FROM DIARY OF A NOBODY TO PG WODEHOUSE – THE FALL AND RISE OF COMIC LITERATURE
If there’s a literary cornerstone for the sensibility of 20th century British comedy, it’s The Diary Of A Nobody, the creation of George Grossmith and brother Weedon, who provided the mournful pen and ink illustrations which accompany the text. George Grossmith was an actor best known for his work on the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. Weedon, meanwhile, gave up his career as an artist, going to America to tour a version of characters from the Diary, particularly its “author” Mr Charles Pooter.
The diaries were not an immediate success. Initially, critics were fazed by the mundanity of the entries. They do not exactly begin with a whizz-bang. “We have a little front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up.” Later, for writers like Orwell, this would be a huge part of the Diary’s appeal, its rendering of lives as lived in the late 19th century, and their precarious class relations.
Mr Pooter toils humbly as a senior clerk to a London firm and lives in unfashionable Holloway Road. He’s deeply conscious of his station; certainly a cut above the tradesmen with whom he has numerous run-ins but well below Mr Perkupp, the kindly-seeming proprietor of his firm whom he treats with unstinting obsequiousness.
Such deference, however, is in decreasing supply in Mr Pooter’s world. There is Pitt, the insolent young clerk, for example, who, when Pooter turns up at work in trousers his tailor has cut too wide at the bottom, quips “Hornpipe!”. Class is breaking down before his very eyes; tradespeople are apt to reply coarsely when challenged by Pooter. Meanwhile, he is aggrieved to learn that a “vulgar” head clerk named Splotch has been invited to the same Mansion House ball as him. “I feel my invitation is considerably discounted.” He is further vexed when, having ordered in multiple copies of the Blackfriars bi-weekly News to see his name in print as one of the ball’s attendees, his name is omitted, and then, on his complaining, misspelt as “Porter”. Writing to them a second time, he is disgusted to read in the following edition: “We have received two letters from Mr and Mrs Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House ball.”
The character with the finest disregard for Mr Pooter’s station, however, is his son Lupin, which, in a snub to family tradition he has taken as his Christian name in lieu of Willie. Indomitably irreverent, a reckless romancer, a speculator, whose youthful slang his father confesses barely to understand, Lupin is the embodiment of the coming spirit of the 20th century, all dash and neck, having none of the staid, garden gate values and assumptions of his father. He calls Pooter the “guv’nor” but refuses to be governed by him. Lupin represents an emergent clerical class identified by John Carey in The Intellectuals And The Masses, carrying themselves with a confidence that alarmed not just Mr Pooter but even supposed modernists like DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, who preferred the the authenticity of European peasantry, clad stoically in smocks and breaking bread at wooden tables over these new “ill-bred” lower orders. Certainly, the new class relations mapped in the book may have made more sense by 1910, when it began to enjoy its longlasting acclaim.
For while Mr Pooter’s old Victorian world might have appeared to have been disintegrating, Mr Pooter as a type has endured – the butt of the modern joke. There’s a pathos about him, echoed in the frustration of the estate agent in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; “people always seem to be against you.” Mr Pooter is beloved, if not uncritically, by his wife and Mr Perkupp beams upon him with distant benevolence. But everyone else, from the tradespeople he must interact with since it would be unthinkable for him to wash his own handkerchieves, to the friends and guests who cross his threshold are liable to antagonism. There’s the morose, accident-prone bicycle enthusiast Cummings, and Gowing, his neighbour, whose conversational stock in trade is over-familiar insults. Yet both are equally thin-skinned, as Mr Pooter ventures to make a joke, of the punning sort which was a popular feature of periodicals in the 1890s. “Doesn’t it seem odd that Gowing’s always coming and Cummings always going?” Both take grave offence at this crack; a bit rich from Gowing particularly, who only pages earlier kept Pooter waiting for an hour during a country walk while he and another friend nipped into a pub. Or there is Burwin-Fossleton, who, when Mr Pooter fails to show sufficient appreciation for the impersonations of the actor Irving, pens him a windy missive extolling his future prospects as an actor and looking forward to the day when Mr Pooter “will be the first to come round and bend your head in submission.” For all his stuffiness, the poor man gets far more comeuppance than he deserves, as when an attempt to paint his bath red ends with him looking like the assassinated Jean-Paul Marat when his bathwater melts the paint.
Different times; Mr Pooter’s wage is enough to maintain a six-bedroom house in Holloway Road, which would in 2020 be worth around £1.3 million, as well as keep a servant. However, in all other respects the Diary speaks to us down the ages. John Major, for example, whether harking wistfully back to a pre-modern England of long shadows and old maids cycling to church, or setting up a cones hotline, is a hapless figure in the face of the swift and sometimes cruel modernity of a century on. Or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, whose adolescent indignation in his diaries is inadvertently entertaining for the reader, a device long ago mastered by the Grossmiths.
At one point, Mr Pooter is invited to tea with Mrs James, a friend of his wife’s, of whom he doesn’t approve owing to her filling Carrie’s head with nonsense such as spiritualism. She also has modern ideas about disciplining children, failing to remonstrate with her son Percy even after he kicks Mr Pooter in the shins. Mr Pooter opines that he has never seen such an ugly child, with a Weedon Grossmith drawing helpfully illustrating his point.
This is as cruel to children as The Diary Of A Nobody gets. Not very, by comparison with other comic literature of the late 19th/early 20th century, through which runs a seam of infant mortality as a ripe source of comedy. It’s as if the cleverest writers have fully absorbed Oscar Wilde’s remark, regarding Dickens, that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Take Jerome J Kerome’s Three Men In A Boat (1889). There’s an episode in which the narrator is in possession of some cheeses, which are fast acquiring pungency with age and which he must take with him on a train journey to London. With their smell having almost caused the horse drawing a taxi cab to bolt, he enters a carriage already occupied by seven people, putting the cheeses on a rack. Three depart the carriage. Writes Jerome, “The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner, who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of a dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.”
Evelyn Waugh, meanwhile, published Decline And Fall in 1928. As is customary with Waugh, his blandest, least outspoken character is his lead, Paul Pennyfeather, a theology student sent down from Oxford over an unjust business involving the drunken antics of the Bollinger Club. Forced to become a private tutor, he falls in love with the mother of a pupil, Mrs Beste-Chetwynde. However, she turns out to be a trafficker, running brothels in South America. Pennyfeather innocently helps her with some business transactions only to find himself arrested and jailed. While a tutor, one of Pennyfeather’s tasks is to fire the starting pistol at the school sports day. In so doing, he accidentally shoots a young pupil, Lord Tangent, in the foot. The young Lord’s own decline and fall is charted casually throughout the book, a diverting leitmotif; in chapter 12 we learn that his foot has become gangrenous, in the following chapter that it is being amputated. In chapter 19, we read, in an offhand aside, that Lord Tangent has died, a human sacrifice to the cause of anti-sentimentalism at all costs.
Take HH Munro, aka Saki, who, in his frigid, glittering wit sits at the opposite end of the Diary Of A Nobody in the annals of comic literature. “They dazzle and delight,” said Graham Greene of Saki’s work, and it’s true but it’s a pleasure as toxic and uncalled-for as whiskey at midday. Children are callously dispatched in his work such as the “gipsy brat” in Esmé, clamped between the teeth of one of the mythical, Pan-like creatures which abound in the grounds of Saki’s fiction. When asked by her fretful friend if the child suffered, the story’s narrator coolly replies, “The indications were all that way. On the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do.”
Gleeful indifference to the grisly fate of infants was once more a sign of avant-garde audacity in comic literature, a collective reaction against Dickensian sentimentality. That said, in Saki’s most famous story, Sredni Vashtar, published in 1912, the tables were turned. It tells the story of a sickly boy, Conradin, in the care of an overbearing older cousin, Mrs De Ropp, whose most prized creatures are a hen and a polecat ferret who, unbeknownst to Mrs De Ropp, reside in a garden shed. Discovering the hen, Mrs De Ropp sells it but Conradin does not protest. Instead, having come to worship the polecat-ferret as a God, he entreats the beast to do “one thing for me”. To his astonishment and joy, that thing he does, massacring Mrs De Ropp, as if having been brought to life as a vengeful deity by Conradin’s supplication.
On learning that HH Munro, son of an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, was raised by strict maiden aunts back in England, the motivation for Sredni Vaster becomes clear; “How dare you try to murder my imagination?” Other stories are funnier, including Filboid Studge, The Story Of A Mouse That Helped, about a penniless young artist who helps his would-be father in law rebrand his breakfast food which extols its gruelling austerity. “Once womenfolk discovered that it was unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds… earnest young men devoured it on the steps of the National Liberal Club…a peer’s daughter died from eating too much of the compound.” War Minister Lord Birrell in the face of a military revolt against the breakfast food coins the epigram: “Discipline, to be effective, must be optional”.
