RogerBW's Blog

John Macnab, John Buchan 03 March 2014

Three men find themselves successful, but un-challenged, and bored with their lives. They decide to take on a challenge: they will poach from well-defended estates in Scotland, and warn the owners that they're coming, by sending letters over the name "John Macnab".

I should perhaps mention first that when I'm reading a book from a period or a culture with different sensibilities from my own I tend to take on the sensibilities of that culture for the duration. So while I suspect many modern readers would be aghast at the casual assumption of privilege and class, I'm not going to mention it further. I don't see any point in reading an old book without at least trying to understand the thinking of its intended audience.

This book was published in 1925, and like the society it depicts is very much overshadowed by the Great War. Everybody knows someone who's having a hard time adjusting to peace. There's a sense that the world has changed irrevocably, but it's not yet quite clear how it's changed.

There are fine descriptive passages during the three stalks; I don't know how plausible they may be, but they certainly give the feel of being well-researched.

The politics are progressive but not socialist: the essential theme expounded by the good guys is that having stuff is all very well, but only if you're prepared to go to some trouble to hold onto it. Resting on your laurels and counting on your money or status to keep your stuff safe isn't good for you or for your descendants. (This is played out particularly with the Claybody family: the father is the one who made the money, and the son is the one who's clearly preparing for a life of wasting it.)

There's much clambering among the highlands, a feeling of the Press as a potential power for good that echoes Kipling, the unearthing of the remains of Harald Blacktooth the real discoverer of America, and a bride for Archie Roylance (last seen in 1922's Huntingtower).

In some ways the most subversive part of the book is the ending. The sense of danger has come from the risk of being caught and exposed: the three men who make up Macnab all have considerable reputations. But old Claybody points out that, in fact, they were pretty much safe all along: the three landowners on whose property they've been poaching are sufficiently "people like us", people who can be brought to understand the appeal of the thing even if not to praise it, that although they didn't know it they ran no risk at all. The fact that their ennui is nonetheless cured is simply a trick of the mind.

Which is one in the eye for anyone who thinks this book is encouraging people to go off and do whatever piece of bad behaviour they feel like.

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