Childhood Heroes

Richard Hannay in full regalia as Governor of Eireland, taken in 1916, unknown photographer; copyright, Crown Dominion, used with permissionRichard Hannay’s work has lately fallen from fashion and I think that a great shame. It is undeniable that many of his novels would, if they were published today, cause offence for their chauvinism and mildly racist language, but that is to entirely miss the point. They were of their time and place and should not be judged by the queer yardstick of modernity.

Hannay was, I suppose, what we now call a pillar of the establishment, but in his day those of high rank had none of the deficiencies we observe among our present governors. He upheld justice and the law as it was presented to him, and did so fairly and scrupulously in his position as Governor of Eireland, a post he held from 1909 to 1919. This role was the high-water mark of a long and loyal service to the crown and it is worthy of note that Eireland’s sorry decline into the violence and law-breaking that preceded its gaining independence in 1923 only began after Hannay left office. Had he been granted another few years, who knows – Eireland might yet be part of our Great Kingdom!

Hannay's grave, Church of St Thomas of CanterburyBut Eireland’s loss was literature’s gain and with the demands of office removed, he resumed the literary career for which he is best remembered and, by yours truly, most loved. His adult novels remain well known and are occasionally adapted – if with irony replacing the patriotic thunder of the original – by the Royal Broadcasting Service or one of the commercial stations. Why, I recall that only last Christmas watching, albeit with a rictus on my face, HitTV’s adaptation (if that is the word) of his most famous novel, The Thirteenth Step. For adaptations of his other works, and rather superior versions of The Thirteenth Step, one must look back to the glory days of film-making in the 1950s and actors such as Cedric Cobb, Ronald Fairweather, and my great-uncle William (Long Billy) Warbrook. Hannay’s South by South-East, The Pursuit of Roger Herring, Heligoland, and John Buchan; Master Spy, all successfully made the transition to the silver screen, and many more were adapted for wireless transmission. Altogether, Hannay wrote some thirty novels for adults, most of which are no longer in print, but it is the ten books he wrote for children that your writer most fondly recalls, though, alas, they are also no longer in print and are never likely to be so again.

My battered, second-hand copy of Nigger Goes North!Why so, you ask. It is a great shame when the most innocent use of a word excites opprobrium, but such is the fate of Hannay’s books about a plucky, resourceful, and ever-loyal black Labrador by the name of Nigger. It is simply no use arguing with anyone born in the last few decades that Nigger was at one time a perfectly ordinary name for a dog and described nothing more than its colour. Alas, for them the very word is verboten, and none of the Nigger books are in print, or ever likely to be. Only in second-hand bookshops, and even then never on public display, may you find a battered 1950s or 60s edition with faded dust jacket and the pages tinted cream and brown. Such is where I found my present copy of Nigger Goes North! Regrettably, I lost the complete set of Nigger books I read in my childhood. Though, in retrospect, perhaps stolen is the better word. My mother put the church jumble sale before her son’s sentiments and my well-thumbed editions of Nigger on the Nile, Nigger in the Navy, Nigger Saves The Nation, Nigger in Nanking and Nigger’s Nemesis all went in aid of the church roof or organ fund. The last mentioned title brought me to tears when my canine hero, having lost his faithful chums, Bertie the Bulldog, Ginger the Greyhound and MacAuley the Collie, battles with his arch-enemy, Fritz the German-shepherd, before plunging, jaws locked on his enemy’s throat, apparently to his death beneath the wheels of the ten-fifteen, Lunden to Edenborough Flying Scot.

I say apparently for Nigger returned in two late entries to the series. It was never entirely clear – Hannay seems to change his mind at various points in the narrative – whether Nigger survived the locomotive’s wheels or if the hero of his last books was merely the son of Nigger. Whatever the case, the last two Nigger books were a curious departure, perhaps reflecting Hannay’s declining health. Nigger on Neptune was an ill-advised attempt to cash in on the popularity of trashy science fiction and, although Nigger and The Ninth Legion proved a competent attempt at a time-travelling adventure, the magick of the earlier books had gone and with them a part of my childhood.

Alas, Hannay ended his days in a mental institution writing increasingly fantastical stories of fauns and talking beavers but after his death his ashes were interred in the grounds of St Thomas of Canterbury church in Elsfield where he had lived since leaving Eireland and I like to think that his ghost found some peace and respite in that delightful little village.


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