Originally posted on Nourish-n-Cherish:
I was reading a short story by P.G.Wodehouse on the train. These are the times when I most mistaken for a lunatic. My seat shudders with unconcealed mirth. I giggle, laugh and sometimes wipe away tears of laughter, while the world is going about the stern business of earning a living.…
Ionicus was the pen name of illustrator Joshua Armitage, whose work featured in Punch, and almost 400 books, in the course of a long career. He is perhaps best known as the illustrator of 58 Penguin paperback editions of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. Although Ionicus and Wodehouse never met, his drawings show a genuine affinity for the Wodehouse material.
The excellent ‘Ionicus and the Art of Wodehouse’ blog delves into the Ionicus Wodehouse editions in more detail. The most recent piece looks at the covers of ‘Eggs, Beans and Crumpets’ and ‘Cocktail Time’ – both are classics. If you are particularly partial to the Ionicus editions (like me) it’s a blog I heartily recommend reading.
Last weekend, the 2017 British Silent Film Festival featured three silent film adaptations of Wodehouse stories as part of the programme. Regrettably I wasn’t there, but a kindly blogger (I thank you Arthur) has written about it in ‘Oooh, Betty!! A Sister of Six (1927) with Neil Brand, British Silent Film Festival Day Four.’
I suppose I had known, in a dim sort of way, that Wodehouse had been adapted for film from an early age, but the information that British film company Stoll Pictures made a Clicking of Cuthbert series of six short films in 1924 was news to me.
The films produced were:
- The Clicking of Cuthbert
- The Magic Plus Fours
- The Long Hole
- Rodney Fails to Qualify
- Ordeal by Golf
- Chester Forgets Himself
The films are not available online, but lucky guests at the British Silent Film Festival were shown three of them: Rodney Fails to Qualify, The Clicking of Cuthbert, and Chester Forgets Himself.
The Clicking of Cuthbert is one of Wodehouse’s best loved short stories, for good reason. The 1924 silent film adaptation starred Peter Haddon as Cuthbert, Helena Pickard as Adeline, and Moore Marriott as Vladimir Brusiloff. Harry Beasley appeared as a caddy in all six films.
What a treat it must have been to see Moore Marriott (pictured right), a well-known comic actor of the time, as Vladimir Brusiloff.
Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys.
The Clicking of Cuthbert (1921)
The films are not strict adaptations of the original stories. Stoll Pictures introduced new characters such as the caddy, and new scenes to incorporate visual gags involving trick golf balls and the like. The stories have also been substantially modified. For example, The Clicking of Cuthbert includes a flashback scene involving bearded midgets on a snowy Siberian golf course, and a shooting.*
The following review of the series appeared in Kinematograph Weekly*
’The P.G. Wodehouse Series’ are certainly the most amusing two-reel comedies that Stoll’s has Trade shown, each one being based on golf but not limited to the golfer in their humorous appeal . . . Andrew P. Wilson has directed them fairly well. If at times they become mild and a little thin as regards humour, this is partly due to the rather uncreative adaptations, but they should entertain, especially in high class halls.
The British Silent Film Festival programme included a reading of another Wodehouse golfing story ‘A Woman is Only a Woman’. The title is borrowed from a line in Kipling’s humourous poem The Betrothed about a man whose fiancé asks him to choose between her and smoking cigars –he chooses the cigars.
Open the old cigar-box—let me consider anew—
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?
A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!
(from: The Betrothed by Rudyard Kipling)
In Wodehouse’s A Woman is Only a Woman’, golf partners Peter Willard and James Todd fall in love with the same woman, putting a temporary strain on their friendship until each realises the object of their affection holds regrettable views on the subject of golf.
Miss Forrester swung her tennis racket irritably.
“Golf,” she said, “bores me pallid. I think it is the silliest game ever invented!”
