In ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, John Betjeman has Wilde whimper to Robert Ross: ‘So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:/ And Buchan has got in it now:/ Approval of what is approved of/ Is as false as a well-kept vow.’ It is a marvellous scene, but not quite accurate. As a thousand Buchanites will clamour, Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and Buchan’s first story appeared in Aubrey Beardsley’s gorgeous fin-de-siècle magazine only the following January. Meanwhile, just a glance at this illustrated new selection of stories shows that John Buchan was the opposite of conventional.
The story in question, ‘A Captain of Salvation’, tells of a man brought low by drink and hard living, now an officer of the Salvation Army in the East End. He can resist the temptations of women and the flesh but not an old confederate and the lure of picketing up in the Drakensberg or dropping down the Irrawaddy. Here at the very start of his selection, Giles Foden gets Buchan in one. Buchan had probably never seen Limehouse, and it would be five years before he picketed up in the Drakensberg. Like his friend, T. E. Lawrence, John Buchan imagined his adventurous life before he lived it.
John Buchan wrote about 70 stories, the best of them gathered into four principal collections. These are Grey Weather (1899); The Watcher by the Threshold (1902); The Moon Endureth (1912), which intersperses stories and verse in the manner of Kipling; and The Runagates Club (1928).
Of these collections by far the best is Grey Weather. Subtitled ‘Moorland Tales of My Own People’, it contains 14 stories set in the hills of the Upper Tweed valley where Buchan spent his summer holidays at his mother’s family sheep farm.