Reading the Buchan novel in the present day, the hero’s language with its ‘good old fellow’ and stiff-upper lip euphemisms seems quaint and artificial. That aside, I did enjoy the sense of drama from this man-on-the-run thriller, along with its descriptive passages of the Scottish countryside and the humble and duplicitous characters that Richard Hannay encounters. But with this fictional drama, the true-to-life historical backdrop triggers a 21st century sense of foreboding.
Set on the eve of the First World War, the story is infused with political intrigue and spies, along with a strong sense of fear and uncertainty. As a modern-day reader, it’s hard to not think about the recent politically-motivated cyberattacks coming from Putin’s Russia, which has already displayed its military might in Chechnya, Crimea and Syria. Our present day also brings with it the destabilisation of America on the eve of the Trump presidency. We live in times that feel alarmingly pre-War.
The cliché about history repeating itself has become as worn and irritating as the need to use the other cliché – that people do not seem to learn from history. Such expressions bring with them the tendency to reduce and dismiss real dangers. Speaking more specifically and less glibly, in this week’s BBC Dateline, panellists brought in the analogy of how the First World War not ending with a viable treaty in Europe had set the stage for the Second World War being akin to the untidy fall of the Soviet Union leaving Europe vulnerable today. Given the mess that America is in at the moment, now is the time for a united Europe to do something to protect post-Soviet Europe. I don’t want to think that too much time has elapsed or that opportunities to do something have been missed. In this Dateline analogy lies a possibility of hope – agreements around trade, land and computer piracy need to be made with Russia to establish the rules of the new games. Will they break these rules? Probably, but doing so will be more difficult with international agreements in place and a united Europe to support these agreements.
As for me, I’ll stay politically active, with the occasional dip into escapism – classic thrillers, where the technology might be less sophisticated than today’s, but at least the good guy always wins.