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Psmith in the City
One of the minor curses of my day-to-day existence is being habitually late for work — not through personal tardiness, I hasten to add. Mine is not the life of Joss Weatherby (Quick Service), who oversleeps after late nights at the gambling table, or Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (Barmy in Wonderland) who goes on toots with Mervyn Potter. No, I go to bed at an early hour and rise regularly at 5.00am to write.
Dragging myself away from writing is a struggle — I sympathise with Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne (French Leave) who cannot drag himself from cafes to attend his work at the bureau —
What happens? I wake. I rise. I shave. I bathe. I breakfast. I take my hat and cane. I say to myself ‘And now for the bureau.’ I go out into the street, and at once I am in a world of sunshine and laughter and happiness, a world in which it seems ridiculous to be shut up in a stuffy office with the senile Soupe and the homicidal Letondu. And all of a sudden. . . how it happens I couldn’t tell you . . . I find myself in a chair on the boulevard, a cigarette between my lips, coffee and a cognac in front of me. It’s a most mysterious state of affairs.’
Unlike ‘Old Nick’, who cuts an ‘…elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion’, my outer crust is not my priority. The best I can manage is a hasty approximation of office wear, with hair and face presented pretty much as God intended them –presumably as some sort of joke. I may never be admired as a testament to English womanhood, but the plus side of maintaining this sort of public image is that it requires very little upkeep. A simple donning of shirt, trousers and shoes is all it takes. In a former workplace, I was known as ‘the girl with wet hair’. I’ve even been known to throw a dress over my writing clothes to save time. But I am always ready to leave home at the required hour.
It is at this point in the morning routine that I wake the half-portion and complete an exercise known to parents everywhere as ‘the school run’. My daughter gets herself ready without a fuss (most of the time) and there is no need to wake her any earlier as her school doesn’t open until 8:30am. She cannot be left outside with the bottles and bins at an earlier hour. We walk to school together and wait at the gates among a sea of families, ready to storm the Bastille when the gate keeper arrives.
At precisely 8:31am, or possibly 8:32 if the gatekeeper has been on a a toot with Mervyn Potter, I am ready to begin my commute. I dash to the bus stop with an earnest vigour that would make Psmith proud.
Whose is that form sitting on the steps of the bank in the morning, waiting eagerly for the place to open? It is the form of Psmith, the Worker. Whose is that haggard, drawn face which bends over a ledger long after the other toilers have sped blithely westwards to dine at Lyons’ Popular Cafe? It is the face of Psmith, the Worker.’
Psmith in the City
Unfortunately, this keenness on my part goes unseen by my employer and colleagues. What they notice is the empty desk at 9:00am. There is no martyred p. (as Archibald Mulliner puts it) where the martyred p. should be. When I open the door to the crypt we optimistically call our office, around ten minutes later, I am met by the dazed expressions of workers who began toiling beneath the interrogation-room lighting a good deal earlier. I offer an embarrassed “Sorry, I’m late,” but it sounds hollow even to my ears after the 635th consecutive occasion.
The employers and disciplinarians among you will no doubt be tutting to yourselves, feeling that it’s time I changed my attitude. “Martyred ‘p.’s due to toil in crypts at 9.00am should begin to toil at 9.00am,” I hear you say, no doubt from force of habit. Mr. Duff, Ham magnate and Managing Director of Duff and Trotter, felt the same way about Joss Weatherby in Quick Service. Old Nick’s director at the troisieme bureau of the Ministry de Dons et Legs in French Leave would agree. J.G. Anderson, employer of Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps in Barmy in Wonderland would be banging the desk by now. I suggest you do it too –it’ll make you feel better, and the exercise is no doubt beneficial for someone in your position.
My attitude needs to change, I can see that now. It was while re-reading Quick Service (and what a fantastic book that is) that the realisation dawned on me. As so often happens when reading Wodehouse, I stumbled across a passage so ripe with wisdom and good example that I was encouraged to change my ways almost immediately. The passage pertains to a disagreement between the aforementioned Mr. Duff and his employee Joss Weatherby, who has breezed into the offices of Duff and Trotter several hours later than expected.
“You’re late!” he boomed,
“Not really,” said Joss.
“What the devil do you mean, not really?”
