Tag Archives: Robert McCrum

Love in the Time of Wodehouse: Chiefly About Chickens

For some years now, I’ve been pushing the idea, aided and abetted by a gang of like-minded eggs, that Valentine’s Day should be commemorated as the anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death in 1975. I’m a persistent sort of blighter, so here we are again in 2020.

This year, I was curious to take a look at Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of love and see how it might have developed over the course of his 75-year writing career. I quickly discovered (as ever with Wodehouse) that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So until some generous bird comes across with the necessary oof for full-time study, it’s a mere snippet.  

Unsurprisingly, love doesn’t feature in Wodehouse’s early school stories. The fact that it takes centre stage in his first grown-up novel, Love Among the Chickens (1906) is more curious. Wodehouse’s lifelong love of detective fiction is evident in his early writing–the genre would seem a logical next step and I’m dashed if I can see how he suddenly branched out into romances. Unless…

It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly for them, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running crosswise, do they work off the resultant gloom on their faithful public? If, for instance, Mr. W. W. Jacobs had toothache, would he write like Mr. Hall Caine? If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by the Czar, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Mr. Dooley? Probably great authors have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, workaday self. For my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself completely altered the scheme of my novel. I had designed it as a light-comedy effort. Here and there a page or two to steady the reader, and show him what I could do in the way of pathos if I cared to try; but in the main a thing of sunshine and laughter. But now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it. Characters whom I had hitherto looked upon as altogether robust developed fatal illnesses. A magnificent despondency became the keynote of the book. Instead of marrying, my hero and heroine had a big scene in the last chapter, at the end of which she informed him that she was already secretly wedded to another, a man with whom she had not even a sporting chance of being happy. I could see myself correcting proofs made pulpy by the tears of emotional printers.

Love Among the Chickens (1906)

The passage appears at a point in the novel when our hero, the author Jeremy Garnet, is thwarted in his wooing of Phyllis Derrick. Wodehouse frequently draws from personal experience in his early works and there are autobiographical touches to Garnet’s character. It’s not unreasonable (however impertinent) to wonder whether Wodehouse might have been in love.

My love had grown with the days. Mr. J. Holt Schooling, or somebody else with a taste for juggling with figures, might write a very readable page or so of statistics in connection with the growth of love in the heart of a man. In some cases it is, I believe, slow. In my own I can only say that Jack’s beanstalk was a backward plant in comparison.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

If Wodehouse was in love in 1906 — or somewhere on the spectrum — no business resulted. The chief suspect, for my money, is Ella King-Hall. The King-Hall family believed Wodehouse was ‘half in love with her’* and he dedicated books to her in 1907 and 1908. The 1907 dedication appeared in a book called Not George Washington, which Wodehouse had written with a chap called Herbert Westbrook (or at least Westbrook’s name appears on the title).

Wodehouse dedicated books to him too.

To That Prince of Slackers, Herbert Westbrook

The Gold Bat (1904)

And

To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

Sophie Ratcliffe describes Westbrook as ‘handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke’* and Wodehouse credited him as an inspiration for the character of Ukridge, Jeremy Garnet’s scoundrel friend and chief trouble maker in Love Among the Chickens.

Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you out to dinner, borrows the money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman. I have gone to Covent Garden balls with Ukridge, and found myself legging it down Henrietta Street in the grey dawn, pursued by infuriated costermongers.

Love Among the Chickens (1920 edition)

Ella King-Hall and Herbert Westbrook were married in 1912.

There is no love rivalry between Garnet and Ukridge in Love Among the Chickens. Ukridge is recently married to the long-suffering Millie (the long-suffering being ahead of her). Ella King-Hall, who was older than Wodehouse and Westbrook by fifteen years, and worked with them on various plays, doesn’t seem to have much in common with either of them.

