‘Buchan and Modernity’

Buchan is a magnificent writer, but a bit out of fashion, so it was refreshing to see a good turn-out at the London University Senate House on Saturday for a conference investigating his interaction with the modern world.
The three keynote speakers gave us three contrasting sides of Buchan. Douglas Gifford (from Glasgow, and the world’s only Department of Scottish Literature) started the day by putting him into a Scottish context. This was the paper during which I made the most notes, as he traced the heritage of the historical novel in Scotland. Niall Munro is clearly a novelist I should get to know, and Galt, and Hogg, and I’ve not read nearly enough Stevenson… Life’s not long enough to follow up all the hints from this paper, but I’ll definitely start with one or two of the novels about the Covenanters, who have intrigued me since I took a holiday in the Borders a few years back, and read Old Mortality.
Douglas Kerr put Buchan into a different context, reminding us that he was writing at the same time as the classic Modernists, such as Eliot, and pointing out how flimsy is the conventional academic division between the Modernists and the others. In particular, he compared the use of myth in Eliot and Joyce with Buchan’s use of it in The Dancing Floor.
The final keynote talk was by Michael Pedley, who tried to map out a “unified field theory” of Buchan, linking his writing career with his public life as a politician. As so often when hearing about Buchan’s life, I was filled with awe that one man could achieve quite so much – the novels, the histories, the biographies, the committees, the diplomatic missions. Whatever else Buchan was, he was a phenomenon.
There were good panel talks, too. I chaired one where Christoph Ehland from Germany spoke interestingly about the garden city of Biggleswick in Mr Standfast, and Pilvi Rajamäe from Estonia used her knowledge of architectural history to illuminate Huntingtower. The third speaker was Kate Macdonald, on the valorisation of war-related disability in Buchan (a subject dear to my heart). Kate, of course, is the academic tornado from Ghent whose energy gets conferences like this and last year’s Masculine Middlebrow shindig off the ground.
In one of the afternoon sessions Roger Clarke spoke lucidly about Buchan’s cultural politics, and I gave a short paper on The Three Hostages. I’ll probably put this on the blog eventually, but I’m not very satisfied with it,so may re-work it considerably before I do so.
So – an excellent day. As I say, it was good to see so many people gathered together to celebrate an author who a few years back would have got little critical reaction except to be branded an imperialist or worse.
If you feel as I do that the time has come for a re-mapping of the English literature of the twentieth century with less emphasis on the standard modernists, who for all their virtues were for much of the time rather marginal figures, then an occasion like this must be welcomed as a pointer to the way forward.

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