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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!
I recently took a well-thumbed copy of Wodehouse’s French Leave on holiday to Paris, a city famed for its literary connections. P.G. Wodehouse was briefly a resident, and opens the second chapter of French Leave (1956) there:
As the clocks of Paris were striking eleven on a morning three weeks after the Bensonburg expeditionary force had set out for Europe, a tall, willowy, elegant figure dressed in the extreme of fashion, turned the corner of the Rue Belleau and entered the Rue Vanaye. It was Nicholas Jules St Xavier Auguste, Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne, affectionately known to his friends, of whom he had many in all walks of life, as Old Nick.
This ‘Bensonburg expeditionary force’ are three Trent sisters, chicken-farmers from Long Island USA. Having received a modest lump sum, they decide to take a well-earned jaunt to the French resort towns of St. Rocque and Roville. Our heroine is Terry (short for Teresa), who falls in love with Old Nick’s son Jeff. Wodehouse is in top form, expertly employing all the usual comic devices to bring our lovers together. As we expect from Wodehouse, the marriage quest involves overcoming a lack of money and parental objections, as well as painful misunderstandings, and other romantic entanglements.
French Leave also deviates from the classic Wodehouse novel. It is set in France, with a French and American cast. The French flavour includes a summer festival, a corruptible Commissaire of Police, and even a risqué bedroom scene. Terry Trent is the central character, and although she is not Wodehouse’s only female lead, we are more accustomed to following the hero. It is clear that in French Leave, Wodehouse is trying something a little different – and he does it superbly.
French Leave was not universally well-received back in 1956, and it seems modern readers (judging by ‘Good Reads’ reviews) are similarly inclined to prefer it when Wodehouse sticks to his established formula and characters. This seems a shame, because there is much to enjoy in Wodehouse’s stand-alone novels. One of the delights of French Leave is the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne. Old Nick steals the show with a terrific personality, reminiscent of Ukridge.
Old Nick quivered at the magic word. Americans were always rich. God bless America, he had often felt, unconsciously plagiarizing the poet Berlin.
‘She has a suite on the first floor.’
Old Nick quivered again. He knew what those suites on the first floor of the Hotel Splendide cost.
‘Looks a nice girl,’ said Jeff carelessly. ‘I’ve seen her about the place. I’ve wished occasionally that there was some way of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Some way?’ Old Nicks voice trembled. ‘There are a hundred ways of getting to know girls at a seashore resort.’
‘Such as —?’
‘Save her from drowning.’
‘She’d be much more likely to save me. She’s a wonderful swimmer. I’ve—er—happened to see her once or twice. But she goes out too far, much too far,’ said Jeff earnestly. ‘It’s dangerous. Suppose she got a cramp? It makes me anxious. Any other suggestions as to what I could save her from? Fire? Runaway horse? Assassins?’
‘Don’t treat this thing with levity,’ said Old Nick severely. He was still thinking of that suite on the first floor. ‘I don’t like to feel that a son of mine is lacking in enterprise. Get into a conversation with her—casually, as it were.’
My favourite passage in French Leave provides an excellent example of Wodehouse demonstrating (again) a depth of understanding he is rarely credited with. Here is Old Nick, explaining a prolonged absence from work to his employer:
‘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.’
‘A state of affairs which cannot—’
‘But I am strong,’ proceeded Nick. ‘I take out my watch and lay it on the table. ‘When the hands point to eleven,’ I say to myself, ‘Ho for the bureau.’ And when they point to eleven, I say ‘Ho for the bureau when they point to half past.’ And when they point to half past—’
‘You wait til noon and then go off to lunch?’
Old Nick, unaccustomed to office life, finds the prospects of a fine day cooped up at work unendurable. Instead of enduring, as we workers do, he bucks. We can only dream of following his example. My own life is ebbing away inside a tiny, windowless office — designed by the sort of people who feel that a combination of concrete and asbestos makes the perfect work environment — and not a day passes when I don’t feel it. Old Nick’s defiance brings us both pleasure and a reminder of our pain.
