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The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
From ‘Strychnine in the Soup’ (Mulliner Nights)
What Ho! Ho! Ho!
December is here again, which means many of us are turning our minds to Christmas. Last year I put together a list of gift ideas for Wodehouse lovers, which included giving the gift of Wodehouse Society membership.
This year, The P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) is offering gift membership. Prices start from £11.00 (for part-year membership) and you don’t need to live in the UK to join. All members receive the Society’s quarterly journal, Wooster Sauce and By the Way supplement, which is well worth the cost of admission. The Society hosts regular meetings and events, including a famous Biennial Dinner.
Visit pgwodehousesociety.org.uk to find out more
Joining a Wodehouse society is an excellent way to connect with other Wodehouse fans. If you live outside the UK, the Society website provides a list of international society contacts.
In particular, the US Wodehouse Society has many active regional chapters (including a new one in Rugby Tennessee) and publishes the excellent quarterly journal, Plum Lines. They also organise the biennial convention – a highlight in the Wodehouse lover’s calendar. I attended the 2015 Psmith in Pseattle convention, and am looking forward to visiting Washington on October 19-22 2017. See the Wodehouse Society website for details.
I’m also a member of the Netherlands P.G. Wodehouse Society, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Regrettably, I’ve not yet been able to attend one of their meetings, but this is now at the top of my Wodehouse ‘To Do’ list. Their Society journal is delightfully titled Nothing Serious, and I’m pleased to have added this dash of ‘modern Dutch’ to my collection.
Deciding which society to join was difficult (particularly when I lived in Australia) until I realised that you can join them all. Receiving the quarterly journals is always a thrill — and a welcome change from the sort of post I usually receive. I also feel more connected to other Wodehouse fans. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where Wodehouse lovers gather, the joys in this respect are immeasurable.
I would certainly recommend membership as a Christmas gift –or as a treat for yourself, any time of the year.
What Ho, old beans!
Last week I attended an excellent binge at The Wodehouse Society’s (TWS) 18th convention, Psmith in Pseattle. It was my first TWS convention, and even more psensational than anticipated. So, climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, and I’ll tell you about it.
As a TWS first timer, I entered the lobby of the impressive Fairmont Olympic Hotel under a cloud –not one of Seattle’s famous v-shaped depressions, but a personal one. Having lived almost exclusively behind a keyboard for the last few years, my people skills are not what they once were. Nor are my trousers, which are let out far more often than I am. So it’s fair to say I was not at my confident best, and beginning to wish I’d stayed under my little rock in Somerset UK. Added to this, I had recklessly agreed to appear as a speaker and was feeling a strong affinity with Bertie Wooster ahead of his infamous talk at Miss Tomlinson’s school for girls.
“Girls,” said Miss Tomlinson, “some of you have already met Mr. Wooster — Mr. Bertram Wooster, and you all, I hope, know him by reputation.” Here, I regret to say, Mr. Wooster gave a hideous, gurgling laugh and, catching Miss Tomlinson’s eye, turned bright scarlet.
in ‘Bertie Changes his Mind’
All that began to change, very quickly. As I traipsed across the lobby, I spied the familiar, well-groomed head of TWS president Karen Shotting rising on the escalator. Recognising her from her photograph, and forgetting that we had never met, I buzzed over to say ‘What Ho’ like a long lost friend. A short while later, I was on back-slapping terms with a substantial gang of Wodehouse experts and enthusiasts, including Tom Smith, Barbara (the dream rabbit) Combs, Elliot Milstein, Bob Raines (soon to be TWS president), Ken Clevenger, and Tony and Elaine Ring. The name Tony Ring is familiar to most Wodehouse enthusiasts and I’d been daunted by the prospect of meeting him, but his effervescent personality put me immediately at ease, and the sparkle in his eye told me that this shindig was going to be fun.
