BY the early 1930s, in what would later be regarded as the golden age of the genre, AG Macdonell had established a solid reputation as writer of detective stories, but unlike his contemporaries in that field, he had lived through the First World War.

He was also known as a broadcaster and worked as drama critic for the London Mercury. In a conversation with the editor of that journal, he was given the age-old counsel to write from observation. It is not always the most helpful advice, since observation has to be filtered through a writer’s selective vision, instincts and aesthetics. Be that as it may, in 1933 Macdonell produced the last of his detective novels, The Shakespeare Murders. He then changed tack completely.

In his next book, England, Their England, the standpoint of the protagonist is crucial. Irony was not for Macdonell merely a literary device but the core element which fashioned his observation. It was never better employed than in this work, a quizzical look at their England by someone who regards himself as an outsider. The satire, generally delivered to the mild mood music of Gilbert and Sullivan and only occasionally with the savage indignation of a Jonathan Swift, is an expression of the protagonist’s general bafflement and bemusement at the odd ways of the people he is studying.

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This episodic novel deserves to be known as one of the great comic books in English, or at least the first half does, since there is a softening of approach somewhere in the middle as the author submits to the charm of a poetic “Old England” and adopts a more lyrical, even mystical, tone. His hero is a cultural foreigner striving, not always successfully, to adopt the position of a stranger in a land whose ways are curious.

READ MORE: AG Macdonell: The all-but forgotten Scots fiction writer

There is something about him of Montesquieu’s Persian observer of the French in the 18th century, but while the Persian examines cultural and philosophical beliefs, Donald Cameron looks at the daily life, mainly of the upper classes, at their sports and entertainments, at their social and sexual relationships and in general at what distinguishes them from other peoples, especially the Scots. The English emerge as charming but odd.

The origin of the events described in the novel is, Macdonell assures his readers, an event which actually occurred, an encounter between a Welshman, Evan Davies and a Scotsman, Donald Cameron, in 1917, “upon the slopes of Passchendaele Ridge, about 200 yards east of the Steenbeck river”, where there stood “a pill-box so large, and with walls so thick, it served as headquarters for two adjoining battalions”.

Their conversation opens the book but Macdonnell offers an assurance that this will be no “war book”, nor one written in “streams of consciousness, pages long, in the best style of Bloomsbury”.

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AG Macdonell

After the war, Cameron wants a job which will allow him to express his talents as a writer, but makes no progress until he remembers that Davies was a publisher. The two meet and Davies commissions Cameron to write a book on “England as seen through the eyes of a Scotsman”. He warns him there are two subjects on which ridicule will not be tolerated by Englishmen – cricket and Lord Nelson. The reference to Nelson is unexplained and the hero unridiculed, but cricket is subjected to humorous examination in one of the most extended comic passages in the English language. Cameron is called into a squad of assorted journalists, poets, academics and upper-class idlers whom he had met in a pub and who are due to face a village team.

After a journey dotted with peculiar incidents, Cameron is “enchanted at his first sight of rural England, and rural England is the real England”. Macdonnell indulges himself with a Wordsworthian description of the village and countryside, but the idyll ends when the first ball is bowled.

He switches to a Wodehousian style to list the runs scored, the wickets falling and the eccentricities of batsmen and wicketkeepers and reaches a comic crescendo with the misfortunes of one Shakespeare Pollock, an American journalist, who manages to strike the ball, only to throw down his bat and “set off in the direction of cover-point”. His explanation that he thought he was playing baseball does nothing to humour his team-mates, but entertains readers.

As part of his research programme into English ways, Cameron attends a weekend party at a country house attended by a group of oddities from the worlds of politics, finance, the military and landed interests, not to mention a lady novelist, an ex-trade union leader turned Labour MP and the “remarkable beauty of Esmeralda D’Avenant”, an actress adored by millions.

