Ask most readers if they have heard of A.G. Macdonell and you will usually get a blank look, though occasionally you get the response: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of England, Their England.’ If you don’t, you then say, ‘You know, the cricket match . . .’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ is the almost invariable reply, even from people who claim to hate cricket. ‘I remember it being read to us at school. It’s hilarious . . .’
It is, too – perhaps the most famous comic set-piece in the language. Though I’ve read it to myself dozens of times, and aloud to classes often enough (it’s a wonderful way to keep a class quiet at the end of a long term), I still find myself laughing aloud as I read it.
Macdonell’s satire on English life begins in a pill-box on the Western Front. Two artillery officers (one a Welshman, Evan Davies, the other a Scot, Donald Cameron) are discussing the English and agree that they are ‘extraordinarily difficult to understand’. Donald says that he has sometimes thought he’d like to write a book about them; Evan remarks that, as he was a publisher before the war and hopes to be one again, Donald should come to see him to talk about it. Shortly afterwards, Donald is blown up and taken to hospital. He spends months – indeed, years – recuperating from shell-shock and, in 1921, goes home to his father in Buchan.
After his father’s death, Donald discovers that a condition of his inheritance requires him to leave home and Scotland. He goes to London, armed with three letters of introduction and ‘resolved to try his fortune as a journalist’ (‘There seemed to be no other profession which required neither ability nor training’). Eventually, he runs into Evan Davies again, and is commissioned to write a book on the English – which makes England, Their England what literary theorists call ‘self-referential’, though one doubts A. G. Macdonell would bless me for pointing that out.
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Ask most readers if they have heard of A.G. Macdonell and you will usually get a blank look, though occasionally you get the response: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of England, Their England.’ If you don’t, you then say, ‘You know, the cricket match . . .’‘Oh yes, of course,’ is the almost invariable reply, even from people who claim to hate cricket. ‘I remember it being read to us at school. It’s hilarious . . .’ It is, too – perhaps the most famous comic set-piece in the language. Though I’ve read it to myself dozens of times, and aloud to classes often enough (it’s a wonderful way to keep a class quiet at the end of a long term), I still find myself laughing aloud as I read it. Macdonell’s satire on English life begins in a pill-box on the Western Front. Two artillery officers (one a Welshman, Evan Davies, the other a Scot, Donald Cameron) are discussing the English and agree that they are ‘extraordinarily difficult to understand’. Donald says that he has sometimes thought he’d like to write a book about them; Evan remarks that, as he was a publisher before the war and hopes to be one again, Donald should come to see him to talk about it. Shortly afterwards, Donald is blown up and taken to hospital. He spends months – indeed, years – recuperating from shell-shock and, in 1921, goes home to his father in Buchan. After his father’s death, Donald discovers that a condition of his inheritance requires him to leave home and Scotland. He goes to London, armed with three letters of introduction and ‘resolved to try his fortune as a journalist’ (‘There seemed to be no other profession which required neither ability nor training’). Eventually, he runs into Evan Davies again, and is commissioned to write a book on the English – which makes England, Their England what literary theorists call ‘self-referential’, though one doubts A. G. Macdonell would bless me for pointing that out. So the novel proceeds, mainly by a series of set-pieces, of which the cricket match is the most famous. The visitors’ best batsman, on being instructed by his captain to ‘play his own game’ (he has been clouting the village blacksmith all over the place to get the visiting side up to a respectable total) ‘fell into a kind of cricketing trance, defending his wicket skilfully from straight balls, ignoring crooked ones, and scoring one more run in a quarter of an hour before he inadvertently allowed, for the first time during his innings, a ball to strike his person. “Out!” shrieked the venerable umpire before anyone had time to appeal.’ Then there is the visiting fast bowler who ‘thrust out his chin and prepared to bowl’.
