… has mislaid a book. I don’t think they are looking for it.
This is a post-WWII reprint of a novel written post-WWI, and might well have been chosen as bracing material for discouraged youths (and their instructors); it had status as a minor cult classic and enshrined a comforting, Scottish, absurd view of what Englishness might have been before the world changed so. In 2013 one needs to don the pink specs of wishful thinking, but once they are on this jeu d’esprit can still work.
Even in satirical moments, we know Macdonnell loves us really, and his affection flatters us. He shrugs with amused despair, rather than raging, when, to deal with severely shell-shocked veterans, the Army appoints an expert whose ‘only qualification … was an unrivalled knowledge of the drainage system of the insalubrious port of Leith’. He is bemused by those bizarre foreigners, the English, for example the fearsome horsey woman met in a small village, who ignores the narrator, Donald, and shoves him negligently into a hedge with her horse’s bottom: even while he is maddened by the rudeness, ‘Donald recognized her … as one of the nurses in a hospital near Hazebrouck. … One pouring wet night when the hospital … was being bombed … this hard-faced Diana carried out seven wounded officers from a burning ward into which the stretcher-bearers refused to go … to the accompaniment of a full orchestra of machine-guns … And on another she told the Matron what she thought of her.’ And then there are vignettes of a comical, louche and disingenuous London society – a more literary Wodehouse, or a gentler Waugh.
The most famous segment of the story, though, is the village cricket match, one of the classics of that genre in English literature. I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone who wins; but the account of the skied ball which ends the match is a pocket epic. And one can enjoy it with full conviction, highly-coloured though it is, since cricketing fact at any level is so often stranger, funnier and more dramatic than its fiction. (Consider that apotheosis of the game, the last day of the Second Test at Edgbaston in 2005 – I can feel my pulse starting to gallop even now.)
I’m off to look for other literary cricket matches: D. L. Sayers; Patrick O’Brian; Arthur Grimble; Hugh de Selincourt …