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Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context by Elliott Milstein

This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of Wooster Sauce, the journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

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Wodehouse’s Anti-Semitism in Context

by Elliott Milstein

In searching the internet for reactions to the recent news regarding Westminster Abbey’s plans to dedicate a memorial to P. G. Wodehouse, one of the netizens of PGWNet uncovered an article by Benjamin Ivry in the October 18, 2018, edition of Forward whose title really says it all: “How Lovely P.G. Wodehouse Was – Such a Shame About the Anti-Semitism.”

To put this publication in context, the online journal Forward began life in 1897 as the Yiddish language daily paper Der Forvart, dedicated to the advent of worldwide socialism. Today it remains both Jewish and decidedly left-wing.

As we know, socialists, even in Wodehouse’s time – let alone today, as their numbers dwindle – were not particularly fond of him, partly because of his parodies of them and their cause, and partly because he was seen as advocating for the leisured class. So we should keep in mind that Mr Ivry and his ilk likely come to Wodehouse already thinking him not so “lovely”, despite his use of the word in the title. Ivry even tangentially refers to Wodehouse’s efforts to reduce his tax burden, a gratuitous comment that is clearly an attempt to prejudice his leftward-leaning readership, as such actions would be particularly repugnant to any good socialist.

That being said, there are specific accusations made in the article that deserve an objective response, regardless of its author’s prejudice. In doing so, we need to examine those arguments not only in themselves but also within the context of the extraordinarily complicated and nuanced concept of “anti-Semitism” itself.

There are those who aver that all anti-Semitism is the same. Like some of the aggrieved women of the #MeToo movement who equate any salacious remark with rape, there are many Jews who see anyone who says they’ve been “jewed” at the local greengrocer as a Nazi. I personally do not see these issues in pure black and white, but rather on a continuum. Indeed, the majority of scholars on the subject divide anti-Semitism into two categories, frequently labeled “radical” and “genteel”.

Radical anti-Semites are true Jew haters: those who see Jews as enemies, Christ killers, members of a global cabal bent on world domination, who sacrifice gentile children and drink their blood (if you are unfamiliar with the infamous “blood libel”, I assure you this is not an exaggeration). Such people see Jews as deserving not only of persecution but annihilation.

The more genteel variety are those who merely indulge in Jewish stereotypes: the hard-nosed and even corrupt businessman – greedy, grubbing, cheap, excessively uxorious, vaguely obnoxious; people who look funny, dress funny, and talk funny; what Margalit Fox, in her excellent book Conan Doyle for the Defence refers to as “the Other”. They would be abhorred at the idea of persecuting or harming Jews in any way, but they’d rather avoid them, if they can, preferring to associate with PLU (“people like us”). They are not above making a nasty crack from time to time, but more in the way of a witticism than a true expression of grievance, much as such a one may callously mock a person with a lisp or physical deformity.

Ivry makes no specific distinction on the continuum but, based on his arguments, seems to see Wodehouse in both lights, though perhaps more genteel than radical. His arguments fall into three categories: the wartime broadcasts, evidence from his writings, and his private reflections and personal letters.

I will not take the time here to rehash the broadcast arguments and counter-arguments. I will assume that the Sauce readership is fully familiar with this canard and its refutations. Suffice it to say that anyone who believes, as Ivry clearly does, that Wodehouse made these broadcasts out of sympathy with the Nazi cause would certainly believe him to be a radical anti-Semite, but he would just as certainly be wrong. Let us leave this entire subject in the dustbin of history where it belongs and look at the arguments from his writings.

To begin, we must remember that genteel anti-Semitism was so infused in Victorian and Edwardian society that it was virtually everywhere. Perhaps the most notorious example of an anti-Semitic character of the time was Dickens’s Fagin from Oliver Twist. But Dickens himself never saw it as such. When challenged by a Jewish acquaintance, Eliza Davis, for perpetrating this “great wrong” against her people, Dickens protested that he had “no feeling towards Jews but a friendly one”. When asked why he made such a point of making Fagin Jewish, his long reply could be summed up as “literary convention”. In fact, after this exchange, Dickens felt so bad about Fagin that he deliberately made the Jew Riah in his next book, Our Mutual Friend, a remarkably good and sympathetic character. Davis responded by presenting Dickens with a Hebrew-English Bible inscribed, in part, with thanks for “atoning for an injury as soon as being conscious of having inflicted it”. (Our Mutual Friend, Penguin Books, note on page 820 by editor, Adrian Poole)

When I was working on my Wodehouse thesis back in 1976, I was deeply fortunate to have as my adviser J. M. Cameron, a British professor of the old school, recently retired and transplanted from his position as Chair of Philosophy at the University of Leeds to my school, St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. This article does not give me ample space to fully describe this wonderful man, but he was, for one of his time and upbringing, extraordinarily dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism of all kinds. He told me that after Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), he vowed he would never let even the most innocent anti-Semitic comment made in his presence go unchallenged.