The trouble about telling a story is that words are so feeble a means of depicting the supreme moments of life. That is where the artist has the advantage over the historian. Were I an artist, I should show James at this point falling backwards with his feet together and his eyes shut, with a semi-circular dotted line marking the progress of his flight and a few stars above his head to indicate moral collapse. There are no words that can adequately describe the sheer, black horror that froze the blood in his veins as this frightful speech smote his ears.
From: A Woman is Only a Woman (1919)
It’s easy to imagine an artist of the dramatic silent film genre doing justice to this scene.
The Clicking of Cuthbert film series is not readily available to Wodehouse fans online, but we can console ourselves with an excellent Wodehouse Playhouse television adaptation of Rodney Fails to Qualify (John Alderton and Pauline Collins never fail to please in this series).
We’re also fortunate that many silent films are available to view online and my “research” (cough, cough) for this piece involved viewing a substantial number of them. It’s easy to understand their appeal to festival goers. In lieu of a Wodehousian example to share, I’d like to recommend a favourite from my own country.
Australia had an outstanding early film industry and The Sentimental Bloke (1919) is one of its best-known examples. This film adaptation of South Australian poet C.J. Dennis’s verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was the collaboration of two great figures of the Australian silent film era — Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell. ‘Do yourself a favour’ as the saying goes, and have a peek.
If you’re interested to know more about Longford, Lyell and early Australian cinema, have a look at this piece by William M. Drew.
And if you’re unacquainted with P.G. Wodehouse’s golf stories, The Clicking of Cuthbert is a fine place to start.
Wodehouse lovers in three countries, and travellers from further afield, have much to look forward to over the coming weeks — with three exciting events scheduled:
- September 25 — The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) Society Evening in London
- October 7 — Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society meeting and book launch in Amsterdam
- October 19-22 — The Wodehouse Society (US) convention in Washington DC
Wodehouse lovers are (as you would expect) a joyous lot and always ready to welcome newcomers. If you’d like to join them, here’s a taste of what you can look forward to.
London — September 25 – Society Evening and AGM at The Savile Club
The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) is meeting at The Savile Club, in the heart of the West End at 69 Brook Street, W1K 4ER. The evening starts with mingling at 6pm, and will include a brief history of The Savile Club and a Drones themes entertainment — as well as incorporating the Society’s AGM. This is an occasion for celebration, so please join us. Please note the dress code: No jeans or trainers; gentlemen are required to wear a jacket. New members are always welcome (and will be well looked after).
If the last Society evening is anything to go by (Wodehouse Society Confounds the Stuffed Eel Skin with Progressive Quiz ) it promises to be a corker.
Amsterdam — October 7 — Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society meeting and book launch
Time to let you in on a little secret. If I could work out the immigration logistics, I’d move to the Netherlands tomorrow. This afternoon, even — I have no distinct plans. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
There’s certainly a dash of something special sploshing about in all that water. The cities are attractive, well-governed and a paradise for cyclists and pedestrians (like me). The citizens are bright and amusing, and they know what to do with fish! And if that isn’t inducement enough, they also boast the oldest P.G. Wodehouse Society in the world. My family and I were privileged to spend time with Dutch society members during a recent trip to Amsterdam and The Hague. Hartelijk dank!
Washington — October 19-22 — The Wodehouse Society (US) Convention
The US Society Convention is the biggest event on the Wodehouse lover’s calendar. It only comes around every two years and the next binge, in Washington D.C., is just a month away. The event attracts a diverse audience of US Society members and international visitors. I thoroughly recommend the experience — you can read my report on the Psmith in Pseattle convention for a taste of what to expect.
There’s still time to register if you’re quick.
There is nothing quite like meeting other Wodehouse lovers in person. If you’d like to spread the news about a Wodehouse related event in your area, or tell us about a gathering you’ve had, I’d love to hear from you.
But if these events are beyond your means or international borders don’t despair. The feast of reason and flow of soul continues online in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group.
Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)
Back in June, you may recall, I gave my father a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Ukridge. Previous attempts to introduce Dad to the joys of Wodehouse had been unsuccessful – both The Little Nugget and a Jeeves novel had failed to click. But after a decent interval of about a decade, and a good deal of musing on the Psychology of the Individual, I bunged a copy of Ukridge in the post.
