Just in case you missed the recent series by Ashokia Bhatia celebrating Wodehouse’s young squirts and pests, his ‘Gallery of Rogue Kids’ is a delicious summary (with links to the previous installments).
Another specimen for the gallery might be ‘Albert the page’ at Belpher Castle in A Damsel in Distress (1919):
‘To one who saw his deep blue eyes and their sweet, pensive expression as they searched the middle distance he seemed like a young angel. How was the watcher to know that the thought behind that far-off gaze was simply a speculation as to whether the bird on the cedar tree was or was not within range of his catapult? ‘
Originally posted on ashokbhatia:
A saunter down the Gallery of Rogue Kids in Plumsville leaves us amazed at the innovative skills, cunning and resource of the children we come across in the works of P G Wodehouse.
Some end up boosting the sagging morale of their fathers. Some treat their step fathers with as much scorn as they can muster at a tender age. They do not spare them while out to collect protection money. Their antics could make or break matrimonial alliances in a jiffy. Souring up business deals comes easy to them. When they burn down cottages, guests are forced to seek shelter in garden sheds.
When seniors devise a Good Conduct award, they leave no stone unturned to prove their mettle. When infatuated with celebrities, they devote their lives to being worthy of their affections. When in the company of clergymen, they end up making them more spiritual, thereby making them…
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Having taken the obligatory swigs of orange juice, it gives me great pleasure to announce the prize winner of the ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ competition. Judging was more difficult than expected. I’m only sorry there aren’t enough prizes to go around.
The entries deserves some discussion, beginning with Sally — what a wonderful name for a Wodehouse lover. Sally was quick off the mark in suggesting Cakebread, butler of Shipley Hall in Money in the Bank. A fine answer. Even the name Cakebread implies calories. Those of you who’ve read Money in the Bank will also know it’s an alias. Cakebread isn’t Cakebread. He’s not a real butler either. But he is large.
‘The newcomer, as the sound of his footsteps had suggested, was built on generous lines. In shape, he resembled a pear, reasonably narrow at the top but getting wider and wider all the way down and culminating in a pair of boots of the outsize or violin-case type. Above these great spreading steppes of body there was poised a large and egglike head, the bald dome of which rose like some proud mountain peak from a foothill fringe of straggling hair.”
Money in the Bank
Corky Pirbright supported her nomination of Aunt Dahlia with well chosen quotations that remind us of her stout proportions. Aunt Dahlia is always a favourite among Wodehouse readers, and she looms large as a character in every sense.
“Aunt Dahlia is one of those big, hearty women. She used to go in a lot for hunting, and she generally speaks as if she had just sighted a fox on a hillside half a mile away.”
‘Jeeves and the Song of Songs’ (Very Good Jeeves)
As big personalities go, Aunt Dahlia is a winner, but she is far from being the fattest entrant. Bertie tells us she is a shorter, stockier specimen than Aunt Agatha. Comparisons with Mae West are made. These descriptions paint Dahlia as a large woman of full-figure. I’m not sure that her figure runneth over.
For that, we must turn to Noel Bushnell’s nomination of Lord Bittlesham, uncle of Bingo Little. He was one of the first candidates to spring to my mind when I posed this little contest. Bertie Wooster describes Bittlesham (before his elevation to the peerage, when he is still plain old Mortimer Little), as ‘the fattest man I have ever seen in my life.”
The motto of the Little family was evidently “variety”. Young Bingo is long and thin and hasn’t had a superflous ounce on him since we first met; but the uncle restored the average and a bit over. The hand which grasped mine wrapped it round and enfolded it till I began to wonder if I’d ever get it out without excavating machinery.
Jeeves in the Springtime (The Inimitable Jeeves)
A clear winner you might think, but Susan Jones’ nomination of the Empress of Blandings provided some restless hours of contemplation by the committee (self and cat). The rules do not state that the prize winning fat character must be human, and The Empress has form; she is a triple silver medalist in the fat pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural show. Being fat is her raison d’être!
Being a pig of substance hasn’t stopped the Empress of Blandings from winning the hearts of Wodehouse readers around the world (she even has a pub named after her). The Empress is a queen among her sex and her species — and what a fine species it is! You wouldn’t catch a pig making uncomplimentary remarks about another pig’s weight, or writing a mildly amusing book that repeatedly humiliates the central fat pig on account of his bulk. Her life is free from such unbecoming censure. Indeed The Empress might arguably be considered a model to us all, living mindfully in the moment, content to simply wallow, to eat, and to expand.
The Empress lived in a bijou residence nor far from the kitchen garden, and when Lord Emsworth arrived at her boudoir she was engaged, as pretty nearly always when you dropped in on her, in hoisting into her vast interior those fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories on which Whiffle insists. Monica Simmons, the pig girl, had done her well in the way of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes, and separated buttermilk, and she was digging in and getting hers in a manner calculated to inspire the brightest confidence in the bosoms of her friends and admirers.
Pigs Have Wings
If we all viewed our expanding waistlines — and those of our fellow citizens — with the same ambivalence as the Empress, the world would be a kinder, happier place.