Saki’s stories are served cold but superbly spiced. In person Saki was reserved though given to flashes of temper. Cold his stories might be but they were not raw; rather, cooked in the flame of some implacable, obscure passion burning since childhood, then chilled in the marinade of his prose. Like the Italian Futurists, Munro embraced World War 1, rather than be revolted by its carnage. He did not spare himself. He insisted on serving as a trooper rather than taking the commission available to him by right of class, rose repeatedly from his sick bed to rejoin the fray and was killed by a sniper in 1916.
Evelyn’s Waugh’s acrid, ironic wit and casual, sometimes racist nastiness lend his work a patina of cruelty, a sense that he is cachinnating from a safe, patrician height at human folly rather than sharing its pain empathetically. He was a reactionary who thought modernity was driving the world to the dogs. As for Saki, his disdain for his characters, except for nihilistic mischief makers like the recurring Clovis, is evident.
Both men, however, struggled internally. Saki’s neglect as a child left him primally wounded, while he was also obliged to conceal that he was gay. Waugh, meanwhile, took his Catholicism to heart, with an earnestness only indirectly expressed in his work, whose hilarious lack of Christian charity feels like an act of displacement from the fundamental passion of his faith. They were both more, and less, than fully comic writers. There’s a fatal stench of decadence about them. They were serious – they suffered in a way that, say, PG Wodehouse didn’t know how to.
The best comic literature of the late 19th/early 20th century scintillates today, not just for its twisted humour and sceptical, acute view of human beings and their often ignominious pretensions and behaviour patterns. It’s also the elegance, the love of the English language, the irony in the soul of our particular island tradition. There are others; 1066 And All That, a mock-history book written by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman. Written in 1930, it takes the sketchy common knowledge of British history drummed into reluctant British pupils and weaves a tapestry of haywire nonsense and free associative misinformation, of which confusing King Alfred and King Arthur is among the least egregious examples. “The reign of Henry VII marks the end of the Middle Ages. They were succeeded by an age of daring discoveries, such as when Caprornicus observed the Moon while searching the skies with a telescope, thus causing the rotation of the Earth, crops, etc. Embolden by this, Caprornicus began openly discussing the topic of Capricorns, for which he was unanimously put to death.”
Sometimes, however, 1066… reveals truths educational traditionalists who regard history as an exercise in patriotic propaganda might prefer to go unuttered. Here are the authors on the “Magna Charter” and its injunctions.
“1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason (except the Common People)
2. That everyone should be free (except the Common People)
3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the realm (except the Common People)
Or there are the series of books later adapted for the Channel 4 series The Irish RM. Written between 1899 and 1915, these are tales of another world, in which Ireland was part of a United Great Britain and Resident Magistrates from England presided judicially over local affairs. The hapless colonialist at the centre of these tales is Major Yeates, (played by Peter Bowles in the TV series). The rights and wrongs of English occupation are a trifling irrelevance as Yeates is wholly unable to establish any sort of authority over the territory and its populace who go about their activities, lawless or otherwise, with routine, everyday abandon. The books are a priceless addition to the comic literature of the British Isles, narrated by Yeates with pained elegance, teeming with local detail and rich in their dialogue, especially the slippery observations of respectful but thankfully incorrigible local ne’er-do-wells.
The stories were the work of E. Somerville and Martin Ross, pseudonyms for cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin. Somerville came from a colonial background, born in Corfu, before her family moved to County Cork. She was a suffragist and also a keen foxhunter – many modern readers might grimace at the uncritical passion for that “sport” which courses through The Irish RM. Her writing partnership with Martin began in 1886, after which they became lifelong companions until Martin’s death in 1915, which left Somerville distraught but unbowed; she continued to pen works under the name “Somerville & Ross”, insisting that she was still in touch with Martin via spiritualism. Their partnership was certainly an extraordinary and fertile one, their books under-regarded as the masterpieces they are.
In various ways, in their defunct colonies, their fashionable cruelty to children, their aristocratic decay or, in the case of 1066 its subject matter, these great comic writers and works are steeped in the past. Only Diary Of A Nobody gave a harbinger of the British comic future, the Small Men to come.
PG Wodehouse is the funniest British writer who ever lived. He is nothing less and little more than that. He is the sun that enriches all modern comic prose. He isn’t just a comic author, he is the author of comedy as we know it. His politics were Conservative, insofar as he could bear to contemplate politics but his fan base stretches from the Queen Mother to former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Wodehouse fans in journalism and letters recognise each other through oblique references and homages. Nancy Banks-Smith, Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens have all dropped lines which a seasoned Wodehouse reader would recognise; Wodehouse fan signalling tacitly unto Wodehouse fans.
Broadcaster Danny Baker is an undoubted fan. More than once he’s nabbed the line “down among the wines and spirits”, as used by Wodehouse in Right Ho, Jeeves and later popularised in song by Elvis Costello. And, when, in his survey of modern irrationalism How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, the author and Private Eye contributor Francis Wheen quotes a passage, handpicked for inscrutability, from the French theorist Gilles Deleuze, he surely had in mind Bertie Wooster, in Jeeves Takes Charge, quoting from James Martineau’s Types Of Ethical Theory foisted on him by his fiancée Florence Craye; “The postulate or common understanding involved in speech is certainly co-extensive in the obligation it carries . . . and the ends of which it is an effort to subserve.”
Wodehouse was the genial foe of such seriousness. His inability to take life seriously was the inadequacy from which the light and air of his writing pours forth. It was also the cause of the downfall he suffered, as an improbable concatenation of circumstances brought him into close dealings with the Third Reich, dealings which, in his innocent way, he handled very poorly, leading this epitome of Englishness to exile in America for the last 30 years of his life.
I was introduced to Wodehouse via Wodehouse Playhouse, starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, featuring introductions from the author himself, in the mid-1970s, which seemed like so much aristocratic fluff. Only when I saw a TV broadcast by Alderton of a Wodehouse short story, narrated in full, involving Jeeves, Wooster and an irascible swan did I realised what I had missed, what every TV version of Jeeves and Wooster misses – the narrative voice, with its elegance and jazzy bathos (“judiciously bunged” stood out here).
There was another, pop cultural reason why I took to PG Wodehouse in 1982. I’d just gone up to Oxford, to Hertford College, to be exact. It was Evelyn Waugh’s old college and scenes from the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited had been filmed in and around the place. Each week, the Junior Common Room was packed for the screening of each episode. This further confirmed in me a sense that I was somehow at a propitious, postmodern moment, and embracing Wodehouse (as well as Waugh) felt apposite. Jeeves’ meticulousness in the matter of clothing is one of the great mainstays of the Jeeves and Wooster books. Among the items he takes offence to when tentatively worn by the young master Wooster are a cummerbund, a moustache, a mauve shirt, a pair of Etonian spats. “There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter,”, he gravely informs Bertie even at the height of one of his many crises. And I agreed. I had caused a small scandal at the time writing an article for an Oxford-based magazine in which I argued that “Morality can be measured by the width of one’s trousers.” A bit much, perhaps, but flares were still a sore point in those post-punk days.
However, I was almost stymied at the get-go. My first Wodehouse novel was Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, published in 1974, when Wodehouse was in his early nineties. Early on, it features a sorry scene in which Bertie, generally preserved from the passage of time, finds himself motoring into the midst of some sort of political demonstration. “Whatever these bimbos were protesting about, it was obviously something they were taking to heart rather,” says Bertie, before noting the predicament of the police as the bottles start flying. “Anyone who has got a bottle can throw it at you, but if you throw it back, the yell of police brutality goes up and there are editorials in the papers the next day.” Not only is this politically reactionary; the anachronism prompts the sad thought of these two ageless English bachelor types pootling around from country house to country house in a fantasy ghostland, briefly colliding with reality. Fortunately, this is a rare lapse from Wodehousian grace, a blunder he had not made before and would not live long enough to make again. Fortunately it was redeemed, within pages, by the immortal explanation from Bertie, “What asses horses are, Jeeves!” And, I was compelled to agree with Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson that Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen may be the greatest novel written by a nonagenarian. I came to Wodehouse for slightly whimsical reasons; I stayed for the endless rays of comic language, which lit up each and every page, paragraph, sentence – lines that tap-dance across the page, pizzicato prose, or as the old master put it himself, “a sort of musical comedy without music”.
But what did it cost PG Wodehouse the human being to create this “sunny universe” as his admirer Evelyn Waugh called it?
