What is there to say about the war which has not been said already? Blunden, Remarque, Sassoon, Barbusse, Graves, Mottram and all the rest of them have described it ad nauseum.
A.G. Macdonell, The Autobiography of a Cad (1938)
A.G. Macdonell’s writing career was regrettably brief, covering just thirteen years prior to his sudden death at the age of just forty-five. But in that time he did manage to publish nineteen books, covering an impressive diversity of fields, from travel writing and a study of Napoleon and His Marshals through to detective fiction. And then, of course, there’s the book for which he’s best known, the comedy classic England, Their England. Of which, more later.
Archibald Graham Macdonell was born on 3 November 1895 in Poona, India. His father was a merchant and sometime president of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, and his mother was ‘a well-known Aberdeen lady collector and connoisseur’. The family returned home to Aberdeen while Archie was still a child, and he was educated at Horris Hill prep school in Hampshire and then at Winchester College.
From there, he was intending to go to Oxford, but he left school in 1914 and the outbreak of war disrupted his plans. In 1915, he joined up as a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery with the 1st Highland Brigade, serving two years before he was invalided out of the army with shellshock. The war was, unsurprisingly, a theme that ran through his work.
After the Armistice, he worked with the Society of Friends in East Poland, which had been devastated during the hostilities, and then on famine relief on the Volga. In 1922 he went to work at the League of Nations Union, a group based in London that predated the League itself and that was now proselytizing for the organization within the Empire. Macdonell was initially the private secretary to Professor Gilbert Murray, chairman of the union.
He was also involved in political campaigning at home, standing as the Liberal Party candidate in Lincoln in the general elections of 1923 and 1924. The seat had been Liberal until 1918, but winning it back it was a pretty hopeless prospect by this stage, and he was unsuccessful, coming third on both occasions.
Championing the League of Nations was obviously a key plank in his platform. He described the League’s charter as ‘a treaty of mutual guarantee’, and believed that the organization was the only way to transcend the rivalry that lay at the heart of international politics: ‘The whole world is in the shadow of the Franco-German quarrel.’
His domestic concerns were evident in a 1924 speech, in which he said that ‘there was much talk of co-operation between Conservatives and Liberals, but he was absolutely against anything of the kind. There was a tendency to say too much about the Socialist menace and forget the Conservative menace.’ If there was another grouping apart from the Liberals with whom he had sympathy, it was the nascent Scottish nationalist movement, though that did not yet have its own party.
Right now the key problem was unemployment, and the answer ‘was to spend as much as possible immediately. If they had to lose money, they might as well lose some more. If necessary there should be a loan to put the unemployed back into work.’ He also argued that:
Industrial trouble must be tackled by a broad comprehensive scheme of insurance for the worker against accident, sickness, unemployment, old age and death. The removal of suspicion between employers and employed could be brought about by a system of partnership in industry; he was in favour of making dividends a fixed charge and letting the rest go in wages.
Like the war, politics was another theme that ran through his later writing. And perhaps his third great subject was sport. He once said that ‘the Scot who lived in England must obey two rules: he must never disparage Nelson, and he must never make light of the team spirit’. That, however, was precisely what he did: team games are a frequent source of comedy in his books, while he himself was never much of a team player, preferring tennis and golf to cricket and football.
Despite the jokes, however, he took sport very seriously indeed:
The whole idea of the League of Nations is to keep the peace by making nations understand and respect each other, and the League has no more powerful agent in this great work than sport. Athletic encounters between nations do more to bring peoples together than all the work of the politicians put together.
By the mid-1920s Macdonell had become publicity secretary to the League of Nations Union, and articles under his name began to appear with increasing frequency in the press. He had also been writing theatre criticism for the London Mercury for some years. This seems to have decided him that other employment options were possible, and in 1927 he left the Union to pursue a living as a full-time writer. The fact that the previous year he had got married – to Mona Sabine Mann, sister of the artist Cathleen Mann, the Marchioness of Queensbury – may also have been a factor in his career change.
There was some freelance journalism in the next few years, but there was also a rapid series of novels, written under the pseudonym of Neil Gordon, starting with The Professor’s Poison (1928).
The story concerned a professor who – in the summary of one reviewer – ‘casually mentions that he has discovered a scentless and invisible gas, one whiff of which is fatal. Within a few hours he is besieged by all the secret services of the world and by a gang of desperate crooks.’ It turns into an action adventure piece that got some good notices: ‘It is highly amusing, and it contains as much racing and chasing of international rogues and Scotland Yard detectives as any agile-witted novel reader can wish for’.