I felt supremely confident in my choice. Reading Ukridge always gives me a warm inner glow, and much of my early reading was influenced by my Father’s tastes. How could it fail? But as soon as the parcel left my clutches I began to waiver, because Ukridge is Wodehouse’s most divisive character. Some fans don’t enjoy these stories at all.
A look at Goodreads reviews for the book help to explain why.
JASON: Early Wodehouse work that didn’t quite meet the mark.’ And ‘…the fact of the matter is, the titular character, Ukridge, is a jerk. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I just can’t warm to him the way I did with Bertie Wooster.’
SPIROS: Chalk this one down to the axiom that artists and writers are notoriously unreliable judges of their own work: I remember reading somewhere that Ukridge was Wodehouse’s favorite of all the characters he created. I don’t see it, myself. He has none of the flair of Uncle Fred or Galahad Threepwood, none of the lyricism of Psmith, none of the muddleheaded chivalry of Bertie Wooster. Basically, he is a slightly more resourceful, boorish version of Bingo Little, Bertie’s chum who Jeeves was constantly extricating from the soup in the early Jeeves & Wooster stories…
RACHEL: This is the first of Wodehouse’s books that i’ve read that didn’t involve Jeeves. I can’t say I was overly enamoured. The book is set out in 10 shorter stories, many of which refer back to previous episodes, and are based around Ukridge trying to make money and in most case failing miserably. The stories were quite short and I found myself reading quickly just to get to the end of them. They do not have the same kind of humour that other Wodehouse novels do. Quite disappointing and not the place to start with Wodehouse. So many better novels have been written.
Ukridge is not a novel, but a collection of short stories. Partly, it’s the central character of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge that some readers dislike. Ukridge takes brazen advantage of the bonds of family and friendship to support his money-making schemes, and Corky the narrator is repeatedly put upon in this way. No sensible reader would want a person like Ukridge in their life, and some object to him on the page too. It’s a pity, because he’s a tremendous character.
Ukridge is also sometimes dismissed on the grounds of being an ‘early’ character, having first appeared in 1906 in Love Among The Chickens (which Wodehouse later rewrote). It’s not a view I happen to share. Much of Wodehouse’s early work is outstanding (I read the school stories often) and by the time Ukridge was published in 1924, Wodehouse had classics including Something Fresh (1915), Leave it to Psmith (1923) and The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) under his belt. Most of my own favourites were written during this period.
But I suspect the main cause of disappointment for Ukridge readers is that he is not Bertie Wooster. So often, the modern reader works their way through the Jeeves and Bertie stories without exploring the wider Wodehouse world until the supply of B. and J. has given out. The poor reader, familiar with these stories and expecting more of the same, finds a chap like Ukridge a bit of a jolt.
Indeed, Corky felt much the same way whenever Ukridge made an appearance in his life.
‘I was to give you this letter, sir.’
I took it and opened the envelope with a sigh. I had recognised the handwriting of Ukridge, and for the hundredth time in our close acquaintance there smote me like a blow the sad suspicion that this man had once more gone and wished upon me some frightful thing.
MY DEAR OLD HORSE,
It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me…
I laughed hollowly.
(‘The Return of Battling Billson’ in Ukridge)
My poor Father might well have had a similar response to the book shaped package that appeared on his doorstep in June, but his review, when it came via email from the antipodes, was a good one:
DAD: I was a little hesitant about starting it, because Wooster was not one of my favourite characters, but I became hooked and had to ration myself to two stories per night otherwise I would have still been reading at midnight!
The plots were deceiving – they seemed simple but became ever more complex. I liked the way it all came together in the last few paragraphs – leaving me somewhat stunned at the Wodehouse ingenuity. Although I doubt that the moral message of the Ukridge person would sit well with today’s “correctness” in all things.
However the cover of the modern edition was a bit off the mark. It depicts Ukridge as a John Lennon look-a-like – dapper and suave – with the tattered yellow mackintosh looking more like a tailored double-breasted overcoat!