Nor are there any ‘great slabs of gloom’ in the book, although readers are left wondering about poor Mrs Ukridge’s future

Looking back at the affair after the lapse of years, Garnet was accustomed to come to the conclusion that she was the one pathetic figure in the farce. Under what circumstances she had married Ukridge he did not learn till later. He was also uncertain whether at any moment in her career she regretted it. But it was certainly pathetic to witness her growing bewilderment during the weeks that followed, as the working of Ukridge’s giant mind was unfolded to her little by little. Life, as Ukridge understood the word, must have struck her as a shade too full of incident to be really comfortable. Garnet was wont to console himself by the hope that her very genuine love for her husband, and his equally genuine love for her, was sufficient to smooth out the rough places of life.

Love Among The Chickens (1906)

This passage was omitted from a revised 1920 edition if Love Among the Chickens, by which time any real-life concerns about Mrs Westbrook had been partially smoothed by Wodehouse himself. 

He [Wodehouse] continued to play a role in Westbrook’s life as the unacknowledged breadwinner. After her marriage, Ella King-Hall became his literary agent for all his British contracts and remained so until her retirement through ill-health in 1935.

Robert McCrum: Wodehouse: A Life (2005)

Wodehouse was thoroughly business-like when it came to this sort of thing and there is no reason to doubt Ella Westbook’s capacity for managing the task, but he might easily have placed his affairs with somebody else.

In quality terms, the period following Love Among the Chickens (1906) is arguably the least impressive in Wodehouse’s otherwise brilliant career. With the exception of a superb finale in the school story genre (Mike and Psmith), most of the works from this period (The Luck Stone, The Swoop , The Prince and Betty, Death at the Excelsior) have been forgotten, and are of interest only to Wodehouse enthusiasts.

“Jimmy, we were practically boys together. Tell me about this girl–the girl you loved, and were idiot enough to lose.”

Jimmy drew a deep breath.

“Very well,” said Mifflin complacently, “sigh if you like; it’s better than nothing.”

A Gentleman of Leisure (1910)

It would be fanciful to suggest that Wodehouse’s art had suffered from a disappointment in love – and there’s no hint of it in his published letters. Rather, it was a period of creative experimentation with voice, style and genre. Wodehouse had left the school story genre behind him, but was yet to find his place in adult fiction.** Unlike his fictional Drones, Wodehouse did not have the luxury of a private income to sustain him, which meant writing for a living, dashing off whatever the magazines would take until he found his niche.  

But love may well have contributed to Wodehouse’s breakthrough. In 1914, he met and married Ethel Wayman in New York. The first Jeeves and Blandings stories appeared in print the following year (My Man Jeeves and Something Fresh). The real-life romance between Wodehouse and his wife is incredibly touching, and readers owe her a debt of gratitude for smoothing away the troubles of life so that he could write.  

We may never know more about Wodehouse’s early experiences of love and romance, but we don’t really need to know. Wodehouse never wasted good material – so I feel sure we’ve read about them.  

Have you ever been turned down by a girl who afterwards married and then been introduced to her husband? If so you’ll understand how I felt when Clarence burst on me. You know the feeling. First of all, when you hear about the marriage, you say to yourself, “I wonder what he’s like.” Then you meet him, and think, “There must be some mistake. She can’t have preferred this to me!” That’s what I thought, when I set eyes on Clarence.

Doing Clarence A Bit Of Good in My Man Jeeves (1915)

Better to have loved and lost, and bunged the thing down on paper, than never to have loved at all.

Happy Wodehouse Day!

HP

REFERENCES

*From: Sophie Ratcliffe, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters.

**Read Paul Kent’s Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Volume 1: “This is jolly old Fame” for more on this subject.

Image of Emsworth, Hampshire (where Wodehouse, Herbert Westbrook and Ella King-Hall all lived for a time) taken on a visit by Honoria Plum

P.G. Wodehouse in the news

Having apprised regular readers of certain facts about an upcoming Wodehouse exhibition at the British Library, the keen observer may have detected an absence of new material here at Plumtopia. But the world of Wodehouse has not suffered. Indeed, it has been buzzing along quite nicely.

The P G Wodehouse Society dinner

On 11 October, the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) held its biennial dinner. This is always a special occasion, and in 2018 included readings from Neil Pearson, Katy Reece, and Robert Daws. Daws is well known to Wodehouse fans for playing Tuppy Glossop in the Jeeves and Wooster television series. He also gave a performed reading of ‘Wodehouse in Wonderland’ — a play by William Humble — at the recent Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature Film & Music.

