John Buchan, officially 1st Baron Tweedsmuir was born in 1875 in Perth, Scotland and died in 1940 aged only 64 in Montreal, Canada. He was Governor General of Canada until he died in office. His father was a minister of the Church of Scotland. Many of our ghost story writers are children of clergymen.
He studied Classics at the University of Glasgow and then moved to Oxford University. After that he went to South Africa where he was private secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa. Like Kipling, who we read last week, Buchan was a conservative son of the British Empire. He was a bit of a softie for a conservative though because later when MP for Peebles just south of Edinburgh, he supported votes for women, national health insurance for the poor and curtailing the power of the House of Lords.
Though a Scot, he was not a Scottish Nationalist, and in common with many Scots of his class and time, he though Scotland was best off within the British Empire.
When he returned from South Africa, he was called to the English Bar as a barrister (an advocate in Scotland). He was also editor of the still existing conservative magazine: The Spectator.
In 1916, Buchan went to the Western Front, attached to the Intelligence Corps. Just before this he had just published his famous spy story The 39 Steps.
In 1935, Buchan went as Governor General to Canada. He had always liked Canada, written about it as a journalist and fought alongside Canadian troops in the First World War. He encouraged a distinct Canadian identity and nationality. He hosted King George VI on the king’s tour of Canada.
He suffered a stroke at Rideau Hall and then a head injury as he fell. He was treated by the famous neurologist Wilder Penfield.
I wonder at Buchan’s favouring the rather gloomy, death-fearing folk he contrasts with the happy builder of Fullcircle with his Catholic/Pagan sensibilities.
I had very strange technical difficulties in recording this story. The recording kept skipping, parts disappeared, parts recorded on the same track. Of course, it could be the new version of Reaper, or it could be that the story is haunted!
There are some weird clicks and bumps that I’ve tried to get rid of, but I think some remain.
Again, the house is the main character in this story, the house of the ghost behind it: Lord Carteron.
The first clue that he haunts the house is in the history where Leithen tells our narrator Peckwether that Lord Carteron’s soul is in the house Fullcircle.
Leithan talks about his own house Borrowby and how the Ancient England knew death. He talks of the restoration of the monarchy and the Merry Monarch Charles II after the English Civil War and how the Restoration brought paganism to England and those pagan types were able to live in a bland happiness. That’s Leithen’s big complaint against Full Circle and the easy, lazy happiness it produces in the people who live there and the ghost of Lord Carteron who moulds them in his easy going image. Personally, I’m quite keen on happiness bland or otherwise, but Buchan seems to look down his nose at it.
The man who built Fullcircle, Leithen says, knew have to live: ‘The trouble was, they didn’t know how to die.’. He accuses them in their paganess to trying magic and never becoming true Catholics, just going to Catholicism because of its ritual.
Leithan is a bit miserable. He tells Giffen that the paradaisical countryside in June makes him sad. Giffen now converted from socialism to paganism can’t understand him! Leithen says the Cotswold countryside in June is too perfect a thing for fallen humanity. Giffen thinks him morbid.
But the house casts a spell on its inhabitants, not by opression but my making people fall in love with it. A clever ghost indeed.
Peckwether goes to Fullcircle three times. The first time is in the Autumn, and Buchan describes the autumn beauty of the surroundings. He meets the forward thinking Giffens and isn’t impressed much. The second time he goes alone in high summer and the place is idyllic. The third time it is with Leithen in November when they have been drenched after a day’s hunting.
Each time he witnesses the Giffens who are clever people but very innocent and unknowing. They are not aware of how the house is changing them, in fact Mrs Giffen thinks that it is she who is putting her impress on the house, not the other way round.
At one point Peckwether has the impression he is watching a play, the Giffens seem to be automatons with no volition at all; everything they do is orchestrated by Fullcircle and the ghost of Lord Casteron. This is said pretty much halfway through, in terms of structure.
First we get a lovely description of the house that draws us in and shows how everyone falls under its spell. Then Leithan gives us the history of Lord Carteron and an idea of his pagan personality. We then observe the changes in the Giffens as they soften and mellow and become less serious and less high minded. And finally, Peckwether our narrator allows himself a musing on the house and its magic.
If we allow the initial description of Fullcircle as a foreword, then the story of the change is three acts, and framed by Leithen’s commentary and Peckwether’s final musings.
Leithen’s descriptions of the Giffens as Hampstead Liberals and everything he despises is fun. I think this deep conservative view is Buchan’s own and I particularly liked when he says that the Giffens were against anybody and anything with any ancestry.
The Giffens come to the countryside with fine ideas about educating the peasants, but they give this up, preferring the peasantry as it is, finding it well suited to them. There is something of the noble savage in this and I’m sure that Buchan saw the uneducated country folk as being more natural and authentic than townies. Reminds me of that Genesis song, The Chamber of 32 Doors:
I’d rather trust a countryman than a townman,
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can,
He’ll smile through his guard,
Survival trains hard.
I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands,
He looks at you once, you know he understands,
I can imagine female listeners bristling at Buchan’s description of Mrs Giffen as a woman who could have been pretty if she had only taken the pains and who matures into a much more agreeable hostess, having given up all her ideas of social reform and education for the masses.
Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
I just narrated these as single files, put some sound effects and music in and they are on sale for 30p (about 50 cents) each from Music Glue, if you fancy them.
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Beginning music ‘Some Come Back’ is by the marvellous Heartwood Institute