Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book’s podcast script rerun is M. A G Macdonell’s England, Their England, from 1933, is a satirical novel about English society, and has long had a grip on my understanding of the English. I was (am) a hybrid Anglo-Scot, never quite accepted by my Scottish school-friends or my English cousins as fish, fowl or nationally categorisable red herring. I used to borrow England, Their England about once a month from the city library as soon as I was old enough for an adult reader’s ticket. It fascinated me, because it was very funny, and beautifully written, and also had a great deal in it that I knew would be funny, if I only I could understand it better. I was a teenager desperate to understand.
Archibald Gordon Macdonell was born in India, and went through a public-school education while also being brought up in Scotland. He was a gunner in the First World War, worked for the League of Nations and tried to get elected as an MP. These experiences are all reused joyfully in the book. He wrote detective novels under various pseudonyms, and became what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls a pugnacious drama critic on the London Mercury, an important review newspaper of the 1930s. England, Their England was his first novel, and was an instant success, becoming required reading in schools during the 1930s and 1940s. The title is a parody of D H Lawrence’s short story collection England, My England of 1924. England, Their England made Macdonell’s writing success, and he published much more satire, fiction, and plays. I’ve read two or three of his other novels, but they aren’t as good. England, Their England is a first-novel yell of frustration and affection from the heart, and has the knockout power, and sincerity, that comes from exasperation and emotion.
The story linking the satirical episodes together is that of the Aberdonian farmer Donald Cameron, who suffers shell-shock during the First World War, thus qualifying for a war pension, which allows him to live in London and observe the English so he can write a book about them. Macdonell then brings in a large collection of English shibboleths that he can knock down gleefully with hard-hitting satire. The first for a savage ribbing is the conduct of the English military authorities in running the war and dealing with shell-shocked soldiers (which leans heavily on the treatment of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen). He goes on to lampoon modern journalism, modern novels, the English country-house weekend, modern art, the habits and dress of modern young women, and makes a surprisingly rude joke about Americans, and an even more off-colour set of jokes about rape and Latin Americans. Apart from the endemic jokes about the English which are on every page, the Americans are the most joked-at nation in the book.
The chapters become set-piece satirical feasts. Donald is sent into a new English milieu to observe it and become a hapless victim of its silliness. He is invited to an English country-house weekend party, and meets a fine collection of parodic stereotypes. He is invited to play in a cricket match in the country, during which Macdonell indulges himself in some really splendid lyrical sarcasm in the English summer countryside and its inhabitants. This cricketing chapter was apparently packed with recognisable characters from the literary and journalism world of the time, which undoubtedly helped his sales. Just imagine everyone buying the book eagerly to look for themselves and their friends and enemies, and then writing gleefully about their discoveries. Macdonell was a cunning anthropologist of the London literati.
Donald is taken to play golf and rediscovers his passion and skill at the game (which he hasn’t been able to afford to play since he left Scotland), and beats his English friends without even trying. The English friends don’t actually play golf as much as wave their clubs around: their interest is in the magnificent club-house, their magnificent clothes, the exceptionally large and liquid lunches, and the ludicrous prices they enjoy paying for new golf clubs. It is all pleasingly familiar, since this is the 1930s social landscape we see in the immortal works of E F Benson, Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell and P G Wodehouse.
Macdonell draws on more personal experiences when he sends Donald to work at the League of Nations as an MP’s assistant for a month. This chapter is a companion piece to Rose Macaulay’s Mystery at Geneva (1922), in which she savages the League of Nations in the early 1920s. It might also be instructive reading for present-day European Parliament stagiares in Brussels and Strasbourg. Donald also assists at a general election: again, I doubt whether anything much has changed in the brutal traditions of local English democracy. He becomes a theatre reviewer, and a critic of modern novels, and has a bewildering time staggering under the pretensions and preoccupations of the 1930s literary scene. Macdonell even takes Donald back to his old school. Winchester, but this final chapter is a bit overdone, with rather too much fond glorification and not enough bitter wit. What does work as satire in this last chapter is a really vicious attack on 1930s fox-hunting, and the arrogance of the modern youth who attend the meet. This is where the satire turns in on itself to produce some unexpected home truths. The hardness of character that makes 1930s fox-hunters so obnoxious, selfish and offensive, is very closely connected with the hardness that made it possible for some people to survive the war, as combatants and as nurses. There is a lot in here about rapidly changing English society: it’s a very revealing piece of writing.
What I like best about this book are the sly running jokes, particularly the ones about Aberdonians and their carefulness with money. This is a standard joke in Scotland, but I was oblivious to it until quite a late age. I like the deliberately difficult Scottish historical references, which are a mash-up of Sir Walter Scott and jokes about tartan. In fact, this book, written by an ex pat Scot, spends a lot of time laughing at the propensity of the English to romanticise the Scots, particularly in their expectation that the golf professional will speak like a music-hall caricature, and that at Hogmanay you have to pretend to be Scottish to enjoy it properly.
I also like watching the hapless career of Donald as he is swept up by one helpful Englishman after another, dumped into situations over which he has no control, and with little understanding of what is going on. He is a stranger in a strange land, which is packed with marvellously silly stereotypes that suggest a nicely lunatic portrait of 1930s English society. Macdonell is best at writing scenes of action, rather than static description. The game of golf, and the game of cricket are a joy to read, but the self-consciously lyrical descriptions of England in the winter and in the summer are a bit too syrupy. He also overdoes the gloopy sentiment when he describes the four elderly English countrymen in the pub who lament the loss of the younger men in the war, every war, going back to Waterloo.
When Macdonell keeps his edge, his sense of irritation, his satire really, really works. He sends Donald to Danzig by ship for a week so he can escape Christmas in England (no, I don’t know why either, let’s skip the reasoning). Donald he thinks he will have a miserable time, but actually enjoys himself watching the winter sea and the traffic on the Kiel Canal. He also meets what Macdonell would like us to think is the epitome of the practical English engineer, a monomaniac inventor whose kind we last saw in Kipling’s military engineers a generation earlier. This is the kind of man who will make you anything you want out of steel, brilliantly imagined and executed, but he will also bore you to death for days telling you all about how it works. It’s important to feel annoyed when reading satire, to be shunted towards anger and indignation, otherwise the satirical intent won’t work. Donald as Everyman, the reader’s representative, is too mild-mannered, he is so passive, so easily led, that quite often we want to shout at him, to make him start thinking for himself, to make his own decisions, to get away from these mad people. But he likes them.
Actually, we learn to like them too. I am particularly fond of Esmerelda D’Avenant, English film star and formerly plain Jane Jukes from a country parsonage, who has the most expensively insured legs in the world. I love the Major-General who is always shuffling around drawing-rooms to get a better look at Esmerelda’s legs, and is expertly controlled by his wife, Mrs Major-General. I don’t like the wickedly provocative socialite Mr Harcourt, who causes social outrage wherever he goes, just for the hell of it, but I do like angelic Bobby Southcott, successful society novelist and perfect dresser, who I think is a caricature of Noel Coward. Most of all I like Donald, who really needs someone to look after him. This book is a joy: go find a copy.