The biggest news item of the year was also announced at the dinner.

P.G. Wodehouse memorial for Westminster Abbey

The momentous news — that a memorial stone for Wodehouse is planned for Westminster Abbey — has been widely reported (see Patrick Kidd in The Times, Alison Flood in The Guardian).

This announcement signifies:

“… a recognition of Plum’s place in the literary pantheon. His stone will deservedly lie among those of some of the greatest writers in this country’s history and his own literary heroes.”
(P G Wodehouse Society Chairman, Hilary Bruce
)

Empress Michiko sparks enthusiasm for Wodehouse in Japan

The Empress of Japan recently announced that she will spend her upcoming retirement reading as much as possible – and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books are at the top of her reading pile. This has sparked a rise in demand for Wodehouse’s work in Japan – with sales increasing from around 100 books per anum to 100 per day, according to publishers.  Hopefully this will lead to renewed demand for Wodehouse translator Tamaki Morimura to translate more of Wodehouse’s work.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs  

schottWhat makes this new Wodehouse homage by Ben Schott different from all the other Wodehouse homages that have been written over the years? Well, like Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’, this one has been blessed with the approval of the Wodehouse estate. Released in November, it has received kind reviews from Patrick Kidd (The Times) and Sophie Ratcliffe (known to Wodehouse fans as the editor of P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters).

A Plum Assignment plumassignment

Another new release of particular interest this year is ‘A Plum Assignment: Discourses on P. G. Wodehouse and His World’ by Curtis Armstrong (film and television actor) and Wodehouse expert Elliott Milstein.

What Ho! At the British Library

The British Library’s Wodehouse exhibition opened in November and will continue through to February 2019. They’ve also hosted several Wodehouse related events, with the next one planned for 21 February 2019 — an evening of Wodehouse stories and song, including Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum. Tickets for the previous event sold out, so don’t wait too long for this one (tickets here).

Perfect Nonsense in North America

Wodehouse fans in the USA will finally be able to enjoy the delights of Perfect Nonsense, the Goodale brothers’ delightful stage adaptation of The Code of the Woosters. Its first US performance will run March 21 to April 14 2019 in Hartford, Connecticut (tickets here).

Keeping up to date with all the latest Wodehouse news  

Personal demands (wheels within wheels) over the last few months have made it difficult to write at length, but you can find me on Twitter @HonoriaPlum for a daily dose of Wodehouse, including any Wodehouse news that comes to hand.

I have grand plans for Plumtopia in 2019, and trust this brief absence has not caused any significant loss to the world of blogging, Wodehouse, or indeed literature.

To give Wodehouse the last word:

There was once a millionaire who, having devoted a long life to an unceasing struggle to amass his millions, looked up from his death-bed and said plaintively, ‘And now, perhaps, someone will kindly tell me what’s it’s all been about.’ I get that feeling sometimes, looking back. Couldn’t I, I ask myself, have skipped one or two of those works of mine and gone off and played golf without doing English literature any irreparable harm? Take, for instance, that book The Swoop, which was one of the paper-covered shilling books so prevalent around 1909. I wrote the whole 25,000 words of it in five days, and the people who read it, if placed end to end, would have reached from Hyde Park Corner to about the top of Arlington Street. Was it worth the trouble?

Yes, I think so, for I had a great deal of fun writing it. I have had a great deal of fun — one-sided possibly — writing all my books.

P.G. Wodehouse (Over Seventy)

I love writing Plumtopia — thanks for reading again this year.

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

P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration at the British Library — Report

BL event.JPG
Reading from L to R: Hal Cazalet, Edward Cazalet, Lara Cazalet, (Robert McCrum seated behind Lara), Sophie Ratcliffe and Tony Ring

On 28 January, the British Library celebrated their recent acquisition of the Wodehouse archives with P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration. As the title suggests, the event celebrated Wodehouse’s lesser known but important contribution as a musical theatre lyricist, working in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and others (including George and Ira Gershwin). 