I liked Stephen Fry’s evaluation on the back cover: “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”
I’m delighted that the old boy, now in his 70th year, and Wodehouse have finally clicked. I’ve sent him Blandings Castle and Elsewhere by return post.
The enduring appeal of PG Wodehouse: If you think it’s just farcical butlers and upper-class twits, think again!
In 2015, BBC radio presenter Kirsty Lang interviewed director Rob Ashford and writer Jeremy Sams about their stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. It’s one of Wodehouse’s many transatlantic tales, and delves into the world of musical theatre. The central character is an American composer of musical show tunes, and he manages to navigate life efficiently enough without the assistance of a manservant.
KIRSTY: Now Jeremy, it’s a very engaging production, but the story’ is very much of its time. How confident were you that it would work for a 21st Century audience?
JEREMY: Well you say it’s of its time. What I love about it is, the things that attracted me and my co-writer Robbie Hudson, are absolutely how we feel now about America and England, and actually about theatre and high art, if you like. And the ideas that musicals, which I happen to love, can be thought of as beautiful deep stuff, and not just fluff. It’s a conversation I have weekly to be honest. And the idea that America and England – we need each other – they need our history and class, if you like…. We certainly need their energy and commitment. And again, those ideas don’t seem dated to me.
This thoughtful reply, the notion that Wodehouse might have something of relevance or deeper interest beyond the usual assessment that it’s all fluff and nonsense, is so out of sync with the established patter about Wodehouse, that the presenter perhaps felt obliged to add:
KIRSTY: And I suppose there are aspects of, you know, Downton Abbey and Upstairs and Downstairs that we always love to watch, aren’t there?
American director Rob Ashford agrees politely. Neither he nor Sams take up the invitation to expand on this suggestion.
Kirsty Lang asked a similar question (again with reference to Downton Abbey) of Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, in a 2013 interview about their roles as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the original stage production Perfect Nonsense.
These are just a few examples. And, like Kirsty’s guests, I too have been subjected to questioning since arriving in Britain from my native Australia several years ago. It seems many Britons (those who haven’t read much Wodehouse) seem to have difficulty understanding his appeal to a youngish, leftish-leaning, Australian female. I’m not an anglophile, I don’t care much for Downton Abbey, and I’m not at all interested (as Ben MacIntyre suggests in the Sunday Times) in ‘a golden, admiring fantasy of upper-class life’ (in ‘Code of the Woosters has saved the upper class’).
Wodehouse’s appeal to Americans has been attributed to Anglophilia, and some have gone so far as to suggest that Wodehouse’s popularity in India stems from nostalgia for the British Empire, a view deftly handled by Shashi Tharoor.
I confess I’m slightly bothered by all the questioning and analysis, for behind this lies an assumption that Wodehouse’s appeal requires explanation. And this leads me in turn to ask why. Or more specifically:
Why is P.G. Wodehouse not more popular in his own country?
The question is not a slur on British readers. Wodehouse has a strong, intelligent and enthusiastic following here. Indeed, I’m meeting a bunch of them later this week at a gathering of the PG Wodehouse Society. They’re witty, generous people, frothing with conviviality. There just aren’t enough of them. Why?
I suspect it’s because the nation’s relationship with Wodehouse is more complex. Wodehouse’s wartime blunder, now rightly regarded as an innocent misjudgement, did incredible damage to his reputation at the time, and mud sticks. There is also a misguided but popular notion that Wodehouse’s stuff is silly, outdated nonsense written by, for and about upper-class twits. This assessment is of course grossly unfair, but we colonials (as Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy affectionately called us) should also acknowledge that it’s much easier to laugh at the British ruling class from a distance — it’s not our pay and conditions they might be cutting in the morning.
Our British friends deserve better, and I feel it would be a great service to help them rediscover one of their own national treasures. So I offer these genuine answers, from Wodehouse readers, to their oft-asked question.