It also sold moderately well, and Macdonell went for much the same pattern in his second novel, The Factory on the Cliff (also 1928). George Templeton, a young man who works for the Anglo-Siamese Corporation in London, is on a golfing holiday in a remote part of Scotland, when he notices the strange behaviour of the occupants of a clifftop farmhouse. He recruits some other young men – chaps who are also keen on injecting a bit of excitement into their lives – and the usual episodes of sleuthing, chasing and disguises follow, sometimes with the help of the police, sometimes in the teeth of their disapproval.
His writing at this stage is clearly under the influence of the great Scottish storyteller John Buchan, though the tone here is less serious. Mostly the adventures – even when characters are killed – are seen as little more than high larks. There’s also room for some of the jokes that were to become standard in Macdonell, such as the exaggerated hostility of Eton towards Harrow:
‘He’s an untrustworthy swine,’ he said. ‘He’d do anything for money, any mortal thing under the sun. Take my advice and don’t have anything to do with that fellow. Besides, he’s an old Harrovian.’
But while there’s a sense of fun about these tales, the secrets at the heart of the stories – as in Buchan – have the potential for terrifying levels of violence. In The Professor’s Poison it’s lethal gas; in The Factory on the Cliff our intrepid heroes discover that the farmhouse is being used to manufacture anthrax bombs. From a writer who served on the Western Front, the subject-matter is perhaps not unexpected, though the levity certainly is.
Equally unlikely is the way that the makers of these chemical and biological weapons are treated so sympathetically. In the first it’s that stock comic character, the absent-minded professor; in the second, it’s an old man whose political heart is seen to be in the right place – here he is running through some of his past exploits:
‘Do you remember the killing of Smirnov, the Governor of the Russian province of Vitolsk? He was an unjust Governor and he was blown to pieces by a bomb. I supplied that bomb. Do you remember Smith-Clayton? He was Commissioner of an Indian Reserve in the Middle West. Oil was found on the Indian lands. He introduced brandy and gin into the Reserve. Within a year he had bought the land from the survivors for a few cases of gin. The survivors mostly died of delirium tremens. Smith-Clayton was on the way to becoming a rich man. But he never became rich. I killed him. Just a few drops of strychnine.
‘Do you remember Oman Pasha who carried out the Armenian massacres? I shot him in 1911. Did you ever hear of the mysterious series of murders in the Congo rubber plantation in ninety-six? I flatter myself that I caused a certain amount of alarm and despondency on that coast in those years.’ His eyes gleamed with a mixture of savagery and humour.
‘The Putumayo atrocities were another case. The story of the fifteen overseers was a pretty one. They were found, fifteen of the worst men who ever oppressed a native population, at the foot of a cliff. All fifteen together. Eye-witnesses who found them said that they must have died horrible deaths. The eye-witnesses were right. They had.
‘It is one of my greatest regrets that I never have had the time to visit the slave traders of Abyssinia and the Red Sea. But I could not do everything single-handed. I could not be everywhere. I am getting old. Killing one tyrant here and another there is slow work. I haven’t time for it. The only thing to do is to kill them wholesale. That is why I have taken to germ-running. The germs will kill in thousands.’
He’s referred to in slightly mocking terms as ‘the Organizer of Liberty’, but there’s no doubt that Templeton and his comrades are mostly on the old man’s side, even if they disapprove of his methods. (It helps that he has a beautiful daughter.) So their mission becomes more complex: they have to stop him slaughtering those ‘thousands’, while keeping him out of the hands of the authorities, who might not take as lenient a view as do they.
These are fine, very readable yarns, with a lightness of touch that continued into Macdonell’s subsequent detective fiction, also published under the name of Neil Gordon: The Silent Murders (1929), which features Superintendent Bone and Inspector Dewar of Scotland Yard, and The Big Ben Alibi (1930), about two writers of detective novels who decide to stage a murder for themselves.
The problem with all this early work, though – from the viewpoint of a writer seeking to earn a living – is that they are stand-alone novels. Buchan had recurring characters with the likes of Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and – best of all – Edward Leithen, while the detective-writers from Edgar Allen Poe onwards had kept the same central figure, as had Sapper and his imitators. To really make a commercial impact, Macdonell needed a series on the model of, say, Bulldog Drummond or the Saint.