I am compelled to hand the prize to Susan Jones.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. I’m sorry not to have prizes for you all, but if you’re ever passing through Somerset, I should be proud to stand you a pint in a local hostelry.
‘How’s the show going?’
‘It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
To celebrate the recent anniversay of the first Blandings novel, I visited the charming town of Chichester to see a new stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. This story first appeared as a serial in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1919, and was published in book form later the same year. During Wodehouse’s lifetime it was adapted as a silent film, a stage-play (by Wodehouse and Ian Hay), and as a 1937 musical starring Fred Astaire with music from George and Ira Gershwin.
Wodehouse’s own career in the theatre spanned some thirty years. He wrote several plays and was a theatre critic for Vanity Fair. His main contribution, however, was as a Broadway lyricist working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. The theatre world features frequently and is affectionately portrayed in his stories, including A Damsel in Distress.
Wodehouse belonged to the stage as well as the page. He even married into the chorus. So when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I was delighted and wasted no time in dashing off to Sussex to catch the final performance on June 27th. And boy am I glad I did!
The show has finished it’s run in Chichester, but you can still watch the rehearsal trailer. The story of my visit to Chichester and a glowing review of the show follows below.
My visit to Chichester
The first treat on my visit to Chichester occurred on route. The journey by train from my home in Somerset to Chichester requires roughly three hours, and about a dozen changes, but redeems itself by passing through Wodehouse’s former home town of Emsworth. As N.T.P Murphy confirms in The P G Wodehouse Miscellany (2015), Emsworth is the ‘real’ location of Belpher village, where A Damsel in Distress is set. For anyone who has visited this former oyster fishing town (as I did in 2013) Wodehouse’s depiction of Belpher is clearly the same place.
For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare — quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them.
A Damsel in Distress
Its proximity to Emsworth makes nearby Chichester a fitting place to stage this musical revival of A Damsel in Distress. It is also close to Goodwood Racecourse, where so many Wodehouse characters (notably Bingo Little) have lost a bundle.
Chichester itself is an attractive, prosperous looking town, with an attractive, prosperous looking populace and an air of genteel distinction. As someone who is neither attractive nor prosperous, I never felt more of a blot on the landscape as I did waddling down Chichester’s main street. Even the town’s elderly inhabitants — women old enough to have earned the right to elasticated waists and comfortable shoes — could be seen teetering precariously under half-a-ton of jewellery, on heels that would give me vertigo. It seems the good ladies of Chichester do not let themselves go – they cling on.
Inspecting myself critically in shop-windows, I felt increasingly like a worm who has gotten above itself and crawled into Princess Charlotte’s salade nicoise. So I popped into a local “outfitters to the gentry” in the faint hope that it’s never too late to start making an effort. I don’t know what I expected to find — some tasteful trousers or a tweed skirt. What I got was a shock. It seems the gentry and I are discrepant on matters of taste as well as oofiness. Whereas my inclination is to cover the baggage with cloth, the modern Lady seems to prefer the sort of costume that looks as if it’s been designed by the Gynecological Society to allow curbside examinations.
Leaving empty-handed, I proceeded to the Chichester Festival Theatre in a slightly nervous state (overtaking several septuagenarians in stilettos on the way), but my first sight of the theatre put me at ease. Of a stylish 1960s design and situated opposite an expansive lawn, it reminded me of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where I saw my first performances as a child and was later married in the rotunda on the lawn. The day was warm (in Chichester, not Adelaide) and the doors had been thrown open, bringing a refreshing breeze indoors. It was the sort of day Wodehouse himself might have written about, and I quickly felt at home among the throng of theatre-goers, beaming in happy anticipation.
Review of A Damsel in Distress
A Damsel in Distress did not disappoint. From the moment the chorus tapped out the opening number — Things Are Looking Up! — I knew I was in the presence of something special. I believe Rob Ashford, the show’s American director and choreographer is some sort of big-wig in the business — and by golly he oughta be! It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have been more perfect.
This adaptation compares favourably to both the original novel and the Astaire musical. George Bevan (played by Richard Fleeshman) is an American composer overseeing the introduction his latest Broadway hit to the London stage. He falls in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton (Summer Strallen), whose family mistake him for the man she loves. They want her to marry Reggie Byng (Richard Dempsey), who in turn loves Alice Keggs (Melle Stewart), who is Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary and a niece of Keggs of the Butler. Meanwhile George’s friend in the chorus, Billy Dore (Sally Ann Triplett), mistakes Lord Marshmoreton (the wonderful Nicholas Farrell) for a gardener, and captures his heart.
The unpleasantness of class snobbery pervades the piece — as it does throughout Wodehouse’s work. I am always bewildered by the popular misconception of Wodehouse as a preserver of class distinction, when his plots repeatedly smash both class and trans-Atlantic cultural barriers. In A Damsel in Distress, class snobbery is embodied in character of Lady Caroline Byng, who is Maud’s Aunt and Reggie’s step-mother. She wants them to marry, and strongly objects to George Bevan — member of the lower-classes, an American, and presumably poor — as a suitor. In the original book Aunt Caroline is supported by Maud’s brother, the repulsive Lord Belpher. In this adaptation she is the lone representative of class snobbery, wonderfully played by Isla Blair who is everything a stage Aunt and comedy villain ought to be.