I felt privileged to be among those present as singer Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s great grandchildren) and pianist Stephen Higgins performed songs from the Wodehouse songbook, including: ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’, ‘You Never Knew About Me’, ‘The Enchanted Train’, ‘Oh Gee Oh Joy’, ‘Bill’, and ‘Anything Goes’.

Hal Cazalet also provided a rapt audience with some professional insights into his grandfather’s methods as a lyricist, and his influence on later developments in musical theatre. Hal put forward a convincing argument that Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist not only influenced, but improved Wodehouse’s writing.

A highlight of the day was listening to Sir Edward Cazalet, one of the few people living today who knew ‘Plum’ and Ethel Wodehouse well. Edward’s reminiscences about his grandfather were affectionate and deeply moving – and fans will be touched to learn that Edward still has the pencil his grandfather was holding when he died.

The proceedings were further enhanced by observations from assembled experts, including Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life), Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) and Tony Ring, whose extensive research and numerous works on Wodehouse include the multi-volume Wodehouse Concordances.

After the formal proceedings, came the infinite pleasures of meeting other Wodehouse lovers – both old friends and new ones. It was wonderful to meet members of the Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society, who had travelled to London especially for the event, online friends from the Facebook Fans of P.G. Wodehouse group, U.K. Society members, and even a few celebrities. A socially inclined gaggle of us, reluctant for the festivities to end, moved on to a local hostelry where the feast of reason and flow of soul continued long into a splendid Winter evening.

I recommend that you also read Mike Swaddling’s account of the event at the UK Wodehouse Society website (with pictures by Dutch Wodehouse Society President Peter Nieuwenhuizen) via British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist (Wodehouse Society report)

HP

 

P G Wodehouse: A Musical Celebration at The British Library

P G Wodehouse: A Musical Celebration – The British Library

On Saturday 28 January 2017, the British Library will be hosting an event, celebrating P.G. Wodehouse’s life and work, including his lesser known contribution to musical theatre.

If you’re in London, this is an opportunity to hear Sir Edward Cazalet share memories of his Grandfather ‘Plum’, and listen to an expert panel (including biographer Robert McCrum). Wodehouse’s grandchildren, the musician Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet, will also be performing some of Wodehouse’s songs.

Tickets are available from £10-£15 –I’ve got mine!

See the British Library’s event page to register:  P G Wodehouse: A Musical Celebration – The British Library

If London’s too far away, there are some excellent recordings of Wodehouse’s songs available. Try The Land Where the Good Songs Go – The Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse performed by Hal Cazalet and Sylvia McNair, and The Siren’s Song: Wodehouse & Kern on Broadway by Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard.

Happy Christmas, all!

HP

Psmith in Pseattle: our little paradise

Goodies

What Ho, old beans!

Last week I attended an excellent binge at The Wodehouse Society’s (TWS) 18th convention, Psmith in Pseattle. It was my first TWS convention, and even more psensational than anticipated. So, climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, and I’ll tell you about it.

Introductions
As a TWS first timer, I entered the lobby of the impressive Fairmont Olympic Hotel under a cloud –not one of Seattle’s famous v-shaped depressions, but a personal one. Having lived almost exclusively behind a keyboard for the last few years, my people skills are not what they once were. Nor are my trousers, which are let out far more often than I am. So it’s fair to say I was not at my confident best, and beginning to wish I’d stayed under my little rock in Somerset UK. Added to this, I had recklessly agreed to appear as a speaker and was feeling a strong affinity with Bertie Wooster ahead of his infamous talk at Miss Tomlinson’s school for girls.

“Girls,” said Miss Tomlinson, “some of you have already met Mr. Wooster — Mr. Bertram Wooster, and you all, I hope, know him by reputation.” Here, I regret to say, Mr. Wooster gave a hideous, gurgling laugh and, catching Miss Tomlinson’s eye, turned bright scarlet.

in ‘Bertie Changes his Mind’

All that began to change, very quickly. As I traipsed across the lobby, I spied the familiar, well-groomed head of TWS president Karen Shotting rising on the escalator. Recognising her from her photograph, and forgetting that we had never met, I buzzed over to say ‘What Ho’ like a long lost friend. A short while later, I was on back-slapping terms with a substantial gang of Wodehouse experts and enthusiasts, including Tom Smith, Barbara (the dream rabbit) Combs, Elliot Milstein, Bob Raines (soon to be TWS president), Ken Clevenger, and Tony and Elaine Ring. The name Tony Ring is familiar to most Wodehouse enthusiasts and I’d been daunted by the prospect of meeting him, but his effervescent personality put me immediately at ease, and the sparkle in his eye told me that this shindig was going to be fun.