He did have Inspector Fleming, first seen in Seven Stabs (1929), but given how superb Macdonell normally was at creating characters, Fleming was a little bloodless. (And he was confusing, for Fleming went on to make an appearance in 1932’s Body Found Stabbed, issued under another pseudonym, John Cameron). Maybe Macdonell came to the same conclusion, because Murder in Earls Court (1931), while keeping Fleming, also introduced the character of Peter Kerrigan, who returned in The Shakespeare Murders (1933).
Both these latter are murder mysteries, but the protagonist is neither a police officer nor an amateur detective, but a criminal. ‘Raffles was a plaster-saint in comparison with Peter Kerrigan, whose speciality is the blackmailing of crooks,’ noted one reviewer, while The Shakespeare Murders fills in some of his history:
Peter Kerrigan was a young gentleman of about thirty-five who had lived by his wits since the early age of eleven. His father had been a good-looking, fascinating Irish waster, who had left Connemara for the good of Connemara late one night in a violent hurry, to the public annoyance and secret relief of the Royal Irish Constabulary which had always had a soft side for Terence Kerrigan. From Liverpool to Glasgow, and from Glasgow to New York, and from New York back to Hamburg, and from Hamburg to Petersburg, had been the outline of Terence Kerrigan’s travels, until in about 1892 he married a beautiful Latvian girl and settled down to live in the neighbourhood of the docks of Riga.
The result of the marriage was the one son, Peter, who played with the riff-raff of the waterside and learnt to swear fluently in twelve languages. Terence Kerrigan found vodka very much to his liking, and gradually discovered that he could live on a pennyworth of bread to an intolerable deal of it. His friends and acquaintances also discovered that vodka increased the natural fieriness of his Irish temper, and brawls became an everyday occurrence in the Irishman’s life.
Finally, when Peter was eleven years old, Terence and the beautiful Latvian Mrs. Kerrigan were both killed in a violent stabbing affray in a dockside tavern in Riga. For the next eight years the lad supported himself, in various ways – some legal, some dubious, and some unquestionably illegal.
There’s also an arch-villain, known only as the Duke, who escapes at the end of The Shakespeare Murders, presumably so that he can return again if this did turn out to be a series.
The plotting is no more implausible than was common in 1930s detective fiction and, although the action is full-on, there is again a jokey tone about proceedings. Kerrigan’s remarkable grasp of languages, for example, was a talent ‘evident even to British Major-Generals (and if a thing is evident to a British Major-General it is probable that it is evident to other people as well)’.
The success of the books relies, though, on Kerrigan himself: a wonderful, endearing rogue who’s endowed with cheek and a fearless nerve, but not with the sharpest intelligence. In his review of Murder in Earls Court, the critic of the Era suggested that it would be suitable for film adaptation, though there would be ‘the problem of placating a censorship which objects to references to the drug trade and to precise illustrations of crime’.
Kerrigan did indeed turn up in movies, though only in a couple of quota quickies: Albert Parker’s The Third Clue (1934) and H. Manning Haynes’s The Claydon Treasure Mystery (1938). Both drew on plotlines from The Shakespeare Murders, though the casts were different and Kerrigan was played by two actors: first, Robert Cochran, and then John Stuart (the latter was later to play one of the Elders of the Kryptonian Council in the 1978 version of Superman). Unfortunately, in the transition from the page to the screen, all of Kerrigan’s colourful backstory was lost, leaving him as a ‘light-hearted motor-engineer, who turns his attention to amateur sleuthing with considerable success’. Which isn’t anywhere near as much fun.
Maybe Kerrigan might have caught on, but Macdonell didn’t return to him. Because in 1933 he had a massive hit, and from then on, he moved away from genre fiction. John Squire, the editor of the London Mercury, liked Macdonell’s writing but believed that he was wasting his talent on these crime thrillers and should be aiming somewhat higher. The result of his persuasion was England, Their England.
It’s based on a simple premise: Donald Cameron is a Scot who was invalided out of the war and, scratching out a living as a freelance journalist, is commissioned by a Welshman to write a travel book trying to understand the nature of Englishness. On this thread is hung a series of episodes, mostly comic in nature, that touch on many of Macdonell’s interests, including class, sport, journalism and politics (including a fine League of Nations sequence).
The first book published under his own name, England, Their England was a critical success. ‘One of the most amusing satires it has ever been my luck to read,’ enthused James Agate in the Daily Express, while the Yorkshire Evening Post was only slightly more mixed in its praise: ‘Sometimes the note is farce, sometimes irony (very heavy, this) and sometimes sentiment. The book is uneven, but for sheer comedy nothing could be better than the picture of poets and literary blokes playing cricket.’