This musical doesn’t skimp on matters below stairs either. Lead by Keggs the butler (Desmond Barrit), french chef Pierre (David Roberts) and Dorcas the undercook (Chloe Hart), the staff at Belpher castle plot to undermine Lady Caroline and support the amiable Lord Marshmoreton’s efforts to assert himself as head of the family. Their big song and dance number in the kitchen — Stiff Upper Lip steals the show — I’ve never heard this song sound so good. My daughter and I sang it all the way back to the station, and are still humming the tune a week later.
The entire cast and orchestra were superb. Richard Fleeshman was the perfect leading man as George Bevan, with matinee idol looks and a voice that makes you want to close your eyes and drink through your ears. Sally Ann Triplett sparkled as Billie Dore, who is the more appealing heroine in Wodehouse’s original book also. Lady Maud is one of Wodehouse’s least endearing heroines. As the distant maiden in castle — the damsel in distress of the title — George mostly admires her from a distance, whereas we encounter her close-up. The shallowness of her character (especially in the final scenes of the book) is uncomfortably clear, although the reader is content to feel George’s pleasure when she agrees to marry him. Summer Strallen makes Maud as appealing as she can, and sings beautifully.
The one jarring moment for me came when Reggie Byng made his first appearance in a flurry of ‘What Ho’s, ‘I Say!’s and ‘Tootle Pip!’s — looking and sounding like the sort of blithering idiot Wodehouse is famous for. Indeed for millions of people, creating upper-class twits is all Wodehouse is famous for. It seems no modern adaptation of his work can do without one. I’m not suggesting Reggie ought to have entered solemnly, quoting Proust, but I find the overplayed English twit caricature rather tiresome. But I’m clearly in a minority, and Reggie’s appearance at Chichester was a notable hit with the audience. Eventually I too was won over by Richard Dempsey in the role. His rendition of ‘I’m a poached egg without a piece of toast’ would have melted the sternest critic’s heart.
That’s the power of great musical comedy, and Wodehouse. They can transport us momentarily from our woes, and even our prejudices, to a state of carefree joy — something the multi-million dollar popular psychology business is still working at. They may be dismissed as ‘light entertainment’ by an overprivileged few, who perhaps have fewer woes to escape than the rest of us, but if you’re an out-of-place worm in the nicoise of life, the benefits are well worth the price of admission.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the show — the impressive sets, the costumes, the wonderful quality of the music, dancing and choreography (Pierre and Dorcas were a treat). Nor the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Farrell, who I’ve long admired since he appeared in my favourite television show (Drop the Dead Donkey). I could say so much more, but if I’m to post this review in the same decade in which I saw the bally thing, I really must draw the line somewhere.
If A Damsel in Distress plays anywhere near you, be sure to catch it!
It’s a pretty special week for P.G. Wodehouse fans. June 26th will mark 100 years since the first Blandings story, Something Fresh, was serialised in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’. It was published in book form later that year (in the U.S. as Something New).
If Wodehouse had not gone on to write more Blandings stories, Something Fresh would be highly-regarded as a fine comic novel. Aside from the memorable central romance between detective fiction writer Ashe Marson and the enterprising Joan Valentine, Wodehouse gives us all the subplots and subterfuge we expect from a Blandings adventure.
And as the work that introduced characters like Lord Emsworth, Freddie Threepwood, Rupert Baxter, and Beach, Something Fresh holds a special place in many Wodehouse lovers’ hearts. It’s one of the books I often return to. The title Something Fresh seems particularly apt because the story leaps from the page, as fresh to me as when I first read it over twenty years ago.
To say that Baxter’s heart stood still would be medically inexact. The heart does not stand still. Whatever the emotions of its owner, it goes on beating. It would be more accurate to say that Baxter felt like a man taking his first ride in an express elevator who has outstripped his vital organs by several floors and sees no immediate prospect of their ever catching up with him again.
It might equally have been titled ‘Something Special’ because there is an extra ‘something’ in this novel that arguably marked a turning point in his work. Perhaps there’s an added injection of happiness in there too — it was while writing Something Fresh that P.G. Wodehouse met and married Ethel Wayman.
He recalls this time in his Preface to a later penguin edition:
Half-way through it I got married (and have been ever since) to an angel in human form who had seventy-five dollars. As I had managed to save fifty, we were fairly well fixed financially, but we felt we could do with a bit more, and by what I have always looked on as a major miracle we got it. My agent, who must have been an optimist to end all optimists, sent the story to the Saturday Evening Post and George Horace Lorimer, its world famous editor, bought it as a serial and paid me the stupefying sum of $3,500 for it, at that time the equivalent of seven hundred gleaming golden sovereigns. I was stunned. I had always known in a vague sort of way that there was money like $3,500 in the world, but I had never expected to touch it. If I was a hundred bucks ahead of the game in those days, I thought I was doing well.
After an already impressive early career, P.G. Wodehouse had arrived!
For a full and informed review of Something Fresh, I recommend the excellent Bully — one of the first and best Wodehouse related blogs. It contains plot-spoilers, so you may prefer to read Something Fresh first. A free text version is available from Project Gutenberg.
