Books: A book that changed me

BARRY TOOK on A G Mcdonell's `England, Their England'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? In 1944 when I was 16. I found it staggering that someone could write both amusingly and historically accurately. Mcdonell writes from the point of view of a Scotsman coming to England after the First World War as a freelance journalist. He tells the story of the social scene in England at that time.

Why did it strike you so much? I left school at 15, a voracious reader but barely educated due to the war and ill-health, so I had to learn by going to the public library. It was the most riveting and exciting book - ironic and mildly satirical and very funny. Have you re-read it? I've re-read it on a regular basis - every two or three years I get it off the shelf and read it again because even today it rings true. It tells you so much about the English character. I love the book and know it almost by heart. The more I re-read it the more I know about that period. He tackles everything: the attitude towards golf and golfers, big business, politics, the country house weekend, the cricket match, Fleet Street, the attitude of the British towards sport. Everything in the pattern of life at that time is covered from the point of view of a young man coming down from Scotland and being entranced by these weird people - the English. He's got us dead right. Even as a young man I saw that, and as I grew older, it's become more and more important to me to recognise our national quirks. I could see that there was enormous pleasure to be had not only reading humorous things but to be humorous. I hadn't thought of earning my living through comedy but it lightened my life in 1944, when London was being systematically bombed by the Nazis. They were tough times but through it all there was always laughter, and way the English coped so well reinforced the message in the book - which is that the English are peculiar but they are really poets. It's well written, its very amusing and it has terrific warmth in it as well.

Would you recommend it? Of course. It's very evocative of the English. If you're not English you can read it and say "A-ha, that's what they're like". But it's not nasty about them - he chides them gently, he's amused by them.

Barry Took's `Round the Horne: The Complete and Utter History' is published by the BBC at pounds 8.99