“A man like me always seems to be later than he is. That is because people sit yearning for him. They get all tense, listening for his footstep, and every minute seems an hour…”
Wodehouse does it again! A mere four lines of instructive prose and I am a new woman. No more feeling like a worm uttering pathetic apologies, if indeed that’s what worms do. Henceforth, I shall breeze into the office with a benevolent smile, in the knowledge that my presence brings a dash of sunshine into the lives of my employer and comrades alike. I expect this new attitude will bring me a sort of warm, inner glow that will last, oh, at least an hour I should think.
Thanks again, P.G. Wodehouse!
When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally incline to let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ (Young Men in Spats)
What Ho! What Ho!
I’m in an effervescent sort of mood today as I’m about to motor to the seaside for a short, much-needed holiday. My journey will take in the Dorset towns of Maiden Newton and Bridport, which the scholars at Madam Eulalie suggest as likely locations for P.G. Wodehouse’s Maiden Eggesford and Bridmouth-on-Sea.
Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton visit Maiden Eggesford in one of my favourite Wodehouse stories, ‘Tried in the Furnace’, where they both fall in love with the Reverend P.P. Briscoe’s daughter, Angelica. In accordance with her wishes, Barmy reluctantly agrees to take the Village Mothers on their Annual Outing.
The proceedings would appear to have opened in a quiet and orderly manner. Sixteen females of advanced years assembled in a motor coach, and the expedition was seen off from the Vicarage door by the Rev P.P. Briscoe in person. Under his eye, Barmy tells me, the Beauty Chorus was demure and docile. It was a treat to listen to their murmured responses. As nice and respectable a bunch of mothers, Barmy says, as he had ever struck. His only apprehension at this point, he tells me, was lest the afternoon’s proceedings might possibly be a trifle stodgy. He feared a touch of ennui.
He needn’t have worried. There was no ennui.
The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.
Life is short. Holidays are even shorter. I shall be taking the commendable spirit of the mothers of Maiden Eggesford on mine.
‘…he [Barmy] would have been the first to agree that he had never been one of those brainy birds whose heads bulge out at the back. Some birds bulged and some birds didn’t, you had to face it, he would have said, and he was one of the birds who didn’t. At Eton everyone had called him Barmy. At Oxford everyone had called him Barmy. And even in the Drones Club, a place where the level of intellect is not high, it was as Barmy that he was habitually addressed.’
Barmy in Wonderland (1952)
Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced Fungy), a member of Wodehouse’s famed Drones Club, stars in two stories of his own.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ is a short story from Young Men in Spats (1936 UK edition), and a great favourite of mine. Barmy and fellow Drone Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton retire to the country to rehearse their act for a Drones smoking-concert. When they both fall under the spell of Angelica Briscoe, it tests the bonds of friendship as well as the lengths to which a chap will go to prove his love. Angelica, daughter of the Rev P.P. Brisco, enlists Pongo’s help with the local School Treat, while Barmy is conscripted to oversee the annual village Mother’s outing:
“No sooner were they out of sight of the vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent . . . a very stout Mother in a pink bonnet picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell . . .”
I have reread this episode half a dozen times and it never fails to bring on a case of hysterics.
Barmy eventually finds love in America, in the 1952 novel Barmy in Wonderland (based on George S. Kaufman’s play ‘The Butter and Egg Man’). As the story opens, we learn the astonishing news that Barmy is gainfully employed as a hotel clerk, although his intellectual capabilities do not seem to have been improved by the experience.
‘Cyril Phipps was tall and willowy, a young Englishman of the type so common in the Drones Club, Dover Street London, an institution of which… he remained a member in good standing. His disposition was intensely amiable, his hair the colour of creamery butter and his face one of those open, engaging faces which arose the maternal instinct in women…’Barmy in Wonderland . But in the opinion of Barmy’s employer, J.G. Anderson, Barmy has ‘…an I.Q. somewhat lower than that of a backward clam – a clam, let us say, which had been dropped on its head when a baby…’
Barmy in Wonderland
Happily, Barmy manages to win the love of Eileen ‘Dinty’ Moore, a street-wise Irish-American dame who promises to add a much needed dash of common sense to the blood of the Fotheringay-Phipps. For more snippets from ‘Barmy in Wonderland’, have a look at my piece ‘Moments when one needs a drink’.
‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’
So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).
It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.
Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior. At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble, very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.
‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’
This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:
…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”
“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”
His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”
Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.
I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest. Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.
But that’s enough from me for one day. This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .
‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’