The following morning, I encountered Elin Woodger Murphy (Wooster Sauce editor and all round good egg) sploshing about in the hotel pool. Having already provided me with guidance and support from afar, Elin took me under her wing and, with the fabulous Jean Tilson, we forked our way through some very decent breakfasts at Seattle’s Pike Place market. Later in the lobby of the Fairmont Olympic, I got to meet online friends for the first time — like Vikas Sonak, and David and Katy McGrann — and make new ones, like Katherine Jordan, Eileen Jones and Ninad Wagle (Alpine Joe). From my strategic position by the bar, I was also well-placed to spot debonair newcomers sporting chrysanthemums their in buttonholes [enter John Dawson].

Maria Jette & Dan Chouniard CD

Wodehouse in song
The formalities began on Friday evening with soprano Maria Jette and pianist Dan Chouinard, who performed songs from Wodehouse’s Broadway career and songs mentioned in his work, like My Hero and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.

A minion came on the stage carrying a table. On this table he placed a framed photograph, and I knew that we were for it. Show Bertram Wooster a table and a framed photograph, and you don’t have to tell him what the upshot is going to be. Muriel Kegley-Bassington stood revealed as a ‘My Hero’ from The Chocolate Soldier addict.

I thought the boys behind the back row behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint, and their suavity gave me the first faint hope I had had that when my turn came to face the firing quad I might be spared the excesses which I had been anticipating. I would rank ‘My Hero’ next after ‘The ‘Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ as a standee rouser…

 in ‘The Mating Season

Maria sparkles on the stage like a Wodehouse heroine leapt from the page, and it was a great privilege to hear these songs performed by musicians of such calibre. If you missed out, Maria and Dan’s two CDs of Wodehouse music are available online. Mixing it with the professionals, an enthusiastic Tom Smith (one of our Pseattle hosts) and his associate ‘Percy Pilbeam’ treated us to a rendition of Sonny Boy. No CD recording of this memorable performance has yet been released.

Riveting Talks
The joy continued on Saturday with riveting talks. If you missed them, they’ll be published in forthcoming editions of Plum Lines, quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society (US) , not to be confused with Wooster Sauce, quarterly journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) — if you join both societies you get eight lovely journals in the post every year. Each talk was worthy of further discussion, and I took plenty of notes, but for now you’ll have to be content with a summary.

I was riveted from the moment Elliot Milstein drew his first breath, on the subject of Wodehouse’s opening lines, and listening to Ken Clevenger let himself go on the subject of fish was a long-awaited pleasure. During the luncheon break, I made a Skype call to my family in England to gloat that I’d been educated on the difference between orphreys and chasubles by William Scrivener, who was once a pale young curate. Peter Nieuwenhuizen’s talk on Wodehouse in the comics covered new ground (for me at least). Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers and the potential for introducing them to Wodehouse in this way is very exciting. Tad Boehmer’s talk on researching Wodehouse took us into the world of special collection libraries (I wanted more!) and Elin Woodger’s topic ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was a topic close to my heart (as readers of Plumtopia will know). For anyone still in doubt about Wodehouse’s appeal to women, Elin confirmed that more women had registered for the convention than men.

John Dawson spoke about the exciting Globe Reclamation Project , an international gang of Wodehouse lovers (Dawson, Ananth Kaitharam, Neil Midkiff, Ian Michaud, Arthur Robinson, Raja Srinivasan and Karen Shotting) who have spent the last two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper (1901-1909?), aided and abetted by Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Tony Ring. John spoke passionately about his personal quest to find everything Wodehouse wrote, and the hard working collaboration that has provided so much ‘new’ material for all Wodehouse readers to enjoy. The product of their labours is available to read — in two handsomely bound volumes: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking, with funds raised used for ongoing research (any surplus will be spent making Wodehouse books available in school libraries). A discount is available to Wodehouse Society members.