Finally, a reminder.
It’s not too late to enter my fabulous competition: win a copy of 2015 Wodehouse prize winner ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ by Alexander McCall Smith.
To enter, just read my previous post respond with your answer to the question: Who is your favourite large/fat/generously proportioned Wodehouse character and why?
Competition closes July 12th 2015
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!’
from Very Good, Jeeves
Who is your favourite large/fat/generously proportioned Wodehouse character and why?
Last week, I reviewed the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize shortlist for comic fiction. This week, I’m offering the chance to win your very own (ever so slightly used) copy of the prize winning entry, Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith. The book follows the adventures of obese American businessman, ‘Fatty’ O’Leary on a visit to the Irish homeland of his ancestors. It’s one of those holidays on which everything that can go wrong, does, for McCall Smith’s plump and pleasant hero. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party was one of two shortlisted books with a ‘weighty’ theme this year. The heroine of Helen Lederer’s Losing It is an overweight minor celebrity who must meet a weight-loss goal to avoid financial ruin.
This competition, Plumtopia’s first, aims to celebrate some of the weightier characters of P.G. Wodehouse’s world. As a ‘woman of substance’ myself, I appreciate Wodehouse’s inclusion of plus sized heroines. His amusing descriptions of larger characters are simply that — amusing descriptions. Wodehouse doesn’t stoop to nastiness or passing judgement. This is one of many reasons why Wodehouse is loved by such a diverse range of people.
HOW TO ENTER
To enter the competition, simply answer the question:
Who is your favourite large/fat/generously proportioned Wodehouse character and why?
Please include the name of the story (if you can remember it).
1. You may enter as many times as you like.
2. Entries must be posted as a comment to this piece.
3. The most amusing and/or convincing response will be chosen by me, and anyone else who happens to be in the house or at the pub at the time of judging. The judges’ decision will be final.
4. Entries should be less than 5000 words — a good deal less. But don’t hold back if you want to write an essay.
5. Entries close at midnight GMT, Sunday 12 July 2015.
6. The winner will be announced at Plutmopia and contacted personally if contact details are available in their comment (e.g. a WordPress name or link to page with contact details). It is not advisable to share your address in your comment.
7. The winner shall receive, upon provision of their postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org, one slightly used (read by me) copy of Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.
8. If the total cost of postage exceeds £15 GBP, I reserve the right to panic and not send the bally thing at all. In this unlikely event, I will contact the winner and offer a substitute prize of similar value.
9. If no valid entry is received by the closing date, the prize will be given to my mother.
Whether this is worth your time and effort is another matter, but I’ve had a marvellous time writing the rules.
Our old friend Ashok Bhatia is currently investigating some of the young fiends who inhabit Wodehouse’s world. Happy reading!
Originally posted on ashokbhatia:
P G Wodehouse has etched out the kids in his works with much finesse. When it comes to ranking these kids on a Richter scale of Roguishness, our task is not too difficult. If Edwin, Thos and Seabury secure the top ranks, kid Blumenfeld, Bonzo and Sebastian Moon occupy the middle order. Kid Clementina, Oswald and Peggy Mainwaring appear to be competing for the lower ranks.
Prudence Baxter does not herself outsmart the real winners at an Egg and Spoon race. It is Jeeves’ desire to help a Bingo in distress which helps her to claim the prize.
Bingo Junior wins a baby contest and is blissfully unaware of the extent to which his accomplishment boosts up the morale of his father. He…
View original 1,555 more words
At last week’s Hay Festival, Alexander McCall Smith was announced winner of the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, for his book Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. The prize is awarded ‘in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse’. I’ve enjoyed many of the previous winners and shortlisted entries, but Wodehouse fans should not to expect great similarities between Wodehouse’s writing and these examples of modern genre.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at the 2015 shortlist.
How to Build a Girl by Cailtin Moran
“My life is basically The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”
Described as semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl follows 1990s teenager Johanna Morrigan’s efforts to recreate herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’. Author Caitlin Moran is a well-known UK columnist and celebrity, and reviewers have found much to like in her witty narrative style. Wodehouse fans be warned that it’s also heaving with sex and ‘bad language’, so it won’t appeal to everyone.
How to Build a Girl isn’t the sort of book I normally read — as someone who reads for escapist pleasure, the parallels between this story and my life may be a little too close for comfort. The legs on the cover are even wearing my shoes! Like Morrigan/Moran I’ve come from humble beginnings, and reinvented myself as Honoria Plum. Unlike Moran, success didn’t follow. On wrong side of forty, underpaid administrator and exhausted parent, my time and soul are not my own. I’m keeping the dream alive as best I can, writing daily at 5am and on the bus to work, but I’d find it easier to laugh at the mistakes of my youth if I was reading from a more comfortable chair.
In contrast, one of the many things I love about Wodehouse is that he doesn’t challenge me with my own mistakes or confront me with gritty realism. When I want those things, I’ll put my book down and look in the mirror. But I will read How to Build a Girl because it’s already struck a chord. And like all good things, even escapism needs to be enjoyed in moderation.
