James Buchan

James Buchan, a former Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times, studied Persian literature in Isfahan in the 1970s.

The tumult that followed the Iranian presidential election of June 2009 revealed to an inattentive world an Iranian public that bore little resemblance to its idiosyncratic and touchy rulers. It helped that many of the protesters were young and fashionable, adept in modern forms of communication, and decked out in green. The Islamic Republic’s self-image, virtuous and united against...

In March 1776, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson visited Pembroke College, Oxford and called on the master, William Adams. According to Richard Sher, Boswell wrote in his journal how dismayed he had been to see in the master’s library a copy of the quarto edition of David Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects of 1758, handsomely bound in morocco leather. Boswell believed,...

Nostalgia for the Vestry: Thatcherism

James Buchan, 30 November 2006

Of the monuments of the Thatcher era, one of the most intriguing is a small file card, on which are written four pairs of words: Discord-Harmony, Error-Truth, Doubt-Faith, Dispair [sic]-Hope. These are the bones of the prayer attributed (not very plausibly) to St Francis of Assisi that Margaret Thatcher quoted on the steps of 10 Downing Street on her first day as prime minister, 4 May 1979:...

Diary: My Hogs

James Buchan, 18 October 2001

Sometimes, standing in the small wood that shields my house from the north, I whisper the word ‘Pigs!’ Within a second, bursting from the laurels, alert and obedient as no dog could be, comes a pair of Gloucester Old Spot gilts to nuzzle my hand. Or sometimes, if I am late with their afternoon bucket of scraps, they break out of their enclosure and hurtle across to bang their rumps against the kitchen door. As I contemplate these animals, my mind’s eye fills with placid agricultural visions. More and extensive areas of the woods are cleared of brambles and brush. My cow begins to produce milk and the pigs take the surplus, like a Denmark in miniature; or they are turned out when the corn is cut to glean the spilled grain; or when the orchard is up, they manure the trees and eat the insect-tainted fruit. In this beautiful and frictionless economy (in the old Xenophontic or Aristotelian sense of household rather than state management, which is, properly, political economy), the pig is the heart and soul, the wild card, the blockbuster, the Maxim gun. Indeed, to me a wood without pigs is like a ballroom without women.

Only a Hop and a Skip to Money: gold

James Buchan, 16 November 2000

Gold is the most metaphysical of the metals. A couple of layers of gilding, and items of everyday experience attain perfection: golden calf, golden section, golden goal. In the form of money, gold was always the currency more of heaven than of earth. As late as 1965, President de Gaulle told a press conference at the Elysée Palace that gold was ‘eternally and universally accepted...

Still Smoking: An Iranian Revolutionary

James Buchan, 15 October 1998

Some time in the middle of the Seventies in Iran, a Marxist revolutionary named Bizhan Jazani warned from prison against an appeal to religion in the struggle against the Shah. ‘This attempt to revive religion,’ he wrote, ‘is highly dangerous for it could play into the hands of the reactionary clergy.’ Jazani suffered the fate of Cassandra. For that, approximately, is what happened in Iran. The Muslim insurgents known as the People’s Mujahedin, Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shari‘ati, the subject of the biography under review, made Islam palatable to a generation of young Iranians and thus delivered them up to a clergy with a long list of unfinished business. To borrow a phrase from another revolution, they were the useful idiots of Ayatollah Khomeini.‘

A Matter of War and Peace

James Buchan, 31 July 1997

If, as a consequence, the objects of desire, for which all sense has been extinguished, are displaced by the abstract representative of all such objects, Money, … then the Will … has barricaded itself into its last bastion where only Death can besiege it.


James Buchan, 14 December 1995

In Book IV of The Wealth of Nations, a vantage at which you have already left the economists shivering and huddled in their sleeping bags a thousand feet below, there is a sentence that lets you peer right into Adam Smith’s world. He is talking about Cameron of Lochiel, whose decision, against his better judgment, to come out for Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 won the clans for the Pretender and doomed the ancient culture of the Highlands to extinction. ‘That gentleman, whose rent never exceeded five hundred pounds a year, carried, in 1745, eight hundred of his own people into the rebellion with him.’