One day as I was discussing my research before I even began writing the paper, he asked me if I had seen any anti-Semitic references in Wodehouse’s writing. I told him I had not. He replied, “He would be quite unique for that period if there were none. Look for them. I am sure you will find them.” And, of course, put on the scent like that, I did. Because, after all, as Prof. Cameron pointed out to me later, virtually every British writer of the time did. The question for us today – post-Kristallnacht, post-Holocaust – is whether, like Henry James, George Orwell, Graham Greene, H. G. Wells, etc., they fell into the genteel category; or, like T. S. Eliot, H. Rider Haggard, Sapper, John Buchan, etc., into the more virulent radical kind; or, like Dorothy L. Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, etc., somewhere on the continuum.

In Wodehouse’s early books and stories, there are several (no more than four or five, I believe) references to “Jews” as such. The most memorable for me was in Money for Nothing, when John Carroll, in order to distract Pat Wyvern during an especially embarrassing moment in a night club, remarks: “That man . . . looks like a Jewish black beetle.” A gratuitous remark, until one realizes that the character referred to is a “Mr A. Baerman”, the name of the Jewish literary agent who stole Wodehouse’s copyright to Love Among the Chickens. So this quick comment was really just Wodehouse getting a little of his own back at this admittedly nasty man.

But Ivry ignores all of these references (probably he is unaware of them, as they are so few and far between) and, indeed, eschews the more well-known examples of the Jewish money lenders disguised as Scotsmen in Leave It to Psmith; Ukridge’s nefarious partner, Isaac O’Brien, in ‘The Exit of Battling Billson’; or the obnoxious behaviour of the Cohen Brothers in ‘The Ordeal of Oswald Mulliner’. And truly, all of this is pretty mild stuff. I bring it up merely to point out that, as Owen Dudley Edwards states in his book P. G. Wodehouse, “Wodehouse for the most part showed himself far above the magazines where he learned his craft, and even here his shortcomings, while cheap, have nothing of the smooth venom apparent in many of his fellow-writers’ comments on ‘Hebrews’.”

Ivry instead concentrates his ire on Wodehouse’s portrayal of the Hollywood magnates Jacob Z. Schnellenhamer, Isadore Fishbein, and Ben Zizzbaum. There is no doubt that the names chosen are deliberately Jewish-sounding and the characters themselves are far from sympathetic. But it remains that there is no commentary by Wodehouse in the stories on any aspect of their Jewishness, nor are any of the stereotypical attributes played upon. Most likely, these movie executives are given Jewish names for the simple reason that movie magnates in the 1930s were, in fact, predominantly Jewish, something Wodehouse knew firsthand, and it would have been odd if he hadn’t given these characters Jewish names. This is hardly evidence of an anti-Semitic attitude.

It is also important to note that, post-Holocaust, even these mild references to Jews disappear entirely. The character of Ivor Llewelyn – introduced as “Ikey” in The Luck of the Bodkins (1935), making fun of him adopting a false Welsh name – comes back in the 1970s in two books as a much more sympathetic figure, and his Welshness is legitimized with a reference to a Welsh school marm in his childhood, removing even the tiny trace of Jewishness with which he was created. Thus, in a way it can be said that Wodehouse, too, atoned for an injury when he became conscious of having inflicted it.

When asked why the word “Jew” had been removed from later editions of Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train, Graham Greene responded that “after the Holocaust one couldn’t use the word Jew in the loose way one used it before the war. . . . [T]he casual references to Jews [are] a sign of those times when one regarded the word Jew as almost a synonym for capitalist.” In other words, seen through the magnifying lens of the Holocaust, earlier ‘genteel’ anti-Semitism grows to look more like the ‘radical’ version, when clearly that was never the author’s intent. Even the unworldly Wodehouse saw the truth of this and reacted similarly.

