The novel is written with wry humour and with Dickensian names which lightly disguise the real people Jacob had known. It contains many amusing incidents, such as his account of losing his virginity to a bored married woman ("Madame Bovary"). It also introduces some original reflections, ranging from how easy it is for an Englishman with the right accent to seduce American girls, to an analogy between his great-great-uncle General John Jacob and the spirit of Marxist revolution.
The opening chapter "Post Bellum Omne Animal Triste" describes the author travelling home to England after the war in the company of "Harrington Square" the railway shunter's son who had risen to the top strata of the Foreign Service. Jacob expresses great nostalgia for an England which he saw becoming swamped in mediocrity, typified by the ribbon development of the 1930s.
Jacob's father was Harold Fenton Jacob of the Indian Civil Service, sometime Political Agent in Aden, but was not so rich as his status might have suggested. Jacob describes his family as having devoted itself selflessly to serving the church and the Empire and regrets the displacement of an old order by the nouveaux riches who have dedicated themselves to the greedy pursuit of money. This resentment showed early when young Jacob, given a place at his prep school on reduced fees, associated with the sons of families much better off than his own.
He failed to achieve his educational potential and became a provincial journalist in the West of England. During this time the charming young man was chased successfully and unsuccessfully by older women, but tiring of this life moved to London where he lived a bohemian life in Chelsea. An interesting range of characters and liaisons crossed the screen before he met Miranda the officer's wife whose marriage had been doomed before it started. Jacob briefly saw British fascist Oswald Mosely's New Party, as a hope for putting England to rights, but quickly realised that the remedy was worse than the disease. Instead, concerned at the hunger marches and unemployment of the 1930s he saw his position as a gentlemen proletariat leading him to socialism.
English snobbery, which seems to foreigners at once ludicrous and pathetic, is in reality a mighty force which adroitly handled, could be turned to revolutionary ends. There are many ways to socialism; the snob’s way may be the English way. The American worker is ambitious to own the factory he works in. The English worker desires to become a gentleman who, only incidentally owns the factory. Once let him feel that such ownership is incompatible with the status of gentleman, and factory-owning would cease to be a respectable occupation. For though the word gentleman does not exist in French, and is rarely used in the American language, it is with us a master-word which unlocks many a closed English cupboard. Immemorial usage has given it an almost mystical quality. Woe to him who debases its sovereign gravity in the coinage of English words. The English do not really love a lord. What they love is the principle that originally lay behind ennoblement. This was to impose a standard above that of mere wealth by rewarding outstanding services to the crown, which preceded the nation-state as the unifier in men’s lives, by admission to the orders of chivalry. It is foolish in foreigners to sneer at the Englishman for loving titles when this reveals a reverence for something higher than money. In practice robber-barons may have become viscounts, knavish viscounts earls, and so upwards, but the process only became finally ridiculous when it was extended beyond the owners of acres and peasant “souls” to the owners of pieces of machinery and shafts of coal. At this point the Englishman, seeing chivalric values being debased, clung to one standard that he felt still rang true – what was, and was not done by a gentleman. And more often than not his definition of gentleman was one who “puts more into life than he takes out of it”. Which comes very close to the quality which Lenin required from the knightly missionaries of his Communist Society.”
Posted to Washington, he admired F. D. Roosevelt, but he regarded Americans in general with a mixture of fascination and distaste, particularly in the light of aggressive capitalism. The rise of the United States, displacing the British Empire as a world power, mortified him. Being at the centre of power at the time, he presents an interesting analysis of attitudes leading up to the war.
“Then there’s really no hope of getting American weight on to our side of the scale until the shooting actually starts?” “Probably not,” said Harrington, crushing his Melba toast into a handful of dust. A little man with a yellow complexion and wearing inexpensive, steel-rimmed glasses came and sat down at our table. “Our young friend here,” he said indicating me, “is a regular fire-eater. Most Englishmen here give the impression that Hitler is just a vulgar fellow but he really seems to feel that he’s a s----.” And out came a raw, four-letter word. “I get the impression” said Harrington, “that many Americans hate Hitler more than we do because they have fixed hatred as the limit of their responsibility in the matter, Whereas we shall have to both hate him and fight him.” “You are right,” said the little man, sliding off towards an adjoining table. “But do be sure, whatever war you get into, that it is really the right one.” Harrington asked me who the man was. “Constantine Oumansky, the Soviet Ambassador”.
His war reporting culminates in the USSR, where after watching the Battle of Stalingrad he spent time in Moscow meeting an interesting range of characters, particularly women. What impressed him was the raw spirit of commitment and involvement which he saw in Soviet Russia and the way this influenced the arts. He compared this with the stay-at-home intellectuals he knew in England, people with comfortable jobs in the BBC and the Ministry of Information who carried on writing as if there was no war. He particularly targeted Cyril Connolly, another pupil at his old prep school, St Cyprian's writing in The Unquiet Grave under the name Palinurus.
Jacob's final chapter "England our cow" laments the feeble socialism of the post war Labour government and the missed opportunity of Britain holding the balance of power between Russia and America rather than submission of British interests to the United States. It concludes with an empty bottle of gin.