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P.G. Wodehouse reading guide: from Jeeves and Blandings to the Hidden Gems

People often come to Plumtopia looking for advice on how to get started reading P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster series in particular. It’s a good question.

The short answer, is that there is no single correct approach to reading Wodehouse –and if you ask the question in one of the many online Wodehouse forums, you’ll get at least a dozen answers. Picking up the first book you come across is often as good a starting point as any, and running across occasional spoilers shouldn’t dampen your enjoyment of Wodehouse’s writing.

But the short answer isn’t particularly helpful if you’re looking for practical advice. This post, and the short series to follow, offers a guide to readers wanting to discover the joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings, and the wider world of ‘hidden gems‘ that Wodehouse has to offer.

A suggested reading list for getting started is provided below, followed by some general guidance for new readers.

Reading suggestions for getting started

9781585679225_p0_v1_s192x300Jeeves and Wooster: Start with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) short stories or the novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934; US title Brinkley Manor).  See my second piece in this series for a complete Jeeves and Wooster reading list.

Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea.

The Inimitable Jeeves

something-freshBlandings: Avoid plot spoilers by starting with the first Blandings novel Something Fresh (1915; US title Something New). Or get acquainted with the (later) classic Blandings short stories in Blandings Castle (1935).

‘I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?’

Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervour. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children.

(Something Fresh)

mike-and-psmithPsmith: Start with the brilliant school story, currently in print as Mike and Psmith. If you’re not a fan of the genre, try Leave it to Psmith (1923), the last Psmith novel. Reading it first shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the earlier stories.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

(Mike and Psmith)

ukridgeUkridge: Start with the short story collection Ukridge (1924) or the novel Love Among the Chickens (revised in 1921).

Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.

(‘Ukridge’s Dog College’ in Ukridge)

wodehouse-young-men-in-spatsUncle Fred: Start with Uncle Fred Flits By (1935), a short story from the collection Young Men in Spats (1936). The first novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) is part of the Blandings series –save it for later.

I don’t know if you happen to know what the word ‘excesses’ means, but those are what Pongo’s Uncle Fred from the country, when in London, invariably commits.

(‘Uncle Fred Flits By’ in Young Men in Spats)

18053Short Stories: Start the Mulliner stories with Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927); and the Oldest Member golf stories with The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922; US title Golf Without Tears). No understanding of golf is required to enjoy them.

Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.

The Clicking of Cuthbert

1585676160_lThe novels: Plot spoilers are less of a problem with the ‘stand-alone’ novels, although some of them are connected by recurring characters. Try Uneasy Money (1916), Piccadilly Jim (1917) or The Small Bachelor (1927) to start.

The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you.

(Piccadilly Jim)

Where to buy them
Your local bookstore is unlikely to stock much Wodehouse, but they should be able to order them for you –and if your local booksellers are as lovely as mine, this adds considerably to the pleasure.

Links to books currently in print and available for purchase online have been included in the text. Out of print books are frequently available second-hand at reasonable prices. Don’t be alarmed by the price of expensive first and collectable editions you see advertised, which are aimed at collectors. It is possible to read your way through Wodehouse cheaply, particularly if you’re happy with paperbacks and don’t mind which editions you buy. Most titles are also available as Ebooks, including those which are out of print.

Understanding the chronological challenge
Many of Wodehouse’s stories first appeared in magazines such as The Strand (UK) and The Saturday Evening Post (US), but weren’t always published in book form in the same order – or under the same titles. If you read Wodehouse in order of publication you will encounter ‘spoilers’, particularly in the Blandings series. Wodehouse also rewrote some of his early stories, so the beginning isn’t always the best place to start. And it’s helpful to know that Wodehouse’s books were often published under different titles in the UK and US.

In putting this series together, I’ve referred to many excellent online resources that exist for Wodehouse fans (such as Neil Midkiff’s outstanding short story and novel listings) and have benefitted from the invaluable advice of Wodehouse expert Tony Ring. Any errors, omissions and loony opinions that remain are entirely my own.

The next piece in the series provides a reading list for the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories.

Happy reading!

HP

Happy New Year: Snifters with Ukridge at the Coal Hole

Coal Hole and steps

Ukridge took snifters at the Coal Hole in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’. Image by Honoria Plum

N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.

‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’

(Ukridge, 1923)

Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.

stage_door_johnnies_28drawing29

Stage Door Johnnies (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.

The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.

There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.

(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)

874817Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.

There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.

‘You aren’t George Bevan!’

‘I am!’

‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’

George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.

‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’

‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’

‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’

‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’

‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’

A Damsel in Distress (1919)

Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.

We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.

My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.

Best wishes to you all for 2016!

HP

Coal Hole cellar bar

The Coal Hole cellar bar (Image by Honoria Plum)

 

Bank Manager Training

…a vacancy had been got for him in that flourishing institution, the New Asiatic Bank, and he was to enter upon his duties, whatever they might be, on the Tuesday of the following week. It was short notice, but banks have a habit of swallowing their victims rather abruptly.

from: Psmith in the City

P.G. Wodehouse experienced the world of banking at close range as a reluctant employee of The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank between 1900-1902.  Some insight into Wodehouse’s experiences at the bank can be gleaned from Psmith in the City, in which young Mike Jackson, like Wodehouse himself,  is launched unwillingly into a banking career by his father.

Wodehouse is pretty stern on the subject of bank managers.

They train bank clerks to stifle emotion, so they will be able to refuse overdrafts when they become managers.

from: Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate

But times, and banks, have changed since Wodehouse’s day. If reports from the world of finance are to be believed, the modern bank manger is an endangered  species, more to be pitied than censured.

HP

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