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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.
First broadcast: 26 October 1958
Starting with footage of PG Wodehouse at home in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, this interview shows the author at his genial and self-deprecating best. Wodehouse cheerfully discusses his long writing career, his eschewal of ‘serious’ fiction and the lack of sex in his books.
During a recent rummage through the BBC website for a dash of Wodehouse related light-relief, I happened across this interview with the author himself. It also includes footage of Wodehouse at home on Long Island. In the interview, Wodehouse answers questions about the Berlin Broadcasts, and the absence of sex in his stories.
These remain topics of interest and speculation among Wodehouse readers today, so it’s well worth listening to Wodehouse’s own thoughts on the subject.
The name Tony Ring is familiar to many P.G. Wodehouse enthusiasts — it pops up often and in an surprising variety of places: from journal articles and forewords of new editions, to theatre programmes. Tony’s books on Wodehouse’s life and work line many of our shelves, and his sparkling presence has enlivened Wodehouse society events around the world. It is an honour and a pleasure to add Plumtopia to his long list of appearances.
Another Centenary to Celebrate
The Sunday Times Magazine for 9 April this year included a four-page article saluting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary achievement in having four shows in performance simultaneously on Broadway, though two of them are revivals. It suggests he shares this record with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and states that it hasn’t been done for 60 years.
Well, Rodgers, like Lloyd Webber, was a composer. Hammerstein was a lyricist. The paper overlooked Lloyd Webber’s one-time lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote this in his Introduction to the booklet contained in the 2001 CD The Land Where the Good Songs Go:
I am, I hope, a fairly modest cove, but I must admit I felt fairly gruntled when, in 2000, I could briefly brag about having my lyrics on Broadway in no less than four shows at the same time [including one revival]. Surely this must be a record, I reckoned – certainly for a British lyricist.
So the errors the Sunday Times made are stacking up. First, as they refer to Hammerstein as one of the previous record-holders, they clearly mean to include lyricists. Therefore, Lloyd Webber’s achievement, though amazing, also only equals that of Tim Rice. And when earlier this year his fourth show opened, it was only 17 years since Tim Rice’s achievement, not 60.
But that is not all. Tim Rice went on to add in his remarks that he had mentioned his achievement only because of its relevance to the CD – which was full of songs by one of his literary heroes, P G Wodehouse.
For in 1917 the mighty Plum, lyricist and British to boot, had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. That achievement reaches its Centenary on November 7, this year.
It is only fair to admit that some of the shows were far less successful than the typical Lloyd Webber and Rice offerings, and that in one in particular he was not the only lyricist. Nevertheless, it is an achievement which should not be overlooked.
In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat. Along with Guy Bolton, who was generally responsible for the first drafts at least of the libretti, they introduced the idea of simpler plots relating to subjects more in keeping with the experience of theatre-goers.
Whereas one of their earliest efforts, Miss Springtime, paid lip-service to the earlier traditions of comic opera, the setting for their first 1917 hit, Have a Heart, was the life of a salesgirl in a retail clothing store. This was followed by Oh, Boy!, which encompassed a modern take on romance, with newlyweds, misunderstandings and a lecherous old judge; and Leave It To Jane, based around American football.Wodehouse absorbed this policy in future collaborations with other composers – the 1926 show Oh, Kay!, written with the Gershwins, had the theme of bootlegging during the prohibition era; while Anything Goes, Cole Porter’s 1934 perpetually popular show, featured escaped criminals. Porter, who had written the lyrics for all the songs in the Broadway production, invited Wodehouse to anglicise a couple of them for London, and he pulled no punches in satirising the greed of certain classes even in times of economic difficulty.
Do the following examples sound like Wodehouse? They were.
The Duke who owns a moated castle
Takes lodgers and makes a parcel
Because he knows
It’s grab and smash today
We want cash today
Get rich quick today
That’s the trick today
And the Great today
Don’t hesitate today
But keep right on their toes
And lend their names, if paid to do it
To anyone’s soap or suet
Or baby clo’s
If you enjoy Wodehouse but have not heard – knowingly – any of his lyrics (the one EVERYBODY has heard without realising it is Bill, originally written for Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918, dropped from that show but added, with a little tweaking by Oscar Hammerstein II, to Show Boat in 1926, where it has resided ever since), I recommend that you try to get one of the three CD’s, each with a variety of his lyrics, recorded since 2000.