Pretty much all the reviews mentioned this scene of the village cricket match, which was acknowledged as an instant classic, and went on to enjoy extensive reprinting as a sketch in its own right.
The Scottish papers displayed, not unreasonably, a particular fascination with the book. ‘Through all the raillery and irony shines a genuine appreciation of the Englishman’s genius, a genius that overcomes all his shortcomings and finds him not wanting when the hour of action sounds,’ noted the Aberdeen Journal, while The Scotsman was bursting with patriotism: ‘Mr Macdonell preserves his good humour and he describes England with both insight and lively wit. Scotland need not feel anything but pride that a Scotsman has written it.’ The Dundee Courier, meanwhile, was particularly taken by the scenes set in Buchan in Aberdeenshire, which were ‘so peculiarly knowing that one wishes for more’. Given the book’s title, however, the fact that most of it is set south of the border should hardly have come as a great surprise.
It was a big seller – by April 1933 it was already in its fourth impression – and has remained in print ever since. And deservedly so, for the comedy is superb. This is a small example of the satire, drawing on Macdonell’s own Liberal politics and his dislike of the Tory and Labour parties alike:
After the ladies had left the table, the talk turned to politics. Donald listened attentively and wished that he could openly produce his note-book. For he knew that it was at just such week-end parties as this, and at just this precise moment when cigars and port and old brandy are going round, that the affairs of England are very largely settled. And here were four Members of Parliament, three Conservative, and a Coalition Socialist, pushing their chairs back, lighting their cigars, and sipping their brandies.
But the absence of the note-book did not matter very much, for, after all, nothing of importance was settled. The conversation ran on simple and unimpressive lines.
‘Well, Bob,’ began Sir Ethelred, ‘and when are we going to get a really decent tariff instead of this footling ten per cent?’
‘As soon as we’ve drowned all those poisonous Liberals,’ replied Mr Bloomer. ‘It won’t be so long now.’
‘Poisonous crew of traitors,’ said the Major-General, ‘I wish I’d had them in my company in the old days at Abbotabad!’
‘Do you think that this Free Trade stuff is lunacy or criminal?’ enquired Captain de Wilton-ffallow.
‘Definitely criminal,’ replied his senior officer. ‘They’re all in the pay of Moscow.’
‘I wouldn’t go so far as that,’ said Sir Ethelred, who was a kindly man. ‘I don’t think they actually accept money.’
‘Then what on earth is the explanation of it?’ asked the Captain.
‘Oh, I think it’s just a form of insanity,’ explained Sir Ethelred amiably. ‘You’ve got to be unhinged to argue that we gain anything by getting cheap wheat from Russia. A man who sees any sort of good in imports must be mad.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ said the Major-General gloomily. ‘I’d sooner have to deal with loonies than with traitors. But all the same, a man whose judgment I rely on, a sound man, mind you, told me that he knows for a fact that every Liberal candidate at the last election was sent a thousand roubles in gold to help with his expenses.’
‘Whew!’ the Captain whistled.
For me, though, the most powerful element of the book is the underlying presence of the legacy of the First World War. The story starts on the Western Front, but our narrator, gently mocking the clichés that have already sprung up, insists that this isn’t going to be a war novel:
From Chapter II to the end there will be no terrific descriptions of the effect of a chlorine-gas cloud upon a party of nuns in a bombarded nunnery, or pages and pages about the torturing remorse of the sensitive young subaltern who has broken his word to his father, the grey-haired old vicar, by spending a night with a mademoiselle from Armentières. There will be no streams of consciousness, chapters long, in the best style of Bloomsbury, describing minutely the sensations of a man who has been caught in a heavy-howitzer barrage while taking a nap in the local Mortuary.
Despite which, the effects of the war cannot be ignored. This is Donald in a country pub, having just asked why all the drinkers seem to be old men:
‘They don’t drink here nor anywhere else, the young chaps. They hardly drink at all.’
‘Why is that?’ asked Donald.
Mr. Stovold, the violinist, seemed to be the readiest with his tongue, for it was he who answered.
‘There’s several reasons for it, sir. For one thing, there isn’t the money about that there used to be; and then beer costs twice as much; and then there’s picture-houses and sharrabangs and motor-bicycles with girls sitting on behind. And then in this village the Boy Scouts are very strong, and lots of the young chaps are Rovers and don’t drink so as to be an example to the Scouts and the Cubs. And then, you see, there’s no one between them and old chaps like us.’