Wodehouse was born in 1881, gloomily christened Pelham Grenville, the Pelham abbreviated affectionately to “Plum”. His father worked as a colonial civil servant and magistrate in Hong Kong. He was easy going; Plum’s mother was more imperious. Wodehouse saw little of either of his parents during his childhood, shunted around in a buffeted, itinerant period up to the age of 15 to various aunts. He would often take solace in the company of the chattering lower classes, the below stairs staff. Wodehouse scholars duly note that aunts and uncles are far more common than parents in the Wodehouse canon.
Following a blissful, formative education at Dulwich school, his father found himself without the financial means to send Pelham to Oxford. Instead, he was forced to make a living in the city at the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank, still keenly feeling the wound of being denied his university prospects.
At the Bank, however, Wodehouse would learn valuable lessons, the first of which, as a “dumb brick”, being how unsuited he was for the world of finance. He would moonlight as a writer. The world of the bank, however, did expose him to an emergent social force, the rise of the clerical classes, a new era of Edwardian informality with its attendant vernacular, which would be shared by that of Bertie Wooster and the various eggs, beans and crumpets of the drones club, from “blighter” to “tinkerty-tonk”, as well as colonial borrowings such as “oolong” for the cup that cheers.
Wodehouse came of age at a time when magazines serving the emerging lower middle class were in abundance and opportunities for industrious writers limitless. Despite being a man strangely detached from life – asexual, dull company – Wodehouse had by the first decade of the 20th century been acquainted with all rungs of the social ladder and its occupants. Moreover, despite deriding the highbrow, Wodehouse had always been an avid reader of both the classics and Shakespeare; he had Stevenson’s Treasure Island under his belt by the age of six. His contemporary heroes were Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We don’t really learn a great deal about the human condition from reading Wodehouse – he chose not to be penetrative in that way, or others. He himself wrote that anyone hoping for a message for humanity would be disappointed by his writings; “humanity will have to remain one message short.” However, as the master craftsman of prose that he undoubtedly is, he took from the best, his seemingly breezy and effortless style the result of early exposure to its finest practitioners, the liberties they took with the language as well as the elaborate syntactical orders they created for it.
His earliest published writings, in the likes of Titbits magazine, gained him a firm foothold as a freelancer. He began writing fiction; and, while he was never any great tragedian, there was an underlying dogged earnestness about his earliest writing, the young writer learning his trade and conforming with certain societal values of honesty, decency, valour, which his development would depend upon shedding altogether. In 1902 aged 21, he published The Pothunters, a novel revolving around the theft of sporting trophies from the pavilion of a fictional public school, which indicated the early hallmarks of the writer he would become; fizzing, original similes, a lively, pacey prose style and a complete absence of saccharine sentimentality.
He also ventured into the political. In 1909 he wrote The Swoop!, a novella about an invasion of Britain by multiple imperial forces, including a Russian, the Grand Duke Vodkakoff, eventually repelled by a 14 year old boy scout. It’s a spoof on imperial tales of derring-do. However, it also speaks of a frivolous political observer who would be wholly unequipped to handle or foresee the actual prospect of invasion, or look unflinchingly at the violence such an invasion might entail, a subject he manages to lightly step around in this novella.
1909 saw the arrival of Psmith, his first great comic creation, introduced in the novel Mike. Psmith is a creature of elegance, panache, his every phrase a buttonhole carnation, a young man completely unfazed by his elders and capable of the most spectacular and immaculate acts of insolence. Following a contretemps involving Mr Bickersdyke, a friend of Psmith’s father, who walks in front of a screen just as Mike is about to make a century, Psmith’s openly upbraids him for this gaffe. A fuming Mr Bickersdyke arranges with his father to take Psmith in at his bank as a junior employee, with a view to knocking him into shape. This backfires when Psmith, taking advantage of his father’s connections, joins Mr Bickersdyke’s club, the Senior Conservative. He initially confines himself to nodding at Mr Bickersdyke in a “friendly but patronising” manner, raising apoplexy in his manager, who sends a waiter after him to confirm that he is a member of the club. He is, and Mr Bickersdyke must endure not only Psmith assuming parity with him, occupying an adjacent chair to him and making small talk, but later, successfully heckling him at a political rally, since, as he reminds his fellow Senior Conservative club manner, “I incline to the Socialist view.”
Coming immediately after Mike has been denied his University place and forced to work in the city himself, the happy arrival of Psmith at his side and his “studied insolence” against the wretched Mr Bickerstaffe is a moment of true, nascent, vengeful joy in the Wodehouse canon; the moment when the sun rises, to shine eternally.
If Mike is close to the actual Wodehouse, Psmith is the first flower of Wodehouse’s creative genius, one of absolute carefree confidence, a character Wodehouse had no trouble creating but great difficulty in being.
PG Wodehouse flowered in the aftermath of the Great War, in the 1920s and 1930s. His work generally ignored the trauma and woes of post-WW1 Britain and post-WW1 Britain, far from resenting these fluffy tales of upper class frippery amid their toil and woe, embraced them all the more gladly for that. Wodehouse did acknowledge the war in The Indiscretions Of Archie, as we learn that the protagonist, for all his bumbling misadventures attempting to please his irascible American father in law, fought with great courage in the campaign. None of that with Jeeves and Wooster. When Jeeves explains to the young master in The Inimitable Jeeves the principles of propaganda, he observes how effective it was in “the recent war”, as if that remote matter might otherwise have slipped Bertie’s mind. Bertie was orphaned at a young age but that bereavement is never explained or dwelt on; it merely has the happy consequence of placing Bertie in possession of a large fortune; a young, idle man of means.
In these years, as well as the Indiscretions Of Archie, Wodehouse created multiple sunny universes; the tales of the Earl of Emsworth, nominal head of an estate who wishes simply to be left alone to admire his prizewinning pig the Empress; the tales of a certain Mr Mulliner, in the chair at the Anglers’ Rest, tall tales in which Wodehouse suspends disbelief that bit further. However, it is on Jeeves and Wooster we shall dwell, the pure and supreme distillation of Wodehouse’s comedy.
Bertie Wooster was the most prominent of the many young men in spats who festooned Wodehouse’s literature; pleasure-loving and wholly lacking in the work ethic, barely capable of looking after themselves without respectful armies of Personal Gentlemen discreetly serving their every need; at the same time, amiable, informal, “peaceful, inoffensive birds” as Bertie once described his own sort, prone to stammering social awkwardness rather than aristocratic arrogance, often at the mercy of more hawkish, wider wing spanned creatures, usually in the shape of Uncles and Aunts.
Jeeves, however, was another matter. In the memoir he co-wrote with Guy Bolton, Wodehouse claims that the model for Jeeves was one Eugene Robinson, a butler in his employ but reading it, the claim sounds a touch far-fetched, especially since Robinson didn’t enter Wodehouse’s employ until long after Jeeves had been created. Another possible prototype is Algernon’s butler Lane, in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, who, when asked to comment on his master’s singing, replies, “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.”
As Wodehouse would doubtless have been aware, the Jeeves-Wooster relationship is an addition to the idiotic master/cunning servant relationship, one as old as literature itself. Another way of looking at it, perhaps, is an ersatz husband-wife relationship; like Alan Partridge and Lynn, like Mainwaring and Wilson, like Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey, relationships fraught with tension, occasional fear of estrangement, but preserved to the end.
Jeeves does not so much walk as shimmer silently, as if not quite of this world. He is a Google-like hive of wisdom and references, with all salient facts at his instant disposal. He lets slip his opinion of his young master in Bertie’s accidental earshot, briefing his temporary replacement before going on holiday; “Mentally he is negligible – quite negligible.” Bertie takes great offence to this, and receives no retraction but the resentment passes, as he’s honest enough to accept the truth of the assessment. His opinion of Jeeves is the reverse; “There is none like you, none,” he tells him brokenly, a meaningful allusion to Tennyson’s poem Maud. He often wonders why Jeeves doesn’t have a crack at being Prime Minister. Jeeves, however, has no such ambitions. His motto is: Service.
Bertie himself, when temporarily deprived of Jeeves’s services, does wonder aloud at the “squadrons of chappies” forced to put on their own shirts, ties and cufflinks. However, for Wodehouse, the pre-war class system was simply one he knew intimately, rather than one he proposed to tear down. Jeeves, meanwhile, is a far more staunch advocate of the feudal system than Bertie, for whom it is something he takes for granted rather than imperiously asserts as his privilege. This is abundantly clear in a short story involving Bingo Little, who embarks on a series of unwise romantic attachments, saved from them by the seat of his pants by discreet interventions from Jeeves, who remarks, with typically delicacy, that Mr Little is certainly very “warm-hearted”. (“Warm-hearted? I should think he has to wear asbestos vests,” replies Bertie).