Closing the day, and well worth the wait, was Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum. As someone who has delved so deeply into Wodehouse’s life, it was moving to hear him speak of Wodehouse’s withdrawal from his painful war-time experiences into the ‘wonderland’ he created. As McCrum put it, ‘Wodehouse was, in fact, happiest in a kind of artistic solitary confinement.’

In my talk on the modern Wodehouse reader, I commented that many of us read Wodehouse to escape the irksome captivity of modern life, just as Evelyn Waugh predicted.

Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in —

 Evelyn Waugh

Listening to Robert McCrum, it became clear to me that Wodehouse needed the world he created as much as we do. It was his ‘Plumtopia’. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to Wodehouse than I did at that moment.

McCrum has shared his own impressions of Pseattle in this little piece for The Guardian: Americans celebrate PG Wodehouse in Seattle .

Tony Ring entertained us between talks with something cryptically listed on the programme as ‘Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses’. These proved to be a selection of ghost stories written by Wodehouse for Punch magazine (1903-1904) — a fitting selection to mark the occasion of Halloween. Here’s a taste:

A groan and a weird phosphorescent gleam at the foot of the bed told that the spectre had arrived, right on the scheduled time as usual. I took no notice. I wished to make the ghost speak first. A ghost hates to have to begin a conversation.

“You might speak to a chap,” said a plaintive voice, at last.

“Ah, you there?” I said. “The family ghost, I presume?”

“The same,” said the Spectre, courteously, seating himself on the bed. “Frightened?”

“Not in the least.”

“Hair not turned white, I suppose?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Then you are the man I have been wanting to meet for the last hundred years. Reasonable; that’s what you are. I tell you, Sir, it hurts a fellow when people gibber at him, as most of your human beings do. Rational conversation becomes impossible.”

MR. PUNCH’S SPECTRAL ANALYSES II.— The Ghost with Social Tastes.
Punch, August 12, 1903

A handsomely printed set of  these stories was provided to conference goers, but if you missed out you can read them online at Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums .

Rummage and Revels
There is still much to be said– about the masked ball, the costumes, the auction, and NEWTS skit — but I have other things to do, and presumably you do too. The one thing I must mention is the rummage sale. Just imagine for a moment that you are in a shop devoted to Wodehouse. There are Wodehouse books, and books about Wodehouse. You can also pick up sheet music, costumes, cow creamers, pictures, bookmarks, badges, bags and all manner of merchandise. No shop of this kind exists, but for two days in October the TWS rummage sale comes close to this Plumtopian ideal.

michael sheldon
Michael Sheldon as Blister Lister (Full Moon) courtesy of budding wildlife photographer, Ellie Sheldon.

Added to these pleasures, I continued to make new friends, too many to list, but sitting with Donna Myers for the talks, and between Anita Avery and Tim Richards at dinner were highlights. There was an awkward moment when I met long-time Facebook friend Michael Sheldon in person — as he recognised me, but I couldn’t place him because he looked nothing like his Facebook photo (for all the wrong reasons). He won the ‘Scary Enough to Put a Golfer Off His Stroke’ award for his impersonation of Bill Lister (from Full Moon).

How to join the next binge
The next convention will be in Washington DC — Capital! Capital! — in October 2017. Dates will be confirmed shortly.

It’s an experience I highly recommend. I was welcomed with great kindness, in spite of my expansive trousers and questionable character because, as Anita Avery put it, ‘We Wodehouse fans look after our own.’ And she’s right. After many years spent searching for Plumtopia, I may not have found a place that feels like home, but I have found my people. As Wodehouse put it:

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’

Suffering from cheerfulness – Wodehouse at War

p-g-_wodehouse2c_1930
PG Wodehouse (1930)

ARE YOU A VICTIM TO OPTIMISM?

YOU DON’T KNOW? THEN ASK YOURSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS.