In a quarter of an hour he had terrified seven batsmen, clean bowled six of them, and broken a stump. Eleven runs, six wickets, last man two. After the fall of the sixth wicket there was a slight delay. The new batsman, the local rate-collector, had arrived at the crease and was ready. But nothing happened. Suddenly the large publisher, who was acting as wicket-keeper, called out, ‘Hi! Where’s Hawker?’ The words galvanized Mr Hodge into portentous activity. ‘Quick!’ he shouted. ‘Hurry, run, for God’s sake! Bob, George, Percy, to the Shoes!’. . . but they were all too late . . . The gallant Major, admitted by Mr Bason through the back door, had already lowered a quart and a half of mild-and-bitter, and his subsequent bowling was perfectly innocuous, consisting, as it did, mainly of slow, gentle full-pitches to leg which the village baker and even, occasionally, the rate-collector hit hard and high into the long grass.I have been told, on the excellent authority of one local cricketer, that the village of Fordenden where the cricket match takes place is based on Benenden; certainly, the pub and the church are in the right place, and the field slopes enough, though not in the right direction. Another insists it is Rolvenden; but their field is quite flat, though the old forge and the pub are nearby. Yet another has claimed the match for Smarden. And then there is Horsmonden too. Indeed, half the villages in Kent and East Sussex seem to lay claim to the honour. However, even if there is dispute about the real venue, the actual players persist: the terrifyingly strong and totally inaccurate fast bowler; the cherubic schoolboy; the delicate-looking dandy who turns out to be a proper batsman; the fat wicket-keeper who can’t catch anything; the Yank who so far has played only baseball (and who gets distressed because a kindly Englishman wonders about its relationship to rounders); the specially imported Free Forester with cap and a scarf to hold up his trousers. And of course the ancient umpire, across whose eye a black spot crosses ‘just as the baker put all his feet and legs and pads in front of a perfectly straight ball, and, as he plaintively remarked over and over again, he had to give the batsman the benefit of the doubt, hadn’t he? It wasn’t as if it was his fault that a black spot had crossed his eye just at that moment . . .’ But it’s not just for the cricket match that England, Their England is worth reading still. Other scenes are just as funny. Among these are the country-house dinner-party, the Oxford vs. Cambridge rugger match, a professional soccer match, various plays (Donald does some theatrical reviewing for the London Weekly – Macdonell himself had done years of reviewing for the London Mercury), Donald’s stint as private secretary to a senior politician at the League of Nations in Geneva (Macdonell spent five years working for the League), and a good many portrayals of London life, literary and otherwise. (England, Their England is dedicated to J. C. Squire, ‘the English Poet’; the hard-drinking William Hodge of the novel is a version of Squire, and most of the players in the cricket match were based on members of Squire’s cricket team, the Invalids.) I myself have always had a soft spot for the young niece of the host of the country-house dinner party, Patience Ormerode. She was
about twenty years of age, and had ivory-coloured cheeks, orange lips, thin, blackened eyebrows, close-cut hair, pale pink ears, and purple finger-nails. She smoked all through dinner what are sometimes even now called Russian cigarettes because they are rolled in brown paper and stamped with the two-headed eagle of Tsardom. She was wearing a black frock which terminated in a sheaf of wispy, petal-shaped flounces, and was in no way disconcerted when, half-way through dinner, she deduced from a gleam of pale pink above her stocking that she had forgotten to put on any knickers. She had no topic of conversation and only one adjective at a time. At the moment the adjective was ‘grisly’.First published in 1933, England, Their England was an immense and instantaneous success. The edition I borrowed from the local library (someone having borrowed my own copy) was first published in March 1942, the year after A. G. Macdonell’s death (although he was a good games-player himself, Macdonell never entirely recovered from the effects of the war, and died aged only 46 of a heart attack in Oxford – there is an interesting biography in the DNB); that edition was reprinted twelve times over the next forty years, and God knows how many times Chapter VII – the cricket match – has been anthologized. Constant repetition has its dangers. Simon Hoggart, for instance, in his introduction to another of A. G. Macdonell’s novels, The Autobiography of a Cad, describes England, Their England as ‘almost painfully dated’. Though there are things in it which make even an enthusiastic immigrant like me wince a little (scenes at the League of Nations, for instance), some parts of rural life – weekend dinner parties, cricket matches – are still recognizably the same. I can’t however share Hoggart’s high regard for The Autobiography of a Cad. For myself, the central conceit of that cad – Edward Fox-Ingelby, MP and by the end of the novel Minister of the Crown, a