One such liaison is with Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, a member of the revolutionary group Heralds of the Red Dawn led by her father. Having fallen for Charlotte, Bingo insinuates himself into the group by adopting a false beard (beards are a constant subject of antipathy to Wodehouse, monstrous facial hangovers from the Victorian era). Speaking at Hyde Park, he spots Bertie and his own uncle, Lord Bittlesham and harangues them, referring to Bertie as “a “prowler” and “trifler”. He then turns to Bittlesham, “His god is his belly and he sacrifices burnt-offerings to it. If you opened that man now you would find enough lunch to support ten working class families for a week.”
Were Wodehouse a political firebrand, his oratorical, rabble-rousing skills would be considerable. But this is parody. Wodehouse didn’t possess a single spark of such fire and regarded those who did with amused incomprehension.
Having revealed his true identity to Bertie, Bingo then has the neck to invite himself and the rest of the Heralds of the Red Dawn to tea chez Wooster; himself, Charlotte and her father and one Comrade Butt, Bingo’s jealous love rival. Bingo urges Bertie not to stint on the comestibles; “We’re good trenchermen, we of the revolution.”
And so they prove at their repast; although Comrade Butt sourly observes that the spread has been “wrung from the bleeding lips of the poor”, that doesn’t stop him and the rest of the Heralds devouring it in full. Jeeves, looking on, has his sang-froid tested to its utmost, especially when Rowbotham Sr describes him as a “relic of an exploded feudal system.” Bertie confesses to Rowbotham that he himself doesn’t exactly yearn for the Revolution, since the “whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me and I don’t mind owning I’m not frightfully keen on the idea.” Jeeves, however, is still more hostile to the ideas of the Heralds. “I would prefer to express no opinion, sir,” he replies, when Bertie asks him what he made of the occasion.
Jeeves is a conservative to the point of stuffiness, for whom propriety and the existing hierarchical structure provide the very structure and meaning of his existence. It is not that he is oblivious to other philosophies. He has read Nietzsche, for example, but warns Bertie that he would not enjoy reading him, as his fiancée Florence Craye had insisted he do, because he is “fundamentally unsound”. Jeeves will, of an evening, read an “improving” book – Spinoza, perhaps, or Marcus Aurelius, whose philosophy of stoicism he occasionally tries, without success, to console the young master in times of woe. Indeed, his efforts at improving Bertie with the advice of the great literary heroes – Tolstoy’s suggestion that men twiddle their thumbs rather than smoke – have no improving effect on the young master at all, least of all his mood. All the knowledge of Heaven and earth is at Jeeves’ disposal but he uses it to preserve and maintain the smooth running order of things as they are, not least because he has a perfectly congenial berth within that system.
In the short story Bertie Changes His Mind, Jeeves, for once, is the narrator. He affords us insights into his own attitude towards the master-servant relationship. He does not wish to usurp, merely control. “Employers are like horses,” he writes. “they require managing.” A threat to his household has emerged as Bertie expresses a desire to adopt children, a ghastly prospect for Jeeves which he must squash forthwith. This involves barefaced lying to the headmistress of a girls’ school Bertie fetches up at when he gives a lift back there to one of its errant pupils. Jeeves tells the headmistress, a Miss Tomlinson, that his master is “the Bertram Wooster”, a name, which he suspects, correctly, passes off well as that of an eminent thinker. He is also correct in suspecting that although Miss Tomlinson has never heard of Bertram Wooster, she will feel that she ought to and therefore pretend she does. On this subterfuge, Bertie is persuaded to his horror to say a few words to the girls at school assembly. The experience is a disaster; he can only blushingly blurt out a story about a stockbroker and a chorus-girl, abruptly cut short by the school song, with Bertie and Jeeves making a rapid exit from the establishment, all thoughts of adoption expunged.
For all his reading up on Ethics, Jeeves possesses none himself. He is a particular adept liar. Jeeves will concoct any subterfuge and has no concern about the mires this means dragging Bertie through, from a 15 mile bike ride at night (as in Right Ho, Jeeves) to the humiliation of being thought a lunatic (more than once with Sir Roderick Glossop). In Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, a certain coolness has resulted between master and servant over Bertie’s insistence at wearing an Alpine hat. Caught in a compromising position by an explorer Major Plank, who insists on calling the police on suspicion of theft, Bertie is saved when Jeeves appears, posing as an Inspector Witherspoon from Scotland Yard, to take him into police custody. However, Bertie must pay the price of a humiliating dig; Jeeves/Witherspoon claims that Bertie is “known to us at the Yard as Alpine Joe, because he always wears an Alpine hat. He never moves without it.” As Bertie has the hat about him, Plank is convinced.
Such are the joys of the sunny Jeeves and Wooster universe; we would have it no other way, and neither, understandably, would Jeeves. After all, Wodehouse has conveniently banished all true anguish from these stories; they are as peripheral as the “slight friction threatening in the Balkans” Jeeves mentions at the beginning of Jeeves Exerts The Old Cerebellum.
Ranged against one another in the world of Jeeves and Wooster are, by and large, essentially two types; those who use contractions and those who do not. The informal “I’m” and “We’re”s against the “I ams” and “We are”s. The latter camp are humourless, irascible, bent on “improving” Bertie, formidable and forbidding, prone to physical violence, over-assertive and imperious. They range from young modernists like Florence Craye to Sir Watkyn Bassett, magistrate and jealous collector of valuable cow creamers. Or, they are naifs like the Reverend Heppenstall, in The Great Sermon Handicap, who, unaware that a book is being run on which local vicar delivers the lengthiest homily in his district, is flattered by Bertie Wooster personally urging him to deliver his sermon on Brotherly Love, but doubtful.
“You do not think it would be a good thing to cut, to prune? I might, for instance, delete the rather exhaustive excursus into the family life of the early Assyrians?”
“Don’t touch a word of it, or you’ll spoil the whole thing,” says Bertie, who has put his shirt on Heppenstall, earnestly.
The grim Aunt Agatha, for whom Bertie makes “those of us with the future of the race at heart despair” is in the no-contractions camp; she endeavours to force Bertie into some onerous career of public service and abandon his life of frippery (and Jeeves). Aunt Dahlia, by contrast, is up there with Team Contractions, one of the girls. Bertie holds Aunt Dahlia in immense affection, even though she puts him through the mill time and again, commandeering in her schemes to keep her magazine Milady’s Boudoir afloat or retain the service of her brilliant but temperamental chef Anatole. She likes Bertie but is openly scornful of his mental capacities, dismissing him as a “wretched, pie faced wambler” whose only use to her is having Jeeves in his employ. The “I’m” and “We’re”s camp include some iffy sorts, including the unscrupulous “Stiffy” Byng and pestilentially mischievous Claude and Eustace, briefly the bane of Bertie’s life, but mostly they have an engaging touch of 20th century informality about them, good humour and humanity, unlike the neo-Victorians still scowling domineeringly and disapprovingly over the roost.
Anachronistic even in their own time, the Jeeves and Wooster stories and novels nonetheless brightened up the 1920s and 1930s for countless readers; despite the travails suffered by Bertie, this was a world in which light and lightness were always triumphant, the order always restored, attempts at “improvement” always successfully averted; though not without scenes of public calamity and embarrassment. These often took place in small assembly halls, before merciless rows of schoolchildren, or makeshift theatres in which local dignitaries and tough eggs sometimes assembled under the same roof. As well as the previously mentioned impromptu address by Bertie to a girl’s school, there is the immortal presenting of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School by the usually invertebrate Gussie Fink-Nottle in Right Ho, Jeeves in which Gussie’s orange juice has been laced with spirits, rendering him sozzled, genially tearing a strip off Uncle Tom Travers, the headmaster who mispronounces his name (“silly ass”) young GG Simmons, winner of the Scripture knowledge prize, whom he openly suspects of cheating, and of being known to the police, as well as Bertie himself.
Or there is Bingo Little’s production What Ho, Twing! at Twing Village Hall, with which the ever-fickle Bingo Little aims to impress Mary Burgess, latest object of his adoration, with a musical production, which suffers from numerous power cuts; “Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone wrong with the lights . . .” cries out the asinine Bingo from the darkness, bringing on himself the loud derision of the assembled rougher element. He then worsens matters in a set-piece copied from a West End revue involving the strewing of fake cotton oranges into the audience; the cast of Bingo’s production have been supplied with real ones, whose splattered delivery is returned with interest by the tough eggs, with the audience caught in the crossfire.
Jeeves has a hand in another concert incident, however; the unfortunate tale, told in Jeeves And The Song Of Songs, of how a restive audience at a concert is exposed to successive performances of the song “Sonny Boy”, first by Bertie and then Tuppy Glossop, pursuing a formidable soprano by the name of Cora Bellinger, who arrives late for the concert. It is Jeeves who conveys to her that it is Mr Glossop’s wish that she perform “Sonny Boy”. She does so, bringing on a dummy as a prop, and to her consternation is roundly jeered by an audience heartily fed up of that particular number, and dishes out a black eye to Tuppy, leaving the field clear for him to resume relationships with Aunt Dahlia’s daughter Angela.
