A final homage to Wodehouse


IN previous columns herehere, here and here I wrote about Homage to PG Wodehouse, a 1973 tribute edited by Thelma Cazalet-Keir, sister-in-law of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter Leonora. My final extracts begin with an account by the American Guy Bolton (1884-1979), who collaborated with the Master on no fewer than 21 musical comedies for the stage and became his lifelong friend. In one of my favourite anecdotes, he describes how he called on Wodehouse in London in the mid-1920s.

‘He was living in bachelor quarters in a tall, old-fashioned building in Queen’s Gate. His flat was on the fifth floor. There was no lift. I was travel tired and I toiled up the long staircase, pausing on the landings to pant. I found his door ajar and, entering, I found him writing a letter. He greeted me with a cheery “Hurrah, you’re here!” and added, “Just a tick and I’ll get this letter off.”

‘He shoved the letter in an envelope, stuck a stamp on it, then went over to the half-open window and tossed it out. “What on earth?” I asked. “Has the joy of seeing me brought on some sort of mental lapse? That was your letter you just threw out of the window.” “I know that. I can’t be bothered to go toiling down five flights every time I write a letter.” “You depend on someone picking it up and posting it for you?” “Isn’t that what you would do if you found a letter stamped and addressed lying on the pavement? All I can say is it works.” “Well I wish you’d write me a letter while I’m here in London. I’d like to show it round in America – a bit of a score for good old England”.’

Bolton goes on: ‘It was the second day after moving into a fourth-floor flat in South Audley Street when my doorbell rang and I opened it to a rather stout individual somewhat out of breath. “Are you Mr Bolton? I have a letter for you.” The envelope was in Plum’s handwriting.

‘He said he was a taxi driver but refused a tip, accepting instead a bottle of Guinness. While he was drinking it, I phoned Plum. “I have your letter,” I said. “What?” said Plum in a slightly awed voice. “I only threw it out of the window 20 minutes ago.” “You were right,” I said. “It’s by far the quickest way to send a letter to a friend in London.” “Yes, indeed. The GPO had better look to their laurels and keep an eye on their laburnums”.’

Of his friend, Bolton says: ‘He has one quality that is rare in our age. It is innocence. It carries with it a trusting belief in the goodness of heart of his fellow men. Suspicion and distrust have no place in his nature. The characters in his books share in it – even his villains are likely to succumb before a finger shaken by one of those bright-eyed, no-nonsense Wodehouse heroines.’

Next we have the author Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), recalling a letter he received in 1946 from Wodehouse, still detained in Paris following his release by the Germans. ‘A few days ago I received a formal notification from the French Government that I was no longer considered “dangereux” to the safety of the Republic. Up till now the Republic has been ducking down side streets when it saw me coming and shouting “Save yourselves, boys! Here comes Wodehouse!”. But now all is well and me and them are just like that. I am glad of this because I have always considered them one of the nicest Republics I have ever met, my great trouble being that I simply can’t master their language. My instructor at the Berlitz was strong on pencils. She would keep saying “Un crayon. Le crayon est bleu. Le crayon est jaune” and so on until I got really good on pencils. But in actual conversation I found that it didn’t carry me far. I was sunk unless I could work the talk round to pencils, and nobody seemed really interested in them.”

‘I quote those words of Plummy’s, written at a time when life could hardly have been rosy, because it seems to me that they are as revealing of the man’s character as any I have ever read. What a blessing his keen sense of humour and his sense of the ridiculous must have been to him in those troubled days. I raise my glass to him now with affectionate memories and good wishes for many more years of the laughter he has so generously shared with his many friends and his public.’

Mackenzie died in 1972, with the Homage still yet to be published. Wodehouse survived him by less than three years.

The final contribution comes from Auberon Waugh (1939-2001), the journalist, author and controversialist eldest son of Evelyn Waugh. One of my fondest memories of ‘Bron’ was when, in Private Eye, he decried the newspapers’ then tendency to shorten ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ to ‘the Ripper’. He argued that it would be much more derogatory to refer to him as ‘the Yorkshire’.

He writes: ‘When, a few months ago, my ten-year-old daughter started making strange, spluttering noises from her corner of the sofa we were not in the slightest bit alarmed. She might have been imitating the noise bath water makes when it runs away, or a baby hippopotamus learning how to swim. We realised immediately that she had found the bookcase devoted to the works of PG Wodehouse. In the course of the happy reading ahead of her, something of the Master’s gentleness and benevolence is bound to communicate itself; almost certainly it will remain a profound influence for the rest of her life, helping to shape her attitudes to her culture, to her fellow-countrymen and to all life’s vicissitudes. Finally, Wodehouse will equip her with a new critical dimension by which to judge the things which other people hold important and the things which other people think funny.

‘Occasionally, my daughter may meet people who complain that they are excluded from high office by virtue of their humble birth, their poor education, disagreeable natures, extreme stupidity or some other deficiency for which they are in no way responsible. Without exception, of course, these are people who have never read Wodehouse.

‘If ever my daughter reads the Problem Page of a woman’s magazine, she will see the whole range of human misery paraded there: people with pimples and bad breath, unfaithful husbands and cruel lovers, mortgage repayments above their means and spiders in their bath. The best advice for all these people would be the same: “Read Wodehouse”.’

Waugh goes on: ‘I was not surprised, on a spot check of the current British Cabinet in my capacity as a political correspondent, to find that very few of them had ever read Wodehouse; only two enjoyed him and several had never heard of him. The political world does not take kindly to alternative perceptions of its own importance. Politicians may be prepared to countenance subversive political jokes, but the deeper subversion of totally non-political jokes is something they can neither comprehend nor forgive. It is no accident that of all 20th-century English writers, Wodehouse is the one they have chosen, in their time, to persecute most bitterly.’

He concludes: ‘For those lucky people who have studied him, Wodehouse is present somewhere at every moment of the day’ and quotes from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Old jokes’ home

I love face-painting. It’s a lot of fun. Although you do need the person’s permission.

A PS from PG

It was a cold, disapproving gaze, such as a fastidious luncher who was not fond of caterpillars might have directed at one which he had discovered in his portion of salad.

PG Wodehouse: The Adventures of Sally

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