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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.
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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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?
5. DO YOU CONSIDER OUR LEADERS ARE COMPETENT TO CONDUCT THE WAR TO A SUCCESSFUL ISSUE?
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.
Whenever I begin something new from (Bollinger Wodehouse prize-winner) Terry Pratchett these days, I prepare myself for the possibility that it might not sparkle quite so much as old favourites, like Carpe Jugulum. I remind myself that Pratchett has given us so much already, and that he’s entitled to ‘slip’ a little since being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. But Pratchett isn’t slipping. Each new book is as fresh, engaging, and bloody marvellous as the last, and I consider recent works such as Dodger (2012) and I Shall Wear Midnight[ (2010) among his best.
I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Terry Pratchett, not just for the pleasure his writing has given me, but for demonstrating what can happen when intelligence, humour and IDEAS work together.
How people think they can achieve anything seriously worthwhile without humour is beyond me. But it’s worse than that. Our world is run – and our ‘important thinking’ done, predominantly, by people who feel humour is out of place in the world of ideas. It is relegated to the status of ‘light’ entertainment. But humour can offer another kind of light.
‘I Shall Wear Midnight‘ is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. It can be enjoyed from start to end with great pleasure. There is comic relief in spades from the Nac Mac Feegle (err… perhaps spades is not the best word…). But ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’ is also a serious book, with a serious foe in The Cunning Man. He is the pungent, lingering hate of a long-dead witch-smeller, who generates hate whereever he goes because ‘poison goes where poison’s welcome’. Fortunately on the Discworld, a witch-hunt will lead to a witch – in this case Tiffany Aching – who will put a stop to things.
There are plenty of extraordinary people in our world who would stand up to a Cunning Man, if only it were that simple. The causes of hate and fear are more complex, but we have our cunning men and women too. They don’t dress in black or give off pungent aromas of evil, but often masquerade as ‘respectable’, sometimes unassailable, pilars of the community. The job of unmasking our villians in high places so often falls to our courageous comedians. With humour perhaps our only weapon, it’s unsurprising to find our institutions and establishments so devoid of it.
Long live Terry Pratchett!