These stories glisten with silken simile and high flippancy. Random examples; Jeeves’ critique of a painting Bertie’s latest girlfriend has daubed of him, which he suggests gives his young master a “hungry look”, like that of a “dog regarding a distant bone.” A still-smitten Bertie protests that the look to which Jeeves alludes is “wistful, and denotes Soul.” However, circumstances engineered by Jeeves ensure that the painting is eventually used as a billboard by Slingsby’s Superb Soups with Bertie’s famished countenance just the advertising job.
Open any page at random and a gem gleams up at you. Bertie, expelling a mouthful of water as a misplaced plan, against which Jeeves had warned him, quoting the poet Burns (“the best paid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, sir”) sees him plunged into the drink and forced to confess aloud that agley is precisely what his plans have ganged. Bingo Little again in Jeeves And The Old School Chum, as his wife’s friend Laura Pyke, a dieting enthusiast says that their accidentally failing to bring the luncheon basket to the races is quite the best thing that could have happened since, in her estimation, luncheon is a meal better omitted. Gnawed by hunger pangs, Bingo cries out, “I see! Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go off somewhere I can cheer a bit without exciting comment.”
Or there is The Aunt And The Sluggard, in which Wodehouse shows a fine disrespect for vers libre with this piece, attributed to Bertie’s American friend Rocky Todd, who earns a hundred dollars a pop for such efforts advocating the strenuous life, enabling him to stay in bed until 4pm most days
The past is dead
Tomorrow is not born
Be with every nerve,
With every fibre,
With every drop of your red blood!
By 1939, Wodehouse must have felt at the top of the world; The Code Of The Woosters published, and set to receive at Oxford to receive an honorary doctorate at the annual Encaenia. However, six weeks later, war was declared; an inescapable shadow. He and his wife Ethel elected to remain in Le Touquet, their tax exile residency in France, oblivious to any imminent danger in the “phoney war” months. Having sat out the first war in relative comfort, Wodehouse complacently saw the second as a nuisance, but one which would soon be repelled by a British blockade. Only in May, with the Maginot line broken and Allied forces in retreat, did the danger at last become evident. But Wodehouse was loath to return to Britain or to put his pekingese dog, Wonder, in quarantine. Plus, there was his work, still in progress. By May 22 the Wodehouses had missed their opportunity and were trapped behind military lines and, a few weeks later, all men in Le Touquet under sixty were interned. Wodehouse was 58.
After initially austere conditions, estranged from his wife, Wodehouse was sent to Huy. It’s been said that he was able to endure prison camp life cheerfully enough thanks to the privations of his public school training, but his notes, hollow and jaunty, betray genuine fear, especially from a man who had sought to suppress the very mention of such frightfulness from both his life and his work. He was moved to Tost, gradually acclimatising himself to conditions and taking refuge in his writing, but cut off from the mood in Britain; the hardening of British attitudes towards the Germans who Wodehouse had described in his notes in occasionally glowing terms, such as a “sympathetic and kindly” German General he had encountered.
Following outside campaigns for Wodehouse to be released, a Lagerführer named Buchlet had suggested to Wodehouse that he make some broadcasts based on the notes of his experiences in the camps. The expediency of this idea was understood by Paul Schmidt, head of the office of Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop in Berlin. The audience they had in mind was not a British one. They did not intend to make of Wodehouse a Lord Haw-Haw, jeering at the British across the airwaves. Rather, they were intended for Wodehouse’s American readers; part of a general effort to keep the USA out of the war.
By now, Wodehouse was four months short of his sixtieth birthday, due for release. Wodehouse assumed he was getting out earlier thanks to the efforts of his American well-wishers. He was taken from Tost to Berlin and put up in the Hotel Adlon, the subject of the broadcasts again broached, this time by two of Wodehouse’s old German acquaintances Werner Plack and Baron Raven von Barnikow, who again broached the subject of the broadcasts. It is at this point that, for his accusers, Wodehouse should have realised he was being used as a pawn in a game of Nazi propaganda and refused to cooperate. However, lacking any ideological wherewithal, lacking the visceral loathing of the Nazis felt by his fellow Britons, perhaps simply unable to do or say anything non-amiable or disagreeable under the circumstances, Wodehouse agreed to the talks.
However well-turned his phrases, whatever lightness he managed to extract from his situation, it is impossible to read the scripts for Wodehouse’s broadcasts without shuddering with dismay. It’s one thing to make light of the war, as in Dad’s Army, when the evil threat of the opposing axis powers is understood at every turn. Wodehouse’s broadcasts offer no such assurance. For example, he says, “There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading… The chief drawback is your being away from home a good deal.” There’s an uncomfortable air of a Bertie Wooster being temporarily detained in a potting shed under the watchful eye of Constable Oates after a botched attempt to steal a cow creamer about his tone, an obliviousness to the geopolitical gravitas in which he was embroiled.
There was outrage once news filtered through of the broadcasts, with William “Cassandra” Connor of the Daily Mirror thundering that Wodehouse had enjoyed slap-up meals at the finest hotels in Berlin to gain his freedom from internment as whole cities in Britain were flattened by the Nazis. Anthony Eden accused Wodehouse of abetting the Nazi propaganda machine and MP Quintin Hogg denounced him as a traitor.
The accusation that Wodehouse had pro-Nazi sympathies is the easiest to scotch. He wrote various, albeit unpublished passages of satire deriding Hitler. He found the Nazis and their far right sympathisers risible. In The Code Of The Woosters, Bertie finds himself with the upper hand against the violently irascible Roderick Spode, a friend of Sir Watkyn Bassett, knowing as he does that this self-styled leader of the fascist Saviours of Britain or “Black Shorts” movement also secretly designs ladies’ undergarments. As such, he can speak freely to him and does so, pointing out, that far from admiring him and his followers swanking about in footer bags, the general public’s opinion of Spode is more along the lines of; “Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
Even here, however, there is no inkling of the sinister threat a Spode might represent; and it was that lack of inkling which led Wodehouse so gravely astray.
Since 1945, biographers and commentators have generally absolved Wodehouse of being a fascist traitor, merely chiding him for fatheadedness. The first of these was George Orwell, in his essay In Defence Of PG Wodehouse. Orwell unpicks the argument that Wodehouse consciously tried to buy his freedom through the broadcasts, since this would be against the public school code to which he rigorously adhered. He also observes that it was only after Wodehouse was interned that the British began to feel the effects of the war in earnest and that the author was in no position to appreciate that. Orwell further attacks those in 1945 engaged in “witch hunts” and argues that “in England the fiercest tirades against Quislings are uttered by those Conservatives who were practising appeasement in 1938 and Communists who were advocating it in 1940.”
He suggests that the British would eventually feel “horribly ashamed” if Wodehouse were to be driven into exile by his detractors. But it was Wodehouse who felt terribly ashamed once what he had done dawned on him, even if he was never able fully to take on board the fathomless horror of the war and the ineradicable catastrophe of the Holocaust. He wrote of withholding a manuscript, Wodehouse In Wonderland, “until this Belsen business has become a thing of the past.” Again, this was not blithe anti-Semitism but cognitive failure in the face of enormity.
That said, PG Wodehouse did experience personal tragedy during World War II. Wodehouse adored his stepdaughter Leonora. A spirited, good-natured, lively wit, she could have fit nicely among Wodehouse’s young fictional heroines, those Bobbies, Stiffys, Sues who grace the Wodehouse world like necklace pearls. He dedicated Heart Of A Goof “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” In 1944, his stepdaughter Leonora entered hospital for a routine gynaecological operation. She suffered a post-operative collapse and died, aged 40. Wodehouse was crushed; “nothing much matters now,” he said, but offered the opportunity to write about her posthumously, he declined. Indeed, he rarely spoke of her again.
For all his unfailing congeniality, there was something not quite human about PG Wodehouse. He was, so far as we can make out, asexual and, for all the engagements that are key to his plotlines, sex, in all its sweaty, groping sordidness does not impinge on his fiction. He showered affection on a variety of dumb chums, Pekingese dogs in particular but as for people, once said that “a man only needs a couple of friends”. His “fixation” on Dulwich college and its results on the cricket field in particular suggest a man always averse to developing into adulthood and all that might entail. He doubtless envied the carefree lives of the merrymakers at the Drones club, spending their days throwing bread rolls about like unsupervised schoolchildren. His self-deprecating accounts of his life or in themselves a form of avoidance; self-effacement. A dull conversationalist who would laugh politely at the jokes of those with the tiniest fraction of his wit, without crushing them with the sledgehammer of his own, he would think nothing of leaving a room in mid-conversation, or abandoning a social occasion to retreat to his study. Tim Pigott-Smith played Plum in Wodehouse In Exile, a BBC drama about the author’s war years. He caught him perfectly – just those few inches taller than those around him, looking down with a sort of blank, amused benevolence, his comedy brain observing keenly and harvesting everything going on around him for material; and yet, as Pigott himself said of him, “I don’t think he had a clue what was going on.”
