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How have you been celebrating PG Wodehouse’s birthday? I’ve been sipping snifters at this high class binge, over at Ashok Bhatia’s blog. Would have shared it with you earlier, but I was unavoidably detained by the beak at Bosher Street after taking a perfectly innocent dip in the Trafalgar Square fountain at about 3am (not a newt in sight). Luckily I had the presence of mind to tell them I was Virginia Woolf.
A bit of an ordeal, to be sure, but a fitting way to celebrate the birth P.G. Wodehouse. Cheers, all!
Denizens of the Republic of Plumsville are cordially invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new cabinet of its Federal Government.Hon’ble President, Lord Emsworth (Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth), would preside over the function. The Vice President, Mr. Chichester Clam, shall also grace the occasion.
The ceremony shall begin with the Hon’ble President raising the National Flag, to the accompaniment of a rendering of the National Anthem ‘Sonny Boy’ by Ms. Cora Bellinger.
The Hon’ble President, the Vice President and the incumbent Prime Minister shall thereafter garland the statue of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE, the Father of the Nation.
Oaths shall be administered by the Chief Justice of Plumsville, Sir Watkyn Bassett. Oaths shall be in the name of the Constitution of Plumsville, viz., The Code of the Woosters.
Here are the respective portfolios and the incumbents:
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Hot on the heels of the Blandings centenary in June comes the 100th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Reginald Jeeves. The characters first appeared together in the story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, published in September 1915 in the Saturday Evening Post.
The centenary has been commemorated with a flurry of articles (try What ho! Celebrating 100 years of Bertie, Jeeves and Blandings by Aparna Narrain). But in spite of praise for Wodehouse and his beloved duo, who made their final appearance in 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ continues to hide it’s light under a bushel. If indeed that’s what lights do.
In his introduction to the 1967 omnibus The World of Jeeves, Wodehouse laments giving Jeeves just two lines, and no important role in the story:
It was only some time later, when I was going into the strange affair which is related under the title of ‘The Artistic Career of Corky’, that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.
‘Extricating Young Gussie’ was the only story omitted from The World of Jeeves omnibus, but readers wanting to assess its merit for themselves can find it in the 1917 short story collection The Man with Two Left Feet. The story begins:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can’t have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
Jeeves makes one more personal appearance:
Jeeves came in with the tea.
‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘we start for America on Saturday.’
‘Very good, sir,’ he said; ‘which suit will you wear?’
And he is referred to in another passage, when Bertie arrives in New York:
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie’s hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
Many readers, and evidently Wodehouse himself, look back on ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ as a poor beginning for this reason. It doesn’t fit the Jeeves and Wooster formula we’ve come to know and love. Some of the centenary commentators (presumably those who’ve not read it) also find fault with it as a story. In my previous piece ‘Getting started with Bertie and Jeeves: a chronological challenge’ I too was dismissive, claiming that ‘… it’s not essential reading for the new Wodehouse reader.’
Dutifully re-reading ‘Extricating Young Gussie’ for the 100th Anniversary in the belief that this was not Wodehouse’s best, I was thrilled to find the story better than I had (mis)remembered. It’s well-crafted, enjoyable and complete without Jeeves playing a major role. If we are disappointed with it (and I wasn’t) it is only because we’ve developed high expectations of Jeeves through the later stories. But there is much to like without him, and Bertie’s narrative voice and character (developed via an earlier prototype called Reggie Pepper) are firmly established:
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
And Bertie is in excellent form on the subject of Aunt Agatha.
My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
The story takes Bertie from London to New York at Aunt Agatha’s insistence, to break the engagement of his cousin Gussie to a vaudeville performer.
…according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion.
Bertie treats us to a personal tour of New York hotels, bars and theatre. On arrival, he tells us:
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can’t lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it.
In fact, the whole bally story is so packed with good stuff that when the conscientious blogger (that’s me) starts quoting, it becomes dashed difficult to stop. Rather than continue to cherry-pick the best bits for another twenty seven pages, I urge you to read them in situ, especially if it’s been some years since you encountered it. The older Wodehouse might have found fault with it, but we don’t have to agree with him.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of the past ‘yodelling’ through a woollen blanket.
Happy Jeeves & Wooster centenary, everyone!
‘What’s up with you today?’ he asked.
He could hardly have chosen a worse formula. The question has on most people precisely the same effect as that which the query, ‘Do you know where you lost it?’ has on one who is engaged in looking for mislaid property.
‘Nothing,’ said Reade. Probably at the same moment hundreds of other people were making the same reply, in the same tone of voice, to the same question.
I started reading The Pothunters yesterday. It’s a habit of mine, every so often, to set about re-reading the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse in order of publication, starting with The Pothunters (1902) — his first published novel. Invariably I get distracted from my purpose, somewhere between A Prefect’s Uncle and Love Among the Chickens. Sometimes, it’s the distractions of life. ‘Life!’ as Douglas Adams’ paranoid android Marvin says — ‘Don’t talk to me about life.’
More often it is Wodehouse who distracts me. I pick up The Mating Season or Pigs Have Wings, or possibly Mulliner Nights, in search of a quotation and end up reading the whole thing. Life goes on, time passes, until one day I begin with The Pothunters all over again. Fortunately, it’s a dashed enjoyable book.