Losing It by Helen Lederer
It’s great to see women are writing comedy and being shortlisted for this prize. Like Moran, Lederer is well-known in the UK for her work in film and television comedy, and there are clear parallels between Lederer and Millie, the central character in Losing It . Millie is a middle aged, divorced TV star who accepts an offer to advertise diet pills to help resolve her financial difficulties. This isn’t a book I’d normally read (despite a personal resemblance to its fat, skint and middle aged heroine).
There’s a promising Wodehousian element to Lederer’s plot. Millie owes money to loan sharks, but spends her advance from the diet pill company on a holiday. Having spent the cash, she’s committed to losing weight in three months — by whatever means she can. I could see Wodehouse using this plot very well with a male central character, but not a woman.
Wodehouse created many plus-sized, middle-aged females. He usually describes them as ‘handsome’ and portrays them with personality and self-assurance. The tightness of arm-chairs upon hips is mentioned as a matter-of-fact, not censure (although some readers will certainly add that for themselves). In Wodehouse’s world, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and women are alright just as they are. This is something former Wodehouse Prize winner, the late Sir Terry Pratchett also excelled at. Pratchett created interesting heroines for all ages, shapes and sizes.
Among modern female writers there is a tendency to create neurotic heroines consumed with aesthetic self-judgement. As a reader, this doesn’t interest me any more than modern moralising about weight and beauty interests me in ‘real-life’. I prefer the Wodehouse-Pratchett view of women as worthy of our interest (and approval) just as they are. But Helen Lederer’s novel sounds like an authentic and funny variation on an otherwise tiresome theme, so I may well give this one a try.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
This novella tells the story of wealthy American tourist, ‘Fatty’ O’Leary’s, visit to Ireland — home of his ancestors. It’s a holiday in which just about everything that could go wrong, does.
I’ve done the dutiful thing and purchased this prize-winning book, but with reservations. I didn’t enjoy the previous McCall Smith I tried — The Sunday Philosophy Club. A great title, but I found the central character, Isabel Dalhousie, a terrible snob. She dislikes one character and tries to ruin his relationship because she doesn’t approve of the university he attended or the colour of his trousers. Wodehouse himself created many snobbish characters for us to laugh at, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether McCall Smith’s heroine was intentionally flawed, or if her judgmental views reflected those of the author.
Putting this experience aside, I will approach Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party with an open mind, in knowledge that this book impressed the Wodehouse Prize judges. McCall Smith is certainly the most established and prolific author in the shortlist, with a large international audience (that includes my own mother). So I’m hopeful of finding much to like in Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Another semi-autobiographical novel from a female writer (should I be rethinking my own comic writing along similar lines?). Man at the Helm follows Nina Stibbe’s highly regarded first book ‘Love, Nina’, memoirs of the author’s days as a nanny for London editor Mary Kay-Wilmers. Man at the Helm is a tale of two sisters trying to find a man for their mother. In a glowing review for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway describes Stibbe’s ‘eye and ear for the absurd’ — something very much in the Wodehouse tradition.
Like everything else on the list so far, this isn’t something I would gravitate towards in a bookstore. I don’t tell you this to pooh-pooh the books, but rather to make you aware this isn’t a sub-genre I’m familiar with — so you can assess my response accordingly. It would be wonderful to discover a shortlisted book that fits my tastes perfectly, but I am just as happy to read beyond my usual preferences and perhaps discover new favorites. Nina Stibbe could well prove to be one of them.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
“I was like the dog with the empty bladder that nonetheless goes from tree to tree, stopping at each one to cock his leg in vain”.
For Joseph O’Neill’s sake, I hope The Dog is not semi- autobiographical, although similarities with his previous novel Netherland might cause people to wonder. The Dog‘s unnamed narrator is a Swiss-American lawyer working in Dubai for an obscenely rich family. He’s a keen observer of social media, but his Linked In profile probably doesn’t tell you that his hobbies include frequenting prostitutes and bemoaning the failure of his last relationship. It’s a long way from Wodehouse, and definitely involves humour of another kind.
Max Liu, in a review for The Independent , says:
“He articulates a kind of business class existentialism, which is difficult to get excited about, and The Dog is composed of deliberately convoluted sentences which thwart the reader’s absorption.”
But one man’s idea of ‘convoluted’ signals ‘literary merit’ to another, and by that measure, The Dog is the most literary entrant in this year’s shortlist, being long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It’s also the hardest to understand without reading the dashed thing (which, on balance, I’m not inclined to do). Some reviewers find it eye-gougingly dull. The Times review quoted on the cover calls it ‘brutal’ and ‘witty’. Comparisons are made with Kafka, Bret Easton Ellis and Nick Hornby. Others consider O’Neill among a modern literary elite, too high for appreciation by the common reader. It may be all those things, but I’m as common as muck so I’ll be giving this one a miss.
A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh
Wodehouse famously never wrote about sex, but A Decent Ride is the third shortlisted book to come with a warning to Wodehouse fans about sexually explicit content. And I don’t just mean a bit of bedroom hanky-panky. Modern comedy writing has indeed moved on in this respect, but it may well have gone backwards when it comes to quality — if Stuart Kelly’s review in The Guardian is anything to go by. Entitled ‘A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review –poor writing and penis jokes’, Kelly begins:
Given that it features incest, rape, grave desecration, necrophilia and one character filling a terminally ill man’s saline drip with urine and semen, it is curious that the most shocking thing about Irvine Welsh’s new novel, A Decent Ride, is that it was published at all.