The Land Where the Good Songs Go
Singers: Hal Cazalet, Sylvia McNair, Lara Cazalet; Pianist: Steven Blier
2001 Harbinger Records HCD 1901
In Our Little Paradise
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2011 Woleseley Recordings
The Siren’s Song
Singer: Maria Jette; Pianist: Dan Chouinard
2004 Woleseley Recordings
For a relatively modern recording of a complete show, try Sitting Pretty (1926), recorded on a double CD in 1990 under the direction of John McGlinn. It was published by New World Records (80387-2).
But let your mind wander a little further. You may not have been aware that Wodehouse was quite such an important lyricist. Perhaps you have not realised that he was an accomplished playwright, as well. He never reached quite the same prominence as with his other activities but, while mentioning impressive achievements, we should not overlook that in December 1928 he had three new plays on the West End stage simultaneously – and that is something not many of even our greatest playwrights can boast.
Perhaps you could suggest some names of those who have matched this achievement – either on the West End or on Broadway?
On 28 January, the British Library celebrated their recent acquisition of the Wodehouse archives with P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration. As the title suggests, the event celebrated Wodehouse’s lesser known but important contribution as a musical theatre lyricist, working in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and others (including George and Ira Gershwin).
I felt privileged to be among those present as singer Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s great grandchildren) and pianist Stephen Higgins performed songs from the Wodehouse songbook, including: ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’, ‘You Never Knew About Me’, ‘The Enchanted Train’, ‘Oh Gee Oh Joy’, ‘Bill’, and ‘Anything Goes’.
Hal Cazalet also provided a rapt audience with some professional insights into his grandfather’s methods as a lyricist, and his influence on later developments in musical theatre. Hal put forward a convincing argument that Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist not only influenced, but improved Wodehouse’s writing.
A highlight of the day was listening to Sir Edward Cazalet, one of the few people living today who knew ‘Plum’ and Ethel Wodehouse well. Edward’s reminiscences about his grandfather were affectionate and deeply moving – and fans will be touched to learn that Edward still has the pencil his grandfather was holding when he died.
The proceedings were further enhanced by observations from assembled experts, including Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life), Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) and Tony Ring, whose extensive research and numerous works on Wodehouse include the multi-volume Wodehouse Concordances.
After the formal proceedings, came the infinite pleasures of meeting other Wodehouse lovers – both old friends and new ones. It was wonderful to meet members of the Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society, who had travelled to London especially for the event, online friends from the Facebook Fans of P.G. Wodehouse group, U.K. Society members, and even a few celebrities. A socially inclined gaggle of us, reluctant for the festivities to end, moved on to a local hostelry where the feast of reason and flow of soul continued long into a splendid Winter evening.
I recommend that you also read Mike Swaddling’s account of the event at the UK Wodehouse Society website (with pictures by Dutch Wodehouse Society President Peter Nieuwenhuizen) via British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist (Wodehouse Society report)
Yesterday I shared ‘A partial book review of Middlebrow Wodehouse’. Today I’m sharing a response from George Simmers. George writes about Wodehouse often at his blog, and contributed a piece for Middlebrow Wodehouse on Wodehouse and the First World War. All this leaves me even more determined to fork out the advertised price of the volume and read it for myself.
A while ago I wrote a chapter on Wodehouse and the War for a collection, Middlebrow Wodehouse, that tried to locate PGW in the context of his times, and of popular literature. The book appeared, and seems to have sunk without much trace. It was published at the sort of silly academic price that means […]
A Partial Book Review: Middlebrow Wodehouse: P. G. Wodehouse’s Work in Context ed. Professor Ann Rea (2016) — Moulders Lane
Rather like looking for a word in Chambers, running a Google search means you never know what odd thing you’re going to discover. The latest piece of flotsam to strike my bemused gaze is a new book on Wodehouse: Middlebrow Wodehouse: P. G. Wodehouse’s Work in Context published in January of this year and written […]
This is a terrific review, from someone who knows her Wodehouse.
As soon as I heard about this book, I knew that I wanted to not just read it, but to own it, so that I could savor it whenever I wished. I haven’t regretted investing in this hefty tome (especially since I got it used, hardcover, for only $5!), even though it has taken me months to wade through it.