Why do people love P.G. Wodehouse?
I asked members of the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group and received over 100 comments from readers in the USA, India, Norway, France, Austria, Hungary, Indonesia, Iceland, Britain and Ireland. None of them mentioned butlers, upper class twits, or Downton Abbey. Here’s a taste of what they had to say:
NIRMALA: The pure, poetic and passionate language mixed with innocent, genuine and it’s-going-to-be-ok-in-the-end-else-it-isn’t-the-end humour. Peace and happiness even amidst struggles.
DAVID: It is escapist literature without creating some sort of weird alternative universe. Tolkien had to create a whole world; Wodehouse just tweaked an existing one. I’ve never known anyone I could begin to compare with Bilbo Baggins, but I knew a man who could compare with Galahad Threepwood.
MISKIL: Plum’s books are my happy place. They transport me into an idyllic world where everything is sunny and light hearted. On a bad day I read a story and I feel uplifted with every page.
NANCY: It’s a timeless world. A bubble. Things will always work out. Plum’s words weave a web of joy. Because really, who doesn’t like to laugh?
LATA: Heart breaks are bearable to those who have read PG Wodehouse.
FRANK: The sheer fun in the words that often have access to quite deep thoughts. ‘You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underwear. One or the other. Not both.’
SHOBHANA: Everybody loves a fairy tale, pieces of happy inconsequential everyday happenings that lead to the “happily ever after” ending where all the various deviations from the main story line have been successfully gathered up by a master story teller who fills our world with laughter, sunshine and the ability to even guffaw at ourselves.
ASHOK: Think of idle pursuits, of romantic escapades, of life lessons couched in delectable humour…
UMA: His eye for detail…the characters are presented in such a way that they materialise right in front of you. His ability to stay neutral in the story…not creating a bias which most authors fail at…
JOHN The way he uses words to conjure up descriptions of people, events and thoughts. And the dialogue interplay between characters. It had me laughing out loud when I first discovered it aged 13/14 in my Grandparents front room when it was too wet to go outside. 46 years later and the works have lost none of their lustre.
ABIR: Above all…the wonderful language and descriptions which make you break out into uncontrollable laughter…even in awkward places.
DEBORAH: I delight in his mastery of English grammar.
KERRY: He insults people from lords to the lowest (or should that be from politicians to the highest) and in such a gentle way that no one could take offence.
SHRAVASTI: The good clean humour, the word play, the references to the Classics (I read Marcus Aurelius because of Plum), and the terrific anti- depressant effect.
MARGARET: There’s an underlying kindness, or ethic, to Plums characters. He may have a sharp eye for human frailty and even evil, but he’s never less than charming… Wodehouse takes issues seriously, but doesn’t take himself so seriously that the issues become secondary.
DAN: Command of the language, not just a big vocabulary but every word the right word. Also always funny.
MILIND: His impeccable sense of the ridiculous, his felicity with language, his perfect sense of timing……and the gentleness of his sarcasm and satire. After all, Wodehouse did more than all the Leftist ideologues put together, to gently and humorously underline the foppishness and idiosyncratic foibles of the British aristocracy……without a trace of bitterness.
SUKANYA: I love the humour in even the most inane situation, accepting people with their foibles, there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, …and the meta message of core values.
SUZANNE: I love Wodehouse’s writing because of his fabulous vocabulary and his unusual brand of humor. Bertie is especially funny because his humor is usually at his own expense. He puts everyone else ahead of himself, always trying to make people happy…
RANJANA: Plum is, actually, a way of life now, for some. One which believes in gentle humor, incandescent wit which glows but does not burn, core values delivered without sermons, and a magic world where despite insane events and impossibly convoluted plots, things always come right at the end. I would always trust someone who loves Plum. He is a way of life, a stamp of approval that you are, after all, a good egg.
RAJ: Because he makes you believe that all’s well with the world.
ARNAB: He makes one feel that life’s good after all
KAUSHIK: For me, he helps restores faith in humanity!
DRAISE: Wodehouse eases pain.
