Reading John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”, the last of (and the best of) the Richard Hannay novels, I came across this arresting passage (spoken by Sandy Arbuthnot on his pursuit of one of the main villains)
I got a young friend to take me to a party — golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect — terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day — the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be-perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different — it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.
Massively snobbish, of course, as the Mechanics’ Institutes seemed like entirely admirable bodies (indeed, we could do with “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute” a bit today)
I am gearing up for a post on Hannay one day, following the overwhelming success of my previous Buchan-related posts. The Hannay novels are, the fame of The Thirty-Nine Steps notwithstanding, not a patch on those with Leithen. Or perhaps I was just Hannayed out. On one level, it is is hard to disagree with much of this post on the Boots and Books blog on the imperialist, racist, sexist, xenophobic etc. nature of the Hannay books (and all of this is present in the Leithen series also). There is an awful lot of casual racism (and Buchan is pretty down on the Irish) – a lot more than one can comfortably “divide through” as being representative of the culture of the times.
On the other hand, there is something else going on, something that draws one’s attention all these years later. Perhaps it is the sense that all those taken-for-granted things are in actual fact explicitly under threat, and that civilisation is just a skein. The huntin’, fishin’, shootin’ stuff confirms this. All that we tend to see as imperial complacency is built on a foundation of
Anyway, back to the phrase “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I can only find four references in Google, all of which are to the Buchan novel. So despite the claim that “my grandfather had a phrase”, no trace of this phrase has embedded itself online. Funny that, as the grandfather of Aubrey Herbert (the supposed model of Arbuthnot) was born in 1800. And of course, everything of note in human history is online.
But I would be curious to know if “the culture of the Mechanics Institute” was a phrase that had an existence outside Buchan’s imagination.
Barralty turns out to be not the most formidable villain – for in all too familiar Buchan style yet another superior mind is really behind it all. And it isn’t given that much away that, unlike other Hannay novels in which the villains are rather mysterious foreigners who have infiltrated the British establishment (to the extent of becoming MPs, highly implausibly) the super-villian is a good old fashioned Frenchie … “The Island of Sheep” is much more tautly written and plotted than the at times rather diffuse Mr Standfast or The Three Hostages, both of which feature last-act dramas that seem a little disconnected from what came before.