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.
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.
Reginald Jeeves holds a firm place in the hearts of P.G. Wodehouse readers. Arguably Wodehouse’s best known character, Jeeves appeared in 11 novels and 35 short stories as Bertie Wooster’s ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’, and Bill Rowcester’s gentleman in Ring for Jeeves. More than a century after he first appeared in print, the name Jeeves is known by millions of people around the world, many of whom have never read a Jeeves story — such has his fame permeated the crust of human consciousness.
It is therefore fitting that the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree this week in remembrance of the man who inspired the name — cricketer Percy Jeeves.
Wodehouse had seen Percy Jeeves playing for Warwickshire in a match at Cheltenham in 1913, and had admired his bowling. When Wodehouse was contemplating a name for his new character, Jeeves popped obligingly into his head.
For those with an understanding of cricket, it is easy to visualise the Jeeves we know as one of those dignified bowlers whose graceful delivery of the ball hides the full mental powers of the expert strategist.
For those without an expert knowledge of cricket, I offer this description by cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta (also a Wodehouse enthusiast) of my favourite bowler, Malcolm Marshall:
But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner… When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium.
To a mere observer of the game, it comes almost as a surprise to hear Marshall described as a fast bowler. As Sengupta says of Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz : “From far away, sitting outside the fence, he often looked a gentle medium pacer.” Similarly, Malcolm Marshall’s approach always seemed to me (admittedly a child at the time) so effortless and calm that it was almost leisurely.
He just sort of shimmered in.
Wodehouse may have consciously only claimed the Jeeves name, but the character he created exhibits all the characteristics of a fine bowler. Wodehouse was sound on cricket, and I think we can safely assume that Percy Jeeves was something special.
This week, the P.G. Wodehouse Society planted a tree in Percy Jeeves’ honour as part of the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, commemorating the centenary of his death at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He never knew of the character Wodehouse named after him.
The full tragedy of the Somme is beyond our comprehension, particularly for those of us who have been fortunate to live through relatively peaceful times. The story of Percy Jeeves, whose promising life was cut senselessly short, is one of millions. Men were sent to their deaths en masse, buried en masse, and are now remembered en masse by subsequent generations. It is easy to lose sight of them as living, breathing, feeling people — and important to commemorate their lives individually where we can.
Well done to the PG Wodehouse Society, Percy Jeeves’ family, Cheltenham Cricket Festival and Cheltenham College for making this commemoration possible.
My pals in the society, knowing that I was chained to a desk in neighbouring Somerset and no doubt wanting to cheer me up, kindly sent me photos to share via Twitter during the day time. Some of their photos are used here, with kind permission.
More on cricket
For more on Percy Jeeves’ cricketing career, I recommend John Pennington’s recent piece in Cricketworld .
For anyone wishing to continue their cricket education, or simply relive memories of a golden age, I offer the following footage of Malcolm Marshall’s 10 wicket haul at Lords in 1988. In the spirit of the Jeeves, I feel obliged to observe that this match took place before the adoption of garish trousers, besmirched by branding, became widespread.
‘Do cricket trousers matter?’ you may ask.
I think we know Jeeves’ answer to that one.
Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom
In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. Happily for me, Bloom also chooses some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie) to illustrate his points.
Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature, once the lower classes were no longer illiterate. He exposes ‘literary fiction’ as little more than snobbery, suggesting that serious literature is made purposefully unfathomable and dire to ensure it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite.
As Bloom says:
No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.
It was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in snobbery adds to the pleasure of snubbing pretentious ‘must read lists’, in favour of just reading what I enjoy. And for the same reasons, I now feel guilty for having looked down on romance fiction and ‘chick-lit’. Bloom shows (whether he intended to or not) that disparaging these genres is effectively disparaging working and middle-class women. I have vowed to do this no longer.
As you can see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting upon, but there was a fly in the ointment. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a precis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does great disservice to the author – and is no credit to Bloom either.
There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released*. Apologies to long-time readers and fans for reviving the matter again here, but I think it’s worth reiterating once more: repeated researchers and biographers have found, as did MI5, that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.
Wodehouse was living in France at the outbreak of WWII, and spent part of the war in a German prison camp. After his release, he was approached by a former Hollywood acquaintance to record some humorous broadcasts to America. There was nothing pro-German in the content of the broadcasts, which gently mocked the Nazis in the same comic style for which Wodehouse is so admired. The broadcasts were also in keeping with a British tradition for humour in the face of adversity, exemplified during the previous war by The Wipers Times (which was well received in Britain).