The First Hundred Years

James Buchan, 24 August 1995

There is a passage in The Wealth of Nations where the author, for a moment, expresses some regret for the world of economic expediency he so devotedly describes and justifies. The division of labour, whose language is money, helps us to prosperity and liberty but at the price of atomising our picture of the world. The labourer, Smith writes, is ‘not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of the country he is altogether incapable of judging.’ Anyone who has dined recently with a Cabinet Minister will know that it is not just the labourer who is thus incapable.

Fie On’t!

James Buchan, 23 March 1995

On 24 January, a Tuesday, Mr Cedric Brown, chief executive of British Gas, testified before the House of Commons Committee on Employment on the subject of his pay, which is £475,000 a year. In the course of a brisk and competitive exchange with MPs, he showed emotion at only one point, when he said this:

Bangs and Stinks

James Buchan, 22 December 1994

The story of how the secrets of explosive plutonium fission were spirited away from the United States to this country has if anything increased in interest in recent years. Alongside its narrative appeal – the improvisation and mathematics, the bureaucratic squabbles and triumphs, the precision engineering of high explosive – the scientific campaign that ended in the Hurricane test at the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s west coast on 3 October 1952 also dramatises the yearning and anxiety in British self-consciousness after the war. Soon after the test, the Daily Graphic apostrophised William Penney, the project’s leader: ‘Britain and the Commonwealth owe a debt – almost impossible to repay – to you … the fact that you and your team have made it possible for Britain to make and store atom bombs has made the country a world power once again.’

They called her Lady Di

James Buchan, 18 August 1994

On the evening of 19 October 1992, the decomposed bodies of Petra Karin Kelly and Gerd Bastian were found by police in the bedroom of the small house they shared in the village of Tannenbusch on the outskirts of Bonn. They had been dead for about three weeks. Both had been shot in the head with bullets from a little Derringer pistol. On the morning of the 20th, a Tuesday, the police announced they were certain that ‘no third person was responsible for their deaths.’

The End

James Buchan, 28 April 1994

This book found me in the midst of a prolonged, if not necessarily profound, contemplation of the market for insurance and reinsurance known as Lloyd’s of London. What interests me about Lloyd’s is not the misfortunes it suffered in the late Eighties or its spectacular losses, the evident incompetence of its professionals and functionaries or its silly building, but the conduct of the passive investors in the market known as the External Names, about thirty thousand families of the English and Scots high middle class.

A Betting Man: John Law

Colin Kidd, 12 September 2019

Britain’s​ early Enlightenment, between the 1680s and the 1750s, was the golden age of ‘projectors’, the name given to promoters of speculative schemes, some for making money,...

Read More

The Iranian Revolution was a revolt against Western-imposed modernisation in favour of an enchanted path to modernity.

Read More

Back to Isfahan

Richard Lloyd Parry, 27 April 2000

Early on in his new novel, James Buchan employs an image of which he is evidently fond: that of two mirrors placed face to face, and the unique and disconcerting effect which they produce, of...

Read More

For a Few Dollars More

Frank Kermode, 18 September 1997

‘I have no life except in poetry,’ runs an aphorism of Wallace Stevens; but in another he says ‘Money is a kind of poetry,’ so the fact that he spent his working life as...

Read More

Good Things

Michael Hofmann, 20 April 1995

I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan. I can’t think of anyone who concedes so much of his own intelligence to his protagonists –...

Read More


Anthony Quinn, 29 August 1991

The heroine of Lucy Ellmann’s new novel is one of an increasingly rare breed in modern fiction – a virgin. Isabel is a thirty-something art history student, prim, gauche, improbably...

Read More


Walter Nash, 18 February 1988

Along with the hearing-aid and the bifocals and other indices of personal decay goes an elderly fretfulness about staying alert in a world so teasing, so elusive, that even novels, which should...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences