Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The (Original) Island Of Sheep

" We 'd better 'ave this out," he said. "Lady Sevenoaks, you 're what the Americans call a stand-patter, begging your pardon. You still think of the nation as split up into classes each utterly different in temperament and outlook. 

    That's where you're wrong. You Liberals are the worst reactionaries. You 'aven't any notion of the ordinary man. Nothing like as much as the Tory. Why, in my old part of the world people used to 'sir ' the Liberal member and touch their 'ats to him, while everybody called the Tory candidate by his Christian name. There ain't much in that, but it's a parable of the way you have got into the 'abit of cast-iron class notions. This war has shown that all classes are much the same at bottom. Ask the soldiers. They've learned more about the British people in the trenches than you'd learn in politics in a hundred years." 

    Mr. Maldwin signified his assent. "That's true of the two things I know anything about  — sport and fighting. I always guessed it, but I learned it pretty thoroughly in France. That's why I'm for the ordinary man, who's the chap that won the war.  I'd be for the Labour Party to-morrow if it would buck up and reform its stable. It ain't the horses that's to blame; it's the poor stamp of jock." 

    "What I say," continued Mr. Jonas, "is that so long as we go on talking about classes as if they were things established by 'Eaven since the creation of the world, we are asking for trouble. You'll never get to understand about folks in a different walk of life from you if you think of them as somehow different by nature. Things are easier in America, because they tell me that classes are fluid there and their boundaries are always shifting. That's so, Mrs. Lavender?" 

     "True," said the lady. "William was raised in a shack in Idaho, and if the present rate of taxation goes on, my boys will be getting back to that shack."

    "I'm not speaking about classes," said Lady Sevenoaks. "I am speaking about creeds. Do you mean to deny that Bolshevism is rampant in British Labour to-day?" 

    "Of course I do. It's a bad 'abit to call a thing names when you don't understand it. Of course the workers are restless, same as everybody else; and since they ‘ave won the war they want a square deal with the fruits of peace. But they ain't Bolsheviks — barring a few dozen miscreants who should be in gaol. What's Bolshevism anyhow? Judging by the Russian specimens, apart from their liking for 'olesale 'omicide, it seems to mean a general desire to pull things up by the roots. Well, that ain't the line of the British working-man. He is the soundest conservative on the globe, and what he wants is to get his roots down deeper. In other countries the poor man ‘as a grip on the soil. In this country he 'asn't 'ad that for two hundred years. We are over-industrialised, as the saying is; but a root's got to be found somewhere, and he finds it in his Unions. That's why he's so jealous about them, and quite right too. He wants to find security and continuity somewhere. Now that's the opposite of Bolshevism. The true Bolsheviks are the intellectuals that want to make him only a bit of scientific terminology, as Jock Willison says, and the plutocrats that want to make him a cog in a cold-'earted machine. They're the folk that are trying to up- turn the foundations of things.' 


    "I should define Bolshevism differently,' said Sir William. "Its chief motive seems to be the establishment of the tyranny of a class. It's the same thing as Prussianism, only its class is the proletariat."

    "I'm dead-sick of that word 'proletariat,'" said Mr. Jonas. "It's part of the bastard scientific jargon that's come over from Germany. I wouldn't call my dog such an 'ard name. But you're right, Sir William. Only what I'm arguing is that Bolshevism is a very old thing, and that there is n't much of it in the British working-classes. I'll tell you who were 'earty Bolsheviks in their day. The Manchester School and the Utilitarians. They wanted to run the world mainly for the benefit of one class, and they considered only material ends.  It 's true they didn't dabble in crime, but that was because they were rich, frock-coated gents and didn't need to." 

    Sir William Jacob was far from pleased at Mr. Jonas's assent to his definition, followed as it was by this unexpected illustration. "You misread the Manchester School very gravely, Mr. Jonas.”


The excerpt above is from The Island Of Sheep, a largely unknown book written and published by the famous Scottish novelist, politician, statesman, international taxation expert and publisher John Buchan in 1919 under the pseudonym “Cadmus and Harmonia.”  I encountered it for the first time earlier this week in a digitized copy available through the New York Public Library website.

    In 2001, John Buchan scholar Michael Redley of Oxford University, described the book as follows:

    “At the Armistice in 1918 the most productive period of John Buchan's life lay just ahead. Leaving the civil service aged 44 after war service in propaganda, he settled quickly into his peacetime stride, not just as the popular writer we know and love but as one of the most creative and energetic political activists of his generation.

    The foundation for Buchan's extraordinary outlay of energy and ideas in this period lay in a little book. It appeared in late 1919 under the pseudonym 'Cadmus and Harmonia'. Buchan told his American publisher that it had generated 'a good deal of interest among political people'. However sales were disappointing when the book appeared early the following year in the United States. There was wry amusement when a magazine called The Butcher's Advocate asked for a review copy in the mistaken belief that it had to do with the meat business. This was The Island of Sheep.