The final argument Ivry makes is that Wodehouse’s anti-Semitic attitudes can be gleaned by his references to Jews in his private letters. These are potentially more damning because they reflect Wodehouse the man, not the writer, as speaker and are therefore more likely to reflect his true feelings. Also, many of the examples are post-Holocaust.

The first example Ivry gives, however, is from Hollywood before the war, claiming that Brian Taves notes that “some of Wodehouse’s fellow screenwriters suspected him of being anti-Semitic”. He supports this by citing Philip Dunne, whom even Ivry notes was “left-wing”; Dunne “believed Wodehouse’s ‘hatred’ for members of the SWG [Screen Writers Guild] . . . was an anti-Semitic matter.” The truth behind this story, which is available in full in Brian Taves’s excellent book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood, is that Wodehouse was being heavily recruited by Dunne to leave the mainstream, extant Screen Playwrights union for the new, socialist SWG, but Wodehouse refused, even showing the other union Dunne’s recruitment letters. Dunne never forgave him and perpetrated this scandal in retaliation.

According to Taves, Dunne was the only screenwriter to accuse Wodehouse of anti-Semitism, not “some of [his] fellow screenwriters”. Here, it seems, Ivry’s prejudice takes the form of deliberate deception to perpetrate what he must have known was a falsehood.

The same is true of Ivry’s use of his later letters. Without rehashing each example, I will say that the only thing damning about the references, when one looks at them closely, is that Wodehouse refers to several Jewish people as “Jews”. Now, one can question why – when complaining, for instance, about how “repulsive” Groucho Marx had become in the 1950s (a perfectly reasonable complaint, I’m sad to say) – he had to describe him as a “middle-aged Jew” rather than a “middle-aged man”, but as Groucho’s Jewishness always was quite manifest, it is hardly significant evidence of an anti-Semitic remark, but more as a colorful descriptor.

The fact is that context is everything. In my own family, when discussing where to dine out, one family member will sometimes turn down a choice of restaurant as having “too many Jews”. Clearly an anti-Semitic remark, right? In actuality, we all know that what she means is that she prefers going somewhere where we are unlikely to run into a lot of people we know. It is a remark made in private to people who know exactly what she means, but, taken out of context and made public, it sounds awful. We must remember that the true context of Wodehouse’s letters to friends and family cannot be fully known.

Here, finally, is the most outrageous example from Ivry’s article, in which context is deliberately hidden. He quotes the following from a letter to Bill Townend dated January 15, 1949: “A curious thing about American books these days is that so many of them are Jewish propaganda. Notice in [Norman Mailer’s] ‘The Naked and the Dead’ how the only decent character is Goldstein. [Irwin Shaw’s] ‘The Young Lions’ is the same. It is a curious trend. The Jews have suddenly become terrifically vocal. Did you see that picture, ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’?”

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? But then read the passage that Ivry leaves out, which immediately follows: “I am wondering if that book of yours about Jews might not do well over here. If you will send me a script, I will see what I can do with it.” (Thanks to Sophie Ratcliffe [P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, p.427] for making this research possible!)

So, what out of context looks like a complaint about the sudden vocalness and pushiness of Jews, is, in context, a prelude to Wodehouse’s offer to promote Townend’s book about Jews. This is hardly the action of an anti-Semite.

When I see examples of people in the early 21st century judging people over a hundred years ago by today’s standards, I always reflect that the young people of the 22nd century are just as likely to feel the same about me because I eat meat or have supported my local zoo, or committed some other future solecism I cannot even imagine. Attitudes and mores change over time, thank goodness. Context is everything.

P. G. Wodehouse was, by all accounts, a mild, kindly, and benign man, but he was a man of his time. It is natural that his attitudes toward the Jewish people were influenced by that, and such attitudes would manifest. But within context, and especially in comparison to his contemporaries, he still remains, in my estimation, a mild, kindly, and benign man, and our post-Holocaust sense of what constitutes anti-Semitism simply does not apply here.

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My thanks to Elliott Milstein for his permission to share this piece at Plumtopia.

HP

P.G. Wodehouse Reference Guide for Political Commentary

The name P.G. Wodehouse is seeing a resurgence in the somewhat unlikely arena of online political commentary, particularly in Britain.  This puts some people — those who’ve never read any Wodehouse, but seem determined to lug him into the row — at a disadvantage.

