To many readers, PG Wodehouse is synonymous with Jeeves and Wooster but little else (apart from maybe the Blandings books). However there are countless gems to be mined among the rest of his mighty oeuvre of almost 100 volumes. As a humble devotee, I hope to introduce you to some other delights, starting with the golf stories.
WHEN Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was at Dulwich College between 1894 and 1900, he was blissfully happy with school life and developed an enduring love of cricket and rugger – he went off boxing because the other blighters kept hitting him. The two sports were central to his early novels and he followed Dulwich’s results throughout his long life.
Yet when Plum began to enjoy success in the US he realised that to mine the rich comic seam of sporting obsession he had to come up with a new ball game.
During a lengthy spell in America, where he had become a big noise in musical theatre, he began to play golf at the Sound View club in Long Island with comic actors including Ed Wynn and Ernest Truex. ‘The golf course was awfully nice,’ he recalled many years later. ‘However, I wasn’t any good at golf. I suppose I ought to have taken lessons instead of playing. I didn’t mind losing, because it was such good exercise walking around the holes. If only I’d taken up golf immediately after I left school instead of playing cricket.’
He never did get very good at the game. Over the years he won a single trophy, a striped umbrella, at a hotel tournament ‘where, hitting them squarely on the meat for once, I went through a field of some of the fattest retired businessmen in America like a devouring flame’.
However, golf was to provide the material for some of Wodehouse’s finest short stories, written mainly in the 1920s, which helped to make him a very rich man.
As one of his biographers, Richard Usborne, observed in his marvellous Wodehouse at Work to the End, ‘in the 1920s and 30s there were many illustrated magazines on both sides of the Atlantic paying high for good humorous short stories, five- to eight-thousand-word episodes, complete with sunny plot, a beginning, middle and end, and the young couple happily paired off in the fade-out. Wodehouse wrote for this profitable market. He became one of the golden boys of the magazines and, not necessarily the same thing, a master of his craft.
‘The Strand was paying Wodehouse a peak 500 guineas a story, the Saturday Evening Post 4,000 dollars and the American Magazine 6,000 dollars. Twelve short stories could gross Wodehouse £20,000 from the magazines before they became a book with its own dollar and sterling royalties to follow.’ That £20,000 would today have the buying power of over a million.
In a piece for the US magazine Golf Digest, Peter Andrews wrote: ‘By 1927, he was rolling in royalty money. [His wife] Ethel rented a 16-room London townhouse just off Park Lane with a household staff that included a morning and afternoon secretary as well as a cook, a butler, a kitchen maid, a footman, two housemaids, an odd-job man and a chauffeur. She fitted Plum up with a proper panelled library. He said it was all lovely and then brought up a table to his bedroom, where he put his old Monarch typewriter and went back to work.’
Wodehouse’s golf stories are collected in the Golf Omnibus, which I ordered from the library on its being published in 1973, buying my own hardback copy in 1981 for £8.95, one of the best investments ever made. It is a joy from start to finish.
Most of the tales are narrated by the Oldest Member, who observes the battle of the sexes on and off the course from his place on the terrace at various unnamed golf clubs in Britain and America. Several stories involve Agnes Flack, the women’s champion, whose voice sounds ‘like the down express letting off steam at a level crossing’. When she refused a marriage proposal by her less-gifted suitor Sidney McMurdo on the sixth green, ‘the distant rumblings of her mirth were plainly heard in the clubhouse locker room, causing two who were afraid of thunderstorms to cancel their match’.
In Golf Digest Peter Andrews wrote: ‘In a Wodehouse golf story, no emotion runs deeper than the game. When Peter Willard and James Todd play a match to win the hand of Grace Forrester, the Oldest Member notes sagely, “Love is a fever which, so to speak, drives off without wasting time on the address.” As in golf, the course of true love does not always run smooth. “There is nothing sadder in this life,” the Oldest Member notes, “than the spectacle of a husband and wife with practically equal handicaps drifting apart.”
‘There can be disappointment. Mortimer Sturgis marries Mabel Somerset under the impression she is a golfer when, in fact, she plays croquet. Their honeymoon, spent viewing the antiquities of Rome, is something of a frost. Mortimer’s only thought when looking at the ruins of the Coliseum is to speculate “whether Abe Mitchell would use a full brassie to carry it”.
‘Sometimes there is even violence. When the chatty fiancé of Celia Tennant talks during her backswing, she bashes him with a niblick. The Oldest Member approves: “If the thing was to be done at all, it was unquestionably a niblick shot.”
‘But there is also redemption. Rodney Spelvin, who had misspent his youth as a vers libre poet, is cleansed of his wastrel ways by the purity of golf. Hitting a crisp baffy to the green will do that for a man.
‘Golf is the eternal metaphor. To describe the sweetness of one of his heroines, PG writes, “She was one of those rose-leaf girls with big blue eyes to whom good men instinctively want to give a stroke a hole and on whom bad men automatically want to prey”.’
Unquestionably my favourite golf story is The Clicking of Cuthbert, title tale of a book published in 1922. In his introduction, Plum wrote: ‘As a writer of light fiction, I have always till now been handicapped by the fact that my disposition was cheerful, my heart intact, and my life unsoured. Handicapped, I say, because the public likes to feel that a writer of farcical stories is piquantly miserable in his private life, and that, if he turns out anything amusing, he does it simply in order to obtain relief from the almost insupportable weight of an existence which he has long since realized to be a wash-out. Well, today I am just like that.
‘Two years ago, I admit, I was a shallow farceur. My work lacked depth. I wrote flippantly simply because I was having a thoroughly good time. Then I took up golf, and now I can smile through the tears and laugh, like Figaro, that I may not weep, and generally hold my head up and feel that I am entitled to respect.
‘If you find anything in this volume that amuses you, kindly bear in mind that it was probably written on my return home after losing three balls in the gorse or breaking the head off a favourite driver: and, with a murmured “Brave fellow! Brave fellow!” recall the story of the clown jesting while his child lay dying at home. That is all. Thank you for your sympathy. It means more to me than I can say. Do you think that if I tried the square stance for a bit . . . But, after all, this cannot interest you. Leave me to my misery.’
I won’t bother trying to summarise The Clicking of Cuthbert. Read it here, and cherish it.
Old jokes’ home
British big game hunter striding through the jungle is confronted by a beautiful naked woman. ‘Well, hello’, he drawls in best Leslie Phillips fashion. ‘I say, are you game?’ ‘Why yes’, she replies, fluttering her eyelashes. So he shoots her.
A PS from PG
Nature, when planning this sterling fellow, shoved in a lot more lower jaw than was absolutely necessary and made the eyes a bit too keen and piercing for one who was neither an Empire builder nor a traffic policeman.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves