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Highballs for breakfast: The very best of P.G. Wodehouse on the joys of a good stiff drink

highballquotessquare10Highballs 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.

highballquotessquare11Another 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.

HP

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.

Highballs Jacket.jpg

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The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse: a 20th Century Classic

CodeOfTheWoosters

The Code of the Woosters was one of Stefan Nilsson’s suggestions for including a book by P.G. Wodehouse in your 2016 Reading Challenge – as a 20th Century Classic. A classic it most certainly is, not just in the eyes of Wodehouse readers. The Code of the Woosters frequently pops up in literary lists of ‘books you must read’.

Its plot and characters are arguably Wodehouse’s best known. The story opens with Bertie sipping one of Jeeves’ famous hangover cures, the morning after a binge honouring Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s respite is curtailed by a visit to his Aunt Dahlia.

Little knowing, as I crossed that threshold, that in about two shakes of a duck’s tail I was to become involved in an imbroglio that would test the Wooster soul as it had seldom been tested before. I allude to the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook.

Bertie is propelled to Totleigh Towers, lair of Sir Watkyn Bassett and his soupy daughter Madeline, where he must wade knee-deep in a stew of Aunts, amateur dictators, policemen’s helmets and silver cow-creamers –to say nothing of the dog Bartholomew.

Among Wodehouse enthusiasts, devotion to The Code of the Woosters borders on the cultish. Perfectly sensible people who previously had no earthly use for cow creamers, find themselves squealing with delight when they meet one. In serious cases, fans have been known to collect them, to display proudly on the mantelpiece abaft their statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Once the enthusiast reaches this stage, it is advisable to join one of the excellent P.G. Wodehouse societies where similarly afflicted subjects gather in gangs and kid ourselves that such behaviour is normal. One devotee, Mr Ashok Bhatia, has gone a step further in trying to de-codify the Code of the Woosters .

The Code of the Woosters has been adapted multiple times for television and radio. Since 2013, it has been going about on the stage under a false name – as Perfect Nonsense – with great success. The continued popularity of this story almost 80 years after its original publication, and its inclusion by literary list-makers as exemplifying Wodehouse at his best, assures this novel’s place as a 20th Century Classic.

The Code of the Woosters is also where you’ll find some of Wodehouse’s most quoted lines:

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

Quoting Wodehouse is all very well in moderation, but nothing compares to reading his words in situ. If you are looking for a book by P.G. Wodehouse to include in your 2016 Reading Challenge, it’s a great place to start.

Happy reading.

HP

How to enter my 2016 Mini Reading Challenge 
Just read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and post a comment to the original challenge page (link below), telling us:
• which P.G. Wodehouse book you read in 2016; and
• which reading challenge and category you included it under.
You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.

For details and to enter, visit:
The 2016 Mini Reading Challenge: include a book by P.G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse fans needed for Valentine series: The Great Wodehouse Romances

This Valentine’s Day, it will be 39 years since the death of P.G. Wodehouse. To mark the occasion, I am hoping to post a series of pieces on love and romance in the world of P. G. Wodehouse. It’s an ambitious task and I’m eager for other Wodehouse lovers to get involved.

Specifically, I’m keen to receive pieces on the theme of Wodehouse and love. I’m especially interested in covering the great romances of Wodehouse. Who are your favourite Wodehouse couples? What makes them special? I asked Fans of P G Wodehouse on Facebook – their favourites include:

  • Psmith and Eve Halliday (Leave it to Psmith)
  • Bingo Little and Rosie M Banks (The Inimitable Jeeves)
  • Dolly and Soapy Molloy
  • Madeline Bassett and Gussie Fink Nottle*
  • Madeline Bassett and Roderick Spode
  • Gussie Fink Nottle and Emerald Stoker
  • Stiffy Bing and Stinker Pinker
  • Archie and Lucille Moffam
  • Aunt Dahlia & Uncle Tom
  • Sally Fairmile and Joss Weatherby
  • Sally Nicholas and Lancelot ‘Ginger’ Kemp (The Adventures of Sally)
  • Ashe Marson & Joan Valentine
  • Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown
  • Anne Benedick & Jeff Miller
  • Pongo Twistleton and Sally Painter
  • Aunt Constance and Jimmy Schoonmaker
  • Lord Emsworth and the girlfriend
  • Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings

* A contentious vote, as both end up with other mates.

What do you think?
Like many of you, Eve and Psmith are a favourite of mine. I also have a soft spot for Eustace Highnet and Jane Hubbard from The Girl on the Boat (1922).

If you would like to contribute a tribute to your favourite couple, or some other aspect of the theme of Wodehouse and love, please do send it to me. By all means write at length, but even a few paragraphs would suffice. You will naturally be attributed as the author, with much thanks and gratitude. Alternatively you could write on the theme at your own blog or webpage, and paste a link in the comments so I can reblog it here at Plumtopia.

This is an ambitious undertaking, but I think even a modest response will be a wonderful way to celebrate Plum this Valentine’s Day.

HP

Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire

Psmith

Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936) courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women  to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:

Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)

Bertram Wooster (at 87)

– Jeeves (at 65)

Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman.  Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie. I’ve read both, but confess I’ve never felt these characters casting quite the same kind of spell over me.

It would not be in quite the Wodehouse spirit for me to devise a list of my own, but if I may take the liberty, I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for the benefit of any other impressionable romantics considering a mate from the world of Wodehouse:

Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, would make an excellent companion for any woman who is looking to curl up happily with a book in her spacious ancestral boudoir, unbothered by  the attentions of a human octopus, or indeed any attention at all. If your idea of romance is watching the sun set over the Empress of Blandings as she enjoys a late supper (of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes and separated buttermilk)  in her sty, then Clarence is the man for you.

Monty Bodkin is a romantic soul who will make considerable personal sacrifices (like working for Lord Tilbury) to win the girl he loves. Unlike many of his fellow Drones, he is financially solvent and won’t ‘touch’ you for a fiver or pawn your jewellery to placate a wrathful bookie. He is handsome, charming and honourable, but – it must be said – not an intellectual giant.

Galahad Threepwood is a debonair man-about-town who can be relied upon to show you a good time, taking in the best restaurants and night spots of London. You’ll be enthralled by his conversation too, particularly his reminiscences. You may not replace the women he loved and lost (Dolly Henderson) in his affections, or persuade this old bachelor to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia button-hole, but his gallant conduct is unlikely to bring about a breach-of-promise case either.

Esmond Haddock has the kind of rugged good looks and self-effacing charm that enticed actress Cora Star to give up Hollywood in favour of Kings Deverill, Hampshire. He is the popular local squire, loved by one and all. But this handsome, likeable fellow may need your help to prevent his five scaly Aunts (including the domineering Dame Daphne Winkworth) from dominating the proceedings at Deverill Hall.

Rupert Psmith is my personal ideal, an appealing Dorian Gray of comedy, without all that fuss in the attic. He is witty, adventurous, original and terrific fun. (If he takes you to dinner, don’t order the fish.)  Life will never be dull with Psmith around, but you may have to get used to living in the shadow of his remarkable personality.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to retire to bed with a good book.

HP

The desert island pickings of a quadragenarian

Wodehouse, as a nonagenarian

Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had seen a good deal of trouble.

The Man with Two Left Feet (1917)

I feel much like Henry did, as I glance in the mirror to inspect the remains of my former self on the eve of what I’ll just call a ‘significant’ birthday.  But I shall resist the urge to impersonate the great Russian novelists, and reflect instead upon some of my favourite Wodehouse moments. I have selected five favourite novels to share, representing one for each completed decade, and one for the future. I do hope you will indulge me.

My first selection is a school story, published in magazine (The Captain) and book format under various aliases including Mike, The Lost Lambs and Enter Psmith. My copy is entitled Mike and Psmith and despite my disinclination for the genre, I’ve read it over 20 times and it never fails to grip. It also introduces my favourite of all Wodehouse heroes –  a specimen so close to my ideal man it’s as though I’d drawn up the specifications myself.  His comrades call him Psmith. The P is silent, as in Pshrimp.

A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said. He spoke in a tired voice.

Mike and Psmith (1908)

If forced at knifepoint to select my favourite Wodehouse work, I would chose  Leave it to Psmith. Most critics would agree that, in 1923, Wodehouse’s greatest writing was still ahead of him, but Leave it to Psmith holds a special place in my heart for delivering Psmith (in his last appearance) to Blandings Castle – under an alias of course – to match wits with The Efficient Baxter.