While, on the whole, I’m not someone who enjoys delving into the personal lives of individuals whose art I enjoy, there are some exceptions to the rule. Agatha Christie’s autobiography was an absolute delight, with a fascinating glimpse into the age in which she lived. More recently, John Cleese’s rambling about his early years and the various events that led up to the formation of the Pythons was fun and engaging. A Life in Letters was a different sort of autobiography, because it isn’t exactly an…
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This article by Sam Jordison appeared online at The Guardian today: The Code of the Woosters: PG Wodehouse’s guide to fighting fascism | Books | The Guardian
In many respects it’s a welcome move in the right direction, away from the usual misinformation and conjecture about Wodehouse’s wartime experience. Sam Jordison is right to point out that Wodehouse made fun of the British fascist Oswald Mosley in The Code of the Woosters (1938):
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 fascist Spode is a superbly ridiculous character, and many modern readers (self included) derive immeasurable satisfaction from seeing him trounced by Bertie. But Jordison’s fascism-fighting message (as Noel Bushnell points out) claims Wodehouse for one cause against another.
Wodehouse didn’t restrict himself to ridiculous fascists. He was a far more egalitarian writer who also created ludicrous Communists, crooked Conservatives, loathsome peers, and grotesque Captains of Industry. Wodehouse’s treatment of these characters – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them equally ridiculous (and ripe for picking as character sources).
The message Jordison takes from The Code of the Woosters is:
‘the best and most effective ways of beating fascists: you stand up to them and you point out exactly how ridiculous they are.’
Sadly, if humour were really ‘the best and most effective way of beating fascists’ and other ridiculous extremists, the battle would have been won long ago; Private Eye would be Britain’s leading newspaper, and Wodehouse’s Berlin Broadcasts (misrepresented by detractors, regretted by supporters) would be lauded as part of this effort. But don’t take my word for it — read them yourself and make up your own mind.
Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.
‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’
‘Not to my recollection, sir.’
‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’
Summer Lightning (1929)
The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.
‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’
The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.
‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’
One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.
‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’
A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.
‘You can’t beat an Undertaker’s Joy.’
‘The Story of William’ in Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927)
Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard T Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:
Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.
Richard T. Kelly in Highballs for Breakfast
The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.
Richard T Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell. The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.
Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.
Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.
A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Richard T Kelly, quite rightly, does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.
I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.
My Battle with Drink (1915)
I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.
Win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast
To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.
There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’
Barmy in Wonderland (1952)
I’m excited to offer Plumtopia readers the chance to win a copy of the new PG Wodehouse release, Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House. To enter, simply reply by comment to this post telling us what drink would you be known by at the Anglers’ Rest.
Mr Mulliner, one of PG Wodehouse’s beloved narrators, recounted around forty stories from the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest, where inmates are referred to by their drink, rather than by name.
From the moment the Draught Stout entered the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest, it had been obvious that he was not his usual cheery self. His face was drawn and twisted, and he sat with bowed head in a distant corner by the window, contributing nothing to the conversation which, with Mr Mulliner as its centre, was in progress around the fire. From time to time he heaved a hollow sigh.
A sympathetic Lemonade and Angostura, putting down his glass, went across and laid a kindly hand on the sufferer’s shoulder.
‘What is it old man?’ He asked. ‘Lost a friend?’
‘Worse,’ said the Draught Stout. ‘A mystery novel. Got half way through it on the journey down here, and left it in the train.’
Strychnine in the Soup (1932)
This is a wonderful device, because a person’s choice of drink can be revealing. A Tankard Of Stout, suggests a solid, hearty soul, who can be relied upon for conversation. An Absinthe On The Rocks suggests a character on the precipice –of making an ass of themselves at the very least. And what might we make of the aforementioned Lemonade and Angostura? Wodehouse may not have gone in for deep character analysis, but even his most lightly drawn character can provide food (or in this case drink) for thought.
My own preference, for any psychologists taking notes, depends on the occasion and the establishment. If pressed, my extensive personal research in the hostelries of Great Britain leads me to nominate a Pint of Porter as my moniker.
What drink would you be known by at the Anglers’ Rest?
Reply by comment to this piece by 15 December 2016 for a chance to win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, kindly provided by publishers Penguin Random House. The lucky winner will be chosen by the usual Plumtopia panel (self and cat) after a thoroughish tasting process at Plumtopia HQ.