John Mortimer on PG Wodehouse

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The Sunday Times 29.08.04

Buy Books by PG Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster's friend a certain Claude Cattennole Pirbright was in low spirits, so P G Wodehouse wrote that "his brow was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought and his air was that of a man who, if he said 'allo girls' would have said it like someone in a Russian drama announcing that grandpapa had hanged himself in the barn".
This passage tells us a lot about Wodehouse that he was writing for a large audience, for instance, who had a working knowledge of Hamlet and had at least heard of Chekhov (matters that can no longer be taken for granted). It also tells us about his wonderful talent for reducing all the most serious moments of life to a kind of cheerful absurdity. As Robert McCrum reveals in his excellent new biography, the brilliant novelist, whom Evelyn Waugh called the best writer of the first half of the 20th century, remained a chirpy schoolboy at heart. Wodehouse went to Dulwich College in London, a school that also produced such writers as Raymond Chandler and C S Forester (the author of the Hornblower books). It was at Dulwich that Wodehouse learnt to love Shakespeare, Tennyson and Browning, and there, too, that he read Virgil and Aeschylus. Also, as McCrum points out, Wodehouse grew up to admire the stiff-upper-lipped heroes of die Boy's Own Paper, and the novels of G A Henty and H Rider Haggard, in which the heroes faced any disaster with a jaunty smile and a throwaway joke.
It was this that made Wodehouse so attractive as a character, but it also led him to think of the worst European dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, as the comic members of Sir Roderick Spode's movement (the Black Shorts described in the Jeeves stories). Wodehouse's immortal characters, Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Uck-ridge and Psmith ("the p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan"), were created before the war, in the piping days of peace, when young men wore spats and even monocles, the worst tyrants were aunts and the servants hatched their devious plots behind the green
baize door. In this period, when scintillating novels poured out of Wodehouse in an endless stream, McCrum also reminds us of his achievements as a lyricist. He grew up as a great admirer of W S Gilbert, who also inspired the Gershwins. He worked with Ziegfeld and Jerome Kern and contributed the lyrics of Bill to the musical Show Boat (he drew royalties from it for the rest of his life). But as Wodehouse himself said, it happens often that when a man feels particularly braced with things in general, fate comes up
behind him and hits him with a bit S of lead piping. This time, the lead | piping was the second world war, 5 an event that led him to temporary and ill-deserved disgrace.
While the Germans were advancing through France, the Wodehouses stayed on in their house near Le Touquet, apparently oblivious to the imminent danger. The happenings that followed made a tragicomedy that he treated as though it was an entertaining event in one of his books. On one occasion when the Wodehouses tried to leave for the south of France, they and their accompanying parrot were stopped by a German officer, who was bitten by the bird (this caused great hilarity). On another
occasion, the car broke down and Wodehouse was arrested. His wife Ethel had to pack him a case that contained a mutton chop and a large bar of chocolate. He was taken to prison where he shared a cell with two large men and slept on a thin mattress on the floor. Later, he had to collect dirty straw for his bed. In these conditions, he continued to write a novel. When he was finally interned he said that it was quite a good thing as it kept you out of the saloons and you could catch up on your reading.
America had not yet entered the war, so he was able to send his work to his American publisher. In these circumstances, he was released on the understanding from the Gestapo that he would broadcast to America, which was neutral at the time. Clearly, the Gestapo hoped for pro-German propaganda but they must have been sadly disappointed, although Wodehouse did say that the German officers he found in his garden in France wore "pretty green uniforms". Otherwise the broadcasts appeared perfectly harmless. However, the fact that he made them and was released to a suite in Berlin's Adlon Hotel (where he paid the bills from his German royalties) led Bill Connor, writing as "Cassandra" in the Daily Mirror, to denounce Wodehouse as a traitor to his country. This led to attacks in the British and American press and the unhappiest period of a singularly sunny life.
The story has a refreshingly happy ending, and one which shows both men to advantage. After the war, Cassandra wrote a piece in which he complained about Wodehouse's grand first names Pelham and Granville, to which Wodehouse replied by suggesting that W D Connor stood for Walpurgis Diarmid. to which Cassandra replied that the Walpurgis idea "was a corker". As a consequence, the two men enjoyed a friendly lunch together. To Wodehouse even his deadliest enemy was a bit of a joker. After the war he reflected that the world he was born into had vanished "like
Nineveh and Tyre". Upper lips were no longer stiff and the world was full of people bleating on about their health, broken marriages and the unfairness of life. Young men no longer wore spats and gentlemen's gentlemen didn't give marvellous advice with brains enlarged by the consumption of much fish.
None of this, however, really matters. As McCrum says, like Dickens (and, I would add, like Trollope and Evelyn Waugh), Wodehouse created his own universe peopled by remarkable characters, which will live on even when the Drones Club has been pulled down and turned into a centre for pilates and yoga classes.
Nothing will ever dim the brilliance of Wodehouse's world or flatten his ever-sprightly and always entertaining prose. Today, literary pundits tell you that nothing matters except the text and that a writer's personal life is irrelevant. But those who delight in Wodehouse will also delight in McCrum's biography. Wodehouse is a pleasure to follow from his schooldays to his sudden death in the act of filling his pipe and reading yet another manuscript in his hospital bedroom.
At the start of his book, McCrum can't resist quoting a passage that once again shows how beautifully Wodehouse can puncture sententious and over-serious opinions. I can't resist it either. It goes like this. " 'I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said: "Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web."'
I breathed a bit stertorously. 'He said that, did he?'
'Yes, sir/
'Well, you can tell him from me he's an ass.' "
Text © John Mortimer - The Times
Layout © R.D. Collins 2004


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