1. DO YOU SUFFER FROM CHEERFULNESS?

2. DO YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING FEELING THAT ALL IS GOING WELL FOR THE ALLIES?

3. DO YOU SOMETIMES THINK THAT THE WAR WILL END WITHIN THE NEXT TWELVE MONTHS?

4. DO YOU BELIEVE GOOD NEWS IN PREFERENCE TO BAD?

5. DO YOU CONSIDER OUR LEADERS ARE COMPETENT TO CONDUCT  THE WAR TO A SUCCESSFUL ISSUE?

WE CAN CURE YOU.

TWO DAYS SPENT AT OUR ESTABLISHMENT WILL EFFECTIVELY ERADICATE ALL TRACES OF IT FROM YOUR SYSTEM.

This satirical advertisement is among the many gems to be found in Suffering from Cheerfulness: The Best Bits from THE WIPERS TIMES , which I’ve been reading this afternoon in my bath. THE WIPERS TIMES was a magazine written by British soldiers, in the trenches of the Western Front, during the First World War.

In his introduction to the book, historian Malcolm Brown writes:

To conclude: laughter and mockery and poking fun at authority have been part of the warp and weft of the British military psyche for centuries and it was singularly unlikely that so great a comic tradition would have nothing to say about the new circumstances of 1914-1918, however challenging they might seem. Came the danger, came the leg-pulls, the quips, the spoofs and the jokes. Came the suffering, came the cheerfulness. The outcome was a brilliant philosophy for the time, a philosophy to get men through everything, or almost everything, that the war could throw at them.

THE WIPERS TIMES appears not only to have been permitted by the authorities, but also reprinted in Britain during the war. Here’s another example, this time a letter to the editor.

Sir,

Once again I feel constrained to draw your attention to the increasing rowdiness of the district. I am a peaceful citizen, and although somewhat behindhand with my rates, yet the injustice of the present conditions is apparent. Surely, when  a quiet citizen wishes to cultivate his own small holding, it is not quite the thing to plant a 12-inch howitzer in the middle. I must protest, and if nothing is done in the matter, I announce my intention of voting against the present candidate at the forthcoming elections.

I am, Sir,

FED-UP

From the comfort of my 21st Century bath-tub, the volume makes for pleasant reading.  In the trenches, it offered indispensable comic relief to both readers and contributors, as a fine example of British humour in the face of adversity.

Another fine example in this same tradition was penned by P.G. Wodehouse, who spent part of the Second World War imprisoned in a German (civilian) internment camp.

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 week-end.

P.G.Wodehouse (in the first of five radio broadcasts from Berlin)

Wodehouse kept a humorous ‘camp diary’ during his imprisonment, which he shared with his fellow prisoners at the time. After his release, Wodehouse was taken to Berlin where he ran into a former Hollywood acquaintance who suggested he record a series of humorous broadcasts. Wodehouse agreed, and used his camp diary as material.

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.

Nevertheless, in spite of the interest of hobnobbing with our smell, we found time hung a little heavy on our hands.

The lads from ‘Wipers’ would have relished having Wodehouse’s brilliant pen and stiff-upper-lip on staff.

Here he is again in the third ‘Berlin Broadcast’:

Arriving at Liège, and climbing the hill to the barracks, we found an atmosphere of unpreparedness. Germany at that time was like the old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many adopted children that she didn’t know what to do with them. As regards our little lot, I had a feeling that she did not really want us, but didn’t like to throw us away. The arrangements for our reception at Liège seemed incomplete. It was as if one had got to a party much too early. Here, for instance, were eight hundred men who were going to live mostly on soup – and though the authorities knew where to lay their hands on some soup all right, nothing had been provided to put it in.

And eight hundred internees can’t just go to the cauldron and lap. For one thing, they would burn their tongues, and for another the quick swallowers would get more than their fair share. The situation was one that called for quick thinking, and it was due to our own resourcefulness that the problem was solved. At the back of the barrack yard there was an enormous rubbish heap, into which Belgian soldiers through the ages had been dumping old mess tins, old cans, cups with bits chipped off them, bottles, kettles and containers for motor oil. We dug these out, gave them a wash and brush up, and there we were. I had the good fortune to secure one of the motor oil containers. It added to the taste of the soup just that little something that the others hadn’t got.