The following morning, I encountered Elin Woodger Murphy (Wooster Sauce editor and all round good egg) sploshing about in the hotel pool. Having already provided me with guidance and support from afar, Elin took me under her wing and, with the fabulous Jean Tilson, we forked our way through some very decent breakfasts at Seattle’s Pike Place market. Later in the lobby of the Fairmont Olympic, I got to meet online friends for the first time — like Vikas Sonak, and David and Katy McGrann — and make new ones, like Katherine Jordan, Eileen Jones and Ninad Wagle (Alpine Joe). From my strategic position by the bar, I was also well-placed to spot debonair newcomers sporting chrysanthemums their in buttonholes [enter John Dawson].
Wodehouse in song
The formalities began on Friday evening with soprano Maria Jette and pianist Dan Chouinard, who performed songs from Wodehouse’s Broadway career and songs mentioned in his work, like My Hero and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.
A minion came on the stage carrying a table. On this table he placed a framed photograph, and I knew that we were for it. Show Bertram Wooster a table and a framed photograph, and you don’t have to tell him what the upshot is going to be. Muriel Kegley-Bassington stood revealed as a ‘My Hero’ from The Chocolate Soldier addict.
I thought the boys behind the back row behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint, and their suavity gave me the first faint hope I had had that when my turn came to face the firing quad I might be spared the excesses which I had been anticipating. I would rank ‘My Hero’ next after ‘The ‘Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ as a standee rouser…
in ‘The Mating Season‘
Maria sparkles on the stage like a Wodehouse heroine leapt from the page, and it was a great privilege to hear these songs performed by musicians of such calibre. If you missed out, Maria and Dan’s two CDs of Wodehouse music are available online. Mixing it with the professionals, an enthusiastic Tom Smith (one of our Pseattle hosts) and his associate ‘Percy Pilbeam’ treated us to a rendition of Sonny Boy. No CD recording of this memorable performance has yet been released.
The joy continued on Saturday with riveting talks. If you missed them, they’ll be published in forthcoming editions of Plum Lines, quarterly journal of The Wodehouse Society (US) , not to be confused with Wooster Sauce, quarterly journal of The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) — if you join both societies you get eight lovely journals in the post every year. Each talk was worthy of further discussion, and I took plenty of notes, but for now you’ll have to be content with a summary.
I was riveted from the moment Elliot Milstein drew his first breath, on the subject of Wodehouse’s opening lines, and listening to Ken Clevenger let himself go on the subject of fish was a long-awaited pleasure. During the luncheon break, I made a Skype call to my family in England to gloat that I’d been educated on the difference between orphreys and chasubles by William Scrivener, who was once a pale young curate. Peter Nieuwenhuizen’s talk on Wodehouse in the comics covered new ground (for me at least). Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers and the potential for introducing them to Wodehouse in this way is very exciting. Tad Boehmer’s talk on researching Wodehouse took us into the world of special collection libraries (I wanted more!) and Elin Woodger’s topic ‘P.G. Wodehouse, Feminist’ was a topic close to my heart (as readers of Plumtopia will know). For anyone still in doubt about Wodehouse’s appeal to women, Elin confirmed that more women had registered for the convention than men.
John Dawson spoke about the exciting Globe Reclamation Project , an international gang of Wodehouse lovers (Dawson, Ananth Kaitharam, Neil Midkiff, Ian Michaud, Arthur Robinson, Raja Srinivasan and Karen Shotting) who have spent the last two years researching, transcribing and evaluating material written during Wodehouse’s time at the Globe newspaper (1901-1909?), aided and abetted by Wodehouse experts Norman Murphy and Tony Ring. John spoke passionately about his personal quest to find everything Wodehouse wrote, and the hard working collaboration that has provided so much ‘new’ material for all Wodehouse readers to enjoy. The product of their labours is available to read — in two handsomely bound volumes: P.G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newspaper Volumes 1 & 2 . This is a non-profit undertaking, with funds raised used for ongoing research (any surplus will be spent making Wodehouse books available in school libraries). A discount is available to Wodehouse Society members.