So I’ve put together this handy reference guide to help anyone wanting to avoid making an ass of themselves when referencing Wodehouse and his characters.

code-of-the-woostersBertie Wooster

Bertie is an affable young man with sufficient inherited wealth to live comfortably in a rented flat in London’s Berkley Square and keep a manservant. He has plenty of money, although he owns no property. Bertie is content with his situation in life. He takes no interest in politics and makes no effort to increase his wealth, besides an occasional flutter at the races. He is one of the Drones Club’s richer members.

Here is what Bertie Wooster has to say about politicians:

‘Have you ever met a Cabinet Minister? I know dozens, and not one of them wouldn’t be grossly overpaid at thirty shillings a week.’

(Joy in the Morning)

And

‘There are bigger fatheads than Stilton among our legislators — dozens of them. They would probably shove him in the Cabinet.’

(Joy in the Morning)

Here’s Bertie objecting to the fascist Black Shorts leader Roderick Spode:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

(The Code of the Woosters)

And here he is, responding to a question from the socialist Comrade Rowbotham:

‘Do you yearn for the Revolution?’

‘Well, I don’t know that I exactly yearn. I mean to say, as far as I can make out, the whole nub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don’t mind owning I’m not frightfully keen on the idea.’

(The Inimitable Jeeves)

Bertie is not without his faults — he’s a fathead by his own admission, and is easily manipulated into acting against his own better judgement. But those people presenting him as some sort of alt-right poster-boy have got the wrong man.

Sir Roderick Spode

Wodehouse’s amateur dictator Roderick Spode, as described in The Code of Woosters, bears a strong resemblance to Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists (the Blackshirts).

Don’t you ever read the papers? Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.’

‘Well, I’m blowed!’ I was astounded at my keenness of perception. The moment I had set eyes on Spode, if you remember, I had said to myself ‘What ho! A Dictator!’ and a Dictator he had proved to be. I couldn’t have made a better shot, if I had been one of those detectives who see a chap walking along the street and deduce that he is a retired manufacturer of poppet valves named Robinson with rheumatism in one arm, living at Clapham.

‘Well, I’m dashed! I thought he was something of that sort. That chin…Those eyes…And, for the matter of that, that moustache. By the way, when you say ‘shorts’, you mean ‘shirts’, of course.’

‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’

‘Footer bags, you mean?’

‘Yes.’

‘How perfectly foul.’

(The Code of the Woosters)

Astute observers have been drawing comparisons between Spode and our own aspiring dictators for some years now.

Gussie Fink-Nottle  

There is no evidence in the literature that Gussie Fink-Nottle, admittedly an ass in other respects, took part in political life — or indeed any life at all.

This Gussie, then, was a fish-faced pal of mine who, on reaching man’s estate, had buried himself in the country and devoted himself entirely to the study of newts, keeping the little chaps in a glass tank and observing their habits with a sedulous eye. A confirmed recluse you would have called him, if you had happened to know the word, and you would have been right.

(The Code of the Woosters)

Some people have likened this fictional newt-fancier to the Conservative Member of Parliament for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg. There may be a superficial piscine resemblance between these bespectacled exhibits, but comparing the Honourable Member to one of Wodehouse’s more harmless creations is arguably letting the fish off the hook.

Comrades Butt and Waller 

Wodehouse takes gentle aim at the left too. When Bertie invites the Heralds of the Red Dawn to tea, Comrade Butt shoves down the foodstuffs without any gratitude towards his host.

‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’

‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’

‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’

Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.

(The Inimitable Jeeves)

In this example, Comrade Waller (much like our modern left) is apt to create division within his own audience.

‘…the speaker, branching off from the main subject of Socialism, began to touch on temperance. There was no particular reason why Mr Waller should have introduced the subject of temperance, except that he happened to be an enthusiast. He linked it on to his remarks on Socialism by attributing the lethargy of the masses to their fondness for alcohol; and the crowd, which had been inclined rather to pat itself on the back during the assaults on Rank and Property, finding itself assailed in its turn, resented it. They were there to listen to speakers telling them that they were the finest fellows on earth, not pointing out their little failings to them.

(Psmith in the City)

Alexander Charles “Oofy” Prosser

If you’re looking for an example of idle wealth and privilege in Wodehouse’s world, try “Oofy” (that’s slang for wealthy) Prosser. As a beneficiary of the Prossers Pep Pills family fortune and the Drones Club’s only millionaire, Oofy is much sought after by less pecunious club members for small loans. Their appeals always fail because Oofy would rather swindle his pals out of a few bob than part with the stuff.

