This is the last of our articles on favourite stories from some of our authors schooldays…
My experience of school in the North of England, just after the second world war, was not a happy one. Like many adolescent boys I was lazy, a dreamer and disinterested. But one term, a new teacher changed all that. She was engaged to teach history, but instead of trying to drum dates and the names of kings and queens into our young minds, she encouraged us to read novels and Victorian adventure stories.
Thus it was that I began John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (which inspired a teenage fantasy to become a spy) and led on to Buchan’s second book, Greenmantle, set in the Europe of the first world war and which began for me a life-long passion for European and Russian history.
Greenmantle features the character Richard Hannay, who first appears in the aforementioned Thirty-Nine Steps. The plot is set around a fictitious Muslim uprising. Hannay and his friend Sandy are asked by the head of British Intelligence to undertake a secret mission to investigate the legend of “Greenmantle”, a prophet who was to lead a German-inspired uprising against the British and her Russian allies in the Balkans. There then follows a series of adventures, narrow escapes and dangerous encounters with the sinister figure of German intelligence Ulrich von Stumm, as Hannay and companions Sandy, American John Blenkiron and Boer Peter Pienaar move separately to end up in Constantinople. There they encounter the femme-fatale like figure of Hilda von Einem. They all meet at the battle of Erzum, where in a dramatic denouement von Einem is shot by a stray bullet and the plot to raise the revolt is thwarted.
Great Literature it is not. The story is a typical “Boy’s Own” yarn. It is shot through with imperial prejudices and character stereotyping; the English and the Boer are good, brave, resolute and above all, gentlemen. The American is rich and a good fixer, von Stumm is all bad, has a temper, is a bully and cruel. Hilda is ravishingly beautiful, mysterious and dangerous. Yet despite its faults, this book had me captivated. It is a thoroughly good romp, and just as in modern times J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has in young people, it inspired me to enjoy reading, to explore literature, and eventually to write.
At the age of 15 it can be difficult to enthuse about Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, upon which I was force-fed during interminable summer afternoons. It can be that reading a different story will pave the way for an appreciation of them in the future. In my case, this was Greenmantle, and one hour in a Turkish souk with John Buchan’s Richard Hannay the perfect antidote to my literary malaise.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and “A” level tutor with OOL since 1996.