Guide: an A to Z ramble through the peaks of great literature (abridged)

B is for Buchan


by John Buchan

I returned from the city about three o’clock that May afternoon pretty well bored with life.
Not because I’m a boring person, you understand. On the contrary. I’m a very interesting and resourceful type of chap who thrives on adventures set in exotic locations like South Africa and Rhodesia. But here I was stranded in gloomy old London and well into my third sentence without there being so much as a hint of an adventure. Not even a solitary suspicious character lurked on the street corner. Then, just as my boredom had reached an absolute peak, something exciting finally happened. I always thought it might.

A strange fellow, an American of course, suddenly approached me with a very queer yarn concerning the strife and mayhem that was about to break out in the Balkans and the involvement of anarchists, Jews, revolutionaries, Jews, Germans, Jews and Russians. As it turned out, this was all a load of cock and bull, but I was completely taken in by it and when this strange chap was murdered in my room some time later, I decided that the police would never believe a word of his story – being far less gullable than me – so I took to my heels. By first of all disguising myself as a milkman and then as a Scotsman, I managed to make my way to the railway station and there caught a train to Scotland, where Scottish milkmen don’t look quite so conspicuous.

I spent the journey decoding the code in the strange man’s notebook...
...and from this I learned the true story which was even more far-fetched than the original. It concerned the strife and mayhem that was about to break out in the Balkans and the involvement of anarchists, revolutionaries, Germans and Russians. Phew, I thought, glad we’re only dealing with bloody wogs, wouldn’t want  people thinking  I was anti-Semitic.  And with that thought, we arrived in Scotland which was a clear sign that I was on the right train.

If I valued my life it was absolutely essential to keep a low profile. So I told the whole story to the first inn-keeper I met, stole a big, bright-green car and crashed it, impersonated a Liberal politician and addressed a party rally on the merits of Conservatism, and disguised myself as a road repairman and kidnapped a passing motorist. By these cunning devices I was able to keep the police at bay but ran smack bang into the hands of some dastardly foreign spies who just happened to be in Scotland to pinch our secrets. Unfortunately for them they locked me in a cellar full of gelignite so I blew their house up and made my escape before the house blew down again on top of me.

It was now that all my experience of living by my wits in southern Africa came in useful.
I ran like hell all the way across the Scottish Highlands and caught a train back to England. There, as luck would have it, the police had been having second thoughts about me and were now on my side. I went straight to the home of Sir Walter Bullivant and told him the whole lurid tale. He wasn’t very impressed though he did say that he liked the pace of my narrative.

“I know a film director that might be able to use this,” he said, “But we shall have to make the plot a bit more plausible.”

“Any suggestions?” i inquired.

“Perhaps if we included a woman in the story,” he ventured, “You have no objection to women , I take it?”

“Certainly not,” I replied, “What are they?”

“We could definitely make that train journey more exciting. How about a daring escape from the top of the Forth railway bridge?”

“That sounds fine to me.”

“Good. Well Mr. Hannay,” he said because he was speaking to me and my name is Hannay, “ I think we might turn this load of rubbish into quite an exciting film.”

“Thank you,” I said, well pleased with myself and I made my farewells.

“By the way!” he called as I was just about to close the door behind me, “What are the Thirty-nine Steps?”

“I don’t know,” I confessed, “But is sounded like a jolly good title.”