When Oofy discovers Freddie Widgeon has drawn his gargantuan Uncle Horace in the ‘Fat Uncles sweepstake’, he tricks Freddie into exchanging tickets.

…the thought that Freddie Widgeon and not he would win all that lovely money was like a dagger in Oofy’s bosom. We said earlier that he did not need the cash, but it was we who said it, not Oofy. His views on the matter were sharply divergent. Whenever there was cash around, he wanted to get it. It was well said of him at the Drones that despite his revolting wealth he would always willingly walk ten miles in tight boots to pick up twopence. Many put the figure even lower.

The Fat of the Land (A Few Quick Ones)

When lunching at the expense of Bingo Little, Oofy gorges himself with brutal disregard for the bill, although Bingo’s financial difficulties are well-known to him.

It is not too much to say that from the very outset he ate like a starving python. The light, casual way in which he spoke to the head waiter about hot-house grapes and asparagus froze Bingo to the marrow. And when—from force of habit, no doubt—he called for the wine list and ordered a nice, dry champagne, it began to look to Bingo as if the bill for this binge was going to resemble something submitted to Congress by President Roosevelt in aid of the American Farmer.

All’s Well With Bingo (Eggs, Beans and Crumpets)

Sir Jasper Addleton O.B.E and the British Aristocracy

And why stop at honest wealth and privilege when Wodehouse gives us many examples of excesses gained through more unscrupulous means? Like financier, Sir Jasper Addleton, O.B.E., who encounters the detective Adrian Mulliner at a dinner party.

The O.B.E., as he followed him into the cool night air, seemed surprised and a little uneasy. He had noticed Adrian scrutinizing him closely across the dinner table, and if there is one thing a financier who has just put out a prospectus of a gold mine dislikes, it is to be scrutinized closely.

The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)

At dinner Sir Jasper is merely uneasy. By port and cigars, he’s planning a hasty departure for South America.

And the rot doesn’t stop with O.B.E.s according to Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘reluctant though one may be to admit it, the entire British aristocracy is seamed and honeycombed with immorality. I venture to assert that, if you took a pin and jabbed it down anywhere in the pages of Debrett’s Peerage, you would find it piercing the name of someone who was going about the place with a conscience as tender as a sunburned neck.

The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)

Lord Tilbury (“Stinker” Pyke)

If you have some strongly worded remarks to make about a media mogul (and let’s face it, who doesn’t) the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company is a fine example of this species. He interferes in editorial matters and is not above breaking the law to get his hands on some juicy material.

The Tilbury of whom mention has been made from time to time in this chronicle… should more properly have been alluded to as Lord Tilbury, for it was several years now since a gracious sovereign, as a reward for flooding Great Britain with some of the most repellent daily, weekly and monthly periodicals seen around since Caxton’s invention of the printing press, had bestowed on him a Barony.

(Frozen Assets)

He can call himself Lord Tilbury as much as he likes, but we’ll always think of him as Stinker Pyke, thanks to Galahad Threepwood. (Whatever you do, don’t Tweet that – he’d hate it to be widely known).

Soapy Molloy and American politics

The swindler Soapy Molloy, a recurring character in Wodehouse’s novels, is frequently compared to an American Senator.

Mr. Molloy looked like a Senator clearing himself of the trumped-up charges of a foul and corrupt opposition.

(Money In The Bank)

And again:

Chimp Twist was looking like a monkey that had bitten into a bad nut, and Soapy Molloy like an American Senator who has received an anonymous telegram saying, “All is discovered. Fly at once.”

(Money for Nothing)

P.G. Wodehouse first visited New York in 1904 and lived there, on and off between 1909 and his death in 1975. He was a great observer of American culture and there is much in Wodehouse’s writing to offer the modern political observer.

“The only way,” I said to Alexander, “of really finding out a man’s true character is to play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself. I employed a lawyer for years, until one day I saw him kick his ball out of a heel-mark. I removed my business from his charge next morning. He has not yet run off with any trust-funds, but there is a nasty gleam in his eye, and I am convinced that it is only a question of time.

Ordeal By Golf (The Clicking of Cuthbert)

Here’s one of my favourites:

Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.

