P.G. Wodehouse Reference Guide for Political Commentary

The name P.G. Wodehouse is seeing a resurgence in the somewhat unlikely arena of online political commentary, particularly in Britain.  This puts some people — those who’ve never read any Wodehouse, but seem determined to lug him into the row anyway — at a disadvantage.

So I’ve put together this handy reference guide to help anyone wanting to avoid making an ass of themselves when referencing Wodehouse and his characters.

code-of-the-woostersBertie Wooster

An affable young man with sufficient inherited wealth to live comfortably in a rented flat in London’s Berkley Square and keep a manservant. He owns no property. Bertie is content with his situation and shows no ambition for either politics or increasing his wealth through work or other means (besides an occasional flutter at the races). He is one of the Drones Club’s richer members.

Here is what Bertie Wooster has to say about politicians:

‘Have you ever met a Cabinet Minister? I know dozens, and not one of them wouldn’t be grossly overpaid at thirty shillings a week.’ (Joy in the Morning)

And

‘There are bigger fatheads than Stilton among our legislators — dozens of them. They would probably shove him in the Cabinet.’ (Joy in the Morning)

Here he is on fascism, objecting to Black Shorts leader Roderick Spode:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?” (The Code of the Woosters)

And on communism, here’s his response to a question from Comrade Rowbotham:

‘Do you yearn for the Revolution?’

‘Well, I don’t know that I exactly yearn. I mean to say, as far as I can make out, the whole nub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don’t mind owning I’m not frightfully keen on the idea.’   (The Inimitable Jeeves)

Bertie is not without his faults — he’s a fathead by his own admission, and easily manipulated into acting against his own better judgement. But those people presenting him as some sort of alt-right poster-boy have got the wrong man.

Sir Roderick Spode

Wodehouse’s amateur dictator Roderick Spode, as described in The Code of Woosters, bears a strong resemblance to Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists (the Blackshirts).

Don’t you ever read the papers? Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.’

‘Well, I’m blowed!’ I was astounded at my keenness of perception. The moment I had set eyes on Spode, if you remember, I had said to myself ‘What ho! A Dictator!’ and a Dictator he had proved to be. I couldn’t have made a better shot, if I had been one of those detectives who see a chap walking along the street and deduce that he is a retired manufacturer of poppet valves named Robinson with rheumatism in one arm, living at Clapham.

‘Well, I’m dashed! I thought he was something of that sort. That chin…Those eyes…And, for the matter of that, that moustache. By the way, when you say ‘shorts’, you mean ‘shirts’, of course.’

‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’

‘Footer bags, you mean?’

‘Yes.’

‘How perfectly foul.’

(The Code of the Woosters)

Astute observers have been drawing comparisons between Spode and our own aspiring dictators for some years now.

Gussie Fink-Nottle  

There is no evidence in the literature that Gussie Fink-Nottle, admittedly an ass in other respects, took part in political life — or indeed any life at all.

This Gussie, then, was a fish-faced pal of mine who, on reaching man’s estate, had buried himself in the country and devoted himself entirely to the study of newts, keeping the little chaps in a glass tank and observing their habits with a sedulous eye. A confirmed recluse you would have called him, if you had happened to know the word, and you would have been right.

(The Code of the Woosters)

Some people have likened this fictional newt-fancier to the Conservative Member of Parliament for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg. There may be a superficial piscine resemblance between these bespectacled exhibts, but comparing the Honourable Member to one of Wodehouse’s more harmless creations is arguably letting the fish off the hook.

Comrades Butt and Waller 

Wodehouse takes aim at the left too. When Bertie has the Heralds of the Red Dawn around for tea, Comrade Butt shoves the foodstuffs down without any gratitude towards his host.

‘I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!’

‘Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!’

‘I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,’ said old Rowbotham. ‘And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.’

Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.

(The Inimitable Jeeves)

And then there’s Comrade Waller who, much like the modern left, is apt to create division within his own audience.