INDRANI: The faith that there will be Joy in the morning.
Perhaps what Wodehouse has to offer isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.
For the full (and idyllic troll-free) discussion, please join us in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook Group.
For UK fans, PG Wodehouse Society Annual Pub Quiz is on July 12, 2017 at The Savoy Tup
Originally posted on Nourish-n-Cherish:
P.G. Wodehouse offers us so much as readers, but he’s an inspiration for writers too. I asked Auriel Roe, author of A Blindfellows Chronicle, about Wodehouse’s influence on her writing.
How did you discover Wodehouse? Probably the Richard Briers and Michael Hordern radio version of Jeeves and Wooster. Dickens always intended his work to be read aloud and Wodehouse has just the right rhythms for this too, so that led me to read Wodehouse. Coming from a background in drama, I could tell instantly that Wodehouse’s characters and scenarios were theatrical.
Do you have a favourite Wodehouse novel or story? Probably Right Ho, Jeeves as it contains that supreme episode of the humour of embarrassment that Wodehouse does so well with Fink-Nottle presiding over a school prize giving ceremony. I’ve sat through a number of similar cringe-making efforts at these end-of-year offerings, one in which the guest speaker hadn’t prepared a speech and intoned “You’re all so lucky” probably about every thirty seconds; (she was quite famous too and we suspected she’d been at the juice).
Which character from Wodehouse’s world would you most like to be (or most identity with) and why ? I’m torn between wanting to be Wooster who takes such delight in the simple things in life such as a cooked breakfast and Jeeves who has a solution to every mishap, however unlikely it is to succeed.
How long have you been writing? In a proper sense, for the last two years, but it fits around a full time job, which is an asset to a writer as being in solitude for me would mean no ideas, and no little jottings in the writer’s notebook when you overhear something quirky or witness something bizarre. Writing for me all happened by accident a couple of summers ago when I had a peculiar little notion that swelled into a novel… What if a man in his sixties suddenly has his first crush? This became my novel A Blindefellows Chronicle which has recently been published.
How has Wodehouse influenced your work? I think my main character Sedgewick is something of a Jeeves/Wooster hybrid actually – Sedgewick is an awkward chap who often finds outlandish solutions to the predicaments that arise. Like Wooster, Sedgewick avoids romantic entanglements, and is most downhearted when a possible marriage looms. My novel is composite, the same set of characters in thirteen chronological stories, a structure Wodehouse favoured, each chapter/story able to stand alone.
Some people claim Wodehouse’s writing is too much a product ‘of his time ‘ to appeal to a modern audience. What do you think Wodehouse has to offer the 21st Century reader? Wodehouse continues to make people laugh so perhaps this humour contributes to making it timeless, but perhaps it’s only a brand of humour that the British have a feel for. Having said that, Wodehouse has never gone out of vogue in India; it’s sold next to the best sellers in airports and there was outrage when it was dramatized into Hindi. For years, the actor Martin Jarvis has held packed houses mesmerized with his readings of Wodehouse, which demonstrates an enduring appeal. As for what Wodehouse offers us today well, there’s just not enough comic literary fiction today. Comedy is not often written skilfully and Wodehouse is an example of how to do it which I’ve learned from.
I’m passionate about supporting writers who’ve been influenced by Wodehouse — please tell me about your book. Regarding style, I feel like I’ve written the novel I always wanted to read, which pays homage to my favourite writing… Wodehouse, Wind in the Willows, Cold Comfort Farm to name a few. Regarding content, I am a head of art and I wanted to base my story in a school which is probably what I know best. My first job was in a somewhat archaic boarding school so little aspects of those years have been used, albeit manipulated to almost unrecognisable proportions. Here’s the blurb to pop it into a nutshell…
“It was midday on 31 August and the new History master had arrived at Blindefellows, former charity school for poor, blind boys, now a second division private school for anyone who could pay.”– Thus commences the unlikely friendship between Sedgewick, the naive newcomer, and the rumbustious, Japes, Master of Physics, his worldly-wise mentor.