This will be enough for many Wodehouse readers to know that A Decent Ride is not for them. I’m reasonably broadminded, and I don’t mind the judges challenging our ideas of comedy writing. The first unfamiliar Wodehouse Prize winning author I ever read was Christopher Brookmyre, who is a long way from the Wodehouse tradition, but I was glad to have read Brookmyre. A Decent Ride definitely isn’t for me.
What do you think?
It’s a thought provoking, thoroughly modern short-list. There is no escapist or comic fantasy, with the death of Terry Pratchett leaving a gaping hole in that area. As good as some of these shortlisted novels undoubtedly are, there’s nothing much to remind the modern Wodehouse reader of Wodehouse. Is the Wodehouse tradition at an end? I hope not.
If you’ve read any of the shortlisted books or, like me, have the temerity (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves) to discuss them without having bothered — I’d love to know what you think.
My reviews of Wodehouse Prize winning and shortlisted authors occasionally appear at Plumtopia. I’d be happy to share yours here too.
Meet Jeeves, the world’s most famous valet and P.G. Wodehouse’s best known character. The name Jeeves has come to symbolise the epitome of efficient service to millions who’ve never even read Wodehouse. Among fans, he is spoken of with a reverence usually reserved for deities. And how many of us have wished for a Jeeves in our lives? But is this rosy view of Jeeves’ as Bertie Wooster’s domestic saviour justified, when so often it is Jeeves who contrives the situations from which Bertie must be rescued? Nor is his support lacking in self-interest. In Wodehouse’s idyllic world, is Jeeves more serpent than servant?
The story of Jeeves’ introduction to the Wooster home is told in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’ (Carry On Jeeves). Jeeves enters Bertie’s employment after Bertie’s previous man, Meadowes, is caught pinching his socks.
I was reluctantly compelled to hand the misguided blighter the mitten and go to London to ask the registry office to dig up another specimen for my approval. They sent me Jeeves.
Jeeves enters in style, his almost supernatural powers evident from the first.
…he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start. Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in.
Jeeves’ first act is to mix Bertie a hangover remedy that instantly transforms his new employer from a weakened state, winning his approval. A mere page after his arrival however, Bertie notices ‘…a kind of rummy something about his manner’ when Bertie announces he is engaged to Lady Florence Craye. The page after that, Jeeves conveys his disapproval of Bertie’s check suit.
Again there was that kind of rummy something in his manner. It was the way he said it, don’t you know. He didn’t like the suit. I pulled myself together to assert myself. Something seemed to tell me that, unless I was jolly careful and nipped this lad in the bud, he would be starting to boss me. He had the aspect of a distinctly resolute blighter.
Bertie tells us Florence Craye is ‘…a dear girl, and, seen sideways, most awfully good-looking; but if she had a fault it was a tendency to be a bit imperious with the domestic staff.’ Florence orders Bertie to destroy his Uncle Willoughby’s memoirs, which contain some rather fruity stories about her father, before they reach his publisher. Bertie pinches the manuscript and asks Jeeves to dispose of the remains, but Jeeves posts it to the publisher. When Florence cancels their engagement, Bertie is appalled to discover Jeeves’ presumptuous interference in his affairs and sacks him.
Jeeves slips off the mask of deference and explains his motives:
“As I am no longer in your employment, sir, I can speak freely without appearing to take a liberty. In my opinion you and Lady Florence were quite unsuitably matched.”
He speaks at length of Florence’s bad temper, her reputation in the servants’ hall, and her plans for Bertie’s education — having started him on Types of Ethical Theory, she was preparing to introduce him to Nietzsche.
“…You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
On reflection, Bertie sees that he is well out of the engagement, and we feel relieved for him. But he reinstates Jeeves without pausing to question Jeeves’ methods or motives. It is certainly in Jeeves’ interests to remove Lady Florence as a dominating force in Bertie’s life (as he does with Bertie’s later love-interests). Even if we feel Jeeves’ motives are sound, his underhanded methods are not. To interfere in the love-life of a friend is a moral grey-area, but as a new employee it definitely crosses the line.
Poor Bertie is too preoccupied with his lucky escape from Florence Craye, and hailing Jeeves as his saviour, to appreciate that he may have succumbed to an equally dominant force in Jeeves.
“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”
I hesitated a bit. I had a feeling that I was passing into this chappie’s clutches and that if I gave in now I should become just like poor old Aubrey Fothergill, unable to call my soul my own. On the other hand, this was obviously a cove of rare intelligence, and it would be a comfort in lots of ways to have him doing the thinking for me. I made up my mind.
“All right, Jeeves,” I said. “You know! Give the bally thing away to somebody!”
He looked at me like a father gazing tenderly at the wayward child.
“Thank you, sir. I gave it to the under-gardener last night. A little more tea, sir?”