A series of hoax phone calls to the butler from one of his pub acquaintances leads her to take Cameron for a movie magnate, while other calls cause him to be identified as a famous footballer or an international arms dealer. His caricatures of these people and others he meets on golf courses and at dinners are evidence of a shrewd eye, but Macdonell avoids outright malice, except when his thoughts return to the war and profiteers.

As he continues his travels to accumulate experience, he finds himself increasingly attracted by a beguiling England of the sort George Orwell relished, and Macdonell, too, indulges in lush prose and sentimentality to portray an eternal land of gentle ways. “You’re such a friendly race,” Cameron tells the genial landowner, Mr Fielding, who lives in a house called The Golden Hind, and who behaves with charity and generosity to any of his tenants who have fallen on hard times.

Cameron chats to farming folk in a pub, an institution intrinsic to English life, and finds them too disgusted by the war and hears them scoff at notions of national honour. “Forty-two men were killed from this village, and they’d be men of thirty-five and forty now,” one says.

The prose becomes dream-like as Cameron explains to Fielding that “you’ve been here such a long time. You’re settled and cosy,” and adds that if some of the people in the pub had told him “about their experiences in Crecy or Poitiers, I’d have believed them … We haven’t anything like that in Scotland,” he concludes.

The final chapter is a mystical epiphany where the protagonist, plainly a self-portrait, returns to Winchester where the author had attended the public school. There is a benign quality to these pages as Cameron recalls “the happy days spent there in youth,” delights in the antiquity of his alma mater which was founded before Eton or Harrow, and glories in the school motto – Manners Makyth Man – precisely because it could never be used as a chant or as an after-dinner toast given by wealthy louts.

As he lies in the meadows, these reminiscences give way to a vision of an enduring England, with armies of peasant soldiers with improvised weapons marching in the clouds followed by an anarchic procession of poets making their disorderly way towards no set goal. Macdonell has, it appears, surrendered to the celestial glow of an imaginary England.

This attitude may have persuaded a publisher to invite Macdonell to contribute a work on Scotland to a series on the nations of the UK, but if so he must have been disconcerted at the book submitted, My Scotland (1937). In it, the author gives free expression to a visceral feeling of Scottishness which has none of the detached irony of the earlier work, but explodes with the ferocious fervour of wounded nationalism.

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This idiosyncratic, polemical history of Scotland’s woes is “an attempt to write down what I think about my native country.” Macdonell explains that “it has suffered in the past, and is suffering now, from too much England”. The prose is exhilarating, even if the analysis is eccentric and the substance frequently exasperating. He sees Scotland as divided between the Gael and what he terms the Cymric Scot, and his sympathies are with the latter, since “in the very years in which a fierce and burning patriotism was being kindled in the Lowlands, a cold isolation and parochialism was spreading through the glens.”

Moving back in history, he identifies the crucial date in the relations between the two nations as 1292, “the date on which Edward the First, King of England, examined the rival claims of the pretenders to the throne of Scotland and decided in favour of John Baliol [sic].”

All other important events, Bannockburn, Flodden, Pinkie, the accession of James the Sixth to the English throne, the Union of Parliaments, the 1745 are “all subsidiary to, and dependent on, the year in which Balliol was handed the crown of Kenneth MacAlpine by a Frenchman from London”. From this perspective, Macdonell examines the central events of Scottish history. “At first the new Reforming ideas were coldly received, not because they were Reforming, but because they came from England.”

The industrial revolution, “in its beastliness and monstrosity,” also came from England. He writes of two legends – that the English Empire was British and that the British Empire was Scots, and that the point of the second falsehood was to suppress in Scotland “any feeling of humiliation at being governed by another country.”

His conclusion is that there can “never be a partnership on equal terms between a small partner and an overwhelmingly strong one”.

The Highlander “has abandoned the fight and gone away,” so it is left to the Lowlander “who somewhere deep down in his soul still possesses his patriotism … he still has the power to make Scotland a nation again.”

If England was theirs, the Scotland of Macdonell’s imagination was unquestionably his. Maybe it is time for Scotland to make him ours.