More homage to Wodehouse


IN a previous column I wrote about Homage to PG Wodehouse, a 1973 tribute compiled by Thelma Cazalet-Keir, sister-in-law of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter Leonora. Here are some more selections from this charming book.

Claud Cockburn (1904-1981) was a leftie journalist who worked for the Times and contributed to the British communist newspaper the Daily Worker. But we won’t hold that against him because a) he was known for the saying ‘believe nothing until it has been officially denied’ and more importantly b) he loved Wodehouse.

Cockburn writes that he used to judge a person by whether he or she was partial to a bit of Plum. ‘Testing a new acquaintance, I would drag the conversation round to, for example, the point in the story about the stamp collection where the curate says, “One does so want, does one not, to avoid anything in the nature of rannygazoo”. If the fellow showed that he had failed to respond to the impact and flavour of that line, I thereafter shunned him.’

He goes on to admit that the Wodehouse rule was ‘to some extent an over-simplification. It is not absolutely and always true that a man blind to the nuances of Lord Emsworth’s character is necessarily a brute, crook or poltroon. It is of course probable that he is one or all of these things but there may be streak of decency in him somewhere. Coarsely insensitive to the atmosphere of Blandings, he may yet have some quality which sometimes restrains him from striking a pregnant woman or stealing from a blind beggar.

‘I knew a man who said he could see “no point” in reading about Ukridge who “when you come right down to it” was merely lazy, dishonest and – except for the occasional cheap triumph – “a failure”. You would naturally set down the man who said that as sub-human and probably dangerous. Yet this man showed loving kindness to his cat, never tried to cheat at Scrabble and once gave me a very good tip on a horse running at Tramore races.’

Cockburn concedes that he could ‘see an element of hyperbole in the claim made by one of my uncles that all regular and continuous readers of Wodehouse are so demonstrably superior to other citizens that they should be given two votes each in Parliamentary elections to save the country. Yet there was much to be learned by weighing people on the delicate Wodehouse Scale, or dipping them like litmus paper into Wodehouse and watching what colour they turned.’

Cockburn was living in Budapest when Hungary succumbed to Wodehouse Mania. ‘My friend Janos imported an English valet whom he insisted on actually calling Jeeves. The pseudo-Jeeves remained in office until, having taken up pimping as a sideline, he was run out of town by rival, native pimps. The episode did nothing to weaken the Wodehouse Effect. Janos and his friends renamed a section of their club The Drones. Procedures at the original Drones were rigorously carried out. The first time I lunched there with Janos I was surprised to see him rap on a wine glass with his knife and call out, “And now, gentlemen, the bread throw”.’

I have written before about the brilliance of Wodehouse’s golf stories. The great golf writer Henry Longhurst (1909-1978) quotes the Oldest Member ruminating on the terrace at the club. ‘Golf’, he says, ‘acts as a corrective against sinful pride. I attribute the insane arrogance of the later Roman emperors almost entirely to the fact that, never having played golf, they never knew that strange chastening humility which is engendered by a topped chip-shot. If Cleopatra had been ousted in the first round of the Ladies’ Singles, we should have heard a lot less of her proud imperiousness.’

Longhurst goes on: ‘It is no surprise, then, that so many of the characters in the golfing stories are, in the golfing sense, humble performers. One thinks, for instance, of the Saturday foursome which the Oldest Member observes “struggling raggedly up the hill to the ninth green. Like all Saturday foursomes it is in difficulties. One of the patients is zigzagging about the fairway like a liner pursued by submarines. Two others seem to be digging for buried treasure unless – it is too far off to be certain – they are killing snakes. The remaining cripple, who has just foozled a mashie shot, is blaming his caddie.”

‘Supreme among the foozlers, however, must be the Wrecking Crew, who feature in what is almost my favourite story, Chester Forgets Himself. Chester Meredith, needing a four to beat the record, comes upon them moving up the eighteenth fairway with their caddies in mass formation “looking to his exasperated eye like one of those great race migrations of the Middle Ages”. The star performer of the Wrecking Crew – “if there can be said to be grades in such a sub-species” – was the First Grave-Digger. “The lunches of fifty-seven years had caused his chest to slip down to the mezzanine floor but he was still a powerful man and had in his youth been a hammer thrower of some repute. He differed from his colleagues – the Man with the Hoe; Old Father Time and Consul, the Almost Human – in that, while they were content to peck cautiously at the ball, he never spared himself in his efforts to do it a violent injury”.’

Longhurst asks: ‘How often have I made use of that last phrase – generally, I may say, with acknowledgment – both in writing and on the television! That and Mitchell Holmes, who “missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows”. Every writer delights in occasionally getting precisely the right word in the right place, and there are, of course, innumerable instances in the Wodehouse canon. None, surely, is better than “uproar”.’

Quoting himself in one of his volumes of autobiography, Longhurst says that he learned two things from Wodehouse, ‘one of them particularly comforting, namely that to write well you did not have to write on a serious subject, so there was no reason why I should not try hard just because I only did little pieces about golf. The other was that good writing flows, in other words you may well have the right words but not have them in the right order. Although it is poetry, not prose, the classic example is, of course, “the ploughman homeward plods his weary way”. There are, I believe, dozens of orders in which the words can be put – but only one right one. However trivial or hilarious the subject, Wodehouse’s writing always flows. “A trivial subject?” I seem to hear the Oldest Member saying. “That varied, never-ending pageant that men call golf – a trivial subject? My boy, you are not yourself!”’

Watch this space for more homages to the Master.

Old jokes’ home

To the man on crutches dressed in camouflage who stole my wallet: you can hide but you can’t run.

A PS from PG

A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant.

PG Wodehouse: Blandings Castle

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