Closing the day, and well worth the wait, was Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum. As someone who has delved so deeply into Wodehouse’s life, it was moving to hear him speak of Wodehouse’s withdrawal from his painful war-time experiences into the ‘wonderland’ he created. As McCrum put it, ‘Wodehouse was, in fact, happiest in a kind of artistic solitary confinement.’
In my talk on the modern Wodehouse reader, I commented that many of us read Wodehouse to escape the irksome captivity of modern life, just as Evelyn Waugh predicted.
Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in —
Listening to Robert McCrum, it became clear to me that Wodehouse needed the world he created as much as we do. It was his ‘Plumtopia’. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to Wodehouse than I did at that moment.
McCrum has shared his own impressions of Pseattle in this little piece for The Guardian: Americans celebrate PG Wodehouse in Seattle .
Tony Ring entertained us between talks with something cryptically listed on the programme as ‘Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses’. These proved to be a selection of ghost stories written by Wodehouse for Punch magazine (1903-1904) — a fitting selection to mark the occasion of Halloween. Here’s a taste:
A groan and a weird phosphorescent gleam at the foot of the bed told that the spectre had arrived, right on the scheduled time as usual. I took no notice. I wished to make the ghost speak first. A ghost hates to have to begin a conversation.
“You might speak to a chap,” said a plaintive voice, at last.
“Ah, you there?” I said. “The family ghost, I presume?”
“The same,” said the Spectre, courteously, seating himself on the bed. “Frightened?”
“Not in the least.”
“Hair not turned white, I suppose?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Then you are the man I have been wanting to meet for the last hundred years. Reasonable; that’s what you are. I tell you, Sir, it hurts a fellow when people gibber at him, as most of your human beings do. Rational conversation becomes impossible.”
MR. PUNCH’S SPECTRAL ANALYSES II.— The Ghost with Social Tastes.
Punch, August 12, 1903
A handsomely printed set of these stories was provided to conference goers, but if you missed out you can read them online at Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums .
Rummage and Revels
There is still much to be said– about the masked ball, the costumes, the auction, and NEWTS skit — but I have other things to do, and presumably you do too. The one thing I must mention is the rummage sale. Just imagine for a moment that you are in a shop devoted to Wodehouse. There are Wodehouse books, and books about Wodehouse. You can also pick up sheet music, costumes, cow creamers, pictures, bookmarks, badges, bags and all manner of merchandise. No shop of this kind exists, but for two days in October the TWS rummage sale comes close to this Plumtopian ideal.
Added to these pleasures, I continued to make new friends, too many to list, but sitting with Donna Myers for the talks, and between Anita Avery and Tim Richards at dinner were highlights. There was an awkward moment when I met long-time Facebook friend Michael Sheldon in person — as he recognised me, but I couldn’t place him because he looked nothing like his Facebook photo (for all the wrong reasons). He won the ‘Scary Enough to Put a Golfer Off His Stroke’ award for his impersonation of Bill Lister (from Full Moon).
How to join the next binge
The next convention will be in Washington DC — Capital! Capital! — in October 2017. Dates will be confirmed shortly.
It’s an experience I highly recommend. I was welcomed with great kindness, in spite of my expansive trousers and questionable character because, as Anita Avery put it, ‘We Wodehouse fans look after our own.’ And she’s right. After many years spent searching for Plumtopia, I may not have found a place that feels like home, but I have found my people. As Wodehouse put it:
There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
in ‘Strychnine in the Soup’
I asked my eight year old daughter to share her favourite Wodehouse romance and, after much umming and ahhhhing, she chose ‘The Truth About George’. In this short story (from Meet Mr. Mulliner) Mr Mulliner recounts the ordeal of his nephew George Mulliner, who must overcome his stammer in order to declare his love for Susan Blake.
