In approximately 25 minutes, I will be heading off to explore P.G. Wodehouse locations in Shropshire, on route to the wedding of a Wodehouse lover called Bill. To mark the occasion, I’d like to share my favourite ‘Wodehouse’ poem — presented as the work of Lancelot Mulliner in ‘Came the Dawn’. I wanted this to be read at my own wedding, but the celebrant bucked.
DARKLING (A Threnody)
By L. BASSINGTON MULLINER
(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian)
Like a corpse’s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky:
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate;
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment ;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia.
Reginald, mark you, whose normal batting style was a sort of cross between hop-scotch, diabolo, and a man with gout in one leg trying to dance the Salomé Dance.
Reginald’s Record Knock
‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1909. When I encountered the story in Murray Hedgcock’s excellent collection Wodehouse at the Wicket (1997), it instantly struck a chord. You see, my first love, long before I discovered P.G. Wodehouse, was cricket. When I was young, my parents would drop me at the Adelaide Oval (they having no interest in the game) where I would spend the day watching cricket and keeping score in a little notebook. My greatest wish was to play professional cricket, but tragically, like Reginald Humby, I was an indifferent cricketer:
‘When a boy at school he once made nine not out in a house match, but after that he went all to pieces. His adult cricket career was on the one-match one-ball principle. Whether it was that Reginald hit too soon at them or did not hit soon enough, whether it was that his bat deviated from the dotted line which joined the two points A and B in the illustrated plate of the man making the forward stroke in the ‘Hints on Cricket’ book, or whether it was that each ball swerved both ways at once and broke a yard and a quarter, I do not know. Reginald rather favoured the last theory.’
Unlike Reginald, who we shall return to anon, my story is a painful one. As a young girl in 1970s Australia, finding an opportunity to play cricket was challenge enough. I joined the school team of course, but was never allowed to bat or bowl in the nets at practice. My duties were restricted to fetching wayward balls. My name was usually omitted when the weekly team notice was posted, although occasionally I was named 12th and my parents would drop me at some far-flung suburban ground to spend a day watching others play.
I was named in the first eleven once, when an outbreak of cholera or dengue fever gave the coach no other choice. He put me at the bottom of the batting order and sent me to field in the car park, where I could not adequately return the ball. To my lasting shame, I also dropped a catch. Wodehouse knew this feeling, which he described in the poem ‘Missed’:
Oh ne’er, if I live to a million,
Shall I feel such a terrible pang.
From the seats in the far-off pavilion
A loud yell of ecstasy rang.
By the handful my hair (which is auburn)
I tore with a wrench from my thatch,
And my heart was seared deep with a raw burn
At the thought that I’d foozled that catch.
Batting last, I made four not out in the last two desperate overs of our innings, but my poor showing in the field reinforced the coach’s prejudices and I was never picked again.
As a young woman, no longer dependent on the benevolence of adults, I worked hard to learn the game with the assistance of talented cricketing friends. When no friend was to hand, I spent hours alone in the local nets, bowling at an empty wicket. I played indoor cricket several times a week, wrote match reports for a newsletter, and enjoyed every opportunity for a social game. As a bowler, I developed a knack for ousting over-confident batsmen. Their faces would light up like a child’s at Christmas when I came on to bowl, for in addition to being a girl, I was also short, pudgy and wobble-breasted. The decent players would pretend not to have noticed, but more ordinary batsmen looked on me as their big chance – like Wodehouse’s Reginald when he discovers Blagdon is bowling.
The sight sent a thrill through Reginald. He had seen Blagdon bowl at the nets, but he had never dared to hope that he might bat against him in a match. Exigencies of space forbid a detailed description of Blagdon’s bowling. Suffice to say that it was a shade inferior as bowling to Reginald’s batting as batting.
And later, when Reginald faces Westaway:
Scarcely had Reginald recovered from the pleasurable shock of finding Blagdon bowling at one end when he was amazed to find that Westaway was bowling at the other. Critics had often wrangled warmly as to the comparative merits of Blagdon and Westaway as bowlers; some thought that Blagdon had it, others that Westaway was the more putrid of the two; a third party called it a dead heat.
The prospect of my bowling evoked similar joy in opposing batsmen. Even before my first ball, hitherto unpromising players would be seen scoping-out gaps in the field and practicing hook shots in the air. By the time I waddled up to release my ball (which I insisted was medium pace, however slow the act of delivery appeared) the batsman would have invariably run out of patience and danced up the pitch to meet the anticipated long-hop or full toss he had mentally prepared to score off. I was wise to this and never pitched short. The over-confident amateur would find himself stranded a long way from home with no time to make alternative plans for unexpected deliveries. Every wicket claimed felt like a great triumph.