(Summer Moonshine)

There are many more quotes — I’m just getting warmed up — but in the interests of time and space, I’ll finish with a word of caution.

If you look long enough with sufficient determination through Wodehouse’s prodigious output, you will find quotes to support almost any opinion. As I said in 2016, the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are usually the ones we bring to it ourselves. It’s hardly surprising to find Wodehouse is still so beloved today — on the left, the right, and everything in between.

Happy quoting!

HP

On this day 1960: P.G. Wodehouse didn’t turn 80.

p-g-_wodehouse2c_1930
PG Wodehouse (1930)

P.G Wodehouse was born on 15 October 1881, in Guildford, England.

It’s a fact you’re probably aware of already, as the social media machine churns out OTD (On This Day) tributes in an attempt to generate content to the masses. This doesn’t bother me per se. I like social media, I like history, and there are worse things we could be tweeting about. But today’s small flurry of activity marking the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s birth has drawn my attention to some unfortunate inaccuracies and misconceptions about the man, his life and his work.

Poor old Plum had to cope with a fair amount of misconception and inaccuracy during his own lifetime. In 1960, Wodehouse’s publishers whipped up a flurry of activity to commemorate Wodehouse’s 80th birthday. As Geoffrey T. Hellman, who was induced to interview Wodehouse for The New Yorker, reported.

“Congratulations on being about to be eighty,” we said.

“Save them,” Mr. Wodehouse said. “I’m going to be seventy-nine.

 The New Yorker, October 1960

Just like the well intentioned folks at Simon & Schuster (circa 1960) not everything written about Wodehouse online ‘adds up’.

Yes, dash it all, I am referring to Wodehouse’s wartime controversy! There’s really no excuse for misrepresenting the facts. A summary of the events and transcripts of the humourous broadcasts Wodehouse made from Berlin (after his release from a Nazi internment camp) are available from the PG Wodehouse Society (UK) website. Much has been written about this episode in Wodehouse’s life — try Robert McCrum’s biography, Wodehouse: A Life or Wodehouse at War by Iain Sproat.

It would be unseemly for me to rant about ‘fake news’ at greater length on what should be a happy occasion — the 136th anniversary of Wodehouse’s birth. I plan to spend the remains of the day re-reading Uncle Fred in the Springtime. Uncle Fred always calms the nerves and soothes the soul.

There was a tender expression on his handsome face as he made his way up the stairs. What a pleasure it was, he was feeling, to be able to scatter sweetness and light.’

Uncle Fred in the Springtime 

It was a feeling Wodehouse must have known well, having given so much joy to his readers.

Thank you, P.G. Wodehouse!

HP

Do Not Hate In The Plural

An excellent piece from Nourishncherish, who is always sound on Wodehouse.

Enjoy!

HP

Nourish-n-Cherish

I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living. He is one of my favorite authors, and after every few books that makes me mope around the world pondering on the wretchedness and seriousness of life, I turn to a P.G.W book to remind myself that tomfoolery is a virtue to be exalted and celebrated. His turn of phrase, his romping joy, is enough to set me straight.

When I read his autobiography ‘Over Seventy’ a few years ago, I could see that the septuagenarian viewed his own life pretty much the same way he came across in his writing: Sunny and delightful. In his own words, he…

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On this day: George Orwell, who wrote in Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, was born (1903)

Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ). [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Orwell was born on this day 1903.

Best known as the author of dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’.

The background to this story has been covered in much detail elsewhere.*

Before the start of the Second World War, P.G. Wodehouse was living in France. When the German Army invaded, he was among those captured and interned — in a succession of prison camps, from Belgium to Upper Silesia. He continued to write throughout his internment, and read his light-hearted camp diary aloud for the amusement of his fellow internees.

The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye.

We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.

(Wodehouse’s Second Berlin Broadcast)

Wodehouse was released in June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, and deposited at the Albion hotel in Berlin. While staying there, he met an old acquaintance, Werner Plack, whom he’d known during his stint as a writer in Hollywood. It was Plack who encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts to fans in America (which had not yet entered the war) about his recent experience.

It seemed like a good idea to Wodehouse at the time. The talks made light of his experiences, in keeping with the British tradition of humour in the face of adversity.

Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.

At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long weekend.

(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)

Few people in Britain ever heard the broadcasts, but the ferocious public condemnation that followed was sufficient to convince many people that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser and traitor.