The book uses a late-Victorian style of literary entertainment which was already well out of date by the 1920s. A house party of characters from all walks of life gathers to discuss the issues of the day.  Buchan had used a similar device, which he called an apologue, a political statement dressed up as an entertainment, in The Lodge in the Wilderness, an imperialist tract which had appeared in 1907. Half the fun of it - innocent it seems in our more worldly times - is to spot the semi-portraits of famous contemporaries, many of them Buchan's own friends and acquaintances from the war years. The Island of Sheep worries away at the problems of the post-war world, the collapse of Liberalism, the rise of working class politics, how international relations will work under the League of Nations, and the role and definition of democracy in the modern world.

    The book has no pretensions as literature. It is occasionally charming and amusing, but no more. The lack of that polished finish which generally characterises Buchan's published writing is what I particularly like about the book. Buchan never wrote anything which reveals so directly the moral and intellectual basis of his own beliefs. He claimed that the book was written largely by Susan, his wife, and that his contribution had been 'joining the flats'. Susan said in her own autobiography that they worked on the book together. This is almost certainly true, but that Buchan had nothing to do with the main ideas in the book does not stand up to serious scrutiny.”

Buchan allowed The Island of Sheep to go out of print and later refused requests for further reprintings. Redley believes that this indicated a desire to eradicate his previous critique of American isolationism, which was inconsistent with his current intentions, while serving as Great Britain’s Governor-General of Canada, to close the gap between American and British views of the world.  Buchan completed the book’s “burial” by actually  re-using its title for the fifth and final Richard Hannay novel (which I highly recommend for its remarkable descriptions of maritime Norway).  

    I agree that the book’s directness and its lack of  “polished finish,” something readers might  normally experience as a negative quality, make this an unusual curio in the Buchan canon.  However, the lack of burnished style and classic “Buchan pace” doesn’t mean the volume lacks Buchan vigor and sinew, and the book speaks the author's political mind and views clearly and forcefully.

    Redley again:  “Fundamental to the conclusions of the book is the belief, which was anathema to most people of his class at the time, that the Labour Party must quickly gain experience of power. The instincts of the people should be trusted, and at the same time broadened by making higher education and culture accessible to all.  It was a radical prospectus for its times, but one with a future. The most successful political ideology in Britain between the wars, 'Baldwinism', was a compound of these very ideas. The Island of Sheep was one of its earliest tracts, and Buchan went on to be one of its main architects.”

    It’s good and bracing to discover, to be taken by surprise and captured, by books  you never knew existed.  That is what happened to me tumbling on the "original" of The Island of Sheep, looking both ancient and fresh in its facsimile electronic digital format.  Thinking about John Buchan's life and career, I re-imagine the time before television and videogame distraction and abstraction, when energetic polymaths really used their minds to go to town.  



  1. Class is a complex concept in England. There's been a vocabulary of class at least since the early 19th century, well before Marx. Few societies are more sensitive to the nuances of birth, breeding, and pedigree (or more hospitable to occasional strange, transgressive flowers). On the other hand, it's quite clear that the deeply conservative sentiments of the British "working class" are, as Mr. Jonas says, entirely alien to the Marxist idea of the proletariat. This was one of Marx's fundamental mistakes.

    Must read Buchan.

  2. Buchan was so prolific that it's helpful to know where to start. For me that would be the four original Richard Hannay novels (The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast and The Three Hostages), followed by the Edward Leithen novels (which, I think, would greatly appeal to you). Prester John is fairly remarkable. Buchan's last novel, Sick Heart River, is a real masterpiece. He wrote a great many fine short stories (including some of a supernatural bent), as well as other stuff I don't care for as much. He was extremely prolific. How he accomplished all he did I don't understand. Interestingly, I recently discovered that The Move were a Tory working class band. Fascinating. I never knew. Curtis

  3. You can't beat The Move's Tory credentials -- they were sued by Harold Wilson!

  4. To Roy Wood's everlasting consternation. Reading their account of it is a sad story. Roy has never received a cent from Flowers In The Rain; the money all goes to a charity designated by Wilson. (To be fair to him, it is said that he didn't wish to pursue the legal action, but his counselors thought the band -- really, the manager instigated this -- should be taught a lesson.) On the new Roy Wood's Music Book release (it's a neat, quite unusual anthology work covering all the bases in a kind of weird mental 3-D fashion), Roy includes a version of the song performed by Nancy Sinatra, which is actually quite good. A nice, down-to-earth story about singer, Carl Wayne, relates to the fact that the group, while hardly straitlaced, weren't drug-oriented, but more traditional in their leisure pursuits. Asked whether he would like a joint, Carl replied: "No thanks, I've just eaten." The new Move Live At The Fillmore album is super-great. The Shazam-era band playing....Shazam. Curtis