‘All the rest were killed, you mean?’
‘Most of them, sir. Forty-two were killed from this village and they’d be men of thirty-five and forty by now.’
‘Ah! That War didn’t do any of us any good,’ said Mr. Stillaway. ‘Nothing’s been the same since.’
‘Yes, and what did we gain by it?’ asked Mr. Young.
‘Nothing,’ said Mr. Davis.
It’s a simple but indelible image of the social impact made by the trenches – it has stuck with me since I first read it some forty years ago. And I think it undermines the book’s status as a work of comedy. There is humour here, as there is in all Macdonell’s work, there’s some riotously funny laugh-out-loud writing, but it’s part of a much wider portrait of a nation in disarray: the backdrop of the war colours even the cricket match, adding depth and pathos to this portrayal of a scene that has remained unchanged for decades.
Macdonell was never to repeat the commercial success of England, Their England, but subsequent books enjoyed better sales as a result of his new profile.
How Like an Angel (1934) – ‘an amazingly clever and funny skit on modern times’ – abandoned all pretence at realism, starting with a 1913 shipwreck that leaves three priests, one English, one German, one French, stranded on a South Seas island with a baby boy. The priests establish a settlement, ‘in the time-honoured fashion of Alexander Selkirk, Ben Gunn and that curiously named Robinson family from the Helvetian Republic’; they name the child Hugo Bechstein Smith, and they begin the process of educating him according to their – sometimes competing – lights.
As a young man, Hugo is rescued from this unusual upbringing by a ship and makes his way to London, having been mistaken en route for a British-born Hollywood film star. The remainder of the book laughs at the clubs, courts and institutions of England, as well as at the publicity machine of the movie industry. In effect, it’s a reprise of the stranger-in-a-strange-land satire of England, Their England, a slightly lesser companion-volume. It’s also a lighter book, the date of the shipwreck having ensured that the war happens off-stage, so that the only suggestion of the changes wrought by the conflict comes with the discrepancy between the image of England that Hugo was shown in childhood with the reality he encounters.
There are some fine jokes. At one point, our hero is persuaded that he must make a parachute jump from a plane flying over London, after which he will broadcast a talk on the BBC about how the capital looks from the air. It’s taken for granted that the text of this talk is already written before the jump, and that the BBC will want to check the text before broadcast. The following is an abridged account of the changes that a dandified flunky says the Corporation will be requiring:
‘The Director of Policy has asked me to communicate to you one or two changes he would like you to make in your “talk” of this morning. The Director wishes you to add, after the words “in the far distance the House of Commons,” the words “in which the National Government is so splendidly saving the country.” After “House of Lords,” he wishes you to say, “that sole bulwark of our constitution against Communism”.
‘The description of Whitehall can stand, except, of course, that for “the majestic pile of the India Office,” we have put in, “the majestic pile of the Office of the Board of Education.” We have to be very careful what we say about India in these days, and there’s a standing order that in every talk in which it is proposed to mention India, the Board of Education shall be substituted for it.
‘You can’t mention the brewery in Pimlico. The temperance people wouldn’t stand it for a moment, and the temperance people are particularly active with their postcards and their questions in the House.
‘Now for the additions. The Director of Policy would greatly appreciate a friendly reference to Lord Trenchard and his new police-college. In fact, I have myself drafted a little paragraph on the lines of “this crime-free metropolis … thanks to Lord T … can almost see the foundations of the great new college … public-school spirit.”
‘Then again, we feel that a complimentary allusion to the British United Fascisti would not be out of place. Something about the majestic outline of the Duke of York” School in the King’s Road, Chelsea, the headquarters of this splendid and virile movement, which stands, as everybody knows, for the maintenance of Law and Order and the freedom of the citizen.
‘The Director deprecates the emphasis which you propose to lay upon certain religious edifices, notably St Paul’s and the City Churches, and he wishes Woolwich Arsenal to be substituted for St Katherine Coleman, the site of the chemical factory at Silvertown for St Margaret Pattens, and the Naval College at Greenwich for St Magnus the Martyr.’
At the end of which, the BBC lackey adds one final requirement: Hugo needs to sign a pre-written letter to the Director General:
Dear Sir James
I wish to tell you – entirely voluntarily, of course – that the talk which I broadcasted today was not in any way altered or amended by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and there was no kind of censorship of what I wished to say.