‘…the speaker, branching off from the main subject of Socialism, began to touch on temperance. There was no particular reason why Mr Waller should have introduced the subject of temperance, except that he happened to be an enthusiast. He linked it on to his remarks on Socialism by attributing the lethargy of the masses to their fondness for alcohol; and the crowd, which had been inclined rather to pat itself on the back during the assaults on Rank and Property, finding itself assailed in its turn, resented it. They were there to listen to speakers telling them that they were the finest fellows on earth, not pointing out their little failings to them.

(Psmith in the City)

Alexander Charles “Oofy” Prosser

If you’re looking for an example of idle wealth and privilege in Wodehouse’s world, try “Oofy” (that’s slang for wealthy) Prosser. As a beneficiary of the Prossers Pep Pills family fortune and the Drones Club’s only millionaire, Oofy is much sought after by less pecunious club members for small loans. Their appeals always fail because Oofy would rather swindle his pals out of a few bob than part with the stuff.

When Oofy discovers Freddie Widgeon has drawn his gargantuan Uncle Horace in the ‘Fat Uncles sweepstake’, he tricks Freddie into exchanging tickets.

…the thought that Freddie Widgeon and not he would win all that lovely money was like a dagger in Oofy’s bosom. We said earlier that he did not need the cash, but it was we who said it, not Oofy. His views on the matter were sharply divergent. Whenever there was cash around, he wanted to get it. It was well said of him at the Drones that despite his revolting wealth he would always willingly walk ten miles in tight boots to pick up twopence. Many put the figure even lower.

The Fat of the Land (A Few Quick Ones)

And lunching at the expense of Bingo Little, Oofy gorges himself with utter disregard for the bill, although Bingo’s recurring financial difficulties are well-known.

It is not too much to say that from the very outset he ate like a starving python. The light, casual way in which he spoke to the head waiter about hot-house grapes and asparagus froze Bingo to the marrow. And when—from force of habit, no doubt—he called for the wine list and ordered a nice, dry champagne, it began to look to Bingo as if the bill for this binge was going to resemble something submitted to Congress by President Roosevelt in aid of the American Farmer.

All’s Well With Bingo (Eggs, Beans and Crumpets)

Sir Jasper Addleton O.B.E and the British Aristocracy

But why stop at honest wealth and privilege when Wodehouse gives us many examples of excesses gained through more unscrupulous methods. Like the financier Sir Jasper Addleton, O.B.E. who encounters the detective Adrian Mulliner at house dinner party.

The O.B.E., as he followed him into the cool night air, seemed surprised and a little uneasy. He had noticed Adrian scrutinizing him closely across the dinner table, and if there is one thing a financier who has just put out a prospectus of a gold mine dislikes, it is to be scrutinized closely.

The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)

At dinner Sir Jasper is merely uneasy. By port and cigars, he’s planning a hasty removal to South America.

And the rot doesn’t stop with O.B.E.s according to Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘reluctant though one may be to admit it, the entire British aristocracy is seamed and honeycombed with immorality. I venture to assert that, if you took a pin and jabbed it down anywhere in the pages of Debrett’s Peerage, you would find it piercing the name of someone who was going about the place with a conscience as tender as a sunburned neck.

The Smile That Wins (Mulliner Nights)

Lord Tilbury (“Stinker” Pyke)

If you have some strongly worded remarks to make about a media mogul (and let’s face it, who doesn’t) the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company is a fine example of the species. He interferes in editorial matters and is not above breaking the law to get his hands on some juicy material.

The Tilbury of whom mention has been made from time to time in this chronicle… should more properly have been alluded to as Lord Tilbury, for it was several years now since a gracious sovereign, as a reward for flooding Great Britain with some of the most repellent daily, weekly and monthly periodicals seen around since Caxton’s invention of the printing press, had bestowed on him a Barony.

(Frozen Assets)

He can call himself Lord Tilbury as much as he likes, but we’ll always think of him as Stinker Pyke, thanks to Galahad Threepwood. (Whatever you do, don’t Tweet that – he’d hate it to be widely known).

