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Although born in India (in 1895), Archibald Gordon Macdonell always regarded himself first and foremost as a Scot. Invalided out of the army during the First World War, he made an early living writing revue articles - principally dramatic criticism - for the London Mercury, before finally making a name for himself as the author of this satirical examination of the character and nature of the English from the viewpoint of a stranger to their land.
"England, Their England" is set in an England of the 1920s. In almost autobiographical fashion, it chronicles the adventures of a young man, Donald Cameron, who is forced, under the terms of his father's will, to live his life south of the border amongst the 'alien and strange' English, rather than in his native Scotland. Whilst trying to make his way in London by means of various newspaper jobs, a chance encounter with a Welshman lands him with a commission to write a book about the English, as viewed through the eyes of a foreigner. Donald thus sets off on a quest to discover the true character of this alien land in which he finds himself forced to live: a Post (Great) War England of toffs and wags and provincial yokels, of gay young things, and of officers' and gentlemen's clubs; of weekend parties in the country (amidst the last dying embers of an earlier world).
In his search for what it is that epitomises 'Englishness', Donald observes at close quarters the English engaging in numerous of their staple national pastimes: village cricket (probably the best known chapter of the book); walking the links; rugby football; fox hunting; boozing; international diplomacy and domestic politics. The book also contains an account of Donald's experience of what in those days was but a fledgling upstart clamouring for a place in English hearts and minds - an association football (soccer) match - as well as taking passing swipes at English inter-war literary and dramatic endeavours.
This book's early chapters are outrageously hilarious, bordering on farce on occasions, although the mood turns more towards pathos in the later stages, as Donald discovers (and the author portrays the virtues of) the more down-to-earth, homespun existence of the newly emerging middle and working classes, although even here the author finds plenty of scope for caricature. The book turns briefly to total farce for its finale, in which all of the characters come together in one last ludicrous act, before winding up with a peaceful (and rather sugary) coda on the history-steeped lawns of Winchester.
The inter-war years were an odd period throughout the whole of Europe but perhaps nowhere more so than in Britain, and especially England, with the gradual collapse of its privileged classes - long in decline but by then all but wiped out in the carnage of the Great War (or else facing financial ruin in the depressions that followed). It is no real surprise that satirical novels were virtually the standard form of literary expression of those years; A G Macdonell's approach is wittier and less gloomy (yet more acerbic) than most of that time, especially the better known ones such as the writings of Evelyn Waugh (who early novels are more or less contemporaneous with "England, Their England").
Despite the passing of the years, this book acts as a perfect window onto its times; a window, nevertheless, fitted with distorting glass, intended to point up the ludicrous and the grotesque, encouraging no-one to mourn the passing of outmoded ways, or, indeed, the sad decline of a once great imperial power. And yet, speaking with a wit and humour that transmits itself as clearly and articulately today as when it was written, this book suggests that there is - and always will be - something of value at the heart of this indomitable (but fundamentally crazy) nation.
Some of the jokes may have lost much of their meaning in the seventy years since this book was written (especially for younger readers unaware of the details of the history of those times) but ironically, many of the anachronisms so mockingly (and yet affectionately) painted in A G Macdonell's treasurable prose remain recognisably present in the England of today. "England, Their England" remains a classic book, and a great testimony to an observant and witty man whose untimely death in 1941 robbed the English-speaking world of a great mind and a fine author.
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VINE VOICEon 2 November 2005
All too often (and even in these columns) this book is praised for its peerless description of the Village Cricket Match and the rest is dismissed. Most unfair. The whole book deserves to be right up there with Diary of a Nobody, Three Men on a Boat and Jerome's even better Three Men on the Bummel as one of the classics of (very) British humour.
First, the range of characters is ambitiously broad, engagingly funny, as immaculately drawn as Evelyn Waugh's and a lot more believable than any in P.G.Wodehouse. Here are louche writers, dizzy starlets, pragmatic editors, chinless wonders, ambitious diplomats, double-barrelled Old-Etonian civil servants, conniving politicians, intimidating blacksmiths, garrulous and much-travelled engineers and lots more - all of them vividly drawn, most of them engagingly eccentric (in a very English way).
In many ways, England, Their England, like Jerome K. Jerome's books, is a series of set-pieces. The Village Cricket match is the most famous. But the country-house weekend party deserves to be just as popular. With the hero's standing in this elevated society continually jacked up to impossible heights by the well-intentioned good offices of the mysterious Tommy Huggins (aka Monsieur Hougins), the satire grows larger and larger, the barbs pierce deeper the longer the weekend goes on. We are treated to similarly perceptive views of the fox-hunting fraternity, the machinations of the League of Nations, soccer crowds vs. Twickenham Varsity match crowds, election hustings and rounds of golf.