In describing Reginald Humby’s emotions on the occasion of his unexpected century, Wodehouse shows us the depth of human feeling he was capable of bunging into his art.
The ordinary batsman, whose average always pans out at the end of the season between the twenties and the thirties, does not understand the whirl of mixed sensations which the really incompetent cricketer experiences on the rare occasions when he does notch a few. As ball follows ball, and he does not get out, a wild exhilaration surges through him, followed by a sort of awe as if he were doing something wrong, even irreligious. Then all these yeasty emotions subside, and are blended into one glorious sensation of grandeur and majesty, as of a giant among pygmies.
Buoyed by minor successes with the ball, I decided to join a cricket club, where I was permitted to carry the drinks and keep score for F Grade (or perhaps it was Q grade). It was a starting point, and the players welcomed me, a 19 year old girl with limited cricketing experience, more warmly than I expected. A little too warmly in fact. It became quickly and painfully clear that they did not take my interest in playing cricket seriously — I was considered something of a groupie, ‘hanging around’ the team presumably in order to bed them.
The team in question were arguably the most unattractive assortment of male specimens ever gathered together on a field; lecherous gout-ridden has-beens, beer swilling could-have-beens, and arrogant thought-they-weres. The only player whose personality would not make his own grandmother wince was the wicket-keeper, who was permanently stoned. Their collective lack of hygiene and inability to keep whites white (members opting instead for a shade of fungal yellow to match their teeth) would have repelled even the staunchest admirer. The idea that I would set my heart on bedding a team of cricketers is insulting; that I would then proceed to select this bunch of degenerates, is astonishing. And yet, this deluded idea they undoubtedly had.
Encountered on the field, they would have given Wodehouse’s Psmith, always sensitive to vulgarity, a shock from which he might not have recovered. As he confessed to Mike:
The last time I played in a village cricket team match I was caught at point by a man in braces. It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.
Mike and Psmith (1909)
If our team had contained a man in braces, it would have raised the tone considerably and helped draw the eye away from the fungal yellows.
It has now been over twenty years since I played the game and reading Wodehouse on cricket is the closest I get to capturing the enthusiasm I once held for it. Every so often I grow wistful and think about returning to the game, but if the chaps couldn’t accommodate me in my prime, they’re unlikely to indulge me in flabby middle-age. Women do play cricket these days – and good luck to them – but women’s cricket is highly competitive, for skilled and serious athletes. There is no tradition of laid-back social cricket, where women of advanced years and limited ability can combine their love for the game with a long lunch break and a few pints — like Reginald Humby’s club, The Hearty Lunchers.
They belong to the school of thought which holds that the beauty of cricket is that, above all other games, it offers such magnificent opportunities for a long drink and a smoke in the shade. The Hearty Lunchers do not take their cricket in that spirit of deadly and business-like earnest which so many people consider is spoiling the game.
A Hearty Luncher who has been given out caught at the wicket does not explain on arriving at the pavilion that he was nowhere near the ball, and that the umpire has had a personal grudge against him since boyhood. No, he sinks into a deck chair, removes his pads, and remarks that if anyone was thinking of buying him a stone ginger with the merest dash of gin in it, now is his time.
The Hearty Lunchers don’t mind that Reginald can’t bat, they make room for him anyway, giving ‘Reginald’s Record Knock’ a special place in my heart.
In a wonderful twist, Reginald’s betrothed Margaret Melville is also revealed as a cricket lover who plays in ladies matches. Wodehouse depicts her enthusiasm for the game as genuine, perfectly natural – even admirable. Nothing sordid or unseemly is suggested when we learn Margaret regularly attends the Chigley Heath matches, with a crowd ‘…mainly composed of small boys and octogenarians…’ The fact that Margaret plays in ladies matches also suggests the presence of other lady cricketers — some 17 years before England had a Women’s Cricket Association. Once again it’s worth observing that Wodehouse’s ‘treatment’ of women betters not only his contemporaries, but often our own.
While writing this piece has brought back some painful memories, Wodehouse provides balm for such wounds. Returning to the poem ‘Missed’:
Ah, the bowler’s low, querulous mutter
Points loud, unforgettable scoff!
Oh, give me my driver and putter!
Henceforward my game shall be golf.
If I’m asked to play cricket hereafter,
I am wholly determined to scratch.
