ONE of the most galling incidents in Bertie Wooster’s life is recounted several times in the Wodehouse oeuvre. It happened in the Drones Club, was perpetrated by Hildebrand ‘Tuppy’ Glossop, and involved a series of rings which hung by ropes from the ceiling above the swimming pool, as Bertie bitterly recalled in Right Ho, Jeeves:
‘He was the fellow, if you remember, who, callously ignoring the fact that we had been friends since boyhood, betted me one night at the Drones that I could swing myself across the swimming bath by the rings – a childish feat for one of my lissomness – and then, having seen me well on the way, looped back the last ring, thus rendering it necessary for me to drop into the deep end in formal evening costume.’
Although the Drones Club features in many a Wodehouse series, including Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings Castle and Mr Mulliner, it is also a genre in its own right, with 21 short stories which appeared in the Drones Omnibus, published in 1991. These first saw the light in the collections Young Men in Spats, Lord Emsworth and Others, Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, Nothing Serious, A Few Quick Ones and Plum Pie. In addition, Drones members are the protagonists in six novels, Money for Nothing (Hugo Carmody and Ronnie Fish), The Luck of the Bodkins (Monty Bodkin), Laughing Gas (Reginald Swithin), Barmy in Wonderland (Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps), Ice in the Bedroom (Freddie Widgeon and Oofy Prosser) and Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin.
The title Eggs, Beans and Crumpets refers to Drones members’ habit of addressing each other as ‘Old Egg’, ‘Old Bean’ or ‘My Dear Old Crumpet’. The story The Editor Regrets includes a conversation between a Bean and a Crumpet: ‘I allude, of course, to the Bella Mae Jobson affair.’ The Bean asked what the Bella Mae Jobson affair was, and the Crumpet, expressing surprise that he had not heard of it, said that it was the affair of Bella Mae Jobson.
The Wodehouse scholar Richard Usborne wrote that the Drones was ‘the club above all that I should like to belong to and, as Percy Gorringe, a side-whiskered Bloomsburyite from Liverpool, was a member and “Mustard” Pott acceptable as a guest, I don’t see why it need be too exclusive for me. Is there any club so hallowed in English fiction?’
Activities open to the Drones included a squash tournament, darts contest, golfing weekends in Le Touquet and of course lots of drinking and anecdotes about club members.
The story All’s Well with Bingo begins thus:
A Bean and a Crumpet were in the smoking-room of the Drones Club having a quick one before lunch, when an Egg who had been seated at the writing table in the corner rose and approached them.
‘How many “r’s” in “intolerable”?’ he asked.
‘Two,’ said the Crumpet. ‘Why?’
‘I am writing a strong letter to the Committee,’ explained the Egg, ‘drawing their attention to the intolerable . . . Great Scot!’ he cried, breaking off. ‘There he goes again!’
A spasm contorted his face. Outside in the passage a fresh young voice had burst into a gay song with a good deal of vo-de-o-de-o about it. The Bean cocked an attentive ear as it died away in the direction of the dining-room.
‘Who is this linnet?’ he inquired.
‘Bingo Little, blast him. He’s always singing nowadays. That’s what I’m writing my strong letter to the Committee about – the intolerable nuisance of this incessant heartiness of his . . . How many “s’s” in incessant?’
‘Three,’ said the Crumpet.
‘Thanks,’ said the Egg.
Wodehouse’s main London inspiration for the Drones was Buck’s Club, established in 1919 at the corner of Clifford Street and Old Burlington Street. He was never a member himself but he knew several, including his lifelong friend Guy Bolton who invited him to lunch there many times. In A Wodehouse Handbook, the researcher N T P Murphy writes: ‘At the end of his long life [he died in 1975 aged 93], Wodehouse was asked if the Drones was based on Buck’s. He was surprised at the question; he assumed everybody knew it was. He had not realised that the world had moved on and what was obvious to his readers in the 1930s had become myth and legend in the 1970s. He added, however, that he had also incorporated into the Drones stories the swimming pool and ropes of another club – the Bath Club.’
This was founded in 1896 at 34, Dover Street, says Murphy, ‘by Lord Desborough and his friends, who wanted to combine physical exercise with the comforts of club life. They bought the house and, on the ground floor, installed a pool with ropes and rings above it. You changed your clothes, jumped up and did some strenuous exercise on the ropes and rings, then dropped in the pool, did your fifty lengths, showered, dressed and went off to the bar.’
Murphy asks: ‘Did members of a respectable London club really play such silly tricks as Tuppy played on Bertie? The Bath Club was destroyed by fire in 1941 and in the 1970s when I began my researches there was little chance of finding old members. I found one or two who remembered the ropes and rings but that was all until my luck changed in 1995.
‘I was standing at the bar in the Savage Club when I heard an elderly gentleman saying to someone that he still missed the old Bath Club. It was the work of a moment to grab him by the shoulder, apologise, buy him a whisky and start asking questions. He was a member before the war? Of course he was. Were there ropes and rings over the pool? Of course there were. Did people ever swing down the pool by the ropes and rings with all their clothes on? Happened all the time!
‘I remember pausing before asking the final, vital question. Was it ever known for somebody to bet another member he couldn’t swing down the pool with his clothes on and then, when he was well on his way, to loop back the last ring so he had to drop into the pool? I’ve never forgotten the way his face changed. His eyes narrowed with sixty years of pent-up resentment. “Yes. Happened all the time. The bastards got me once!”’
Murphy’s interlocutor was Richard Vick, a retired judge making his last visit to the Savage – he died soon afterwards. He said that to celebrate his being called to the Bar in 1938, his parents bought him his first Savile Row suit. ‘After the ceremony his so-called friends gave him lunch, filled him full of port and then issued the challenge. When he got to the middle of the pool they pulled the last ring out of his reach and down he went in his new suit.’
Asked if the Bath was a favourite club for barristers in those days, Judge Vick replied: ‘No, it was nothing like that. It was just very convenient. If you were walking along Berkeley Street and you saw someone you didn’t want to meet, you could nip in the back door of the club, walk through to Dover Street, nip across the road into Brown’s Hotel, go through that and you came out in Albemarle Street, two streets away. Yes, very convenient.’
‘I was puzzled,’ says Murphy. ‘This was a retired judge I was talking to and you can’t get more respectable than that. Who on earth were these mysterious people he was trying to avoid? From the lips of this 85-year-old pillar of the community came words that could have come straight from Freddie Widgeon, Bingo Little or Bertie Wooster: “Oh, the usual thing. Policemen, girls, girls’ mothers – people like that!”’
In an aside, Murphy writes: ‘I was surprised that Wodehouse described Bingo Little bringing his baby into the Drones and standing it a milk straight. I should have known he would not have written that without a reason. The Bath Club was unique in allowing children in at weekends to use the pool. That’s where the Queen learned to swim.’
Old jokes’ home
Did you hear about the dyslexic, agnostic insomniac? He lay awake at night wondering if there’s a dog.
A PS from PG
I remember once when he and I arrived at a country house where the going threatened to be sticky, Jeeves, as we alighted, murmured in my ear the words ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came, sir’, and at the time I could make nothing of the crack. Subsequent inquiry, however, revealed that this Roland was one of those knights of the Middle Ages who spent their time wandering to and fro, and that on fetching up one evening at a dump known as the Dark Tower he had scratched the chin a bit dubiously, not liking the look of things.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season