I came early to John Buchan’s thrillers courtesy of my mother who insisted that I watch the BBC adaptation of Huntingtower in 1978. I’m very glad that she insisted and that I acquiesced as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and Huntingtower remains to this day my favourite of John Buchan’s novels. Needless to say some of the plot went over my head but the fast-moving adventure was great fun. And I loved the contrast between the solid Dickson McCunn and the mischievous Gorbals’ Diehards. It’s hard to know now what I remember from television and what from countless readings of the book but wherever the memories come from they are happy ones. And I was thrilled last year when the Diehards made a re-appearance in Robert J Harris’ The Thirty-One Kings.
Not long before her death, I was privileged to be invited to meet Eva Ibbotson in her Newcastle home. I had a fascinating time, discussing her books and her life. One thing she said has stayed with me all these years. I complimented her on her writing which I find immeasurably good and spoke about how effortless it was to read. She replied that it could take her hours to get a sentence exactly right and that I shouldn’t imagine that writing was anything other than hard work. Now I knew that in my head, of course, but I think that was when I first really understood the effort that goes into superlative writing. I took two of her books with me to get signed, one children’s and one adult. In the latter category I selected Madensky Square set in Vienna just before the First World War. It’s told by Susanna, a dressmaker, in the form of a diary and beautifully evokes a slice of Viennese life.