For Wodehouse fans, it is unfortunate that this most relentlessly comic of authors should in part be defined by an encounter with the most effectively evil political machine in human history. Had he responded, however, to internment with more awareness, more deep-seated resolve, he would never have created what he did. His comic invention is a massive coping strategy, a darkness repellent, which leaves all forms of earnestness behind, a shadowless world. All right, not shadowless on the page; Wodehouse’s convoluted plotlines, whose labours he frequently documented in his diaries, involved all manner of tricky situations involving angry dogs, horses bet upon which ended up getting mixed up in the next race, sliding down drainpipes to avoid audiences with angry Aunts, short spells in chokey, manservant deprivation, humiliations, hangovers, futile nighttime bike rides, and brushes with big angry men determined to pull your head off and make you eat it. But as sure as the sun rises, that benevolent deity Jeeves would be at hand. The actual world, Jeevesless and without resolution, could not be countenanced.
Robert McCrum in his excellent biography of Wodehouse, suggested that there was a “moral purpose” in Wodehouse’s work and that was the “quest for love”, the love denied him in his own childhood, the conventional romantic love he could not achieve normatively. And yet, in Wodehouse’s world, engagements avoided are as much a source of joy, arguably more so, than engagements resumed after a temporary sundering of heart. Certainly, as far as both Jeeves and Bertie are concerned, that is the ultimate desideratum.
George Orwell wrote of Jeeves that if he had any moral purpose it certainly wasn’t to oppose the existing class structure. He describes his approach as “a mild facetiousness covering an unthinking acceptance.” And while that’s true as far as it goes, it ignores another war Wodehouse is waging, that would eventually prove even more triumphant than the class struggle; a war of words, of Edwardian slang and arrows against the gloomy, longwinded, dutiful, authoritarian, reverent, old moneyed, jazzless Victorian era, perma-shrouded in its life-denying widow’s weeds.
Wodehouse defied such dead weight in a war of words, of bright phrases which twinkle on the eye, subvert expectations, reverse old cliches, cheekily elevate the everyday; similes like “rocked like a jelly in a high wind” or a face “shining like the seat of a bus driver’s trousers”, transferred epithets, embrace rather than snobbish shunning of Americanisms like “gumbo”, inversions of the pathetic fallacy (“the fatheaded sun shone smilingly throughout”), the lightly worn scholarship, the imaginative antonyms; “he wasn’t disgruntled but he wasn’t exactly gruntled, either.” Wodehouse fans return time again to the Jeeves and Wooster stories, knowing full well their outcomes but drawn to the endless, honeyed melodies of his deathless, weightless, timeless prose, the lightness of being it exudes; for all its world wars, the new century carries with it the promise of modernity, the bright new minted, the throwing off of old yokes of convention once and for all time, and the tootling to a different tune. All of this Wodehouse affirms time again, chapter by chapter, page by page, sentence by sentence, line by one, constantly letting in new light, admitting zero shades of grey. This is his gift, his universal, perpetual gift to the world; tales of privileged classes, in which the privilege is all ours.
Now that the crisis has been averted, thanks once again to the quick wits of my man Stoker, I feel I can at last unbutton the waistcoat, breathe out and relate to you the harrowing tale of Bumpleigh Towers. For there were times back there when things were looking hairier than the cheeks of a Victorian novelist and I don’t mind owning that there were moments when my knees were clacking together like a pair of castanets, so perilous did the pass seem. The quills of the fretful porpentine had nothing on what the Ponsonby follicles underwent, I can bally well tell you.
Ask anyone – my old Varsity chums, selected Aunts and numerous ex-fiancees, “Does George Ponsonby like a quiet life?” and, if they have been paying attention at all, they will answer in the affirmative. I’m a simple, inoffensive cove. Give me a couple of pals, a good West End show every now and again, a decent detective novel, fresh undergarments, a man to lay out my raiments, meals prepared by the finest chef ever to leave the shores of France, a flat in Piccadilly and a sizeable private income to get by on and you can keep the rest.
I’d suggested to Stoker that we shift-ho to Bumpleigh Towers in the two-seater as the heatwave was making the old Capital city feel a trifle prickly, the mood of the common man febrile, if that’s the word. And so it was that my Uncle Ethelred and beloved Aunt Phillida drew the short straw, selected to play host to young George, my choice in no small way influenced by the prospect of the unbeatable eatables of their chef Antoine. Rest and respite was the plan; however, as the poet Burns observed, even the best laid plans gang aft agley and it wasn’t long before agley is precisely what they ganged.
The first hint that something was awry came when I stepped out into the gardens to stretch my legs and enjoy a gasper following a long-ish car journey. I was just admiring a bed of rhododendrons and reflecting on what a jolly peaceful thing Nature was when you thought about it, and what not when I was aware of a shuffle in the gravel and a stooped presence at my side, tugging the tip of his woolly hat. Hodges, the gardener.
“G’arfternoon, sir,” he said, with feudal devotion and what not.
“Good afternoon, Hodges,” I replied with breezy condescension. “I say, the flowerbeds are looking oojah-cum-spiff.”
“M’thank ee, sir. I labours hard, I do. From first thing in the morning, while gents like yourself are still dozing, till well into the evening when yourse sitting down to your fancy French soup.”
“Well, I, ah -“ Bitter, I thought. Rather lacking the feudal spirit I mentioned earlier.
“Respectfully, sir, I was hoping to ask a favour of ‘ee. You see, I and a number of my comrades, we’re part of an organisation we call the Sickles of the Red Revolt. We’re, so to speak, fed up of toiling all hours with our calloused hands while a parasitic, idle aristocracy basks in the fruit of our labours.”
I raised an eyebrow at the inelegance of “basking in fruit” but let it pass. The fellow clearly had a grievance to air and it seemed rude to cavil.
“But the wind of change is in the air,” said Hodges, trembling a touch as he rose to his theme. “There’s a rising heat afoot. When the Sickles of the Red Revolt, prevail – thanks to what our leader “J” calls “historical inevitability” – then the corpses of the likes of yourself and your aristocratic ilk, they’ll be a-dangling from lampposts in Mayfair, your bellies slit open and your blood and guts draining into the gutters for the rats to feast on.”
“Oh well, I mean to say, ah – !”
“So, I was wondering, respectfully, sir, if you’d be so kind as to do me that favour I mentioned.” Hodge re-assumed his more obsequious, feudal air. Rather preferred it on balance, I must say. “You’m see, an organisation like ours is in dire need of funds. Them tracts, sir, they don’t pay for themselves. Stationery is pricey. Which is why I was wondering, sir, if you’d see your way to advancing us the trifling sum of ten pounds, for the sake of the Cause?”
Well I must say, of all the immortal rind – foot the bill for an organisation bent on massacring birds like me and spilling our giblets like Mexican pinatas? He could ruddy well go whistle. I didn’t want to be short with the fellow, mind – Aunt Phillida would cheerfully string me up in the manner outlined by Hodges if she learned that her prized gardener had resigned in high dudgeon owing to some perceived slight on my part. A spot of the famed Ponsonby tact was called for.
“Well, ah – be only too happy to, of course but the fact is, you see – I’ve no cash about me at the moment.” I had oodles, but I wasn’t going to let him or his bally organisation lay their calloused hands on it. “Perhaps er – another time? Next Thursday, after I’ve been to the bank?”
Hodges glowered. “I was given to understand you would only be staying at Bumpleigh Towers till Tuesday, sir.”
There, he had me. The fellow glowered again, this time with added oomph. “I should have known. Should have known that you would be scornful of any chance to improve the lot of the working man. You could have been spared the lamppost, sir – I could have put in a word for you. But not now. Have a care, I’d advise ‘ee, sir. Have a care. I’ll respectfully bid you good evening.” And, with another tug of his hat, off he shambled, mumbling wheezy imprecations. Well, I mean to say, what?
“Most disturbing, sir.” said Stoker as I outlined the events of earlier on, though as ever, he retained his air of unflappability. Stoker was disturbance-proof, had never knowingly flapped. It was the evening of the annual Bumpleigh Ball, another reason for hot-footing it to this particular portion of the countryside. We Ponsonbys cut quite the rug and I was looking forward to sashaying across the ballroom floor to some quick tempo Scottische, with all lorgnettes turned in my direction. The event would be a magnet for all the county swells, with even the Duke himself rumoured to be looking in. Stoker was assisting me into my shirt and trouserings.
