England, Their England, by A. G. Macdonell, was first published in 1933.
The first sentence is: “The events which are described in this book had their real origin in a conversation which took place between two artillery subalterns on the Western Front in the beginning of October 1917.”
(The end of the Chapter II assures us that “…no one need be afraid that this is a war book.“)
Donald Cameron meets Evan Davies in a captured German pill-box during The Great War. They strike up a conversation and form a friendship. Cameron (a Scotsman) and Davies (a Welshman) discuss and compare their impressions of the English. They agree that the English are a peculiar bunch.
This gives Donald Cameron the idea that he would like to write a book about the English, someday. It so happens that Evan Davies is a book publisher.
The battle leaves Donald Cameron shell-shocked, and he is sent to a base hospital. After a year and a half in hospital, Donald is deemed fit to return to civilian life, but not fit for military duty for the next seven years. He receives a government payment of £85 per annum, from which income tax is deducted.
Upon his discharge, Donald travels to Aberdeen, to work on his father’s farm. His father is the worst farmer around, and his father doesn’t care. Still, Donald works on the farm until his father dies.
His father’s will leaves Donald £7,000, on the condition that Donald leave Scotland, and never stay north of the River Tweed for more than a month per year, until he reaches the age of fifty. (Scotland is no place for the young, his father had insisted.)
Realizing he has no skills except farming (at which he’s only slightly better than his father was) and firing military weapons, Donald Cameron decides to try his hand at journalism. It’s the only profession Donald can think of which requires neither skill nor training. Following the advice of a librarian, Donald moves to Chelsea, in London.
After several unsuccessful inquiries, and some strange interviews with newspapers and publishers, Donald meets a man named Mr. Hodge, who introduces him to his circle of self-important poets. Without realizing what’s happening, Donald Cameron has joined Mr. Hodge’s cricket team.
One evening, Donald happens to run into Evan Davies, his old pill-box companion. Davies commissions Donald to write that book they’d talked about: a book about the English from a Scotsman’s point of view. Davies quickly warns Donald that there are two things you much never rag the English about: cricket and Lord Nelson. Davies is delighted to hear that Donald will soon be playing on a cricket team.
In order to gather material for his book, Donald begins visiting the taverns frequented by Mr. Hodge’s poets. He learns that one can’t order a half-pint of bitter, that it’s impossible to order mashed carrots after 11, and that not everyone claiming to be French is actually French.
Donald travels with Mr. Hodge and his circle of poets to a weekend retreat at a county manor, and is constantly bewildered by English politics and customs. He comes home with a notebook full of observations, but is no closer to understanding the English.
In Chapter VII, Donald Cameron plays his first cricket match. It’s an amateur match between the loosely formed team from London and the village team of Fordenden. Mr. Hodge’s London team cares more about grabbing a pint in the Three Horseshoes tavern than about being on a cricket field. Many fouls and mishaps occur, including a last-minute addition of an American who momentarily forgets that he’s playing cricket, and plays baseball. Both teams play with more enthusiasm than skill. At the end of the match, both teams celebrate together in the Three Horseshoes, and Donald has no material for his book.
In his quest for the true English character, Donald Cameron plays a round of gentleman’s golf. He takes an assignment as a private secretary for a Conservative member of Parliament. He attends football matches and the theater. He tries his hand at local politics. He goes on holiday. He travels to rural England, and to the city. He accumulates volumes of notes.
But, can Donald Cameron ever write his book? Can he ever find the essence of what it means to be English?
England, Their England is a work of satire, similar in style to Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, and the series of Rupert Psmith books by P.G. Wodehouse. I’m sure that a lot of the British satire when over my head, but it made me laugh. (I especially loved the commentary on English theater.)
Wikipedia says: “The village cricket match is the most celebrated episode in the novel, and a reason cited for its enduring appeal.” For some reason, I was expecting the cricket match to be a larger part of the story. In that sense, I was disappointed that this book wasn’t a closer fit for the category. Still, the story does involve a sport (I’m not counting the round of golf), and I had spent a lot of time reading the book, so I decided to keep it for the category.
Despite the small amount of cricket, I enjoyed England, Their England a lot. It was a delight to read.
Why I chose this book:
Reading Psmith in the City for the 2017 Reading Challenge sparked my curiosity about the sport of cricket. So, when the 2018 Reading Challenge came along, with the category “A book about or involving a sport”, I decided I’d extend my curiosity by reading a book involving cricket. Another book in the “Psmith” series was an obvious choice, but I wanted to go for a less obvious choices.
After internet searches turned up several biographies of famous cricket players (not what I looking for), I found England, Their England. The Seattle Public Library didn’t have it, and neither did Project Gutenberg. (I hadn’t, at that point, acquired a King County Library card.) I then discovered a public domain eBook site named Faded Page that did, so I downloaded it from there.