A Blindefellows Chronicle follows the adventures of a handful of unmarried faculty at an obscure West Country boarding school in a series of interlinked tales characterized by absurd, chortle-out-loud humour, punctuated by moments of unexpected poignancy.
Thanks Auriel and best of luck with your book. I’m looking forward to reading it
George Orwell was born on this day 1903.
Best known as the author of dystopian classics 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell also wrote a 1946 essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’.
The background to this story has been covered in much detail elsewhere.*
Before the start of the Second World War, P.G. Wodehouse was living in France. When the German Army invaded, he was among those captured and interned — in a succession of prison camps, from Belgium to Upper Silesia. He continued to write throughout his internment, and read his light-hearted camp diary aloud for the amusement of his fellow internees.
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.
(Wodehouse’s Second Berlin Broadcast)
Wodehouse was released in June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, and deposited at the Albion hotel in Berlin. While staying there, he met an old acquaintance, Werner Plack, whom he’d known during his stint as a writer in Hollywood. It was Plack who encouraged Wodehouse to make a series of broadcasts to fans in America (which had not yet entered the war) about his recent experience.
It seemed like a good idea to Wodehouse at the time. The talks made light of his experiences, in keeping with the British tradition of humour in the face of adversity.
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 weekend.
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Few people in Britain ever heard the broadcasts, but the ferocious public condemnation that followed was sufficient to convince many people that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser and traitor.
After the war, MI5 and British Foreign Office officials investigated the matter and agreed that Wodehouse had no case to answer. One British Foreign Office official noted:
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.
Sadly, the facts surrounding the broadcasts and findings of the MI5 investigation were never made public during Wodehouse’s lifetime, and even today some people find it difficult to shake their mistaken ideas about Wodehouse, or to report the matter with accuracy.
Writing in 1946, Orwell was certainly unaware of the full facts, and he had not heard or seen a transcript of the broadcasts. He unwittingly relies on misrepresented accounts of Wodehouse’s experience. For example, Orwell refers to “German officers in the neighbourhood frequently ‘dropping in for a bath or a party’” in the period immediately before Wodehouse’s internment.
With the full transcripts available to us, we can read Wodehouse’s remarks in context and understand there was no such party:
One’s reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternise and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is “Es ist schönes Wetter”, I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.
I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys. It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards
(Wodehouse’s First Berlin Broadcast)
Orwell may have been misled on some of the details, and I don’t agree with all of the points he makes, but his analysis demonstrates a sound knowledge of Wodehouse’s work, along with Orwell’s usual political astuteness.
In the desperate circumstances of the time, it was excusable to be angry at what Wodehouse did, but to go on denouncing him three or four years later – and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery – is not excusable. Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats – police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers – are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape. In England the fiercest tirades against quislings are uttered by Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940. I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse – just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed.
The following references / further reading are highly recommended to anyone wishing to better understand this chapter in P.G. Wodehouse’s life.
Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.
from: Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935)
So too, my own father has looked with a somewhat jaundiced eye on my enthusiasm for Wodehouse. For I made the mistake, many years ago, of introducing him to Wodehouse without first taking the time to consider what Jeeves refers to as the ‘Psychology of the individual’. I simply grabbed a book from my shelf at random and shoved it at him with hearty confidence.
The book in question was The Little Nugget (1913). It’s one of Wodehouse’s earlier novels and few people would rank it among his best, but I’m fond of it and had no inkling that it would fail to grip dear old Pa. But grip it didn’t. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t touched Wodehouse again, but with this experience now in the distant past, I feel the time is ripe to try again.
With well over 100 books by or about Wodehouse to choose from, if you’re looking for a Father’s Day gift for your Dad, whether he’s new to Wodehouse or already a fan, there’s plenty to choose from.
Here are five suggestions to get you started.