After the war, MI5 and British Foreign Office officials investigated the matter and agreed that Wodehouse had no case to answer. One British Foreign Office official noted:

I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that ‘L’affaire Wodehouse’ was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.

Sadly, the facts surrounding the broadcasts and findings of the MI5 investigation were never made public during Wodehouse’s lifetime, and even today some people find it difficult to shake their mistaken ideas about Wodehouse, or to report the matter with accuracy.

Writing in 1946, Orwell was certainly unaware of the full facts, and he had not heard or seen a transcript of the broadcasts. He unwittingly relies on misrepresented accounts of Wodehouse’s experience. For example, Orwell refers to “German officers in the neighbourhood frequently ‘dropping in for a bath or a party’” in the period immediately before Wodehouse’s internment.

With the full transcripts available to us, we can read Wodehouse’s remarks in context and understand there was no such party:

One’s reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternise and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is “Es ist schönes Wetter”, I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.

I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys. It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards

(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)

Orwell may have been misled on some of the details, and I don’t agree with all of the points he makes, but his analysis demonstrates a sound knowledge of Wodehouse’s work, along with Orwell’s usual political astuteness.

In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later – and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery – is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats – police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers – are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse – just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed.

George Orwell: In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse

The following references / further reading are highly recommended to anyone wishing to better understand this chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s life.

*Summary of the wartime controversy and full transcripts of the broadcasts

Wodehouse At War by Ian Sproat (1981)

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum (2004)

Honoria

PG Wodehouse 1958 interview

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PG Wodehouse (1930)

PG Wodehouse

First broadcast: 26 October 1958

Starting with footage of PG Wodehouse at home in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, this interview shows the author at his genial and self-deprecating best. Wodehouse cheerfully discusses his long writing career, his eschewal of ‘serious’ fiction and the lack of sex in his books.

via BBC One – Monitor, 26/10/1958, PG Wodehouse

What Ho!

During a recent rummage through the BBC website for a dash of Wodehouse related light-relief, I happened across this interview with the author himself. It also includes footage of Wodehouse at home on Long Island. In the interview, Wodehouse answers questions about the Berlin Broadcasts, and the absence of sex in his stories.

These remain topics of interest and speculation among Wodehouse readers today, so it’s well worth listening to Wodehouse’s own thoughts on the subject.

Happy viewing!

HP

The Code of the Woosters: PG Wodehouse’s guide to fighting fascism (The Guardian)

This article by Sam Jordison appeared online at The Guardian today: The Code of the Woosters: PG Wodehouse’s guide to fighting fascism | Books | The Guardian

In many respects it’s a welcome move in the right direction, away from the usual misinformation and conjecture about Wodehouse’s wartime experience. Sam Jordison is right to point out that Wodehouse made fun of the British fascist Oswald Mosley in The Code of the Woosters (1938):

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

The fascist Spode is a superbly ridiculous character, and many modern readers (self included) derive immeasurable satisfaction from seeing him trounced by Bertie. But Jordison’s fascism-fighting message (as Noel Bushnell points out) claims Wodehouse for one cause against another.

Wodehouse didn’t restrict himself to ridiculous fascists. He was a far more egalitarian writer who also created ludicrous Communists, crooked Conservatives, loathsome peers, and grotesque Captains of Industry. Wodehouse’s treatment of these characters – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them equally ridiculous (and ripe for picking as character sources).

The message Jordison takes from The Code of the Woosters is:

‘the best and most effective ways of beating fascists: you stand up to them and you point out exactly how ridiculous they are.’

Sadly, if humour were really ‘the best and most effective way of beating fascists’ and other ridiculous extremists, the battle would have been won long ago; Private Eye would be Britain’s leading newspaper, and Wodehouse’s Berlin Broadcasts (misrepresented by detractors, regretted by supporters) would be lauded as part of this effort. But don’t take my word for it — read them yourself and make up your own mind.  

HP

Remembering Percy Jeeves

jeeves plaque.jpg

Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves. More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.

It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.

 

PJRemembered

 

Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.

For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.

For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:

But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.

Arunabha Sengupta, Malcolm Marshall: Nuclear warhead in the West Indian pace arsenal CricketCountry, April 18, 2013 

To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm that it was almost leisurely.

He just sort of shimmered in.

Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.

This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour  as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.

