Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Stiff Upper Lip

Yesterday, while thinking about H.G. Well's time traveler in The Time Machine, I recalled a later fictional British adventurer from the same mold, John Buchan's Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, a thriller (or "shocker" as Buchan described it) set on the eve of World War I. The British heroes in popular fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were practical, self-reliant men of action -- men who would stand up for their honor and would always give a bloke a fair shake. The appeal of this sturdy fictional type declined over time, in step with the declining fortunes of the British nation, but revived in degraded form with Ian Fleming's 1953 creation of James Bond, an ultra-competent but amoral hero.

Richard Hannay introduces himself in the opening paragraphs of The Thirty-Nine Steps :

I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon
pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old
Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that
I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but
there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the
ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and
the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been
standing in the sun. 'Richard Hannay,' I kept telling myself, 'you
have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'

It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up
those last years in Bulawayo. I had got my pile--not one of the big
ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways
of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the
age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of
Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of
my days.

But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was
tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of
restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to go
about with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited
me to their houses, but they didn't seem much interested in me. They
would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on
their own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet
schoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was
the dismalest business of all. Here was I, thirty-seven years old,
sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning
my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get
back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

In the story, Hannay's boredom immediately gives way to the primal excitement of survival on the run. He faces diabolical German agents, a car crash, pursuit by an aeroplane, and a host of other dangers. But Hannay overcomes it all and thwarts Great Britain's enemies using his wits and his nerve.

This is fine, bracing stuff for us sluggish middle-aged guys who are feeling liverish and need to be told 'You have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'