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The Stalking Cure: John Buchan, Andrew Greig and John Macnab

John Corbett
ScotLit 30, Spring 2004

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 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 – an storytellin itsel – haes aw chynged i twa-three generation.

The plot
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, Mr John Palliser-Yeates, heid o an eminent bank, aw-roun sportsman an man o business; an thirdly, 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 kintra hame o Sir Archie Roylance, a game-leggit war hero that ettles tae be a Conservative MP.

They pit oot a henner, or challenge, tae thrie o Roylance’s neebours: first the Radens, auld bluid, about tae dee out; next, they the Claybodys, vulgur, bekilted nouveaux riches; an hinnermaist, the Bandicotts: a veesitin American archaeologist an his son, wha’re rentin a grand estate for the simmer. The henner forewarns Roylance’s neebours that ‘John Macnab’ will thieve a saumon, a stag, or siclike, frae their launds. The outcome is 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.

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 left-wing jyner) 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. 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 jing-bang. Kirsty is a hard-livin, hard-luvin, hard-bevvyin thirtie-yeir-auld reporter an sangster, wi a mirky past and an ee for a bonnie lad. Aince mair, the fower Macnabs tine thair boredom, and eftir mony ups and douns Kirsty and the bereaved copywriter dowe intae the sunset thegither.

Ane o the maist unco things about readin the original John Macnab is that the fower heroes is Tories. The’r nae great shock about this, John Buchan bein Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities frae 1927-35, but for an upstert 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 sae lang been out o fashion. 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. Buchan’s politics gets aired bi Archie Roylance durin an improvised screed at a hustings he attends wi Lord Lamancha:

He preached the doctrine of Challenge; of no privilege without responsibility, of only one right of man – the right to do his duty; of all power and property held on sufferance.

‘John Macnab’ gies the jaded aristos and social-sclimmin upsterts o the chyngin Hielans thair challenge – the collective pauchler 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, ironically 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:

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.

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.

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. Trotskyite Murray, the jyner, 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 sympathies o Greig’s readers, then, 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; and 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: they ettle tae tranquilise, no kill, thair stag.

Yet an aw, some things dinnae chynge. Archie Roylance’s speak 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 Buchanite ‘shockers’, the dusky Moroccan e’en maks aff wi the female lead, at least for a whilie, afore he jynes the Macnab entourage as weel.

Christopher Harvie richtly 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 politics is no whit drives the twa buiks.

Bendin gender
Kirsty says i Greig’s buik, "There is no sex in John Macnab" – but o course there is. The chief – leastweys nominal – heterosexual relationship i John Macnab is 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:

Her bright hair, dabbled with raindrops, was battened down under an ancient felt hat. She looked, thought Sir Archie, like an adorable boy.

At least ane modren Macnab puzzles on thir kittle passages, namely Neil, that 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.

Elsewhaur i the novel, tho, e’en Kirsty adopts the guise o ‘principal boy’ i this modren pantomime. The new-mintit Macnabs’ snicherin nochtwithstandin, Buchan clearly didnae want 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. Catherine Carswell screive’t that Buchan had ‘mastered all the standard texts ‘with attention and respect’, 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’.

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. 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 elsewhaur, but the speerit o Sigmund Freud infuses John Macnab juist as the ghaist o Harald Blacktooth haunts the glens. 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 sofa. The patient, o course, is Leithen an his seikness 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 Palliser-Yeates, wha exheebits the selsame symptoms o neurosis. Croke’s remedy isnae Freudian either – 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.

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, 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’. Houever, 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 moots, ‘Civilisation kills us’ – a gey subversive thocht for a guid Tory, 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, gey kittle tae sort bi Freud’s ‘bletherin cure’ sin the patient haes sterted tae withdraw frae ither fowk. The John Macnab challenge acks as a kin o displacement, allouin the neurotics 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 archetypes in ane wey or anither. Fish Benjie, the atavistic urchin, is part beast, 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 Archie’s thochts anent Janet:

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’.

Tho Archie is unawaur o possessin an unconscious self, a practisin psychoanalyst micht say his double 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 consummation 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, 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 alswa drives the narrative o Andrew Greig’s The Return of John Macnab. Greig is weel awaur o the therapeutic value o a guid challenge. The couple at the core o his 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 in a maist Freudian wey, 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.

The fourth modren Macnab, Murray, is blithlie mairriet on the surface, but comes tae the knawledge that he’s been ‘anaesthetized wi politics’. 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’.

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 twa novels, and o Freud – 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
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. 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. In sae faur as it helps us sublimate wur neuroses, popular leiterature is a ceevilisin force, or – as George Orwell mootit 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 the callants o Empire. The maist kenspeckle ensample o this is the Boys’ Own Paper, the comic that cam out ilka wick frae the 1880s, 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. John Macnab links intae this genre o bairns’ fiction bi sairvin up an adult fable o whit the affspring o Empire micht dae gin they’ve borne the gree, an fun that it saurs o ass. Buchan’s novel 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 disillusion’t neurotics maun reive a cuddie whaur reivers are hingit – or come tae Scotland and pauchle a saumon – afore duly reaffirmin the institutions o imperial ceevilisation.

Andrew Greig is likely auld eneuch tae hae seen a puckle o yallowin Boys’ Own Papers, or Annuals leein aroun; an lik mony a BOP hero, Greig is an out-o-doors 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 Empire. The Return of John Macnab haes mair ‘ordinar’ fowk as heroes and heroine (altho they’re aw still infuriatinly guid at awthin they’re caw’d tae dae, frae abseilin tae playin the electric organ). Greig’s novel doesnae pit its readers in the poseetion o sublimatin their neuroses tae reaffirm the institutions o Empire (altho he does spell ‘radge’ as ‘raj’!) – insteid he yaises the ‘stalkin cure’ tae recover the key emotion o ‘trust’ that, for ane reason or anither, has been tint by his characters.

Like Freud, an mair nor Buchan, Greig blurs the bounds atween reality and imagination: as notit abune, Prince Charles is a minor character. 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’. The Return of John Macnab is maistly about helpin readers sublimate their neuroses juist tae get oan better wi their chosen maik. Yet 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’. The twa novels atween thaim gie an endless opportunity tae discourse on politics, gender, an the indiveedual’s unchancy relationship wi ceevilised societie.

Background Reading

  • Buchan, John, 1925, John Macnab, colleckit in The Leithen Stories, wi an introduction bi Christopher Harvie, Canongate edn, 2000.
  • 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
  • Felluga, Dino, 2003, ‘Modules on Freud’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, Purdue University, Access’t August 6, 2003
  • Freud, Sigmund, 1915-17, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans J. Strachey, Liveright edn, 1989.
  • Freud, Sigmund, 1930, Civilisation and its Discontents, trans and ed by J. Strachey and P. Gay, Norton edn, 1989.
  • Greig, Andrew, 1996, The Return of John Macnab, Faber & Faber edn, 2002


Copyright © John Corbett 2004


Last updated 18 August 2010.