Few people in Britain heard the broadcasts. The denunciation of Wodehouse that followed was an orchestrated response, led by The Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (pen name ‘Cassandra’). The British public, who hadn’t heard the broadcasts for themselves, accepted ‘Cassandra’ at his word. Wodehouse’s error was in broadcasting humour from Germany at such a time. His supporters, like Orwell, have suggested Wodehouse was politically naive. He was certainly not a Nazi. Before the war, Wodehouse famously lampooned influential British fascist Oswald Mosley, in the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938). Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts’:
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?”
Wodehouse’s anti-fascist credentials stand up to scrutiny far better than the newspaper responsible for denouncing him. The Daily Mirror had actively supported Mosely’s Blackshirts under Lord Rothermere, who counted Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. The paper was presumably disinclined to write columns of scathing bile about itself, and the Wodehouse story must have seemed like a gift.
When Wodehouse made the broadcasts, he had just been released from a long period of internment where he had been isolated from the events of the war. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. Wodehouse intended no harm in broadcasting, and was no harm was caused – apart from the lasting damage to his own reputation.
Under such circumstances it has been easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved when we encounter examples which perpetuate mistaken beliefs that Wodehouse was in any way connected with Nazis or their ideology. It was disappointing to find in Bloom’s otherwise excellent book.
Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important that we continue to put the record straight.
*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.
In my earlier piece, ‘Suffering from Cheerfulness’, I suggested that Wodehouse’s infamous radio broadcasts should be considered as part of a wider tradition of British humour in the face of adversity, particularly during wartime. My inspiration for writing was a volume of selected pieces from The Wipers Times. So I was delighted to discover another piece on this subject at the excellent blog: ‘Great War Fiction’. This one considers the possible influence of Wodehouse on the Wipers Times.
It will tell the story of how they found a printing press under the blasted ramparts of Ypres, and put it to use to create a very witty paper. I Like Newman’s comments on the aim of the film:
I imagine viewers might be expecting to see a tragic tale of lives lost in a futile war, and we’ve had a lot of films like that and some of them are very, very good. But this is another side to this story of the First World War, and I think it’s a particularly British thing that we tend to laugh in adversity and this is about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. It shows how a group of men managed to survive the First World War…
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Shortly before my daughter was born, I announced to family members and other well-wishers (who might otherwise have gathered at the crib festooned with Disney merchandise) a ban on Winnie-the-Pooh. No Pooh toys. No Pooh dancing on the wall. No Pooh on the bedding (at least not of Milne’s making). My stance shocked and appalled people, but I was firm.
Milne’s books, I have not banned. My daughter (now 7 years old) has a collection of his work on her bookshelf, and if she ever has the inclination to read it she is most welcome to do so. But if someone includes Milne on a ‘100 Books you must shove down your child’s throat before they’re 8’ sort of list, I shall ignore them.
So, why the anti-Pooh stance?
In my last piece, Suffering from Cheerfulness, I lamented the damage inflicted on Wodehouse’s reputation after he made five radio broadcasts from Berlin. They were gently comical pieces about his capture by the German army and subsequent life as an internee (civilian prisoner). There was nothing in their content, or Wodehouse’s actions, to suggest that he was either a Nazi sympathiser. The worst that’s been said of Wodehouse by those who’ve examined the facts, is that he was naive – not realising that his broadcasting from Germany to still-neutral America may have had propaganda value for Germany. Wodehouse was a humorous writer with little understanding or interest in the nuances of international affairs, and after a year in various prison camps, he had been completely isolated from the events of the war.
Nothing would have come of the episode, and Wodehouse’s character would have survived the war unstained, if a small number of individuals hadn’t decided to make an example of the affair for propaganda purposes in Britain. The behaviour of these people deserve the same scrutiny and exposure metered out to Wodehouse. A.A. Milne was not the chief culprit. That dubious honour is awarded to columnist William Connor, who wrote scathing attacks on Wodehouse in The Daily Mirror under the under the pen-name Cassandra.
Milne was revoltingly eager and vocal as a member of the anti-Wodehouse bandwagon, and biographers of both writers have suggested professional jealousy as his underlying motive. A number of excellent pieces have been written on this subject, which I urge you to read. Here are a handful:
- Why A.A. had it in for P.G.by John Simpson at the inimitable Russian Wodehouse Society page is a thorough discussion of the issue.
- The P. G. Wodehouse/A. A. Milne Feud builds on Simpson’s assessment at Blogspot ‘Strange Company: A walk on the weird side of history’ .