Many Wodehouse couples are brought together through a common interest — it might be golf, Tennyson’s poems, or a shared love of mystery novels, for ‘there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature’ (‘Strychnine in the Soup’). In the case of avid cruciverbalists George Mulliner and Susan Blake, it is a love of crossword puzzles.
…George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning ‘appertaining to the profession of plumbing’, and Susan was just as constant a caller at George’s cosy little cottage, being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying ‘largely used in the manufacture of poppet-valves’. The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word disestablishmentarianism, the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realised that she was all the world to him — or, as he put it to himself from force of habit, precious, beloved, darling, much-loved, highly esteemed or valued.
In an effort to cure his stammer, George consults a specialist —‘…a kindly man with moth-eaten whiskers and an eye like a meditative cod-fish’ — who advises him to speak to three complete strangers a day. I won’t spoil the fun by recounting George Mulliner’s disastrous pursuit of this advice. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you have a treat in store (the text is available free online from Internet Archive).
Instead, I will skip straight to the part where George asks:
“Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, help-meet, consort, partner or better half ?”
To which Susan replies:
“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yes, yea, ay, aye ! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute!”
The reader is left with the happy impression of a well-suited couple looking forward to a congenial married life with barely a cross word between them.
For more on the theme of Wodehouse and crosswords, see Alan Connor’s excellent piece — Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no 9: PG Wodehouse’s The Truth About George — for The Guardian’s Crossword Blog. I also understand (courtesy of The Wodehouse Society mailing list) that Connor’s recent book “The Crossword Century” also includes a chapter on this subject.
Connor’s blog piece features an image of John Alderton, who played George Mulliner in the BBC Wodehouse Playhouse television series. It is a fine adaptation, recorded shortly before Wodehouse’s death, and includes an introduction from the author himself. You can watch it via You Tube.
What Ho again, Plum lovers.
It has been an especially glorious summer, right out of the pages of Blandings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to whiz about the countryside, capturing the atmosphere of Wodehouse’s England. I’ve visited Plum’s Emsworth in Hampshire and explored Bertie Wooster’s London (in one of the last tours given by Wodehouse expert, Norman Murphy). I also visited towns where Wodehouse’s parents lived, Cheltenham and Bexhill-on-Sea. The latter is affectionately remembered by Goons Show fans as the home of The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler.
I’ll have more to share over the coming winter as I knuckle down to writing about these adventures, but I could not let this particular week flit by without mentioning two important milestones. First, Monday the 15th of October marked the 132nd anniversary of Plum’s birth. It was lovely to see the tributes flow in via the various Wodehouse fan pages and societies.
Happy Birthday, Plum!
Fittingly, Plum’s birthday week will close with a special event on the Wodehouse-lovers’ calendar: The U.S. Wodehouse Society’s Chicago convention. I am disappointed to be missing this event and the opportunity to meet some of the friends I’ve made through Wodehouse online. I understand the Chicago gang have gone to great effort and I’m sure the event will be a terrific success. Indeed, they are no doubt browsing and sluicing as I write.
The Wodehouse novel I most associate with Chicago is Piccadilly Jim (1917), in which the former actor Bingley Crocker reprises his role of Chicago Ed:
Jimmy did not speak for a moment.
“Did you ever play a kidnapper, Dad?” he asked at length.
“Sure. I was Chicago Ed in a crook play called ‘This Way out’. Why, surely you saw me in that? I got some good notices.”
“Of course. I knew I’d seen you play that sort of part some time. You came on during the dark scene and –”
“Switched on the lights and –”
“Covered the bunch with your gun while they were still blinking! You were great in that part, Dad.”
“It was a good part,” said Mr Crocker modestly. “It had fat. I’d liked to have got a chance to play a kidnapper again. There’s a lot of pep to kidnappers.”
Piccadilly Jim (1917)
Bingley Crocker’s wish comes true. Here’s hoping yours do too.