In 2016, I had the great privilege of visiting the home of P.G. Wodehouse’s grandson to see his extensive family collection of Wodehouse treasures, including drafts, completed manuscripts, letters, and Wodehouse’s own reading library.
As you might imagine, I was giddy with excitement throughout the visit. Highlights included Wodehouse’s edition of Shakespeare’s complete works (which he took with him when captured by the Nazis in France in 1940), letters from Agatha Christie and Richard Burton (among others), Wodehouse’s own reading library and comfy chair, and a 1961 Christmas gift from Evelyn Waugh inscribed to: ‘The head of my profession’ . Other treasures included Wodehouse’s own statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer and a Cow Creamer, both significant artifacts for anyone familiar with his work.
In the space of a short visit, it was not possible to read many documents or examine every treasure, but much of this priceless collection has been on loan to the British Library since late 2016. They’ve had time to go over their haul, and are now ready to present it to the public in a new exhibition: P G Wodehouse: The Man and His Work.
This is a ‘must-see’ event for any Wodehouse fan who can get themselves to London, from 27 November 2018. The exhibition itself is free. The material on display will be entirely new for most fans — as we have no Wodehouse museum. If you’re in town on December 6th, Wodehouse expert Tony Ring will also be giving a talk on The Wit and Wisdom of P G Wodehouse.
I’m likely to miss this, due to being in the bally wrong hemisphere, but I look forward to the reports from other visitors.
He was sorry, he wrote, that he would be unable to see Miss Petherick-Soames on the morrow, as they had planned, owing to his unfortunately being called away to Australia. He added that he was pleased to have made her acquaintance and that if, as seemed probable, they never saw each other again, he would always watch her future career with interest.
‘The Ordeal of Osbert Mulliner’ (Mr Mulliner Speaking)
Like Osbert Mulliner, I was recently compelled to compose a similar communication to friends and well-wishers in the United Kingdom and prepare for an antipodean journey of indefinite duration.
But wait…. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The adventure started, you may recall, in the March of 2012, with some harmless musing on the Plumtopian dream. Later that year my family and I left Australia for the UK, and I’ve enjoyed some wonderfully Wodehousian experiences in the years that followed.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet other Wodehouse lovers in London, Amsterdam, and PSeattle U.S.A. I went on one of Norman Murphy’s famous Wodehouse walks, and had the honour of visiting P.G. Wodehouse’s step-grandson, Sir Edward Cazalet and seeing his family’s impressive Wodehouse archive collection.
The friendship and generosity I’ve encountered among fellow Wodehousians has been incredible, and so it was with heavy heart that I informed friends of my impending return to Australia. The reasons for my return are complex – ‘wheels within wheels’ — but my Wodehouse chums rose to the occasion. We were treated to wonderful farewells by Tony and Elaine Ring, Hilary Bruce (P G Wodehouse Society Chair), and Elin Woodger Murphy, who also saw us off to Heathrow in great style.
All of these wonderful new friends and experiences I owe to Wodehouse.
Building a new life in Australia will be challenging, but I’m returning with renewed determination to find fellow Wodehouse lovers, and introduce his work to new readers. Once the dust has settled, I’ll continuing writing on the subject of Wodehouse — here at Plumtopia.
Another treat for Wodehouse lovers is taking place at the British Library, this time as part of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. A panel, involving MP and Author Shashi Tharoor, MP and journalist Swapan Dasgupta, business writer Mihir S. Sharma, and Wodehouse expert Tony Ring will be discussing:
It’s an intriguing subject, and one that provokes a good deal of discussion amongst the chaps and chapettes in our little Wodehouse community. (Yes, chapettes! Don’t let the all-male panel or misguided notions about Wodehouse appealing mainly to men mislead you — he has a large and enthusiastic following among Indian women).
Many people have tried to explain the reasons for Wodehouse’s popularity in India, including Shashi Tharoor in a 2012 article How the Woosters Captured Delhi. In particular, he highlights Wodehouse’s wonderful use of English language.
English was undoubtedly Britain’s most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and educated Indians, a famously polyglot people, rapidly learned and delighted in it – both for itself, and as a means to various ends. These ends were both political (for Indians turned the language of the imperialists into the language of nationalism) and pleasureable (for the language granted access to a wider world of ideas and entertainments). It was only natural that Indians would enjoy a writer who used language as Wodehouse did – playing with its rich storehouse of classical precedents, mockingly subverting the very canons colonialism had taught Indians they were supposed to venerate.
There’s something in this theory, which might also help to explain why Wodehouse is popular in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Norway, whose inhabitants are often gifted bi-linguists (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves).
As an outsider looking in, I feel ill-qualified to comment, but I’m looking forward to hearing the panel’s theories on the subject. Yours too! Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.
Follow the link below for more details about the event, and to register.
The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in a surprising variety of places: from journal articles and forewords of new editions, to theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.
Another Centenary to Celebrate
The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.
Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:
I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.
So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.
But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.
For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.
It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.
In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.
Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.
Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.
The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes
And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.
The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004 Woleseley Recordings
For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty(1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).
But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.
Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?
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.
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].
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.
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 —
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.
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.
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 December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
* * *
Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.
The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny. If the chosen object is of leather, the leather must look as if it has been well greased; if of silver, it must gleam with the light that never was on sea or land. This is because the wariest person will often mistake shininess for expensiveness.
P.G. Wodehouse in Louder and Funnier
An interesting approach to Christmas, and one suspects Wodehouse may have had his wife in mind when he devised it. Not having a wife myself, it’s not a rule I’ve ever applied. I’m more inclined to be suspicious of ‘shiny things.’ A shiny thing is often the last thing people see before they exit this world.
What are your rules for present buying?
As a recipient of Christmas gifts, I imagine Wodehouse fitting comfortably in the pipe and slippers line. He was also fond of pot-boilers (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves), so perhaps a copy of Blood on the Banisters, recommended by Cyril Mulliner, or The Herring Seller’s Apprentice by L.C.Tyler , recently reviewed by The Book Jotter).
What gift would you like to have given the great master for Christmas?
Today’s quote comes courtesy of Tony Ring’s The Wit and Wisdom of P.G.Wodehouse. I don’t own a copy of Louder and Funnier, but it would make a lovely Christmas gift.