Nor is this a one-off. Wodehouse (who was once a bank employee) releases many captive workers in his stories, and there is a depth to this recurring theme that his critics (and even some fans) overlook, especially if they are readers who lead easy lives. There’s nothing wrong with an easy life, but for those less fortunate, Wodehouse gets to heart of our plight — it’s no surprise to us that George Orwell was a Wodehouse fan.
Similar sentiments are expressed by the chicken-farming Trent sisters :
‘Here we are, young, ardent idealistic, yearning for life and love and laughter, and what do we get? Eggs.’
Like the Trent girls, my trip to Paris was a fleeting escape that drained the family coffers, but was worth every penny.
While strolling in the Latin Quarter, I spotted a man who might have been the Marquis himself, long haired in the style of Louis the Somethingth, wearing flamboyant purple trousers and a pair of preposterous gentleman’s heels. His face was furnished with a dashing moustache. I don’t wish to give the impression that all of France was got up in this sort of fancy dress, but I was delighted to encounter such a character in 21st century Paris. I do hope he was bunking off work!
Usually at this time of year, I mark my birthday by lazily re-blogging an old piece, The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian, which is beginning to date me in a rather unflattering manner. So this year, I’d like to share a few snippets from my birthday celebrations in Paris.
My present this year was a copy of Wodehouse’s Performing Flea, with an inscription from my eight year old daughter. We spent the day walking along La Seine and exploring the Latin Quarter. We visited the famous ‘Shakespeare and Company’ bookshop, teeming with American college students, and the nearby Abbey Bookshop – quieter, quirkier and more to my liking.
One of nature’s extroverts, I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my appalling phrasebook French. I suspect Wodehouse was being typically modest about his abilities when he wrote, in the Preface to a new edition of French Leave:
I never succeeded in speaking French, but I learned to read it all right, which is all I need, for now that I am 92 and shall never leave my Long Island home it is improbable that I shall ever have the opportunity of kidding back and forth with a Frenchman, and my views on pencils will remain unspoken.
Pencils, owing to my instructress at Berlitz, were the only subject on which I was able to speak with authority. She taught me all I know today about pencils (or crayons as we call them in France). ‘Le crayon est jaune ‘, I learned to say. ‘Le crayon est bleu’. ‘Donnez-moi le crayon de ma tante’, and lots more on this fascinating topic. If some French manufacturer of pencils had happened along, I would have held him spellbound with my knowledge of his business, but in general society the difficulty of working pencils into the conversation was too much for me and after a while I gave it up and stuck to the normal grunts and gurgles of a foreigner who finds himself cornered by anything Gallic.
I didn’t get to chat pencils with the Parisians either.
This Lord Worplesdon was Florence’s father. He was the old buster who, a few years later, came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of the family. This, mind you, being a bit of luck for the bosom of the family, for old Worplesdon had the worst temper in the county.From ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’ (Carry On, Jeeves)
Once again, Wodehouse gets to the nub of human nature. Many is the time that I have felt precisely as old Worplesdon did on this occasion, and I were as oofy a specimen as he, I’d have legged it to France myself long before now. Generally I have to be content with taking my passport with me on the bus-ride to work.
But shortly, I shall be emulating Worplesdon as I have a ticket to France. I speak little French, so I expect to experience the same ‘furtive shame’ and ‘shifty, hangdog look’ as Monty Bodkin, practising his French at the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes in The Luck of the Bodkins. With Monty’s assistance, I feel I have mastered Garçon‘ and l’addition, and I shall do my best with:
”Er, garçon, esker-vous avez un spot de l’encre et une piece de papier – note-papier, vouz savez – et une enveloppe et une plume?’
And if, like Monty, I meet a Frenchman wanting to practice his English, who replies with a ‘‘Right ho, m’sieur’ (or, unless I’ve omitted to wax my moustache, ‘madam‘) , I shall hug him like a brother. But after I have acclimatised and relaxed into the French way of life, I shall be speaking French like a pro, and will be muttering ‘Oeufs! Oeufs! Merde tous les oeufs!’ with the best of them
But I can’t sit here chatting to you all day. I have essential pre holiday research to do.