Suffering from cheerfulness – Wodehouse at War

p-g-_wodehouse2c_1930
PG Wodehouse (1930)

ARE YOU A VICTIM TO OPTIMISM?

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

1. DO YOU SUFFER FROM CHEERFULNESS?

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

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

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

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

WE CAN CURE YOU.

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

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

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

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

Sir,

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

I am, Sir,

FED-UP

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

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

Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest. At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long week-end.

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

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

The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.

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

The lads from ‘Wipers’ would have relished having Wodehouse’s brilliant pen and stiff-upper-lip on staff. Here he is again in the third ‘Berlin Broadcast’:

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

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

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

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

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

“I do not think that anyone would seriously deny that ‘L’affaire Wodehouse’ was very much a storm in a teacup. It is perfectly plain to any unbiased observer that Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent. He is reported to be of an entirely apolitical cast of mind; much of the furore of course was the result of literary jealousies.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.56.30 AMIain Sproat’s book ‘Wodehouse at War’ demonstrates Wodehouse’s innocence and shows how the campaign against him was orchestrated. And Wodehouse biographies by Robert McCrum and Frances Donaldon make it clear that Wodehouse had no personal or political connections to the Nazis.

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

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

You can read the full broadcasts here.

HP

 

9 thoughts on “Suffering from cheerfulness – Wodehouse at War

  1. Pingback: No Poohs is good Poohs | Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse

  2. Although I’ve always exonerated Wodehouse from being a Nazi sympathiser, I’ve remained surprised at his naivety in making the broadcasts. From the first broadcast, the way he describes the German soldiers as jolly nice people on the whole and uses words like ‘fraternize’ shows a real lack of understanding of the feelings of people whose relatives were being killed by German soldiers. I know my own father, who fought throughout the whole war, had a bitter hatred of the Germans that never fully dissipated. It’s easier for those of us who weren’t there, and who can see the whole thing more objectively, to exonerate Wodehouse, but the reaction to the broadcasts was fairly understandable at the time, I feel.

    1. The feelings you describe are entirely understandable, although it wasn’t the ordinary people of Britain, or even soldiers, who reacted angrily to Wodehouse’s broadcasts (some servicemen who heard them were quoted as enjoying them, and expressing surprise that the German’s had permitted him to make them). The reaction to Wodehouse was a calculated, political one – and the public response that followed was entirely orchestrated to suit this purpose. However discomforting it may have been for some people at the time, Wodehouse wasn’t the first or the last writer to credit his captors/enemy with some redeeming human qualities. I think it tends to show him in rather a good light. But as you say, this is a much easier judgement for me to make, some 60 years later.

  3. Pingback: Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom | Honoria's Bookshelf

  4. never understood how the malignant idiocy of that ‘cassandra’ fellow was taken seriously.

    in the most trying moment of his life (& his country’s), wodehouse retains an insouciant, jaunty, self-mocking, quintessentially english sense of humour. is there a better example of “englishness” (as it was), or of the typically english (unperturbed, off-hand) response to adversity?

    irony requires sensitive hearing. some fellows just can’t pick it up. (the germans certainly didn’t.)

  5. Pingback: Wodehouse misremembered | Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse

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