GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lord Tweedsmuir's Vision of a New World

March 15 1940
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lord Tweedsmuir's Vision of a New World

March 15 1940

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lord Tweedsmuir's Vision of a New World

LONDON, February 20. (By Cable)—The death of Lord Tweedsmuir is now sufficiently in the past for one to consider his personality and his place in the dual kingdoms of Literature and Imperial Service. One does not need even to ask how Canada received the news of his collapse and quick death. In no country in the world is there such warmth and generous kindliness toward a man who is trusted and liked. Canada grieved for a friend who had come from the old world and had made his home in the new. It was a strange fate which decided that he should never return to live in his beloved islands of the North Sea.

So much has been written about the late GovernorGeneral that there is little new to be said about his achievements, and yet I feel that I would like to tell the story of how I met him first, our strange relations at that time, my subsequent talks and visits with him at Ottawa, and his revealing letter which reached me a fortnight or so before his death. I do not mean or want to pretend that I was an old or intimate friend of the late Governor-General. We had certain points of contact in journalism (he had been “Atticus” of the Sunday Times), the film world, politics, and eventually our mutually passionate interest in Canada.

The appointment of John Buchan to represent the King at Ottawa startled political circles in Great Britain. It had long been the custom to send the great figures of social and diplomatic life to Ottawa. One has only to recall the names of Devonshire, Grey, Connaught, Lansdowne, Elgin and Willingdon to realize that the choice fell almost automatically on those who by right of birth and position walked like gods. John Buchan knew everybody, but was neither duke nor nephew of one. He did not even possess a knighthood, although he could have had one at any time from 1918 onward. For a while he was called Colonel, but actually he remained John Buchan, scholar, historian, novelist, politician and commoner. He was one of those Members of the British Parliament who had great influence behind scenes but did not count greatly on the floor of the House. For a man with almost a schoolboy’s zest for adventure, he had acquired a peculiarly high-pitched ecclesiastic voice in public speaking. One day he was addressing the House, and, being nervous, the ecclesiastic mannerism became so pronounced that suddenly, as he paused for effect, a member from the opposite benches intoned, “Let us pray.” Buchan had a sensitive soul, and the roar of laughter that swept the House not only hurt him deeply, but kept him silent on many subsequent occasions where his counsel would have been of much value.

When a man does many things well, the British are inclined to underrate the quality of any one of his achievements. John Buchan had been a brilliant scholar. At Oxford his contemporaries spoke of him with awe. But suddenly the scholar wrote a book. Then he wrote another. Many undergraduates write books, but the lean young Scot broke the code by having them published. They decided he was not as great a scholar as they had thought. The truth is that Buchan was many men in one, and he denied none of his personalities the luxury and joy of selfexpression. He possessed the spirit of adventure, and it found vent in his mountain-climbing and in writing adventure stories where his men were audacious, twofisted fellows and his women, to use his own expression, were just stuffed dolls. Men he understood, but when it came to the complexities of women, he preferred, like Dickens, to take them from stock, and did not mind if they never came to life. He had the gift of Dumas for the romantic adventure story, and he had an even greater industry than the famous Frenchman.

But John Buchan was also deeply interested in nations and their stories. As a historian he went deep, and there are many volumes that mark his contribution to the under-

standing of men and events through the ages. If it had not been for his high-spirited novels the British might have thought him a great historian. But always there was that versatility which raised doubts in the solid British mind.

In Canada, however, a man named Mackenzie King had met the famous John Buchan and liked him. More than that, he saw possibilities for him in an entirely new sphere. True Mr. Mackenzie King was not Prime Minister. It was the year 1935, and a general election was in the offing. Both Mr. R. B. Bennett and Mr. King had a suspicion that there would be a change of government as a result. So the Premier consulted the Opposition Leader about recommending a new Governor-General, and King had his way. For the first time a commoner was invited to go to Ottawa and sit in the seat of the mighty. However, there was another King, and he sat on the throne of England. King George V turned John Buchan into Baron Tweedsmuir, and Rideau Hall was saved from having a mister as its tenant.

The whole business caused much discussion over here, while it was particularly interesting to my colleagues and myself in the Gaumont British Picture Corporation.

