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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