Saturday, 27 September 2008

Idling away the time to Paris

Flying is pretty boring, so it was good to be shaken out of my dullness by the sight I saw on the Edinburgh terminal bus as I waited for a Paris plane the other day.

At the back was a man in his thirties wearing – get this – a tweed suit with plus four trousers. You know, the kind Tintin wore, ending just below the knee. It was a good quality suit, a solid green herringbone wool with a subtle yellow stripe. Underneath he had a shirt and tie: clearly a man for whom ‘casual’ wasn’t to be taken too literally. From the knees down he was wearing woollen socks in a pleasing chocolate brown – and here’s the bit that was odd – no shoes.

The only other thing he had was a slightly battered wicker basket. The kind you might buy for your picnic from Harrods, if you were to stoop so low, or maybe from Fortnum and Mason. Although judging by his upper class brogue – he was talking on the phone, to a friend called ‘Sandy’, and saying ‘I’m safely on the bus. It’s all gone smoothly so far’ – I imagine he’d shop at the Edinburgh equivalent of Fortnum and Mason, assuming, that is, that Edinburgh has a shop that good.

It probably does, on balance. I expect.

Can you imagine the picture? Plus fours? Who wears them these days? And a friend called ‘Sandy’? It’s a name for a character in a John Buchan book. If you don’t know John Buchan, don’t bother, unless you like your swash buckled with a fair dose of snobbery and a seasoning of anti-Semitism. Just think ripping yarns about wonderful white men who’ve been keeping the Empire safe from the dastardly Boche and like to do a spot of hunting and fishing in the Highlands, unless they’re keeping the Kaffirs in their place with their Afrikaner friends in the Transvaal.

He was obviously called Algy. I mean, I don’t know that for sure, but it’s the only name that really fits the character, isn’t it? Algy and Sandy. Shouldering the white man’s burden. I suppose ‘Collum’ would probably do but I prefer Algy.

But why was he travelling to Paris without any shoes?

A narrative began to emerge in my mind.

He and Sandy had been fishing for salmon somewhere on the Tay or the Earn or some other less pronounceable Scottish river. Not just fishing: poaching. On the lands of the Marquis of Gleninverloch, the ancestral enemies of their clan. Algy had his great yew rod in his hands, the very rod with which his grandfather had landed a hundred pound fish a century earlier. It was said of that rod, an heirloom in his family, that no fish hooked by a line it held, had ever been lost.

Today, however, he had nearly met his match. The great beast he had hooked showed no sign of giving up the fight. Struggling to hold his footing in his waders, with the water streaming round his knees, he fought the beast. Sandy was holding him by main force to stop him being swept off his feet.

In the end they outwitted the salmon, driving him into shallows where they caught him, gaffed him and dragged him ashore.

But no sooner had they begun to celebrate than they became aware, oh perfidious fortune, that coming down the bank towards them in their velveteens (what are velveteens? I’ve never known but in those old books gamekeepers always seem to wear them) were none others than Gleninverloch’s men, come to put an end to their poaching.

Men of courage though they were, Sandy and Algy had no choice. Pausing only to discard their waders, and to grab the wicker basket in which were concealed the remains of their salmon paste sandwiches, made to a recipe passed down from generation to generation from time immemorial and ever kept secret from the men of Gleninverloch. Never would Algy be the one to reveal to them this ancient and close-guarded secret.

By dint of hitching, taking buses and catching trains, they shook off the pursuit. Finally, Algy arrived breathless and shoeless but his heart alive with the excitement of the chase, at Ingliston and Edinburgh airport. He knew nowhere in the kingdom could give him refuge from his ruthless foes. He decided to make for his uncle’s chateau on the Loire, attracted not just by the prospect of protection that it gave him but also by the opportunity it would provide to renew his acquaintance with his lovely cousin Liselotte there. It was a matter of minutes to purchase a ticket and make for the gate.

No wonder he was telling Sandy that everything had gone smoothly and he was ‘safely on the bus’. I marvelled at the calm with which he spoke, the self-confident smile on his lips.

What a curious, twisted path had brought him onto the same bus as I! Like Wilde in Reading Gaol, I knew what hunted thought quickened his pace and why// he stared upon the garish day with such a wistful eye. As the bus sat by the gate, the engine idling peacefully, I shared his trepidation and his excitement. Would we get away? Would even at this late stage his enemies catch up with him? As we moved towards the aircraft, I shared his growing relief. As the plane rose into the air and set course for the liberty that was Paris, I felt an elation which I knew was a pale echo of his joy.

At Paris airport, he was at the urinal next to mine. On his feet he had expensive, leather walking boots. Just the kind for a bit of a hike in Highlands. And they looked new. New enough to give you blisters if you hadn’t previously broken them in. Just the kind of blisters that make you want to take your boots off at the slightest opportunity.

Better to have dreamed and lost than never to dream at all, but what a shock shattered illusions are.

Still, my disappointment wasn’t total. As well as the boots on his feet, he’d also put a cream-coloured flat cap on his head. A real toff’s cap. The type that screams out to every observer ‘I know I look like a wally, but I’m a wally who can afford to spend more on clothes than you.’

It made up for a lot. He may not have been a swashbuckling hero from a Buchan yarn, a Richard Hannay or a John McNab. But at least he was Bertie Wooster. The upper class drone with more dress sense than common sense. Maybe not a figure of adventure, but at least a figure of fun.

And a nice interruption to the monotony of air travel.


Mark Reynolds said...

GReat story - I like inventing elaborate histories for my fellow travelers as well. No idea if any ever make them up for me.

Don't know if you were aware, but Buchan eventually became one of Canada's more memorable Governors General (not hard, given the competition), under the nom de bureau Lord Tweedsmuir.

David Beeson said...

Yes, I remember that Buchan/Tweedsmuir became Governor General of Canada. He also owned, I believe, a little village not far from Oxford in which, to this day, there is no pub. Presumably he liked to think of the lower orders being abstemious while he supped his whisky soda with his guests.

Incidentally, 'abstemious' is one of only two non-technical terms in the English language with all five vowels in alphabetical order.

Is Buchan remembered with affection in Canada? I have to confess that as a teenager I devoured his novels, even if the anti-Semitism did worry me a bit (I felt it was directed against me personally).

Mark Reynolds said...

I wouldn't say he's remembered with affection, exactly, but he does come up more than, say, Lord Athlone, though not nearly so often as the sainted Lord Stanley and his Cup. Mordecai Richler was quite fond of bringing up the anti-semitism of his writings as well: you evidently weren't alone in taking it personally.

I hadn't realized that abstemious had all the vowels in order. And I'm not just being facetious.

David Beeson said...

Such a joy to be in correspondence with a man who combines corruscating wit with startling erudition