Soapy Molloy and American politics

Recurring character and swindler Soapy Molloy is frequently compared to an American Senator.

Mr. Molloy looked like a Senator clearing himself of the trumped-up charges of a foul and corrupt opposition.

(Money In The Bank)

And

Chimp Twist was looking like a monkey that had bitten into a bad nut, and Soapy Molloy like an American Senator who has received an anonymous telegram saying, “All is discovered. Fly at once.”

(Money for Nothing)

P.G. Wodehouse first visited New York in 1904 and lived there, on and off between 1909 and his death in 1975. He was a great observer of American culture and there is much in Wodehouse’s writing to offer the modern political observer.

“The only way,” I said to Alexander, “of really finding out a man’s true character is to play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself. I employed a lawyer for years, until one day I saw him kick his ball out of a heel-mark. I removed my business from his charge next morning. He has not yet run off with any trust-funds, but there is a nasty gleam in his eye, and I am convinced that it is only a question of time.

(Ordeal By Golf)

And

Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.

(Summer Moonshine)

There are so many more quotes — I’m just getting warmed up — but in the interests of time and space, I’ll finish with a word of caution.

If you look long enough with sufficient fervour and determination through Wodehouse’s prodigious output, you will find quotes to support almost any opinion. As I said in 2016, the messages we take from Wodehouse’s work are often the ones we bring to it ourselves.  It’s hardly surprising to find Wodehouse is still so beloved today — on the left, the right, and everything in between.

Happy quoting!

HP

31 thoughts on “P.G. Wodehouse Reference Guide for Political Commentary

  1. LCantoni

    Absolutely brilliant, Honoria! Your judicious selection of the juiciest quotations had me choking on my Sunday morning coffee with guffaws.

  2. Rich

    You might consider that not every reader of Plumtopia, and certainly not every reader of Wodehouse, shares your (sneering and humorless) left-wing political views.
    Nor I suspect did Mr. Wodehouse.

    1. What Ho, Rich.
      I am sorry you were disappointed. I don’t suppose for a minute that every Wodehouse reader shares my own views. He has an enormously wide appeal and provides something for us all. I have friends just about everywhere on the political spectrum (and a few other spectrums as well). I try to get along with them all, and keep the sneering to a minimum.
      Nor do I complain or interfere when people pay tribute to Plum in conservative publications. I keep my thoughts to myself (alright, alright, self and cat) because I don’t feel I have the right to tell anyone else how to enjoy Wodehouse, or what messages should take from his work.
      I make an effort to be reasonably balanced, while staying authentic. I try to avoid giving offense. And if I get that wrong I am genuinely sorry.
      I wrote this piece in response to some truly dreadful Twitter comments (mostly by people on the left) who seem to hold Wodehouse and one of his most endearing characters (Bertie Wooster) to account for the woes of their nation. I feel that if people are going to blame Wodehouse characters for their troubles they should, at the very least, get the bally names right.
      My experience of many years online among the wider Wodehouse community is that we are united by a sense of humour –as well as our love of Wodehouse. We can overlook our differences when we keep this in mind.
      If you cannot, I hope you will at least accept my apologies if the piece feel short of expectations — and please accept my best wishes for the future.

    2. Sneering, humourless, and left-wing? I don’t see it. Of course, being antipodean, I don’t have a dog in the fight du jour, but in my eyes, Honoria’s post reflects PGW’s penchant for having a laugh at all wings of the political spectrum: Fascists, Communists, Uncle Tom Cobley (or rather, Travers) and all. Not to mention his ability to refrain from “hating in the plural” – something which modern politics could do with rather more of.

      1. Well said Deborah. We antipodeans need to stick together against the humourless and sneering likes of Rich. If I had been able to leap to Mrs Plum’s defence immediately, I doubt that I could have been as conciliatory as she has been. What Rich needs is a blessing from Rev. H.P. Pinker.

