now unfashionable) moral themes such as endeavour, duty and leadership.  John Buchan himself defined the shocker as a “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”, but also, tellingly, called it an “aid to cheerfulness”. 

Indeed, to bury yourself in a Buchan is to forget your surroundings for a while, to ignore the to-do list, to be transported to heathery uplands or African plains or mountain lakes with nothing but your wits about you and a lump of bread-and-cheese in your pocket.  The track leads enticingly round the corner, the air’s so clean it makes you giddy, you feel as if you could stride on tirelessly for ever – but wait!  What’s that ominous black speck in the distance, circling in the air, slowly coming closer so that you can hear the low drone of its engines?  It’s clearly searching for something, and means to find it.....

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