During the mid-1930s, Macdonell was himself a regular broadcaster on BBC radio, as well as being a book reviewer for the Observer. He was also still contributing to the London Mercury, for whom he had written in 1931 a magisterial study of Noel Coward’s early plays:
Mr Coward’s plot is the contrast between brilliant cosmopolitanism and stodgy Anglo-Saxondom, his stand-by is infidelity, and his device of stagecraft is the bicker. Like Josef Israels, who alleged that he could paint pictures of a mother and child in his sleep, so Mr Coward could write scenes of abuse and invective on the subject of infidelity for days and nights on end.
And, for two years from 1935 he was the parliamentary sketch writer for the Manchester Guardian, before handing over to Francis Boyd. Macdonell’s advice to his successor was simple: ‘If they’re debating slagheaps, there’s no point in boring yourself to death by listening. Nip off to the library, and look up a concordance. Shakespeare’s sure to have had a word for them.’
The nature of sketch-writing means that it tends to be ephemeral, but Macdonell was good at it, with a world-weary dryness that suggests politicians are to be treated like children: to be indulged, patronized and occasionally corrected. Here are brief samples of three pieces, taken pretty much at random:
Mr [Duff] Cooper was left in possession of the field, an honour that would have been greater if it had been achieved in a less petulant and ungracious manner.
Sir Victor Warrender wound up for the government and replied to the questions in such a halting way that it came as a shock to realize that he had dealt with them all.
The House then went into committee on the Agriculture Bill. The ground, so to speak, has been ploughed over and over, backwards and forwards, but still members found something almost fresh to talk about.
The ‘almost’ in that third extract is perfect.
Macdonell left the Manchester Guardian in 1937, the same year that his marriage was dissolved on the grounds of his adultery. In 1940, he was to marry again, this time to Rose Paul-Schiff, an Austrian refugee from Nazism.
Despite his personal success, Macdonell seems to have become increasingly pessimistic in the second half of the 1930s. Certainly his fiction took a darker turn.
In 1936 there was Lords and Masters, a novel about arms dealers, of which The Observer wrote: ‘He is angry and explosive at heart. The irony is ruthless and colder than the happy humours of England, Their England and How Like an Angel.’ And two years later came The Autobiography of a Cad, which some – including Simon Hoggart, also a parliamentary sketch-writer for the Guardian – have claimed as his masterpiece. It is, wrote Hoggart in 2001, ‘as fresh as tomorrow’s front page. It is also, in my view, much funnier than England, Their England, though its cynical tone meant that it would never match the huge commercial success.’
I suspect that the idea for The Autobiography of a Cad came from Mary Dunn’s Lady Addle Remembers (1936), which Macdonell reviewed with great enthusiasm: ‘Miss Mary Dunn is a treasure – a neat, ironic, swift, bantering wit. It is not every week that such a one emerges, so let us praise her while we may.’
Not as well remembered as she should be, Lady Addle was a wonderful creation, a caricature of an aristocratic Victorian lady who recounted her life, entirely unaware of how utterly absurd, and sometimes how appalling, she and her family were. The sheer eccentricity of it all has hints of Vivian Stanshall or Peter Cook. This, for example, is Sir Ludovic FitzTartan: ‘His favourite hobbies were shooting bees – at which he became extremely proficient, though he never, I believe, actually hit one – and racing cockroaches.’
The Autobiography of a Cad follows the format of Dunn’s book: a fictional memoir of someone born into privilege and wealth, so utterly lacking in self-awareness that he cannot see the impression he’s creating on those he encounters, or on his readers. The difference is that where Lady Addle is as silly and useless as her name suggests, Macdonell’s anti-hero, Edward Fox-Ingleby, is a deeply disagreeable man.
He is unpleasant in his personal life, where he and his acquaintances express their feelings about marriage with the question: ‘Why buy a book you have already read?’ (The answer to which is: ‘To lend it to your friends, of course.’) And he is equally unpleasant in his public life, as he lies and cheats his way to become a Conservative MP:
I am, and have always been, a friend of the People, and a democrat of democrats, but that has never prevented me from detesting and execrating the People at the same time with all my heart…
We Tories fundamentally dislike the Trade Unions. Our appeal to the working man is not the appeal of the rascally demagogue on the soap-box or the blasphemous howl of the sergeant to his platoon, but rather the quiet, persuasive, condescending charm of the gentleman to his valet.