The quality of the writing is up there with the best of English humorists, too. Whether it's the grim fatalism of the introductory chapter in the World War I trenches or the halcyon description of an idyllic journey from Marylebone to Aylesbury on the old Great Central line, MacDonell can turn a perfectly honed phrase that will move, surprise, amuse, produce a warm smile of recognition, or a hoot of satisfying laughter. Yes, the finale, set on a hill above Winchester, almost topples over into sentimentality. But, for the wit and wisdom of what has gone before, perhaps we should indulge the author his slightly saccharine dream.
As I've already intimated, this book deserves to be a classic of English humour. It also provides a fascinating picture of Britain between the Wars, a picture that includes many corners that are as true today as they were then (though not just at the moment the newspapers' usual predictions of doom and gloom for the English Cricket team which, it seems, have always been a feature of our national life!) Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 February 2012
When this book was written, it was one of many similar attempts to come to terms with the new post-War, post Victorian England. It has survived because it is, indeed, wittily written and in the English are very fond of laughing at themselves. I have read it 3 times and laughed every time, but I would be wary of recommending it as a Great Comic Novel as I feel it will appeal only to readers with the particular kind of sense of humour which also appreciates PG Wodehouse.

There is a further history to this book though. While it was popular as a comic novel when first published, its particular take on Englishness - that combination of sentimentality and irony which always taps unerringly into the English nerve-endings - gave it a new life in the dark days of the Second World War; something McDonald cannot have imagined when he was writing. Anyone who has seen the films produced during the war (NOT the war films made afterwards, when we knew we had won, but the ones made to keep up morale when the outcome was still very uncertain) will recognise the same mood which comes across in many of them. The ones which come to mind particularly are those of Powell and Pressburger, such as A Canterbury Tale [DVD] and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [Special Edition] [DVD] [1943] I have no doubt some of these filmes were influenced by the book. This edition, re-issued in 1941 by the Reprint Society, is the one to buy if you want a copy to keep, its characterful illustrations by John Evans. Reading it with the Second World War in mind, it is quite clear that it would have had considerable propaganda and morale value.

Although the author was no doubt unaware of it, it is a deeply chauvinistic book, albeit mostly in a good way. And to be fair, he is as good at laughing at his own Scottishness as he is at his English neighbours. But I suspect many modern readers will fail to "get" it. So I'm not saying that it's not funny, nor that there aren't nuggets of exquisite observation amongst the more obvious humour. It's a well-known fact that humour is very personal, and what has one reader rolling on the floor will make another cringe. And there is more to this book, some of it relying on instincts in the reader which are no all of them good. It plays on the same sensilbilities as does a modern reading of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942: Reproduced from the Original Typescript, War Department, Washington, DC (Instructions for Servicemen)
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on 26 January 2015
I disagree with most of the other reviewers here; i did not find it funny at all; i thought the text meandered between rather bitter satire, esp regarding war, its generals/officers, and its effects, and a sad searching for a sweet, innocent, decent rural past, which has probably never existed anywhere anyway.
To me the text read more as a desperate attempt to find a thing, any thing, worth living and dying for, than comedy. The weekend party, the diplomatic conference in Geneva, the ball in the hotel, which catches fire, the Christmas voyage to Danzig, the fox hunt and the old men in the village inn all have a strong touch of sadness and loss overlaying the satire. I am sorry, I did not find any humor in this, just nostalgia and a strong wish to change history. Well-written, yes, of course, interesting, yes, but I did not laugh at all, not even at the cricket match, the rugby or the football game. I also found most of the women portrayed rather unpleasant, sketchy and unsatisfactory. I had expected something more warm, more sensitive, more caring...sorry!
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on 27 December 1999
Hislop reviews this book on the BBC bookworm website, describing it as hilarious without being Wodehouse. A Scotsman tours England in the 1920s, describing it as the Mars it was to him, working in a tiny provincial newspaper office and for a similar MP. Hislop is charmed by its authenticity which is nevertheless (I think he says this) falling off his chair funny. So I'm ordering it.
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on 20 October 2013
I could have purchased any of the various paperback editions of MacDonnell's most notorious book,but could not resist this quality book produced in its own slip case and am extremely pleased that I took the opportunity when it came up.There is far more to this novel than the famous 'cricket match' which everone loves and i would thoroughly reccommend it. The 'Purple Scot' as he was known is in tip-top form.
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on 9 September 2012
This was a replacement for a lost copy and it reads just as well, with as much insight into the English character and its foibles as it did when I first read it way back in the 1950s: an absolute gem of gentle but penetrating satire.
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on 27 June 2003
Very well written and a wonderful insight to England between the wars. The much referred to cricket match chapter is highly amusing, at times bordering on the farcical. The final chapter is cleverly worked as many of the key characters re-appear for the finale. I found it most enjoyable although I was left feeling disappointed that the author was not able to provide us with any more works such as this before his untimely death.
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on 26 January 2014
My favourite book of all time. Ii read it time and time again. If you have not met this classic yet......You are in for a treat!
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on 18 February 2012
This book is such a good read: amusing, poignant, and paints a beautiful picture of how England must have been in the inter-war years. You'll want to lend this to all your friends once you've read it.
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