We had just finished shooting Buchan's novel, “The 39 Steps,” and we saw the immediate advantages of the attendant publicity. Never in the film business had anyone made a picture from a story by a Governor-General. As usual, however, the director had taken liberties with the script and, indeed, many parts of the story. It fell to my lot to see John Buchan and take him to a private view of the picture which he had never seen, and had probably never been consulted about during the whole shooting. By appointment I went to Buchan’s office, which was in a sprawling building just across from the Parliament Buildings. I was not then a member, but the famous author showed he knew something about me. Almost his first words were, “Now you must advisemeaboutCanada.” With some diffidence I suggested that he should resist the temptation of making the great Canadian speech in

Canada. His eyes twinkled. “My dear Baxter, what is the great Canadian speech?” he asked. I told him that every prominent Briton who went to Canada always told Canadians they had vast agricultural areas, great mineral wealth, mighty forests and fisheries, were bounded by the Atlantic in the East and the Pacific in the West, and had the great, friendly American republic to the South. I said these facts were no doubt accurate and thrilling, but not exactly news to Canadians.

Buchan scratched his head ruefully. “It s too bad,’ he said. “That is the very speech 1 have just been preparing.

We motored to the tiny little private cinema where the film was waiting to be shown us. He was like a child with a new toy. Every time the story deviated from his original, he ejaculated, “First rate. Much better than my way.” When it was finished, he stood up and thanked the operator who had run it through for us. “It’s an immense improvement on the book.” he said.

1 took the good news to our directors, but they shook their heads. “There’s something queer about it,” they said. “No author ever behaved like that before.

On the first night of the film 1 presided at a dinner for Buchan, at which, with magnificent vulgarity, there were 39 steps, bedecked with flowers, leading to the head table. Sir John Simon and half a dozen other Ministers came along, while the film industry turned out in dark and serried ranks. Everybody felt most im]x>rtant except John Buchan, whose eyes were twinkling away throughout the affair. Sir John Simon, in a short speech, said that in choosing Governors-General for the Dominions it was always felt they should be men who were able to write, but in this case it seemed as if we had overdone it. 1 hen, with a touch of unconscious prophecy, he added, “John Buchan will set such a standard of expression it will not be easy to nominate his successor.”

At Rideau Hall

THE next time I saw Lord Tweedsmuir was on the occasion of the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary. When the ship reached New York there was a telegram asking my wife and myself to come to Rideau Hail. As w^e were returning as soon as the ship could turn round, it meant a rush trip to Ottawa, getting there for lunch and leaving at about four. The viceregal lodge in Ottawa is a stately dwelling place for those who wear the King’s livery, set in grounds that wander languorously down to the river’s edge. It might be a corner of the English countryside, that countryside which is now being mangled so roughly by progress and the necessities of fate. Each Governor-General, or, more truthfully, each GovernorGeneral’s wife, has added some improvement or made some alteration to the stately pile, but the proud old house remains much the same, mellowed by history and clothed in tradition. There is something splendid even about its floors, which have been there so long that a guest rising early in the morning causes such creaks and percussions that the whole wing is aware of the rake’s progress.

We arrived just before lunch, and an A.D.C. advised us as to procedure. My wife would stand there, and I would stand here, please. Then, when Their Excellencies arrived, etc. It was a formal business I can tell you. When Their Excellencies were announced, we bowed and curtsied according to our sex, and John Buchan moved like one who had been nursed by the centuries for the. task. He was the King’s representative and carried himself as such. At luncheon, though, I was worried to see how much thinner he had become. While the rest of us tucked in in good style, he merely nibbled at a nut and skinned a grape. The internal trouble from which he was suffering was taking a toll from that frail body which had so little to give.

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London Letter

Continued from page 11

Luncheon came to a formal end and the host and hostess withdrew. In about ten minutes an A.D.C. came to me with the message that His Excellency would receive me in the library. When I entered, Tweedsmuir jumped to his feet and pushed me into the most comfortable chair and produced a first-rate cigar. He was like a schoolboy, and chuckled away with sheer exuberance of spirit. “Tell me about everything and everybody,” he cried. “Plow’s L. G., and Max and Kemsley? How is Sam, and what is Winston up to? Is Neville standing up to it?”