“I mean, Hodges,” I said. “I never had the fellow down as the Revolutionary sort. As humble a serf who ever tugged a forelock.”
“As you will have gathered from the newspapers, sir, the mood of the country is somewhat restive, with the insurrectionary spirit that caused so much friction in the former Russian empire having reached these shores.”
“Well, ah. Of course.” Must admit I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about. Only read the racing pages. “So, these Sickles of the Red Revolt, then. Are they any resemblance to that handful of bearded excrescences Biffy persuaded me to invite over for High Tea that time?”
“No, sir. I fear that they are growing in number and have carried out several outrages. You mentioned the mysterious “J”, sir. He is their leader. A man of considerable cunning and resource, who has successfully evaded capture by the authorities. He is the director of their operations and a formidable opponent. Britain’s most wanted man. Today’s newspaper contains the only known image of him, for your information, sir.”
Stoker handed me a copy of the Times with a gloomy headline to which I gave the swerve, accompanied by a rather blurry photograph of a bland looking fellow, staring out like a bored bank clerk, sporting a pair of thick rimmed glasses.
“Face like a fish, what?”
“There is certainly a suggestion of the piscine, sir.”
“But a bit of a foul snake underneath, right?”
“There is about his moral character a definite suggestion of the serpentine, sir. For all of his cunning, he is fundamentally misguided. He is a scholar of Marx. No, not that one, sir. Nor that one. Nor that one. He is not a star of the cinematic screen. He is a 19th century thinker, believed to have been influential in the recent Communist uprising in Russia, a temporary interregnum, I trust. You would not enjoy Marx, sir. You alluded earlier to beards. The very beard Herr Marx chose to cultivate is ample proof of an unsound mind. Moreover, the English translation of his work Das Kapital, by a Miss Helen MacFarlane, contains numerous infelicities, the most glaring of which is in the opening sentence in which she misconstrues the German for “spectre”. She writes: “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe.”
“And do they?”
“Do they what, sir?”
“Stalk around Europe. Hobgoblins, I mean to say.”
“Well, that’s a blessed relief, what with one thing and another. Not to have to look out for being waylaid by hobgoblins. Keeping the old eyes skinned for hippogriffs is strenuous enough.”
As I attended to my cuffs, I was aware of a sudden froideur, indicated by a small cough from Stoker. It was Stoker-speak for “Oi!” I turned around to see the fellow holding up a rather dressy, mauve item which I intended to sport across the old tum, making me the beau of the ball, so to speak.
“It would appear, sir, that a sash from a ladies’ beauty contest has somehow insinuated itself into your suitcase.”
The old Adam’s apple may have ridden up and down a couple of times like a service elevator but I was steeled for this moment. As with two all-in wrestlers circling each other with a view to tying the other in sailor’s knots, there are times when two men of strong character must face each other, eye to eye, impose their will so to speak. Stoker and I do not settle our differences with half-Nelsons or sitting on each other’s heads. Nevertheless, it was time for the old Ponsonby Steel to make a showing.
“Ah, that!” I sang out nonchalantly, said nonchalance only betrayed by an involuntary crack of my voice. “It’s a cummerbund, you know. Acquired it in Cannes. Been waiting to pluck up the – to show it off to you. Thought tonight would be just the night, what?”
“You are not seriously proposing to wear this garment at a function at which His Grace the Duke himself might well be present?”
“Yes, why not?” I retorted, a semitone or two higher than the desideratum. “It’ll add a touch of élan, of panache, of . . . je ne sais quoi. If I have a criticism of you, Stoker, is that you are rather hidebound in matters sartorial. We are living, or so the nibs tell us, in the Jazz Age. You need to jazz up your ideas, Stoker. After tonight, they’ll be referring to me as “Snake Hips” Ponsonby, I’ll warrant.”
“Very good, sir.” Stoker handed me the cummerbund like a length of rag that had been discovered blocking the drains. If he had had a pair of tongs to hand, he would have used them.
The moment had passed, with a defeated Stoker moodily brushing down the back of my jacket, when a commotion in the hallway turned both of our heads. I was aware of the caterwauling of old Cuthbert “Codswallop” Allsop haring at great speed down the rail in the direction of the French windows leading out onto the garden, pursued by Antoine, the irascible French chef, brandishing a meat cleaver, roaring “I will cut you into a few slices, by Great Scotland!” And then, after a brutal, chopping sound, the caterwauling stopped.
Stoker and I looked at each other.
“Most disturbing, sir – I mean, Stoker,” I gibbered. “What the dickens was all that about?”
“I do not know, sir,” said Stoker. “However, I believe it would be prudent for us to secrete ourselves forthwith. May I suggest the top of the wardrobe, sir? I believe I hear Monsieur Antoine stalking back up the hallway.”
He was indeed stalking, like one of Marx’s hobgoblins, stomping, even. Like a pair of cats scarpered over an alley wall having received short notice that the disgruntled bulldog whose dinner they had snaffled was conducting alley to alley enquiries, we were up and atop that wardrobe in a trice. Just as well, because the door creaked open and in stomped Antoine, cleaver dripping with the blood of poor old Codswallop, evidently on the lookout for fresh meat. He looked around the room, emitting Gallic snorts, even looked under the bed before stomping out again. I breathed out, and slowly we clambered down from the wardrobe.
“Stoker,” I said at last, “This is a bit thick!”
Stoker nodded in agreement. “I think it is for the best, sir, if we temporarily split up and seek out weapons of self defence. You may find some in the toolshed. Meanwhile, I shall make my way back to the two seater and retrieve a rubber cosh I keep in the glove compartment for just such contingencies as this.”
I nodded, and extended a hand to the fine fellow. Playing the white man, despite having to back down over the cummerbund, I mean to say. Very pukka.
“If we do meet again, why we shall smile, sir. If not, why then this parting was well made.”
“One of Marx’s cracks?”
“No sir. Shakespeare. Julius Caesar.”
We went our separate ways. I stole down the corridor, ears skinned for irascible Frenchmen, and pushed through the French windows onto the lawn. The sight that greeted me rather socked me for six. There was Cuthbert, splayed out, blood still trickling from his cleaved bean, eyes bulging like a halibut on the slab. But he had company. Several aristocratic corpses, strewn randomly across the lawn, victims, presumably, of these Sickle blighters. There was Tiffany Potts, tongue hanging askew from her mouth, to whom I had become accidentally affianced some years ago. She had designs on my taking up the post of junior secretary to some cabinet minister, a grisly fate from which Stoker rescued me at the last. There was Sir Peregrine Whippett, who had once attempted to send me down for seven days to the jug for the supposed crime of stealing some ghastly silver salt and pepper set in his keeping. There were flies buzzing around him. Ah, and Uncle Ethelred, face frozen in apoplexy like he’d just received a statement from the Inland Revenue. Beside him, dear Aunt Phillida, throat slit from side to side. I felt a pang that no more would she shower upon me affectionate but jarring epithets such as “wretched, sheep-faced wambler” or “ghastly, lettuce-brained specimen with a face like a motor mascot.” Blood everywhere. I hadn’t seen so much red liquid sploshed about since the Great Ketchup Fight of 1931 at the Drones Club.
Wistful as I was, I must admit to my sadness being tempered by relief that it was they, and not G. Ponsonby, BA (Oxon) who lay slain. Moreover, I was beginning to reflect that the dispatch of these particular friends and family members might have the not undesirable effect of making my life a good deal less fraught. I was interrupted in that train of thought, however, as the shadows of three approaching individuals hoved into view. Hodges, the gardener, clutching some sort of lump hammer, Antoine and his cleaver – and Voules, dear old Voules, the chauffeur noted hitherto for the silence of his servitude, brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife. Hard to believe he’d been bitten by the revolutionary bug.
“There he be,” growled Hodges, advancing on me. “Biggest parasite of the lot. Wouldn’t even give me ten pounds to help the struggle. I told you, sir, to have a care . . .”
“The devil take his hindquarters!” cried Antoine, advancing also. “Let us do him, up like a pilchard!”
“Wait!” I gurgled. “Look, ah – there’s been a fearful misunderstanding. Only too happy to advance you ten pounds. Twenty. A hundred. I could write you a cheque if you prefer . . . I could go back in and write it now . . .does your, er – organisation take cheques?”
“That will do, men. Stand down.”
My assailants stopped in their tracks and gazed, awestruck over my shoulder. I swivelled around, and blow me, there was Stoker, sporting a startling pair of thick rimmed black glasses.