In his cowardice and his womanizing, he might be an unlovable precursor of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman; and in his brutal, sadistic arrogance and his inability to value anything but money, he’s a prototype of Thatcher-era satires, the role model for John Mortimer’s Leslie Titmuss, Terence Blacker’s Jonty Fixx, and Alan B’stard in the sitcom The New Statesman. This is the Cad as a government minister, planning the future of the City of London:
The redundant churches in the City were to be pulled down, with all the reverence due to Wren’s reputation and, of course, to the sacredness of the sites; the sites were to be reverently deconsecrated and sold to the banks and insurance companies, the financial stability of which is the cause of the eminence of London as the money centre of the world.
He invests in German munitions firms during the war (which he spends in a cushy office job back home); he bulldozes ancient woodlands on his estate to jerry-build overpriced and deliberately ugly housing; he blackmails a young doctor into performing abortions on the women he and his friends have got pregnant. In short, Fox-Ingleby has not a single redeeming feature. There is nothing even vaguely attractive about him, not even a misplaced sense of glamour.
The only good thing one can say of him is that occasionally – very occasionally – he has something insightful to say about the state of the world. This is from an extended passage about the difference between men and women, and describes men’s attitude towards religion:
We men think of the world as a place controlled, or at least supervised in a vaguely benevolent way, by an elderly man with a big beard who has only recently given up a nasty habit of popping out from behind rocks in the Eastern Mediterranean. We may not appear on the surface to give him a great deal of attention. From time to time, if there is no reasonable way out, and it is a really wet day, we attend a village church and sing some very odd songs in his praise.
And we can at least recognize the same attitude to Harrow displayed by every Macdonell character who went to Eton:
Probably the perfect administration would be one which was run by a couple of Old Etonians, manned by a permanent staff of Old Wykehamists, and with the floors swept and the inkpots filled by Old Harrovians.
But, compared to England, this is a one-note novel. And such a sustained portrait of unrelieved nastiness can be wearing. ‘While one laughs one also groans with distress that so great a scoundrel should go unpunished,’ said The Observer. ‘But Mr Macdonell never slackens. He is judge and jury and executioner in his own person; and he goes so far beyond amusement that some will find him excessively grim.’
Much the same conclusion was reached by The Times:
Had he been more of a man and less of a spectacular villain we might have wondered; had he been the plain operatic hound without that painstaking self-justification we might have laughed more than we do. As it is, Fox-Ingleby is too concentrated to be real and too nasty to be really comic.
There are some superb jokes, but the satire can be very blunt and often bleak. When the Cad is told that elderly tenants of his, who he’s forcibly evicted in winter, have died from pneumonia due a lack of shelter, he merely shrugs that ‘old people were better out of the way’.
The problem really is the length. In his review of Lady Addle Remembers, Macdonell concluded that he wanted more of the same: ‘next time let her book be longer.’ But there’s a reason why comedies that rely on narratives of dramatic irony tend to be short. Characters like the Grossmiths’ Charles Pooter, Barry Pain’s husband-of-Eliza, H.F. Ellis’s A.J. Wentworth – they all started in episodic form (all appeared in Punch, as it happens, where Lady Addle also went on to find a home). When collected, these pieces appeared in shortish books, even when they ran to several volumes. The Autobiography of a Cad is not unreasonably long – it’s around 250 pages – but it’s longer than it should be. As the Illustrated London News put it: ‘Up to a point he is amusing, but a little of Edward Fox-Ingleby goes a long way.’
Despite all of which, Simon Hoggart was still right: he’s a shockingly modern creation. And a truly monstrous one as well.
This sequence of books – England, Their England, How Like an Angel, Lords and Masters and The Autobiography of a Cad – gave Macdonell a very different literary reputation to the one he’d enjoyed in his early incarnation as Neil Gordon. But it’s not necessarily the one that would have remained had he lived longer. For his penultimate novel, Flight from a Lady (1939), was a very different beast.
A man is flying from London to the South Sea islands – and that’s about it. The whole novel is his thoughts and reflections as he flies, partly about the woman he’s left behind – hence the title – but also, and more powerfully, about things in general, often trains of thought spinning off from places through which he’s passing: a stop in Greece leads to a comparison between the ancient Spartans and the modern Germans. There is also his most explicit and enraged attack on the generals of the Great War, as it becomes apparent that another conflict is dawning.
It’s an odd book, pulling in several directions at once. As one reviewer described it: ‘Dazzling descriptions, fierce resentments, gaiety, irresponsibility and a wit from which the venom is never quite absent.’
