Thanet Writers Spotlight John Buchan
The beaches were deserted. Only the locals and a few determined holidaymakers remained as war cast its shadow over Europe. The Kaiser’s troops had failed to withdraw from neutral Belgium and now Britain was at war with Germany. It was 4th August 1914.
A few days earlier, Broadstairs beaches had been packed with the usual holiday crowd, determined not to let the crisis in Europe spoil their fun. But now there was the threat of German navel bombardment of coastal towns and a desire from the nation to “show their loyalty to king and country.” The good times were over as the country entered one of the darkest chapters of the 20th Century.
One of those determined holidaymakers was a Scottish author and his family, in Thanet for the sea air. His name was John Buchan, and Broadstairs would be influential in the development of his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Since the early 1870s, the British had been fighting an imaginary war with Germany—the country was seen as both an economic and military threat. Throughout this time, jingoistic propaganda speculating German intentions had been circulating in the form of books and press articles. One such book was Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands, which in 1903 foretold of German preparations for an invasion of England. Such scaremongering even extended to the younger generation, with similar stories appearing in boys’ magazines and comics. In one periodical ran a rip-roaring yarn of the “evil Hun” invading Kent, only to be thwarted by a gallant troop of boy scouts. There were also rumours of enemy spies abound, and it is alleged that a German spy was capture at North Foreland a few days before Buchan arrived in Thanet.
John Buchan (1st Baron Tweedsmuir) was born on 26 August 1875 in Perth. The son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, he was educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School, Glasgow, before then going on to both Glasgow and Oxford Universities. It was while at Oxford that his first adventure novel, Don Quixote of the Moors, was published in 1895.
Buchan entered into a diplomatic career on leaving Oxford, becoming in 1901 private secretary to Lord Milner, high commissioner for South Africa, a post he held for two years. Then in 1906, upon returning to London, he entered into a partnership with Thomas Nelsons & Son publishing company, becoming the editor of The Spectator.
In July 1907, John married Susan Grosvenor, daughter of Norman Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Together they had four children—three sons and a daughter
Buchan wrote his next adventure story in 1910: Prester John. Set in South Africa, it tells the story of a young Scotsman, David Crawfurd, and a Zulu uprising that’s tied to the medieval legend of Prestor John. In March of the following year, John ventured into the world of politics and was elected as the Unionist candidate for the Borders seat of Peebles and Selkirk; he supported free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the powers of the House of Lords, while opposing the welfare reforms of the Liberal Party and what he considered the class hatred fostered by Liberal politicians such as David Lloyd George.
It was on doctor’s orders that the Buchan family came to Broadstairs, then little-changed since Dickens’ time. Sea air had been prescribed for their six-year-old daughter, Alice, who was recovering from a mastoid operation.
They at first rented rooms at a guesthouse called St Ronans, which was at 71 Stone Road but is now demolished. Susan Buchan later wrote: “We had some quite nice lodgings at the seaside and should have enjoyed ourselves, as Alice’s health improved all the time, but the war precluded all happiness and comfort.” It wasn’t just the war—literally days old—that blighted their holiday. Shortly after arriving, intense stomach pains seized John, caused by a duodenal ulcer (then undiagnosed). Bored and bedridden, he began working on an idea for a “shocker”—his name for thrillers—apparently at Susan’s suggestion. In fact, he had been toying with the notion of writing a detective story for some time. “I should like to write a story of this sort,” he told his wife. “And take real pains with it. Most detective story-writers don’t take half enough trouble with their characters, and no-one cares what becomes of either corpse or murderer.”
At the same time the Buchans were in Thanet, so was Susan’s first cousin, Hilda Grenfell, and her family. They were renting a cliff-top villa about half a mile away at North Foreland. The property had a set of steps cut into the chalk cliff that lead down to a private sandy beach. The villa was called St Cuby and is believed to be the inspiration for Trafalgar Lodge, where Hannay meets the villainous Mr Appleton. However, it was the steps that caught John’s imagination the most. Back then there were seventy-eight wooden steps, which zigzagged through two shafts and three tunnel sections. The upper entrance—then as now—was surrounded by bushes that, as in the novel, obscure the passage from view, while the beach entrance is only accessible at low tide.
A century later, coastal erosion has done away with most of the beach, leaving a scattering of rocks that litter the exposed chalk bedrock. The wooden steps were replaced in the 1940s with over a hundred concrete ones, which are crumbling, and signs at both ends state that public access is prohibited. Inside, a rusting handrail leads up, and the remnants of light fittings can be seen in the tunnel sections. Even so, if you stop and let your imagination go, you can almost hear the frantic footsteps as one of Appleton’s spies tries to make his escape.
‘Schnell, Franz,’ cried a voice, ‘das Boot, das Boot!’
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
Buchan continued his convalescence at St Cuby, and, as his health started to improve, he began to get well-acquainted with the town and the surrounding area. With the holiday crowd gone, Broadstairs was just a quiet little seaside town—the perfect spot for enemy spies to leave the country, with the continent just some twenty miles across the channel.
Another factor in the story’s development was the public’s fear that German spies operated throughout the country. On Friday 28th August, two days after Buchan’s thirty-ninth birthday—which he celebrated at St Cuby—the Thanet Times ran a spy scare story in which a Margate woman found herself confronted by two men, one armed with a revolver. “The men told her to keep quiet, as they were after German spies,” the paper reported. The gun turned out to be a toy, and when questioned by police the men explained how they had witnessed suspicious activity at a local garage. They had stopped the woman believing her to be involved. All this took place on the night before Buchan’s birthday, so it is quite feasible that if he didn’t read about it himself, he could have heard it through local gossip.