“Is it – yourself?” stammered Hodges. “ We – we thought you were in the employ of Mr Ponsonby . . .”
Stoker uttered something in Latin, presumably a recognisable code word. Certainly did the business.
“J!” gasped Hodges. “It’s – why, it’s an honour . . .”
“Yes, yes,” said Stoker, testily. “Good work with these vermin,” he said, indicating the bodies on the lawn. You, Voules, take them and burn them. I understand the Duke and his wife have been apprehended en route to this . . . pile by two comrades. They will bring their bodies here, burn them also. As for this fellow, he is, as you have correctly surmised, a particularly callous specimen. I have had the chance to study him closely under the pretext of serving as his Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman.”
My jaw rotated quizzically but no words issued forth. Rum.
“I will drive him back to London in his two seater immediately. He will be made an example of there.” Whereupon Stoker stood in front of me, regarding me coldly, and yanked off my cummerbund, which he then held aloft. “This loathsome garment is a symbol of the rotten decadence of Ponsonby and his class. It speaks of rank, gaudy, careless frivolity and indifference to the cries of famished children. It is appropriate that tonight he will be dangling from it, from a lamppost in Park Lane. I shall carry out the execution myself. Meanwhile, it will bind his wrists. One can take no chances with a slippery customer like Ponsonby.” And with rapid dexterity, he did indeed wrap my beloved cummerbund around the Ponsonby wrists, tearing the thing beyond repair in the process. Time to lodge a formal protest, I decided.
“Now look here, I mean to say, you know, what – ?”
“Silence!” barked Stoker. And I found myself frogmarched by my own manservant towards the two-seater parked round the side, the cheers of Hodges, Antoine and Voules echoing in my ears. I must say, the old noggin was reeling. I had wondered about Stoker and what he got up to when not attending to my paramount personal needs. He mentioned frequenting the Ganymede Club but I recall on one occasion, attempting to contact him with regards to an emergency involving a loose cufflink, that they had said he hadn’t looked in for several weeks. As we drove silently away, out of the main gates, past the vehicle of the Duke, in which he and the Duchess sat lifeless, heads with bullet wounds that reminded me of those Hindu Johnnies, I could not help but wonder. Stoker?
Once out on the open road, Stoker pulled over. He removed his glasses and placed them in the glove compartment. “If I may, sir,” he said, and untied my cummerbund binding as swiftly as he’d tied it.
“I’m afraid the item is beyond repair, sir. I am very sorry, sir. It was necessary for the subterfuge.”
Relief came surging over me in great chunks. “Stoker!” I sang out. “There is none like you, none. You are a life saver.”
“I endeavour to please, sir.”
“But . . . what was all that Latin stuff?”
“Overheard below stairs, sir. It is how these insurgents recognise one another. As for the glasses, they belonged to my late Uncle. I use them when performing a turn at the Ganymede club, satirising the insurrectionary “J”. It has afforded uniform amusement. “J” is not a popular man at the Ganymede Club. I had a presentiment that they might prove of some use.”
“Well, it did the trick, what? Got me out of a jam.”
“It is my experience, sir, that the Socialist mindset is a somewhat gullible one.”
Stoker handed me the cummerbund. I waved it away. A small sacrifice to make under the circs. “Keep it,” I said. “Use it as an oil rag. You’ve deserved it. Take a tenner, too.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
“Just one other thing – who do you suppose pranged the Duke and Duchess?”
“Poachers, no doubt, sir. Using the uprising as a cover for their malfeasance. A common feature of Revolutionary times.”
I leant back and surveyed the rolling landscape as we bowled along. The lark was on the wing, the hills verdant and placid, the steeples glinting and overall a pleasing lack of stalking hobgoblins . . .England, is what I’m driving at. Dashed reassuring and just the job to bring the old heartbeat down, said organ having been thumping like a Cotton Club drummer for no short while. Of course, when every prospect pleases there’s always a spot of vileness and so it was this evening.
“Ghastly sunset, Stoker.”
“As unsatisfactory as ever, sir.”
As we turned onto the Great Western Road, however, with London in sight, I noticed a change. We Ponsonbys are pretty alert to a subtle shift in the atmosphere and the increasing incidence of smoke billowing in the distance, chappies being chased down by gangs with machetes, crashed cars and bullhorns, as well as makeshift checkpoints were all tiny, tell-tale signs of an s s in the a.
Stoker and I exchanged glances as we approached one such checkpoint. “I think it would be expedient to resume our subterfuge,” he said, reaching into the glove compartment for his glasses. The fellows manning it stiffened reverentially as he drew up, said that something or other in Latin once more, explained that I was in his custody and we drove on. The same procedure obtained for the next several checkpoints. As chaos ran rampant in the streets about us, I must admit it gave me a novel feeling of privilege being under Stoker’s protection. Finally, we reached Piccadilly. I was looking forward to getting outside of a soothing G&T while Stoker ran me a bath. However, after a word with the doorman, Stoker returned to the two seater with a change of plan.
“It seems, sir, that the government has fallen. It would be wise to head for Southampton where we can join a ship leaving for New York at midnight. I can wire you funds to your American account. I shall also gather together some necessary effects for the journey. I am sure that this is a mere temporary setback for the country and order will soon be restored. Meanwhile, however, I suggest that you come with me. I know of a place where you will be safe.”
I gulped and nodded and it was the work of a moment to hop out of the two-seater and accompany Stoker as we slipped round the back and into the basement of the building, which Stoker accessed with a skeleton key.
“In here, sir.”
A pretty drab chamber, if I were to don my hotel inspector’s hat. Bare floors, table, chair, no sea view but a small, blacked out panel and an iron grid. Still, we Ponsonbys can take the r with the s.
“You will find, sir, some stationery, a pen and a bottle of ink in the desk drawer. As I may be a short while, may I suggest that you while away your time writing up an account of the lively events of the last day or so? It would be best if I were to lock you in, sir, for your safety.”
And with a turn of the key in the door, the loyal fellow was gone. I took out the stationery and after a quick massage of the old bean to get the creative juices flowing, started scribbling. We Ponsonbys don’t go in for “writer’s block” or any of that rot. As a fellow once said, the secret of writing is to attach the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair.
Must have taken a quick nap, for one moment I was in the arms of Morpheus, only for Morpheus to give me a dig in the ribs as I sat up with a start. A turn of the key in the door and there was Stoker, in those glasses of his, accompanied by a couple of burly fellows. Good idea; additional security on the trip to the coast, though I anticipated a tight squeeze in the two seater, as these chappies seemed to be from the same mould with which they made the Albert Hall. A suggestion of the ursine about them, as Stoker would doubtless say. I lay down my pen.
“Stay outside. I’ll be a few minutes. I’ll attend to this one. He’s the last of them. Shut the door behind you. Good evening, sir. Or good morning, to be precise. No, sir, I have not packed your effects. We will not be journeying to Southampton. I regret to inform you that that was the real subterfuge. This, sir? It is my service revolver from the Great War. Yes, I killed several men. No, none of them Germans. Those I considered my comrades in the great Struggle. The men I killed, with discretion, were all Englishmen of aristocratic breeding. One of them, it so happens, was your father, the General. Which is how you came into your fortune so early in life, your mother, as you no doubt recall, dying, of grief shortly afterwards. Incidentally, you expressed an interest in making a generous contribution to the cause. To that end, and with the authority you granted me, I have been wiring sums from your account to a fund dedicated to advancing the Organisation. I have just put the last payment through.
“Let you go? There, I fear I must issue a nolle prosequi, sir. I will spare you the lamppost, however. I will effect your termination as mercifully as possible, sir. You may feel the slightest twinge in your temple but only for a fraction of a second. If I might make a suggestion, sir. An Aunt of mine once recommended that in difficult moments such as the one you are currently experiencing, you comfort yourself with the recollection of some pleasant time in your life? An afternoon sunbathing in Cannes followed by early evening cocktails, perhaps, or a boisterous late evening in the West End of London following the Boat Race? Yes, sir, I will complete the story. There is sufficient ink. I felt it important that you write it. Glancing just briefly at what you have written, I should advocate expurgating the Hindustani reference. With your permission, I shall put the manuscript back in the drawer temporarily to avoid bloodstains. An adjustment of the knot of your tie, sir. There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter. The Latin? “Necessitas historica”. It means “historical inevitability”. Yes, sir, I am indeed “J”. You are, as ever, quick on the uptake. It was a photo taken in younger days, when my pate was more hirsute, my features were less developed, having indeed about them an element of the piscine. I was the subject of opprobrious remarks in my youth made by boys in straw boater hats at the local school, on this, and other matters related to class distinction. Their opprobrium set me on the path on which I find myself today. And now, sir – “