And so, like the young Dorian Grey, our hero Wooster makes his pact. If this was the first installment in a sci-fi serial, we would have sufficient clues to mistrust Jeeves’ and gnash our teeth between episodes in fear for Bertie’s safety. But somehow we do not. We too are under Jeeves’ spell. Snake or saviour? It’s too soon to tell.
This delightful four-part series from the Inimitable Ashokbhatia explores the ups and downs of married life for Bingo Little and Rosie M Banks — one of my favourite Wodehouse couples. It’s always a pleasure to read Mr Bhatia’s stuff, but he’s really excelled himself this time. Enjoy!
Originally posted on ashokbhatia:
Present tense, future perfect
Many of us, the residents of Plumsville, are familiar with eligible bachelors and spinsters who dot its magnificent landscape. Their attempts at attracting each other, as well as their romantic rifts, keep us glued to many a narrative. Incurable optimists that we are, we believe that once they have tied the knot, they would live happily ever after. Their present may be tense, but their future would surely be perfect.
But life has this innate tendency to keep them baffled. The harsh slings and arrows of Fate continue to torment them with equal ferocity even after they have sauntered down the aisle with their soul mates and we, the gullible readers, have mistakenly decided to breathe easy.
To PG Wodehouse’s credit, he etches out the struggles of married couples with as much aplomb as he does those of bachelors and spinsters in his narratives.
View original 1,108 more words
During the recent bout of UK election campaigning, I have regrettably observed the name of Wodehouse lugged into political debate on Twitter by people with strange ideas about Wodehouse (a man whose family could not afford to send him to University) as some sort of establishment figure representing wealth, privilege and the ‘old boys’ network. I have no wish to prolong the life of ill-informed ‘tweets’ by sharing them here, but certain remarks were still rankling somewhere in the dungeon I like to call my mind, when I read the following passage in The Pothunters.
Barrett stood at the window of his study with his hands in his pockets, looking thoughtfully at the football field. Now and then he whistled. That was to show that he was very much at his ease. He whistled a popular melody of the day three times as slowly as its talented composer had originally intended it to be whistled, and in a strange minor key. Some people, when offended, invariably whistle in this manner, and these are just the people with whom, if you happen to share a study with them, it is rash to have differences of opinion. Reade, who was deep in a book — though not so deep as he would have liked the casual observer to fancy him to be — would have given much to stop Barrett’s musical experiments.
The young Wodehouse astutely paints such interactions between schoolboys with both humour and a dash of insight that still strikes a chord, more than a century after publication. The passage continues:
To ask him to stop in so many words was, of course, impossible. Offended dignity must draw the line somewhere. That is one of the curious results of a polite education. When two gentlemen of Hoxton or the Borough have a misunderstanding, they address one another with even more freedom than is their usual custom. When one member of a public school falls out with another member, his politeness in dealing with him becomes so Chesterfieldian, that one cannot help being afraid that he will sustain a strain from which he will never recover.
There was little evidence of this public school ‘code of conduct’ in the televised spat between Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband on the Andrew Marr Show. While their conversation (if that’s what the various buffering noises indeed were) may not inspire the concerned citizen with hope for the future, it sparked my interest as a Wodehouse reader when argument shifted to their shared school days. I provide a rough transcript (minus the buffering noises):
BORIS: Not only did we go to the same University, we went to the same Primary School, a fact… you won’t hear Ed Milliband admitting very often.
ED: Not the same secondary school.
The episode reminded me of the altercation between Rev. Stanley Brandon and his bishop in ‘Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo’.
‘Who ever told you you were an authority on chasubles?’ demanded the vicar.
‘That’s all right who told me,’ rejoined the bishop.
‘I don’t believe you know what a chasuble is.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Well, what is it, then?’
‘It’s a circular cloak hanging from the shoulders, elabroately embroidered with a pattern and with orphreys. And you can argue as much as you like, young Pieface, but you can’t get away from the fact that there are too many orphreys on yours. And what I’m telling you is that you’ve jolly well got to switch off a few of these orphreys or you’ll get it in the neck.’
The vicar’s eyes glittered furiously.
‘Is that so?’ he said. ‘Well, I just won’t, so there! And it’s like your cheek coming here and trying to high-hat me. You seem to have forgotten that I knew you when you were an inky-faced kid at school, and that, if I liked, I could tell the world one or two things about you which would probably amuse it.’
‘My past is an open book.’
‘Is it?’ The vicar laughed malevolently. ‘Who put the white mouse in the French master’s desk?’
Open rifts between old boys are rare in Wodehouse. In the above case, the young curate Augustine Mulliner saves the day. Under the influence of strong tonic, he intervenes to remind the old fools of their shared bond:
‘…But what,’ said Augustine, soothingly, ‘are a few orphreys between friends? Reflect! You and our worthy vicar here were at school together. You are bound by the sacred ties of the old Alma Mater. With him you sported on the green. With him you shared a crib and threw inked darts in the hour supposed to be devoted to the study of French. Do these things mean nothing to you? Do these memories touch no chord?’ He turned appealingly from one to the other. ‘Vicar! Bish!’
The vicar had moved away and was wiping his eyes. The bishop fumbled for a pocket-handkerchief. There was a silence.
‘Sorry, Pieface,’ said the bishop, in a choking voice.
