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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

The four seasons of Wodehouse

1939 Uncle Fred in the SpringtimeIt is commonly understood that, far from representing a bygone age, P.G. Wodehouse created an  idealised England that never really existed. Yet I remain determined to find fragments of Wodehouse’s world in real life, and last October I immigrated to England in search of Plumtopia.

I arrived in time for a glorious Autumn –  my favourite season. Surprisingly, Wodehouse sets only one novel in Autumn that I can recall.

I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.
‘Good evening, Jeeves,’
‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’
‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’

The Code of the Woosters (1938)

After a stunning Autumn – mellow and fruitful as advertised – the English Spring of 2013 has been disappointing by comparison, especially when Wodehouse’s Spring promises so much:

‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnish’d dove.’

So says Bertie Wooster, with a little help from Tennyson, in The Inimitable Jeeves  (1923). The story was originally published in ‘The Strand’ magazine as Jeeves in the Springtime (1921) and is among his finest and best loved.

‘I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days around the end of April and the beginning of May, when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling. Romantic, if you know what I mean. I’m not much of a ladies’ man, but on this particular morning it seemed to me that what I really wanted was some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something.’

Earlier, Wodehouse had contributed lyrics for the Broadway musical Miss Springtime (1916) and he continued the spring motif with novels Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) and Spring Fever (1948). In his other work, Spring is arguably the default season.

The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town. Out in Piccadilly its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike  a novel jauntiness, so that bus-drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts, clerks on their way to work, beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.

Something Fresh (1915) 

This passage neatly expresses a kind of shared joviality that I’ve witnessed in England, when the sun blesses us unexpectedly on a Spring morning.

1938 Summer MoonshineAt Blandings Castle it’s usually Spring, with the Shropshire Agricultural Show keenly anticipated, or it’s Summer. Leave it to Psmith (1923) begins precisely on 30 June ‘…which is the very high-tide time of summer flowers’, and the cast return (without Psmith) in Summer Lightning (1929). In Pigs Have Wings (1952) the ‘sultry summer’  heat prevents Maudie Stubbs from walking to Matchingham Hall to settle a grievance with Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe.

Beyond Blandings, Wodehouse gave us Summer Moonshine (1937), and in Right-Ho Jeeves (1934) Bertie tells us it is ‘July twenty-fifth’ when he returns from a trip to Cannes  ‘looking bronzed and fit’. Although we can’t always be sure of the season, it’s clear that Wodehouse, unlike the great Russian novelists, prefers to bask his characters in sunshine and light.

In The Mating Season (1949), Bertie must catch a 2.45am Milk Train and hides in the shrubbery outside The Larches, Wimbledon Common to intercept the morning post. He complains bitterly about this experience, not least the beetles down his back, but his author resists the literary tradition of meteorological symbolism.

Though howling hurricanes and driving rainstorms would have been a more suitable accompaniment to the run of the action, the morning – or morn , if you prefer to string along with Aunt Charlotte – was bright and fair. My nervous system was seriously disordered, and one of God’s less likeable creatures with about a hundred and fourteen legs had crawled down the back of my neck and was doing its daily dozen on the sensitive skin, but did Nature care?  Not a hoot. The sky continued blue, and the fat-headed sun which I have mentioned shone smilingly throughout.

Even in trying of circumstances, the V-shaped depressions are usually metaphorical.

If somebody had told Frederick Fitch-Fitch at that moment that even now a V-shaped depression was coming along which would shortly blacken the skies and lower the general tempera­ture to freezing-point, he would not have believed him.

Romance at Droitgate Spa (1937) published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940)

Of winter, I can find very little. There is Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit (December 1927), and a poem  The Cricketer in Winter:

Now, as incessantly it pours,
And each succeeding day seems bleaker,
The cricketer remains indoors,
And quaffs mayhap the warming beaker.
Without, the scrummage heaves and slips;
Not his to play the muddied oaf. A
Well-seasoned pipe between his lips,
He reads his Wisden on the sofa.

Perhaps this last extract best explains Plum’s fondness for the warmer sporting months, when school is out and there’s cricket, tennis or golf to be played. So many of Wodehouse’s best scenes occur outside – it’s little wonder he chose not to limit his characters to rainy days indoors.

But how wonderful it would be to have a peep into Wodehouse’s world all year round.

HP

Beale Park near Pangbourne (Autumn 2012) by Honoria Plum

An Egg, A Bean and a Crumpet

A Bean and a Crumpet were in the smoking room of the Drones Club having a quick one before lunch, when an Egg who had been seated at the writing table in the corner rose and approached them.

‘How many “r’s” in “intolerable”? he asked.

‘Two,’ said the Crumpet. ‘Why?’

‘I am writing a strong letter to the Committee,’ explained the Egg, ‘drawing their attention to the intolerable … Great Scott!’ he cried, breaking off. ‘There he goes again!’

‘All’s Well with Bingo’

from Eggs, Beans and Crumpets

Eggs, Beans and Crumpets by P.G. Wodehouse

When I started this Weekly Wodehouse wheeze, I had a vague idea of quoting a little bit of ‘his master’s voice’, to share with Plum lovers and newcomers alike, followed by a few short words of my own, expanding on the theme – a chance to develop my own writing.

But.

Re-reading Wodehouse for suitable quotes, I’m struggling to contain myself to quoting just a paragraph… or two. Wodehouse may be quotable, but it’s infernally difficult to draw a firm line and stop quoting. Today for example, I have been reading ‘All’s Well with Bingo’ from Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, which opens as quoted above. It continues as follows:

A spasm contorted his face. Outside in the passage a fresh young voice had burst into a gay song with a good deal of vo-de-o-de-o about it. The Bean cocked an attentive ear as it died away in the direction of the dining room.

‘Who is this linnet?’ he inquired.

Bingo Little, blast him. He’s always singing nowadays. That’s what I’m writing my strong letter to the Committee about – the intolerable  nuisance of this incessant heartiness of his. Because it isn’t only his singing. He slaps backs. Only yesterday he came sneaking up behind me in the bar and sloshed me between the shoulder blades, saying “Aha!” as he did so. Might have choked me. How many “s’s ” in “incessant”?’

‘Three,’ said the Crumpet.

‘Thanks,’ said the Egg.

He returned to the writing table. The Bean seemed perplexed.

“Odd,’ he said. ‘Very odd. How do you account for young Bingo carrying on like this?’

‘Just joie de vivre.

‘But he’s married. Didn’t he marry some female novelist or other?’

‘That’s right. Rosie M. Banks, authoress of Only a Factory Girl, Merveyne Keene, Clubman,Twas Once in May, and other works. You see her name everywhere. I understand she makes a packet with the pen.

‘I didn’t know married men had any joie de vivre.’

And this is just the beginning.What can I add to the conversation, once Wodehouse has woven his magic? Better to sit back and enjoy.

HP