1. The Clicking of Cuthbert
Sporting gifts for Dad is one of the commercialised world’s biggest clichés, but if your sports-loving Dad has a sense of humour, this collection of golf stories is a terrific choice. Wodehouse enjoyed golf and his affection for the game shines through in these stories, which are among the best he ever wrote. No understanding of golf is required.
George Perkins, as he addressed the ball for the vital stroke, manifestly wobbled. He was scared to the depths of his craven soul. He tried to pray, but all he could remember was the hymn for those in peril on the deep, into which category, he feared, his ball would shortly fall. Breathing a few bars of this, he swung.
From: The Rough Stuff in The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922)
2. The Inimitable Jeeves
The Inimitable Jeeves makes a great introduction to Wodehouse and the Jeeves and Wooster stories. It’s a collection of connected stories rather than a traditional novel, making it a good choice for busy Dads, or those with a short attention span. I particularly recommend the short stories to commuters – they’re an ideal length and will put a spring your step for the rest of the day.
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. So that it was a bit of an anti-climax when I merely ran into young Bingo Little, looking perfectly foul in a crimson satin tie decorated with horseshoes.
From: The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
3. Uncle Fred in the Springtime
If your Dad is a genial old soul who enjoys reminiscing about his youth with a twinkle in his eye, try a dash of Uncle Fred. But be warned, Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred doesn’t just reminisce. He acts on his impulses, especially when Pongo’s Aunt Jane isn’t looking. In Uncle Fred in the Springtime, he and his long-suffering nephew visit Blandings Castle as imposters (there are wheels within wheels). And while being Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham, might save our hero from prosecution if his identity is revealed, it won’t save him from Aunt Jane.
‘Don’t blame me, Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘if Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you. God bless my soul, though, you can’t compare the lorgnettes of to-day with the ones I used to know as a boy. I remember walking one day in Grosvenor Square with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky, and a policeman came up and said the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle. My aunt made no verbal reply. She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holster and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp and fell back against the railings, without a mark on him but with an awful look of horror in his staring eyes, as if he had seen some dreadful sight. A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round, but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force, and eventually drifted into the grocery business. And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.
From: Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)
4. Bring on the Girls
If your Dad enjoys Wodehouse’s fiction, I strongly recommend this biographical volume by Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, Bring on the Girls: The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, with Pictures to Prove it. The Broadway musicals of Wodehouse, Bolton and Jerome Kern were enormously successful (2017 marks the centenary of Wodehouse having five original productions on Broadway) and Wodehouse and Bolton became lifelong friends. Bring on the Girls is a highly entertaining account of their career, written with the same panache you’d expect of any Wodehouse work.
At the outset it would have seemed that conditions for an early meeting were just right. Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, and almost simultaneously Bolton was added to the strength of Broxbourne, Herts. As the crow flies, Guildford and Broxbourne are not much more than twenty miles apart, and it is quite possible that the two infants, destined to collaborate for forty years, may often have seen the same crow engaged in checking the distance.
From: Bring On The Girls (1953)
For my own Dad, I’ve selected Ukridge. It’s a controversial choice perhaps, as Ukridge is one of Wodehouse’s most divisive characters. He is certainly a scoundrel who abuses the bonds of family and friendship, but he goes about his business with a hearty, almost infectious optimism – the big, broad, flexible outlook, he calls it. And Wodehouse’s joyous narration may appeal to anyone who has been repeatedly ‘touched for a fiver’ by an acquaintance lacking in both shame and moral compass. Wodehouse knew the feeling I suspect (Ukridge was inspired by a real person). He presumably made good on his ‘investment’ in the creation of Ukridge.
If the leading incidents of S.F. Ukridge’s disreputable career are to be given to the public – and not, as some might suggest, decently hushed up – I suppose I am the man to write them.
Finally, for the Wodehouse-loving Father who has almost everything, the Wodehouse expert and collector Tony Ring has recently parted with some rare gems from his collection, and these are available for sale from Noel Pearson’s Rare Books.
These are a few of my suggestions. What about yours?
Dads — please tell us what’s on your Wodehouse wish-list.
Happy reading and cheers to all Fathers, including my own!