Leave It To Psmith “I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether. And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.

Leave it to Psmith (1923)

It is impossible to overlook the priceless characters and concatenations of Jeeves and Wooster, but making a choice is very difficult. The Inimitable Jeeves well deserves its place as a classic, and I recommend it as an excellent starting place for anyone looking to discover Wodehouse. With much difficulty, I have opted for The Mating Season, which sees Bertie impersonating Gussie Fink-Nottle at Deverill Hall, home of Esmond Haddock and his five aunts.

PGW MatingSeasonOn the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter but the courage which one brings to them, I pulled myself together.

The Mating Season (1940)

Every line of the Mating Season is a perfect slice of Wodehouse, every scene as fresh and snappy as the first time read. I have attempted several times to read aloud the chapter describing the village concert, but it always reduces me to an inaudible hysteria. The concert begins with the Rev. Sidney Pirbright, Uncle to Corky and Catsmeat, who is described as “(a) tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…” Every act that follows is sheer delight.

Unlike her sister Muriel, who had resembled a Criterion barmaid of the old school, Poppy Kegley-Bassington was long and dark and supple, with a sinuous figure suggestive of a snake with hips; one of those girls who do rhythmic dances at the drop of a hat and can be dissuaded from doing them only with a meat-axe.

The Mating Season

And there are few things in this life that please me as much as the Pat and Mike knockabout cross-talk act of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. As well as the book, I can thoroughly recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil, a consummate professional who reads without hysterics.

I have not touched upon the delights of Ukridge, Mulliner or the Oldest Member, but they are not forgotten; The Clicking of Cuthbert is surely one of the finest short stories in our language. But I am compelled to select, as my fourth choice, The Girl on the Boat. It opens with the strong-willed theosophist author Mrs Horace Hignett, who pinches her son’s trousers to prevent his elopement with Wilhelmina Bennett. And a good thing too, for it frees young Eustace to be wooed by the admirable Jane Hubbard (my favourite of all Wodehouse heroines).

…Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa…

“And what happened then?” Asked Eustace, breathlessly.

He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient began to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle pump.

“Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!” said Jane Hubbard.

“You know, you’re wonderful!” cried Eustace. “Simply wonderful!”

Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm.  He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.

“Why, if an alligator got into my tent,” said Eustace, “I simply wouldn’t know what to do! I should be nonplussed.”

“Oh, it’s just a knack,” said Jane, carelessly. “You soon pick it up.”

“Nail-scissors!”

“It ruined them unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting spear.”

The Girl on The Boat (1921)

Although the romance the Girl on the Boat (1961 film)of Eustace and Jane is not the central affair of The Girl on the Boat, theirs is perhaps my favourite of all Wodehouse couplings. They were marvelously portrayed by Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in a 1962 film adaptation in which they were (as in the book) far more interesting than the leading lovers.  The film itself is worth watching, despite some inexcusable departures from the original – much funnier – plot.

To close, we return to my spiritual fictional home of Blandings Castle. I love every word of the Blandings saga and choosing a favourite is impossible, but I offer Heavy Weather for inclusion here because the 1995 television adaptation is my favourite Wodehouse adaptation (with Richard Briers again, this time as Galahad). I shall entertain no criticisms of Peter O’Toole’s performance of Lord Emsworth.

As Heavy Weather closes, we share with the Empress in a state of simple, wholesome contentment that epitomises the Plumtopian ideal – and kind of relaxed mental state I would do well to emulate on the eve of my ‘significant’ birthday.

1933 Heavy WeatherEmpress of Blandings stirred in her sleep and opened an eye. She thought she had heard the rustle of a cabbage-leaf, and she was always ready for cabbage-leaves, no matter how advanced the hour. Something came bowling across the straw, driven by the night breeze.

It was not a cabbage-leaf, only a sheet of paper with writing on it, but she ate it with no sense of disappointment. She was a philosopher and could take things as they came. Tomorrow was another day, and there would be cabbage-leaves in the morning.

Heavy Weather (1933)

In selecting just five works, I am committing the unpardonable sin of overlooking 90 or so others. It has been said, by a very wise bird in Facebook’s Wodehouse community, that choosing one’s favourite Wodehouse is like choosing between your children. But let me assure you that, like the male codfish, I love them all.

HP

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