And then, after the outbreak of war, came his last novel, The Crew of the Anaconda (1940), a spy thriller with secret service agents battling American gangsters who are in the pay of the Nazis. It introduced another charismatic roguish hero in the Irish-American Denis Halloran, not too far removed from Peter Kerrigan, who seems as though he really ought to return for further adventures. It ‘contains enough action, shooting and general thuggery to satisfy the most fastidious reader,’ said one reviewer; ‘a really first-class yarn of its kind,’ said another; ‘a bundle of excitements, written in the author’s ironical vein and with an air of verisimilitude which such stories do not always possess,’ added a third.
Macdonell was also writing satire for the stage by this point as well: some sketches for revues, but also a couple of his own plays: What Next Baby? or Shall I Go to Tanganyika (1938), ‘in which Hitler and Mussolini were portrayed as rival film stars’, and The Fur Coat.
The latter was staged in 1943, but it was a production Macdonell never got to see, for he had died of heart failure in his bath on 16 January 1941.
He left behind some magnificent work. Every book of his that I’ve read has been a rewarding experience; even in the early genre thrillers, he is never less than entertaining and his writing is beautifully light. What he might have gone on to achieve, who can say? He was only forty-five, only just reaching his maturity as a writer, and he had the kind of talent and style that would have aged well.
In that 1931 assessment of Noel Coward, Macdonell had concluded that, once he moved on from ‘his everlasting satire against modernity’, Coward might yet make something of himself as a dramatist:
The knowledge and the experience of the stage are his already; his, also, a nimble mind and inexhaustible energy and industry. If he turns his mind and his energy and his industry a little more to thought and study, and a good deal less to producing and lyric writing and song composing, he may yet live down his colossal success.
The same might have been said of Macdonell himself. He was the master of many trades, who perhaps needed in his middle years to narrow his focus if he was truly to realize his potential as one of the great writers of the century. Sadly, he never got the chance.
But there’s little point speculating. As he said of Mary Dunn, let us praise him while we may, and let’s celebrate what he gave us. The only place to end is with a passage from his best-known work. This is Donald Cameron visiting Archie Macdonell’s old school, Winchester:
He stopped a small, black-gowned boy, about twelve years of age, and asked politely: ‘Can you tell me, please, what that tree is?’
The boy took off his straw hat and replied with equal politeness: ‘That is Lord’s tree, sir.’
‘Lord’s tree?’ said Donald, also taking off his hat. ‘What is that?’
‘It is called that, sir, because only men in Lord’s are allowed to sit on the seat at the foot of it,’ explained the child.
‘I am sorry to appear stupid,’ Donald apologized, ‘but when you say “Men in Lord’s” do you refer to the Peers of the Realm?’
‘By no means,’ replied the infant. ‘Men in Lord’s are the men in the cricket eleven.’
‘Oh, I see. The cricket eleven is called Lord’s because they go to Lord’s to play cricket.’
‘No, sir. They don’t go to Lord’s.’
‘Then why are they called Lords?’ Donald was getting confused.
‘Because we used until quite recently to play at Lord’s against Eton.’
‘Ah! Now I begin to understand. Until a few years ago; how many years, by the way?’
‘About seventy or eighty, sir.’
Donald kept a firm grip upon himself, and tried to speak naturally as he answered: ‘Quite so. Just the other day. I see. And the boys in the cricket eleven…’
‘Men,’ interrupted the child firmly.
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘Men,’ repeated the child. ‘We are all men here. There are no boys.’
Donald, by now quite dizzy, bowed and thanked the man for his trouble.
‘It was a pleasure,’ replied the man, bowing courteously and removing his hat again and going on his way.
Donald, hat in hand, turned and watched him, and was immensely relieved to see the man halt after going a few yards, and extract a huge and sticky piece of toffee from his trouser-pocket, and cram it into his mouth.
The Professor’s Poison (1928)*
The Factory on the Cliff (1928, aka The New Gun Runners)*
Seven Stabs (1929)*
The Silent Murders (1929)*
The Big Ben Alibi (1930)*
Murder in Earls Court (1931)*
Body Found Stabbed (1932)**
The Shakespeare Murders (1933)*
England, Their England (1933)
Napoleon and His Marshalls (1934)
How Like an Angel (1934)
A Visit to America (1935)
Lords and Masters (1936)
My Scotland (1937)
The Autobiography of a Cad (1938)
What Next, Baby? or Shall I Go to Tanganyika (1939)
The Spanish Pistol, and Other Stories (1939)
Flight from an Angel (1939)
The Crew of the Anaconda (1940)
* first published under the name Neil Gordon
** first published under the name John Cameron
also available in the neglected novelists series: