Curlews in The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan’s thrillers are not exactly politically correct by today’s standards, but contain many gems of prose – especially on the natural world and on the cares of power.  There is a wonderful passage on fowling (ie hunting waders) in “The Island of Sheep” and scattered through his books are unself-conscious evocations of now lost worlds (such as the huntin’, shootin’ fun of “John McNab”

There are two references to curlews in  his most famous book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”; neither is necessarily that evocative, but the casual presumption of widespread curlews is sadly dated.

At one point, Richard Hannay cannot even find his spirits lifted by the cuckoo (it is interesting how often Buchan’s supposedly arch-imperialist heroes find themselves struck by various funks):

“If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. But I had no mind for the summer, and little for Hislop’s conversation, for as the fateful fifteenth of June drew near I was overweighed with the hopeless difficulties of my enterprise

Fortunately, we also have curlews (along with plovers) lifting his spirits elsewhere:

It was the same jolly, clear spring weather, and I simply could not contrive to feel careworn. Indeed I was in better spirits than I had been for months. Over a long ridge of moorland I took my road, skirting the side of a high hill which the herd had called Cairnsmore of Fleet. Nesting curlews and plovers were crying everywhere, and the links of green pasture by the streams were dotted with young lambs. All the slackness of the past months was slipping from my bones, and I stepped out like a four-year-old. By-and-by I came to a swell of moorland which dipped to the vale of a little river, and a mile away in the heather I saw the smoke of a train.

Often in thrillers and adventure stories there are arresting details which stop us short in a way more ostensibly “literary” works may not. The 100th anniversary of The Thirty Nine Steps passed in 2015; one  hopes that for the 150th the “continual sound” of the curlew again is heard “crying everywhere”

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