‘Shouldn’t have spoken as I did, Boko,’ mumbled the vicar.
These ‘sacred ties’ of the old school crop up often in Wodehouse — it’s a fantastic comic plot device. When a chap encounters another chap sporting the old school tie, he feels both a sense of camaraderie and the pull of obligation. Even if the other fellow is a stranger, the well bred public school gentlemen cannot refuse another old-boy lunch or the loan of a fiver.
Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge’s whole mode of existence depends upon this code. In ‘A Bit of Luck for Mabel’ (in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets) Ukridge touches old school-fellow George Tupper for a fiver on page 136 of the Penguin edition (for the price of admission to Ascot) and again on page 137 for a new ‘topper’.
For a man like me, Corky, may be down, but he is never out. So swift were my mental processes that the time that elapsed between the sight of that ruined hat and my decision to pop round to the Foreign Office and touch George Tupper for another fiver was not more than fifty seconds. It is in the crises of life that brains really tell.
The Ukridge stories amuse us with his outrageous personal abuses of the ‘old boys’ network, which his former school-fellows accept under the pressure of his forcefully engaging personality. He pinches their clothes, and extracts their surplus funds on the flimsiest pretexts.
‘This suit? — this shabby, worn out suit? — you don’t really mean to stand there and tell me that you actually wanted this ragged, seedy, battered old suit? Why, upon my honest Sam, when I came upon it while rummaging through your belongings yesterday, I thought it was just something you had discarded years ago and forgotten to give to the deserving poor.’
I spoke my mind. Any unbiased judge would have admitted that I had cause for warmth. Spring, coming to London in a burst of golden sunshine, was calling imperiously to all young men to rejoice in their youth, to put on their new herringbone-pattern lounge suits and go out and give the populace an eyeful; and this I had been prevented from doing by the fact that my new suit had mysteriously disappeared.
After a separation of twenty-four hours, I had met it in Piccadilly with Ukridge inside it.
(Ukridge and the Old Stepper)
Aside from being swindled themselves, Ukridge’s friends are often drawn-in to his schemes to swindle and defraud the unsuspecting public, even his own family, in the pursuit of financial gain. The evidence suggests Wodehouse’s Ukridge was inspired by one particular fellow (see N.T.P Murphy’s Wodehouse Miscellany for details), but if Ukridge represents a ‘type’ amongst former public-school fellows, it may explain why our more expensively-educated politicians hold such warped ideas about poverty.
Readers less familiar with Ukridge (you have a treat in store) will recognise the ‘code’ of standing by one’s former school-fellows from the adventures of Bertie Wooster. Bertie is frequently embroiled against his better judgement in dubious schemes at the behest of ‘old boys’ like Bingo Little, Tuppy Glossop and Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s loyalty makes him prey to manipulation by less honourable schoolboys, allowing Wodehouse to place him in all manner of comically unpleasant situations for our amusement.
That Wodehouse’s name has become associated with the privileged ‘old boys network’ is perhaps understandable — I know of no other writer who has used the (exaggerated) bonds of the ‘old school’ to such an extent. Wodehouse also remained devoted to his own school, Dulwich, throughout his long life. What I cannot fathom is the sneering way in which Wodehouse’s name is used, as if the attributed association with Wodehouse is censure in itself. This cannot be on account of the scandalous Ukridge, Wodehouse’s least known central character, whose morally dubious schemes always fail. Nor is there any suggestion that Wodehouse himself was ever ingratiated in the sort of old-boy ‘I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine’ network that the voting public rightly objects to (self included).
People from all walks of life have laughed at Wodehouse’s old boys, as we are unable to laugh at our politicians, because the joke is always on them. Not us! Wodehouse reflected humanity at its most ridiculous. He gave us only a handful of political candidates, most notably: Sir Roderick Spode and his nationalist Black Shorts gang; the morally dubious Conservative and Unionist candidate Sir Gregory Parlsoe, Bart; and Comrade Bingo’s revolutionary pals, the Heralds of the Red Dawn. All are equally silly in Wodehouse’s world, as indeed they are in ours.
Wodehouse was not a political or social commentator, and any ‘messages’ we take from his work about the ‘old boys network’ or politics are likely to be ours, not his. Some Wodehouse readers feel his stuff romanticises wealth and privilege. Others, like myself and George Orwell, find more egalitarian values to admire. Returning to The Pothunters for an example, when one of the richest boys in the school is robbed of a few pounds, he writes:
Adamson was in the same House as Jackson, and had talked of nothing else throughout the whole of lunch. He was an abnormally wealthy individual, however, and it was generally felt, though he himself thought otherwise, that he could afford to lose some of the surplus.
Now this is the sort of Wodehouse spirit I wish to see in a candidate! Ironically, Ed and Boris were supposed to be discussing the issue of ‘Nom Dom’ status (which allows wealthy individuals to stash wealth offshore to avoid paying tax) when their conversation detoured onto educational matters.
My advice to political correspondents and tweeters looking for inspiration from Wodehouse is, instead of focusing on where candidates went to school, perhaps we should follow Comrade Psmith’s example and ask:
“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”
(Psmith, in Mike and Psmith)