Book Review by George S: Castle Gay is the second of John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn novels. The first was Huntingtower (1921) in which the elderly McCunn retires from hisprosperous Glasgow grocery business, heads off on a walk through the lowlands, and becomes embroiled in a fantastic plot, protecting a Russian princess from villains. He is aided in this by Robert Heritage, a disenchanted war poet, who is inspired by the adventure(and especially by the lovely princess) to lose his disillusion and recover his sense of the wonder of the world. They are also helped by a gang of left wing boy scouts from Glasgow – the Gorbals Diehards, who belong to a Socialist Sunday School, and prove stalwart in the adventure.
Castle Gay happens six years later, and is mostly about two of the Diehards: Dougal, who is now a journalist with strong left-wing convictions, and Jaikie, who Dickson McCunn has helped to get to Cambridge. The novel opens with Jaikie, a tough, small wing three-quarter, saving the day for the Scottish rugby team in a match against apparently invincible Australians. His victory comes through dodging and diving, and doing the unexpected, and those will also be his tactics later, when trouble comes.
Dougal and Jaikie set off together on a walking holiday through the lowlands, and, predictably,they soon get involved in an adventure. It has to do with Mr Craw, a character of whom Buchan disapproves. He is the owner of Castle Gay, and also of a publishing empire whose most important organ is a newspaper which specialises in delivering liberal pieties that make its readers feel good about themselves.
Weekly he addressed the world, under his own signature, on every conceivable topic and with an air of lofty brotherhood, so that the humblest subscriber felt that the editor was his friend.
While he acts as though he is the expert on every conceivable topic, Craw has very little of the world, only of his own opinions. The main transformation in the novel is the story of the education of Mr Craw.
Although a celebrity, he is a recluse, and not known to the wider world. It is this anonymity that means he is kidnapped by mistake as part of a student rag during an election week. Dougal and Jaikie come across him while he is being held captive by a respectable Scottish lady, and since Dougal works for one of the Craw papers, he feels obliged to help him get home, though he has a low opinion of Craw and his politics. But then they discover that other forces are at work. The royalists and republicans of Evallonia, one of the states created in 1919, somewhere in Eastern Europe, are after him. In his principled ignorance Craw had declared a sympathy for the royalists, and Prince John of Evallonia, overestimating his importance, has come to visit him, not realising that if the word got out about a conspiracy, it would create a political scandal. The republicans, who are a nasty bunch, want to make that scandal as big as possible.
Craw has to be kept away from Castle Gay, and Jaikie is given the job of keeping him outof trouble. He does so by taking him on the walking tour that he and Dougal had planned. Craw starts off as a ridiculous citified figure,who will not even wear proper walking boots, but insists on keeping his city shoes.
Mr Craw even endued his hands with a pair of bright wash-leather gloves, and with his smart Homburg hat and silver-knobbed malacca looked exactly like a modish elderly gentleman about to take a morning stroll at a fashionable health-resort.
Gradually Craw is transformed, not only in appearance, as he gradually swaps his city clothes for stout practical tweed, but also spiritually, as fresh air, exercise and Scottish scenery have an effect on him.
Jaikie and Craw haveseveral adventures, the most notable of which is being involved in ageneral election campaign. Buchan’s political views were right-wing– or perhaps more accurately, high-romantic. He has a low opinion ofboth the orthodox Conservative and Liberal candidates in theelection. The Labour Party members seem to be more salt-of the-earth,but their candidate is someone who has been flown in from elsewhere,and there is a suggestion that he is a do-gooder, patronising theworkers:
…the Labour candidate, a pleasant-faced youth with curly fair hair, who by the path of an enthusiasm for boys’ clubs in the slums had drifted from Conservative pastures into the Socialist fold.
It might seem surprising that Buchan expresses more admiration for the extreme socialists and communists, but they are at least sincere men; they are not compromisers, and belong to an old Scottish tradition:
These were the Communists of the Canonry, and very respectable folk they looked. The Scottish Communist is a much misunderstood person. When he is a true Caledonian, and not a Pole or an Irishman, he is simply the lineal descendant of the old Radical. The Scottish Radical was a man who held a set of inviolable principles on which he was entirely unable to compromise. It did not matter what the principles were; the point was that they were like the laws of Sinai, which could not be added to or subtracted from. When the Liberal party began to compromise, he joined Labour; when Labour began to compromise, by a natural transition he became a Communist. Temperamentally he has not changed.He is simply the stuff which in the seventeenth century made the unyielding Covenanter, and in the eighteenth the inflexible Jacobite.He is honesty incarnate, but his mind lacks flexibility.
This is the authenticity that Craw lacks, and which he needs to be put in touch with.
While Jaikie is leading Craw round the lowlands, Dougal is trying to sort out the political situation, and there is a fair amount of farce and trickery as the republican villains, who are essentially gangsters, are misled. There is also farce in the treatment of a journalist from a rival paper who wants a story that will discredit Craw.
Anyone expecting a thriller of the Thirty-Nine Steps type will be disappointed by this book. It is a jolly lark, and there is never much real jeopardy. Only in the penultimate chapter do the villains show themselves in their true light and come in waving guns.
Buchan had his prejudices, and there are a couple of sentences you wish weren’t there. Describing a couple of minor villains, he writes:
The face of the Jew Rosenbaum was heavy and solemn, expressionless as a ship’s figurehead, but Dedekind was more human.
Oh dear. But there’s only a little bit of that, and the book is mostly happy and generous-spirited. It’s not as good as Huntingtower, but it made a train journey pass pleasantly.