SirECwithshovel.jpg
Tree planting from Left to Right: PG Wodehouse Society Chairman Ms Hilary Bruce, Tim Andrew,  Keith Mellard (Percy Jeeves’ great-nephew), and Sir Edward Cazalet (Wodehouse’s grandson) with shovel

The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is  easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.

Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.

My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time.  Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.

More on cricket 
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .

For anyone wishing to continue their cricket education, or simply relive memories of a golden age, I offer the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. In the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.

‘Do cricket trousers matter?’ you may ask.

I think we know Jeeves’ answer to that one.

HP

Wodehouse misremembered

9780333687420Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom

In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. Happily for me, Bloom also chooses some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie) to illustrate his points.

Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature, once the lower classes were no longer illiterate. He exposes ‘literary fiction’ as little more than snobbery, suggesting that serious literature is made purposefully unfathomable and dire to ensure it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite.

As Bloom says:

No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.

It was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in snobbery adds to the pleasure of snubbing pretentious ‘must read lists’, in favour of just reading what I enjoy. And for the same reasons, I now feel guilty for having looked down on romance fiction and ‘chick-lit’. Bloom shows (whether he intended to or not) that disparaging these genres is effectively  disparaging working and middle-class women. I have vowed to do this no longer.

As you can see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting upon, but there was a fly in the ointment. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a precis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does great disservice to the author – and is no credit to Bloom either.

There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released*. Apologies to long-time readers and fans for reviving the matter again here, but I think it’s worth reiterating once more: repeated researchers and biographers have found, as did MI5, that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.

Wodehouse was living in France at the outbreak of WWII, and spent part of the war in a German prison camp. After his release, he was approached by a former Hollywood acquaintance to record some humorous broadcasts to America.   There was nothing pro-German in the content of the broadcasts, which gently mocked the Nazis in the same comic style for which Wodehouse is so admired. The broadcasts were also in keeping with a British tradition for humour in the face of adversity, exemplified during the previous war by The Wipers Times (which was well received in Britain).

Few people in Britain heard the broadcasts. The denunciation of Wodehouse that followed was an orchestrated response, led by The Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (pen name ‘Cassandra’). The British public, who hadn’t heard the broadcasts for themselves, accepted ‘Cassandra’ at his word. Wodehouse’s error was in broadcasting humour from Germany at such a time. His supporters, like Orwell, have suggested Wodehouse was politically naive. He was certainly not a Nazi. Before the war, Wodehouse famously lampooned influential British fascist Oswald Mosley, in the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938). Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts’:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

Wodehouse’s anti-fascist credentials stand up to scrutiny far better than the newspaper responsible for denouncing him. The Daily Mirror had actively supported Mosely’s Blackshirts under Lord Rothermere, who counted Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. The paper was presumably disinclined to write columns of scathing bile about itself, and the Wodehouse story must have seemed like a gift.

When Wodehouse made the broadcasts, he had just been released from a long period of internment where he had been isolated from the events of the war. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. Wodehouse intended no harm in broadcasting, and was no harm was caused – apart from the lasting damage to his own reputation.

Under such circumstances it has been easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved when we encounter examples which perpetuate mistaken beliefs that Wodehouse was in any way connected with Nazis or their ideology. It was disappointing to find in Bloom’s otherwise excellent book.

Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important that we continue to put the record straight.

*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.

HP

The Wipers Times (and Wodehouse?)

In my earlier piece, ‘Suffering from Cheerfulness’, I suggested that Wodehouse’s infamous radio broadcasts should be considered as part of a wider tradition of British humour in the face of adversity, particularly during wartime. My inspiration for writing was a volume of selected pieces from The Wipers Times. So I was delighted to discover another piece on this subject at the excellent blog: ‘Great War Fiction’. This one considers the possible influence of Wodehouse on the Wipers Times.

HP

Great War Fiction

Next week on BBC TV there’s a promising-looking film about The Wipers Times. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are the authors.

It will tell the story of how they found a printing press under the blasted ramparts of Ypres, and put it to use to create a very witty paper.  I Like Newman’s comments on the aim of the film:

I imagine viewers might be expecting to see a tragic tale of lives lost in a futile war, and we’ve had a lot of films like that and some of them are very, very good. But this is another side to this story of the First World War, and I think it’s a particularly British thing that we tend to laugh in adversity and this is about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. It shows how a group of men managed to survive the First World War…

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