I quote from these broadcasts at length because they are often referred to, but too little read or appreciated as part of the tradition to which they rightfully belong.

By the time of the fourth broadcast, Wodehouse had learned that his amusing account of life as an internee was not appreciated in Britain, although the British public never heard the broadcasts and naively accepted what they had been told about them.  The accusation of Nazi collaboration must have shattered Wodehouse, who had ironically been demonstrating one of the truly great British traits — humour in the face of adversity.

The affair has been much written about, particularly since documents relating to the subsequent MI5 investigation were made public several years ago. The British Foreign Office investigated the matter and agreed Wodehouse had no case to answer, with one official noting: 

“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.”

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Iain Sproat’s book ‘Wodehouse at War’ demonstrates Wodehouse’s innocence and shows how the campaign against him was orchestrated. And as biographies by Robert McCrum and Frances Donaldon make clear, Wodehouse had no personal or political connections to the Nazis.

Wodehouse’s credentials as an anti-fascist, having made fun of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley before the war (through the Black Shorts wearing character, Roderick Spode) stand up to scrutiny far better than some of the newspapers denouncing him.

The resulting stain on Wodehouse’s reputation has been shamefully slow to lift. So I’ve cut short my bath today to add my voice to many who have written on the subject. It is not enough that Wodehouse has been exonerated. It is time he was recognised as part of the wartime humourist tradition to which he belongs.

You can read the full broadcasts here.

HP

Was P. G. Wodehouse squeamish about sex?

Yesterday, I pondered the rather baffling discovery that some of Wodehouse’s male characters have been named literary sex symbols. This subject can hardly be taken seriously. As the critic Emsworth notes, sex was never allowed to creep into Wodehouse’s world.

HP

EMSWORTH

We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off.  Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.

Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use…

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Cocktail Time

There had fallen upon the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest one of those soothing silences which from time to time punctuate the nightly feasts of Reason and flows of Soul in that cosy resort. It was broken by a Whiskey and Splash.

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” said the Whiskey and Splash…

Cats will Be Cats (Mulliner Nights)

I recently wrote an item on Drink’ in my personal blog, which was meant to be entertaining, but reads far more seriously than intended. As usual, this error could have been avoided with a little Plumtopian inspiration – Wodehouse had plenty to offer on the subject, as his biographer Robert McCrum noted recently in Oxford Today: ‘Wodehouse and the English language’:

Unique in the canon of English literature, almost none of Wodehouse’s characters is indifferent to the temptations of a quiet snort. Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; stinko; squiffy; tanked and woozled.

I am especially fond of Wodehouse’s application of drinking lingo to non-drinking situations. The line, ‘he was white and shaken, like a dry Martini,” is often quoted, even appearing under the Free Online Dictionary definition for Shock. Other examples along these lines include:

“Hugo, scooped J. Wilmot out of his comfortable morris chair as if he had been a clam, corked him up in a swift taxicab, and decanted him into a Deck B stateroom on the Olympic.”

The Man with Two Left Feet

And:

“The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say `When!’ ”

Very Good Jeeves

And then there are the drinking exploits of old Pelicans Galahad Threepwood and Uncle Fred. In Heavy Weather, Wodehouse teases us with glamourous stories from Gally’s unpublished Reminiscences, including this tale of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking.

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Heavy Weather

Wodehouse’s popular hero Bertie Wooster hero is, by his own admission, a comparatively light drinker.

Except at times of special revelry, I am exceedingly moderate in my potations. A brace of cocktails, a glass of wine at dinner and possibly a liqueur with the coffee – that is Bertram Wooster.

The Code of The Woosters

I could go on – and I had planned to – but in the course of my research today I’ve discovered a certain Pete Bunten has been there before me. Am I bitter? Not a bit. I can heartily recommend you to partake in a snifter of his excellent work, Literary Drinkers where he pays a fitting homage to our beloved Wodehouse.

What are your favourite drinking quotes from Wodehouse?

HP

 

Source notes: