WHAT determines nationality, not in terms of citizenship but in the deeper, more personal sense of identity and felt allegiance to the history, culture and language of a country? To what extent is it a choice?

It is not a question most people are required to pose, since they inherit by osmosis the cultural as well as political citizenship of the nation where they were born, educated, live and work.Yet the issue was complicated for people born furth of Scotland in the days of the Empire on which the sun never set, until it did, and it might be so again in a European future which is being snatched away by Brexit.

It is put in a stark and intriguing form by the case of AG Macdonell (1895-1941), the writer Scotland has forgotten or remembers only hazily as the author of one novel, England, Their England (1933). The very title is sufficient to suggest that the author views England as a land not his, and himself as an outsider, but the status Macdonell attributes to himself is somewhat puzzling and illustrates a wider dilemma. If for him England was “theirs”, what made Scotland his? Although he was a prominent figure in his own day, biographical material is not easy to come by. His papers are in the University of Austin, Texas, and in an irony he would have appreciated, the full range of his works is kept available not by a Scottish publisher but by a small English house, Fonthill, based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, below the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills. They deserve credit for their dedication. Macdonell’s contemporaries, such as Compton Mackenzie or Eric Linklater, have not been so fortunate.

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Each of the tidy volumes published by Fonthill has a bright, period image on the cover and is prefaced by a few biographical lines culled from the Dictionary of National Biography as well as a sometimes puzzled paragraph or two as introduction to the work in question.

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Macdonell lived a full life, was active in many sectors and draws on his own life for the substantial body of literary work he produced. He was born in Poona in the days of the Raj. His father hailed from Dufftown in Speyside and was a merchant in Mumbai when Macdonnell was born, but the family left India one year later. Young Archibald Gordon spent his childhood alternating between the family home near Bridge of Don, and the home of the other side of his family in Middlesex.

For his education, he was sent first to preparatory school in England before going to Winchester College. He seems to have been happy there, and fond episodes in some novels are set in that cathedral city.

He could have become an Anglified Scotsman of a sort he derides, and wrote wistfully that he should have gone on to be a student at Magdalen College, but that future was taken away from him by the Great War, as it was called. He enrolled in 1916 in the 51st Highland Division, and experienced to the full the horrors of trench warfare in Flanders.

Macdonell was invalided back to Britain in 1918, suffering from what today would be diagnosed as PTSD. This was the decisive, even formative, experience of his life. He never wrote any account of life at the front to compare with Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That (1929), but references to those days recur repeatedly in his fiction, particularly in Autobiography of a Cad (1939) where his talents as a satirist are given free reign. His scorn and detestation for the officer class who dined well away from the trenches and for financiers and businessmen back home who got rich and fat on the suffering of the men in Flanders is coruscating. It is expressed not only in that novel, Macdonell appears to have made a full recovery and lived the rest of his life in England. He married twice, the first marriage being dissolved on the grounds of his adultery. He initially worked abroad on humanitarian projects in Russia and Poland, but then served for five years in the League of Nations. His devotion to the ideal embodied in the League, which he saw as the guarantee of peace, was total and unwavering. He was twice a Liberal candidate for Parliament, experiences which, like his time in Geneva with the League, make their way into his fiction.

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Macdonell made his debut with detective stories and Buchanesque “shockers” which appeared under pseudonyms. There were three novels in 1928, including The Factory on the Cliff, a work which is (too) reminiscent of

The Thirty-Nine Steps, with a setting not in Galloway but in Aberdeenshire, featuring a group of seeming scoundrels who are in fact crusaders intent on wiping out evil leaders by the somewhat desperate device of germ warfare.

The Silent Murders (1929), a splendidly imagined, labyrinthine but gripping detective story, has an investigator from Dunbartonshire unravel the mystery of apparently unrelated murders in the English countryside. In all Macdonell’s fiction, irrespective of the setting, there are Scotticisms, scenes in Scotland or stray characters who are Scots-born.

He had at least two light comedies in the style of Noel Coward staged in the West End, worked as a drama critic and wrote a volume of short stories, a study of Napoleon’s generals as well as several novels which deserve to be rescued from oblivion. He was not, in other words, one of Scotland’s galaxy of one-novel wonders but a prolific writer, producing 11 books between 1933 and 1941, the period to which his most memorable work belongs.

His fiction in this period shows a man who began to despair of the darkening international scene with the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Lords and Masters (1936) is a satirical portrayal of London’s smart set which recalls Evelyn Waugh, but is also a denunciation of international corruption in business and sounds a cautionary note about upper-class dalliance with fascism and Nazism.

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The Hanson family live on the wealth accumulated by James Hanson from his villainous dealings in the European state of Cimbria. His money allows him to purchase a seat in Westminster for his son Robert, while his daughter Veronica, plainly modelled on Unity Mitford, flaunts herself as a Hitler worshipper. Other characters include Sir Montagu Anderton-Mawle, who has made his money by unscrupulous dealings in one war and is prepared for another. He will back any force which opposes Bolshevism and protects him against any threat to his property.

Macdonell is a comic writer with a flair for pithy dialogue and a knack for the creation of caricature characters who somehow manage to be credible human beings. Although, at his best, his comic scenes are the equal of anything in PG Wodehouse, he is a humorist in the deeper sense that his vision of life is askance and askew. There is a darkness beyond and beneath the laughter.

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Edward Percival Fox-Ingleby, the “cad” and anti-hero of Autobiography of a Cad, belongs to the minor landed aristocracy, is prosperous and idle and behaves abominably to his dependants and to women in general. This remarkable work should be of enormous interest in itself for the brio of style, the masterful plotting, the excellence of dialogue, and the depth of the author’s scorn for the class he portrays, but it will also be of interest to social historians, especially those concerned with what is now termed sexual politics.

Having seduced and abandoned actresses and women of the lower orders, Fox-Ingleby discovers to his delight that sometime around 1912 a “great social change” occurred, meaning that ladies of his own class were available for pre-marital sexual encounters.

This provides opportunities for “a handful of imaginative and sensitive adventurers” who discover to their delight “the possibility of a substitution on a large-scale of Belgravia in our clandestine beds for the Chorus”. The scales are turned on him by the woman who becomes his wife, and who resists his attempts to restrict her freedom.

All Macdonnell’s heroes rail against the power of women over them. Fox-Ingleby also behaves with dismissive callousness towards his own tenants, but is able to call on their semi-feudal loyalty when he stands, initially successfully, for Parliament, where his rise is unimpeded by belief in any principle deeper than a desire for personal advancement.

The last of his pre-war novels, Flight from a Lady (1939) a beguiling, pseudo-travelogue in an “aeroplane” (which he refuses to call “airplane”), is structured as a series of letters to a woman whom the unnamed hero had loved.

He takes flight after her refusal to grant him a privileged place among her many admirers and her serial displays of indifference towards him. Although imbued with a sense of dread over a cosmic disaster he sees as inevitable, the letters are in turn historical, showing the author as a classical scholar of wide learning, descriptive of various places in Europe and Asia, and ruminative as he looks back over his life. Macdonell’s heroes are often Don Juans, as was perhaps the man himself, and there is material here for disapproving feminist criticism.

In this work, as in Lords and Masters, the author looks back at his experiences in Geneva with the League of Nations: “The one good thing to come out of the slaughter, the one piece of sanity in the maelstrom”.

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The satirical outlook is often the reverse side of frustrated idealism, and Macdonell is merciless both with the long-winded futility of the endless round of meetings and, more bitterly, with those politicians who undermined the League: “What chance had we against cash and crooks? Idealism was duly nobbled. Our ideal of collective security has been smashed as if it was a web of thistledown at the slow mercy of that great black slug which we call in Scotland the horny-golloch.”

But Scotland itself would be in the background of his masterpiece, England, Their England (1933), and then in the foreground of My Scotland (1937), and we shall come back to these next week.