I picked it up yesterday in an odd sort of mood. Life has been a bit of strain lately and I’ve been identifying with the aforementioned Marvin more than ever.
‘The first ten million years were the worst,’ said Marvin, ‘and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.’
Douglas Adams (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
So I turned to Wodehouse, as I often do, as a soothing balm in troubled times.The therapeutic power of great comic writing has long been undervalued by self-appointed literary elites, who look down their noses at ‘light’ fiction, and sneer at those who read for pleasure. Even sensible reviewers and book bloggers often struggle when it comes to reviewing Wodehouse, and other comic writing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Wodehouse novels ‘reviewed’ with a few sentences along the lines of — ‘I enjoyed it, but as a light comic novel, there isn’t much I can say about it.’ Others stick like glue to Stephen Fry’s view that ‘you don’t analyse such sunlit perfection.’
Is it any wonder that I have these odd moods? There is plenty to be gained from analysing Wodehouse. Why does his writing make us happy? What is is about his world and characters that appeal to us? Are there lessons we can take from his writing to make the world a better place? What can emerging writers learn from Wodehouse — so that his legacy extends to include future generations of writers who bring sunshine into our souls?
It’s all part of the Plumtopian vision — to inhabit a world where the healing balm of Wodehouse is liberally applied.
She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
The Girl on the Boat
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it seemed fitting to revisit this 2013 piece, ‘Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire’ — looking at the men in Wodehouse’s world in search of a mate.
Who is your Wodehouse dream date?
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
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This Valentine’s Day will mark the 40th anniversary of P.G. Wodehouse’s death — a fitting date to commemorate the great romantic-comedy writer.
Last February, Plumtopia marked the 39th anniversary by hosting a February theme of ‘the Great Romances of P.G. Wodehouse’. If you missed it last year, we had some wonderful contributions from various Wodehouse lovers:
A good time was had by all, but this merely scratches the surface of Wodehouse’s romantic world, so I’m returning to the theme again this February. If you would like join in by sharing a few words on your favourite Wodehouse romances, I would be delighted to post them, reblog or link to them here.
“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:
If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.
2 “Avoid prologue.”
Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:
“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”
According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point, considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:
“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”
3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”
Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.
” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
‘Do you like the name Mabel?’
‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.
4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”
According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?
5 “Keep your exclamation points under control.”
The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).
Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.
6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”
Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:
“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”
The Clicking of Cuthbert
Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.
7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.
“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”
“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”
“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”
Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Piccadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:
“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”
“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”
“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.
Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.
“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”
Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.
8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:
“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”
His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:
“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”
None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.
9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.
Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Piccadilly Jim is a good example:
“The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”
A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.
But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.
On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?
I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:
“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.
Another reader’s perspective the subject of Wodehouse’s women is offered here. Interestingly, her view of the subject changed after she varied her Wodehouse diet beyond the Jeeves stores.
- Wodehouse’s women: in the eye of the beholder (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)
I don’t know if you’ll remember but I kind of have a thing for this guy called Pelham Graham Wodehouse. Relax, it’s not at hidden-shrine-in-back-of-closet level, I just happen to think the man is a legend and the creator all things amazing and beautiful. The most I’ve read of Wodehouse is the Jeeves series, a few Blandings novels, The Uncle Fred series and a school story or two from the early years (I recommend A Prefects Uncle and The Golden Bat.) Yet as a woman, there was always the impression that I was butting into a very exclusive boys club. The women in Wodehouse novels, as I’ve mentioned on Small Fry before, are neatly categorised into one of three. The sappy, annoying kind that need to be drowned with immediate effect (Madeline Basset), the tall, stately ones with their minds full of the higher pursuits in life (Florence Craye, famed…
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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.
As an immigrant, rather than a tourist, my Wodehouse pilgrimage has to be managed in small stages, juggled alongside work, parenting and family commitments. Earlier this year I wangled a drive through Guildford, Surrey where P.G. Wodehouse was born. To my delight, I also discovered a few towns of interest in the surrounding area. It was a quick ‘drive by’ photo shoot so photo quality is not the best. Rest assured that I’ll be returning and filing further reports in the fullness of time.
It was impossible to get closer on this occasion, but according to Open Plaques the sign above the door reads: ‘Author and humourist P.G. Wodehouse was born here on October 15th 1881.’ The great Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy explained to me that Wodehouse was born here ‘early and by accident’. His mother Eleanor Wodehouse was staying with a sister in Bramley, a nearby village about 3 miles south of Guildford. She was paying a social to an Army friend in Epsom Road when PG arrived unexpectedly.
St Nicholas is hardly the small parish church of ‘Great Sermon Handicap’ fame, but might have been mid-career home to one of the distinguished Mulliner clergy.
Admittedly, this photo will do nothing for my reputation as a bulb squeezer, or as a driver. But I felt justified holding up traffic on the road from Guildford to capture this unexpectedly glorious set of options.
Indeed I did drive slowly through this village, hoping to spot an illustrious Pigman or two.
Alas the illustrious pile behind the sign, and any resident Aunts, were not visible from the road. And I did not get to Aldershot, which gets recurring mentions in the Wodehouse school stories.
My short drive in this region was a teaser of what is yet to come in my Plumtopian pilgrimage The next exciting step will occur next weekend, when I take a walk in London well-known Wodehouse enthusiast and author, Colonel N.T.P. Murphy.