Seeing as I haven't written a blog for AGES - not since June, if memory serves - I thought I would post this review I've just written for the PGW Society of the Sporting Stories before Bedtime event I went to see last Friday. I will be writing more blogposts again soon, but have rather lost the thread due to being bogged down with dissertation-writing - deadline is in two weeks!
Plum! Comfort food for readers
by P G Bhaskar
Bhaskar is the author of Jack Patel’s Dubai Dreams (Penguin (I)) and Jack is back in Corporate Carnival (Harper Collins (I))’
P G Wodehouse is known to have said that he started turning out the stuff from the age of five. Before that, he has confessed to not remembering what he did. ‘Just loafing, I suppose’ is how he described it.
Too bad. Else, we would have had another five years of delightful reading material. Over a hundred years after he first started writing, what is it that still has millions of people reading his books? If ever relevance had been considered a necessary factor in writing a successful novel, Wodehouse has done much to shatter this myth. Indeed, his stories ceased to have relevance shortly after he started writing them. Butlers had started slimming down and shrunk both in size and numbers. Earls had started working. So had ‘younger sons’. Soon spats fell by the wayside. Top hats were reduced to antiques. Class distinctions got blurred. Technology took rapid strides. Travel became easier and so did migration and tourism. Suffice it to say that between the year 1900 and 2000 the real world changed completely.
Thankfully, the Wodehousean world didn’t. It remained happily and magically intact, like in a time capsule, unpolluted by changes and untouched by reality. For his fans the world over, it is a blessing. Years back, Evelyn Waugh had written this about Wodehouse. ‘Wodehouse’s idyllic world cannot stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’ How perfectly prescient can one get!
What is it about a P G Wodehouse novel that appeals to so many of us?
Is it the beauty, charm and cosy warmth of his world; one of blooming flowers and shimmering lakes, of castles and moats and of sunshine peeping in through the curtains in an attempt to spread brightness and cheer? A world where people are inherently good? Where villains abound but no man is vile? Indeed, in the world of Wodehouse, even the meanest of characters can stoop no lower than use a little ‘soup’ while busting a safe, indulge in a little temporary kidnapping of a badly behaved adolescent or bean someone on the head with a good, stout vase.
Or could it be the heart-warming simplicity of his characters? Save for an occasional double crosser, Wodehouse’s novels are packed with those who wear their heart on their sleeve and who speak what they think. There is none of the modern world’s shifty shades of grey. Of course, while the characters themselves are simple, the plots are often, far from it. Wodehouse revelled in twists and turns; they are inevitable, yet unpredictable. Except, of course, for the customary and delightful happy ending. The complexity of some of his convoluted plots only served to bring out the best in him. Even as plans are floundering, schemes are going awry and perturbed characters are scratching their heads in disbelief amidst an unprecedented ‘concatenation of circumstances’, you can almost sense the master at work, getting ready to fit the pieces where they belong. And in the end, invariably, he delivers. With the precision of a magician and the practiced ease of a maestro, he waves his wand and voila! Every loose end gets tied, every character gets what he or she deserves and each note falls perfectly in its position as its conjurer concludes yet another bewitching, lyrical rhapsody.
The Wodehousean world is inherently just. It is large and accommodating. It has a place for everyone and everyone is perfectly placed. Timid, faltering poets co-exist peacefully with dashing, young modern novelists who have ‘drunk the cup of illicit love to its dregs’. Earls are never far away from pig men. Even business tycoons are not allowed to live in a cocoon of power and luxury. They are forced to rub shoulders with small time conmen, detectives and bar maids.
P G Wodehouse’s novels have a timeless beauty and grace about them. His sense of rhythm, his command over the language and his comic timing all come together in complete harmony in each one of his books. As our real world becomes increasingly ‘irksome’, the world of Wodehouse appears even more heavenly. Well, thank God for that. Whatever be the state of the world that one find ourselves in, Wodehouse readers will always have another that they can happily escape into.
So, come, let us quietly celebrate. We can nip across to this little place round the corner that I know and have a quick one. A Gustave special, perhaps? But if you would rather make a bit of a splash and step high, wide and plentiful, let me know. We can really get into the spirit of the thing and maybe steal a policeman’s helmet.
P G Bhaskar
I have reblogged a few Wodehouse pieces in Plumtopia, which I like to think of as a little haven for like-minded readers. This week’s piece is an appetite-whetting encouragement to new readers from Zanyzigzag.
It’s also a great read for affirmed Plum lovers. Zanyzigzag’s piece has special significance for me as I prepare to leave for England in less than a fortnight. The seeds of this journey, and years of thinking and planning, have been strongly influenced by my love of Wodehouse. I especially loved hearing about Norman Murphy’s Wodehouse Walk, which is on my list of top 10 things to do when I arrive (just above finding a home and school for the children).
I have been criticised by some family and friends for expecting to find England as Wodehouse knew it. This is a ridiculous suggestion, although I’m secretly hoping the Shropshire Agricultural Show will offer a hint of Plumtopia. What I do expect England to offer – that is deplorably lacking in my own country – is the capacity to appreciate, share and celebrate Wodehouse together. This piece affirms my belief that I am right.
There is not a single Wodehouse society in Australia. I’ve tried on several occasions to start one, but it’s hard to conduct a society on one’s own. And I can not recall a single Australian thinker or entertainer mentioning P.G. Wodehouse in any capacity. Our thinkers are too anxious to appear serious, our comedians too keen to appear witless. Wodehouse’s champions are elsewhere in the world, and I must look for like-minds there.
So it’s England for me. It won’t be much of a transition. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio for years. The Code of the Woosters is currently available on BBC Radio 4 Extra, which you can access and replay online (free) during the week of broadcast.
My grateful thanks to Zanyzigzag for permission to reblog this excellent piece. Perhaps we shall meet one day in Plumtopia.
Pelham Grenville (Plum) Wodehouse was a comic writer and lyricist, who, in the words of Hugh Laurie, "was quite simply the funniest man ever to put words to paper".
I remember the first time I ever read Wodehouse. A year or so ago I bought a copy of "Thank You Jeeves" and it is not too much to say that my world of reading was transformed by it.
I’m dashing off this quick note to apologise for the lack of Plumtopian delights of late as I’m now preparing the family Plum for our relocation to England. I look forward to exploring Wodehouse country and returning here to share my exploits and reminiscences.
In the meantime, I’m hoping to re-blog interesting Wodehouse articles and pages. Please feel free to send me suggestions, and if you’d like to be a guest blogger in Plumtopia, I’d love to have you also.
And if you’re interested in updates about my personal relocation story, I’ll also be keeping a Relocation Journal.
Frothing madly about the gills now.
It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn't have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters -- perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels -- we started taking inventory.
Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, "There is a fog, sir.
Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.
The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)
I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday. But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.
My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes - a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself. His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.
Mike and Psmith (1908)
If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.
“I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.
On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.
The Mating Season (1940)
Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.
Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.
The Mating Season
And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.
I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories of our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard.
…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa…
“And what happened then?” Asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient began to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle pump.
“Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!” said Jane Hubbard.
“You know, you’re wonderful!” cried Eustace. “Simply wonderful!”
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
“Why, if an alligator got into my tent,” said Eustace, “I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.”
“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”
“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”
The Girl on The Boat (1921)
Although the romance of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvellously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers. The film itself is worth watching, but makes some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.
To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.
As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my birthday.
Empress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.
It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.
Heavy Weather (1933)
In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.