When I had got rid of my load of mischief, I asked him how he liked Canada. He made rather a shy gesture with his hands. “I have lost my heart to it,” he said. “So completely has it obsessed me that I doubt if I shall go home on leave when it is due. I don’t want old ties and associations to upset this spiritual unison between Canada and myself, which has become so precious.”

We went for a walk in the grounds. There was a cricket match—some school against the staff of Rideau Hall. Being a cricket match, the excitement did not prevent our continuing to converse from time to time. Canada was truly obsessing his mind and his emotions. It was challenging Old Scotia itself for first place in his heart. Like a parent, he spoke with special affection of French-Canadian Quebec, the problem child of the Dominion. The man had growm immensely in stature with his new post.

“Vision of a New World’’

IT WAS next year, I think, that we stayed at Rideau Hall for a longer visit before sailing from Quebec. Tweedsmuir was even more frail, but there was greater vivacity than before. He seemed burning with some vision or prophecy which had gripped his mind. Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to dinner and talked with that engaging frankness which is one of his best characteristics. Jack McConnell, owner of the Montreal Star, was there with his nice wife, and the whole party would have been fun if it had been held in a log cabin.

One night after dinner Tweedsmuir again took me to the library. Choosing an even better cigar, he said, “I have seen a vision. It excites me so much I can think of nothing else.” Pie had just returned from a dangerous, almost madcap, airplane tour of the Arctic. Walking up and down the room, he released a torrent of language. “I have seen a vision of a new world in the Arctic,” he said, “where winter is kindlier than on the plains, and summer, with its double allowance of sunshine, is both beautiful and bountiful. I can see this rich new world held together by the cheapest and safest air travel in existence, and I can visualize a happy, courageous people, ennobled and made unselfish and happy by contact with the clean, antiseptic North.” He stopped as if ashamed of his own excitement. “I agree it is all out of scale with humanity, but I suppose it’s a

good thing for us pygmies to realize that the world is not made to our dimensions.” Again language poured from him, thrilling language that had both beauty and understanding. Other phrases cut the air with their incisive, almost harsh quality. Once he described the ugliness he had seen with oozing mud that fouled the rivers, and his words pictured the whole revolting mess. Then, as if to wipe out that memory, he said slowly. “But when you follow the North Star until you come to pack ice, then there is such a sense of infinite peace and lonely, shimmering beauty that it is hard to persuade the soul to come away.”

He stopped, smiled. His cheeks had gone suddenly pale, and there was a look of infinite fatigue about his face. “We had better go back to the others,” he said.

“My Roots Are Pretty Deep”

FROM time to time after that we exchanged letters. I would tell him of Westminster; he would give me word pictures of Canada in a world of gathering shadows. The last letter I received from him came three weeks ago. With immense gusto he described the French-Canadian regiments that had rallied so well, and the Toronto Highlanders whom he had inspected. “I never saw a kilted regiment to equal them,” he wrote, “long, rangy, raw'boned fellows whom you could imagine slipping over the borders on a foray into Northumberland. ’ ’

Then he discussed his approaching departure. “I have to face the problem of my going next September. The Cabinet has asked me to undertake a second term of office, but my P. M. told them that was impossible. Then they asked for me to remain for the duration of war, or, at any rate, for an extra year. There are very good reasons why I should leave next September. One is the general principle that I think five years is long enough for any Governor-General, especially someone like myself, for I do not want my idiosyncrasies to harden into precedents which would embarrass a successor. Also, a time of war is excellent for a change, for we have no serious problems, and my successor would have only, at first, simple formal duties, and not be compelled to do what I did and make about forty speeches in the first two months. There is also the question of my health and my wife's. At the same time it is not very easy to leave such a kindly and generous people, for I have got my roots down pretty deep. I think my P. M. will assent to my going, but, of course, the ultimate word lies with the King.”

That letter is before me as I write. In its simplicity of spirit, yet in the constant vigor of its thought, it reveals what many of us have suspected, that John Buchan achieved fame in Britain but that he found his real greatness in Canada.

Perhaps in his dying moments his soul found again that shimmering beauty of the Arctic night in the track of the North Star, in the land of infinite peace.