Life’s void of all pleasure and laughter;
I bungled the easiest catch.
The world of cricket may have lost me, but perhaps it’s not too late to try my hand at golf.
I just wanted to share my excitement about some recent developments in the world of Wodehouse scholarship.
‘For Love or Honour’: an early Wodehouse story uncovered
Those excellent people at the P.G.W. Globe Reclamation Project have been busy uncovering Wodehouse’s early work published in the The Globe magazine. This week, they announced the discovery of ‘For Love or Honour’, an early Wodehouse story serialised in that magazine in 1907. And what’s more, they’ve made the story available to us, courtesy of the incomparable Madam Eulalie website.
It is full of delightful touches:
‘Night had fallen on Clapham. (This was about the time when night had fallen on the other parts of London, to which we have referred in previous chapters.)’
In London the sight of a curate in an inky mask is no novelty. The population of London is reputed to be about five millions. Practically it is ten millions, for every single man leads a double life. Most fashionable West-end clergymen are Thugs in their off-hours. Vicars are vicious. Bishops drink blood. Archbishops assassinate.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a read yourself at the Madam Eulalie website. Do take some time to peruse the site while you’re there. It’s a great source of early Wodehouse writing that is practically impossible forus mere mortals to find elsewhere.
Phrases and Notes
Hot on the heels of this news comes the announcement of an upcoming publication by Wodehouse expert N. T. P. Murphy. Norman Murphy is well known for his indispensable Wodehouse Handbook, and his walking tours of Wodehouse’s London (published as Three Wodehouse Walks). Murphy also treated us to the long awaited ‘Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood‘.
‘Phrases and Notes’ is Murphy’s annotated transcriptions of Wodehouse’s notebooks from 1902-1905, and promises to be of great interest to many Wodehouse lovers. You can order a copy direct from publishers ‘Popgood & Groolley’ at their Facebook page. They should also be able to advise you about other books by N.T.P Murphy.
Keep yourself in the loop
To those of you who are impressed by my up-to-date, ‘insider knowledge’ of the latest Wodehouse news, let me correct the impression. Keeping in the loop on Wodehouse affairs is a simple matter of joining one or more of the excellent online Wodehouse communities at Yahoo and Facebook. Even better, join your local Wodehouse society and pretty soon you’ll be browsing and sluicing at the same trough at those in the know.
P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his contribution to literature, as a novelist and short story writer, but for much of his long career, Wodehouse spread his writing efforts widely, in fields as diverse as journalism, musical theatre, and Hollywood screen writing.
One of Wodehouse’s early associations (circa 1901 -1910) was as a contributor, and later editor, of The Globe‘s By The Way column. Apart from a By The Way Book (1908), his work on that column has never before been collected – until earlier this year, when group of Wodehouse experts formed the P. G. Wodehouse Globe Reclamation Project. This massive undertaking is an exciting new development of great interest to Wodehouse readers who wish to delve deeper into the seemingly endless output of this prolific writer.
Such an undertaking may have been difficult during Wodehouse’s lifetime (1881-1975). As Frances Donaldson observed (in P.G.Wodehouse: The Authorized Biography), Wodehouse was critical of his own early work and had little interest in seeing it revived. In a 1955 letter to Richard Usborne (included in Sophie Ratcliffe’s P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters), Wodehouse discussed the book in which he used to record the payments he received for his early writing:
‘…I find it slightly depressing as it shows the depths I used to descend to in order to get an occasional ten-and-six. Gosh, what a lot of slush I wrote!’
‘But I hope you aren’t planning to republish any of the stuff I wrote then. What a curse one’s early work is.’
Frances Donaldson gives this example (which I rather like) from the By The Way Book (which Wodehouse called an ‘awful production’) in her biography.
‘Sea-sickness is a universal scourge. We read in Keats that ‘Stout Cortez stared with eagle eyes at the Pacific.’ In those days they leaned over the side. – Sir Thomas Lipton *
*Lipton, who founded Lipton tea, was also famous as a yachtsman in his day.
While Wodehouse’s work for the Globe may not have been the best writing of his career, Wodehouse fans eagerly await to see what will be unearthed by theP. G. Wodehouse Globe Reclamation Project –and any new insights they might provide into the work we are already familiar with.
It is a terrific undertaking, and Wodehouse fans are indebted to the members of this group who have devoted hours of their time to unearthing new nuggets of Wodehousian delight for our enjoyment. You can follow their exploits via the excellent Madame Eulalie website, which has been another much appreciated resource for Wodehouse lovers for some years.