- AA Milne: Legendary Children’s Author and Ambivalent Pacifist considers Milne’s side in the affair, at the outstanding Tavistock Books Blog
I’m yet to read an account of the matter that defends Milne’s behaviour. Perhaps, as a writer of official propaganda during the first world war, Milne saw the broadcasts (already sensationalised by Cassandra) as a chance to be ‘of service’ to the war effort – as well providing a boost to his own reputation. But Milne’s attack on Wodehouse extended beyond propaganda, into the personal, including ‘recollections’ of private conversations that Milne either misremembered or falsified to suit his purpose.
Milne and Cassandra might be forgiven more easily if either had shown signs of repentance in later life – or if Wodehouse’s reputation had not been so inexcusably and lastingly damaged. As mentioned in a previous post, I still meet people who think Wodehouse was a Nazi collaborator, and are curiously reluctant to be persuaded otherwise – a triumph of propaganda and bile winning out over the facts. Some refuse to read his work on account of it. Others belligerently misread him.
As a mere reader of books – and middle-aged female of no consequence – I can’t right the wrongs of history or persistent small-mindedness. Banning Pooh from the nursery was a small gesture that few people understood at the time, but stance I’m proud to have taken.
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?
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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.
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,
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 alike, 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)
And in his second broadcast, there is more of that same, fine humour:
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 gently amusing account of life as an internee was not entirely appreciated in Britain. What had happened to the great British sense of humour in the face of adversity?
This affair has been much written about, particularly since the relevant MI5 documents were made public three years ago. The consensus is that Wodehouse’s radio broadcasts from Berlin, made after his release from internment, were innocent in both content and intention. But it suited the political (and private) purposes of a handful of people to make an issue of his broadcasting from Germany. Few people in Britain actually listened to the broadcasts, and accepted the anti-Wodehouse propaganda. The resulting stain on his reputation has been shamefully slow to lift. I still meet people who believe Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser.
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.
Emsworth, that worthy critic with an equally worthy name, suggests “P.G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers“ – The Cat-Nappers being an alias for the work known to British readers as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Emsworth provides some good evidence that this 1974 work of a nonagenarian is not Wodehouse at his finest. For those unacquainted with Emsworth’s excellent piece, I suggest reading it for yourself. When my considered response (however unqualified I am to make it) ran to half a page, I decided to post it here instead.
Wodehouse was a careful and proficient editor in the habit of re-working his stories thoroughly until he was satisfied with them. I wonder whether this book received a less scrupulous reworking than Wodehouse was accustomed to. Perhaps Wodehouse felt he was running out of time…
Emsworth’s comments on Wodehouse’s repeated use of abbreviations (telegram-speak being a forerunner of SMS) illustrates my point. Wodehouse used this sparingly to great comic effect in other novels, but the criticism of overuse here could be indicative of writer’s shorthand – perfectly acceptable in a draft manuscript. Similarly, the issues with repetition.
I have often wondered whether publishers their treat star authors differently when it comes to editing. J.K Rowling’s work might make an interesting study in this regard. The first Harry Potter novel is fine, tight writing, but the same cannot be said of the later instalments — there are all sorts of issues with them, which I feel would have benefited from a firm editorial hand.
Emsworth notes instances of rambling and dithering, which could also be attributed to editing. Most writers ramble and dither, and need to cut material from their first drafts, age notwithstanding. But Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen certainly isn’t a rambling final novel, in the way that Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate is.
Emsworth also believes that in Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen Wodehouse reveals his true political colours, citing the following example:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Bertie Wooster is hardly a mouthpiece for expressing the political views of his author. Bertie’s position on Communism, made clear in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), is one of genial self-preservation. While Wodehouse made Comrade Bingo’s Heralds of the Red Dawn appear ridiculous, he was an egalitarian writer who created the equally ludicrous fascists (Roderick Spode), crooked Conservatives (Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe), loathsome Lords, and grotesque Captains of Industry.
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 (1938)
Wodehouse’s consistent treatment of political activists – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them all equally ridiculous, and ripe for picking as excellent sources of ‘material’
If I were find fault with Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen I would tend to agree with FretfulPorpentine’s response to Emsworth:
I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman / The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work – it’s just different from what we’ve become accustomed to. We want more of the old stuff we know and love. But it shows us that Wodehouse was still striving to write something new. A younger Wodehouse might have popped this manuscript in his bottom drawer and reworked it again later, but at 93, one can be forgiven for not putting things off.
As is stands, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen still offers much of the usual Wodehouse to enjoy and I am reluctant to damn it as the work of a man who had lost his touch. I would gladly ‘suffer’ another 20 books of this quality.
I would gladly have continued our conversation, but I knew he must be wanting to get back to his Spinoza. No doubt I had interrupted him just as Spinoza was on the point of solving the mystery of the headless body on the library floor.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen is currently available in paperback for around £7.54.