truly dreadful man, a combination of Alan Clark, Neil Hamilton, Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Thatcher – wears thin after a while; his service of self is so absolute that he becomes not just a monster but monstrously difficult to credit. One longs for a deviation from the unerring consistency of his selfishness. There are, however, two other books by Macdonell which do survive fashion: the first is a popular history published in 1934, Napoleon and His Marshals, described very properly by John Keegan as a ‘thrilling gallop through the Napoleonic Wars’. The other is my particular favourite: How Like an Angel, also published in 1934. Its epigraph is from Hamlet: ‘What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ It opens with four survivors of a shipwreck in the South Seas: three missionaries (the Reverend Eustace Smith, Monsieur René Forgeron and Pastor Hans Schmidt – all Protestants) and a baby, whom they name Hugo Bechstein Smith, and who grows up ‘a sensitive, intelligent, quicksilvery sort of young man who might turn into anything or nothing, and nobody would be much surprised at either’. He is given an extraordinary all-round education by his three proto-uncles, one aspect of which is fast bowling as taught him by Eustace Smith:
With a short run – ‘Never more than eight yards, my boy’ – an easy, high action, and enormous strength in fingers, wrists, arms and shoulders that were incessantly employed in leaping from tree-top to tree-top in the forests, Hugo’s off-break came fizzing off the coco-nut matting wicket like a snake. On summer evenings the little settlement would ring with the sound of bat upon ball, the panted ejaculations of the native fieldsmen, and the deep voice of Uncle Eustace calling out, ‘When in doubt put four men on the leg-side and bowl at the leg-stump’.When Hugo is 19, the castaways are rescued, by a yacht chartered by the Joseph Conrad Society of Boston and subsidiaries – but the three missionaries independently of each other swim back to their paradise island, leaving Hugo to discover civilization on his own. It turns out he is the spitting image of a matinée idol, Michael Seeley, and he has considerable trouble as a result, part of the trouble being Michael Seeley’s film-star wife, Felida Caliente, formerly Maudie Maggs, ‘the secret of whose triumphant career was the extraordinary wizardry by which she made herself appear slim to her public and plump to her adorers’ (shades of Marilyn Monroe, who – one is told – ‘photographed thin’. Most of us photograph even fatter than we are). Hijacked on his voyage to England, Hugo is forced into substituting for the absent Michael Seeley, though without one of the advantages the husband of the World’s Adored might expect (she explains: ‘I’m a good girl. I never slept with a man in all my life except when it was important to my career as an artist. I’ve never gone off the rails for the fun of going off the rails. That would be downright wicked, and I’m not going to do it.’). Hugo’s prowess as a fast bowler becomes central to the plot. Having temporarily escaped the clutches of the film industry and its publicity machine, he is recruited to play cricket for an occasional team which is being badly beaten by opponents who include two County batsmen, and who have taken the score to 180 for 0. After lunch, Hugo is asked to bowl:
His bowling was the fastest ever seen on that ground or any other ground in the county of Suffolk. In four overs he clean-bowled nine batsmen, broke two stumps, hit the tenth batsman on the body and broke a rib, and broke three fingers on the wicket-keeper’s left hand, and severely bruised both hands of the deputy wicket-keeper. In an awed silence the fielding team returned to the pavilion. The total was 186. Hugo had taken nine wickets for four runs. The four runs were a snick through the slips which reached the boundary in a flash.As a result, and to his great delight, Hugo is offered a net at Lords, where he is asked to bowl to a man whose name he doesn’t catch but who comes from Gloucestershire. Hugo is ‘surprised, and indeed rather piqued, at his inability to bowl him out more than twice’ in half an hour of effort. However, the selectors who have watched him now offer him the chance to play in the Second Test Match against Borealia later that week. He is to open the bowling. He sets his field as Uncle Eustace had taught him: one slip and four men on the leg-side. . . And at that point I must say, in the words of the old song, ‘If you want any more, you must sing it yourself ’. Yes, How Like An Angel is farce but – as is common in the best farce – there is a hard edge of satire, particularly of the English legal system. The civilized world which he has been sent to explore is – Hugo discovers – dangerously mad.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © C. J. Driver 2006
About the contributor
One of Jonty Driver’s prized possessions is a press cutting describing the ‘sustained display of fast bowling’ by which he took 7 for 86 for a schoolmasters’ XI against a Kentish village team. Unfortunately, his bowling was usually more distinguished for its inaccuracy than anything else. However, his Selected Poems, 1960–2004, was published in South Africa and England in 2005 under the title So Far.