      2. Thanks Noel.
        I’m so grateful for your support. I’ve never been a professional writer or had an editor, you see. I only have myself to keep the sneering in check. Every fresh edit I chip away at the sneering. I chip, and chip again. Until the remaining piece seems, to me, about as subtle and generous as anyone might wish for.
        The charge of being humourless doesn’t bother me. I try my best, but if I fail I’m content to play the straight man (or to be accurate, woman) to Wodehouse’s stuff. Indeed it’s dashed difficult for anyone to stand out when sharing the page with Plum.
        Thanks again, old bird.

      3. Thanks Deborah.
        I really appreciate the kind words. I was sorry to upset the gentleman, although I notice from his blog link that he is an American so it’s presumably the comments on golf rather than Brexit that have caused him pain.
        I’m sorry to give anyone pain. It’s not the big, broad flexible outlook I like to see here at Plumtopia.

  3. Pingback: P.G. Wodehouse Reference Guide for Political Commentary « Robert Pimm

  4. An excellent selection! Spode is, of course, the Wodehouse politician par excellence, which gives you a fair idea of his opinion of them.
    I must admit that in my view, the place where Jeeves and the King of Clubs fell down in comparison with the canon, was its emphasis on politics and its consequent stuckness in time.
    The end-notes, on the other hand, were absolutely fascinating. Did you know that there was a club which dissolved and then reconstituted itself under a different name with almost identical membership, just to get rid of a chap whom no-one could stand?

    1. Deborah — what a wonderful story. I almost want to start a club, just so I can dissolve it again.
      I haven’t tried the King of Clubs yet but I can’t put it off forever.

  5. George P. Smith

    what a refreshing reading! especially because the one who writes (Honoria Herself) knows what she is writing about: and it doesn’t happen so frequently nowadays!
    thanks!
    P.S.
    hope I can come back with some quotes very soon…

  6. I can’t believe poor old Bertie has been roped in to be a poster-boy for politics of any kind! As you say, he’s a self-confessed fathead. I would be much more inclined to listen to Jeeves’ political advice 🙂

    1. George P. Smith

      Probably, he would deliver you a memorable quote from his beloved Spinoza, such as:
      “No matter how thin you slice it, there will always be two sides.”

    2. Quite right, Rose.
      The people doing it have clearly not read any Wodehouse. I am hoping to persuade them – with this piece – to give his stuff a try. There is much in his work to sooth the agitated soul.

  7. George P. Smith

    Probably Jeeves would deliver a memorable quote from his beloved Spinoza, such as
    “No matter how thin you slice it, there will always be two sides.”

  8. Posts from HG are invariably a treat, and it is a pity that the harsh slings and arrows of Fate do not allow her more time to keep dishing these out at a faster pace. The question that arises in my feeble mind is this: Do we have politicos in the canon which could be said to represent some of our current crop of dream merchants?!

    1. I agree wholeheartedly Ashok.
      I would do this wheeze full time if I had some benevolent soul to support me. If I were a Wodehouse character, he’d write me a rich Uncle in Australia. But I’ve gone to Australia and regrettably advise that the supply of rich uncles has given out.
      However, I shall continue to do my best to give satisfaction when I am not toiling away at my work and motherly duties.
      On your question of politicos, you are quite correct — there are some juicy examples canon who (for time and space purposes) did not appear in this piece.
      Much more to be said on the topic (and I rather think you’re just the man to do it).
      HP

      1. Not having a rich uncle anywhere on this planet is a blessing in a way. You evolve faster and better, perhaps in the mould of a Joan Valentine!
        Thank you. I did try to put together a two-post write up on different characters but have refrained from comparing these to our current crop of leading personalities. One cannot risk attracting the attention of any of our premier investigating agencies who might start snooping into my otherwise peaceful life!

      2. Let me hasten to clarify that I believe that my past could bear a strict investigation. Yet, the soul shudder and the frail mortal frame cringes at the prospect of harassment of any kind! Plumtopia is where I belong!!

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