In the autumn of 1914, John, now back in London, tried to enlist in the army to fight in the war, but was rejected on the grounds of his age and ill health. He continued to suffer from an ulcer and was instructed by his doctor to rest if he was to avoid an operation. However, being a workaholic, he kept himself busy and when not writing his thrillers—which he did for relaxation—he was absorbed by war work, which took up most of his time. This resulted in The Thirty-Nine Steps being written in bits and pieces over the next few months. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915. Blackwood & Sons then published it in book form in October of that year. His hero, Richard Hannay, was based on a young army officer he met while serving as the private secretary to the High Commissioner in South Africa, some ten years previous. The book begins in London, but most of the action takes place in Buchan’s native Scotland. However, in the final chapter—‘Various Parties Converging on the Sea’—the story’s denouement takes place in the fictional town of Bradgate, the inspiration for which came from Broadstairs.
No one is certain how he came up with the name Bradgate. Some believe that it was taken from the Saxon word ‘brad’ meaning ‘broad’ and ‘Gaet’ meaning ‘access to the sea’. Another theory is that he simply took the Brad from Bradstowe, a little hamlet which is now part of Broadstairs, and Gate from nearby Kingsgate, Margate, and Ramsgate. Another hypothesis is that Bradgate was an ancient name for Broadstairs but there is no hard evidence to prove this.
The chapter opens with Hannay “looking from the Griffin Hotel over a smooth sea to the lightship on the Cock sands.” There were two hotels in Broadstairs during 1914. The Grand—now converted into private flats—sits on the cliff top, overlooking Louisa Bay, and is unlikely to be Hannay’s hotel. The view described in the novel best matches that from the Royal Albion Hotel, although you can’t see the Goodwin Sands from here—undoubtedly the inspiration for ‘Cock sands.’ However, the Sands and the North Goodwin Lightship could easy be seen, on a clear day, from Broadstairs pier by anyone looking across the bay towards Dover. After breakfast, Hannay, along with Scaife, a British agent, walk along the beach to check out the lower entrance of the thirty-nine steps. They then head for ‘the Ruff’ where they keep watch on Trafalgar Lodge. Buchan’s description of this matches up nicely with that of North Foreland: “I had a view of the line of turf along the cliff top, with seats placed at intervals, and the little square plots, railed in and planted with bushes, whence the staircases descended to the beach.” While keeping watch on Trafalgar Lodge, Hannay mentions seeing a man on a bike with a set of golf clubs, most likely inspired by a similar sight of a man on his way back from Kingsgate golf course.
One question remains: why thirty-nine steps?
There are a few theories. There were seventy-eight wooden steps in 1914, and one theory is that a friend suggested Buchan should half that number to thirty-nine because it would make a better title. Another claim is that Buchan could stride these steps two at a time, which again gives us thirty-nine. However, he would have had to be in better health to do this, but it is also worth noting that he did celebrate his thirty-ninth birthday while staying in Broadstairs, so that number would have been foremost in his mind. Perhaps the answer is a combination of these, though the simple truth is that we will never know for sure why he chose The Thirty-Nine Steps as the book’s title. Buchan himself gives no clues in his 1940 memoir.
Since it was first published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print and has been repeatedly adapted for both stage and screen; most recently by the BBC in 2008, starring Rupert Penry-Jones in the role of Richard Hannay. Alfred Hitchcock directed the first film version in 1935 and later borrowed heavily from the novel when he made North by North-West in 1959. Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, also finds himself inadvertently caught-up in the sinister world of espionage, when he is mistaken for the non-existent George Kaplan. Hitchcock was not the only person whose work was influenced by The Thirty-Nine Steps. When it was first published, one of its readers was a young Ian Fleming—another Thanet-linked author—who himself would go on to create the most famous fictional spy in literature: James Bond.
After his time in Broadstairs and the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, John wrote The Greenmantle in 1916, which again featured Richard Hannay, and in the same year The Power House—the first of three novels featuring barrister Sir Edward Leithen.
In 1917, Buchan was appointed as Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook, which John later said was “the toughest job I ever took on.” But despite his workload, he always found time to write, and in 1919 he wrote the third Richard Hannay novel, Mr. Standfast. This was followed in 1921 with Huntingtower, the first of three novels featuring a new hero, Dickson McCunn. In 1924, Hannay made a return in The Three Hostages.
In 1927, John was elected as the Conservative member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities. He was also appointed two years later as President of the Scottish History Society, which he held until 1932. During this appointment, John wrote his second McCunn novel, Castle Gay.
A year after being appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1935, John saw the publication of the final Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep. During his last years he worked on his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door. John Buchan died in Montreal on 12 February 1940. He left an incredible literary legacy, consisting of a hundred works including thirty novels, seven short story collections, as well as biographies on Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, and Oliver Cromwell. He was awarded the 1928 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his biography of the Marquess of Montrose, but today he mostly remembered for his spy thrillers.
Although John Buchan clearly had the idea to write another story before his holiday, if he hadn’t come to Broadstairs, been taken ill, and later seen the underground staircase at North Foreland, we quite possibly we would not have The Thirty-Nine Steps today. Quite a sobering thought when you consider what else we may have missed.
© 2020 Martin Charlton
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Published queer author, blogger and historical crime enthusiast.