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A fresh brew of P.G. tips
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Daily Mail, 3 September 2004

A fresh brew of P.G. tips

A.N. Wilson

ROBERT McCRUM begins his excellent biography of P. G. Wodehouse not with his subject's birth or antecedents, but with the author's arrest, aged nearly 60, by the Germans at Le Touquet in May 1940.

It was as well to get to grips with this at the very beginning since, as McCrum says: 'The Second World War finished Wodehouse. If it did not actually take away his life, his involuntary detention in Nazi Germany and its contentious aftermath wrecked it for ever.' The most famous comic novelist in the world, while interned at the prison camp in Tost in Upper Silesia, was asked whether he would like to broadcast to his American fans. The Nazi authorities obviously believed they would derive a propaganda coup by persuading Wodehouse in his own phrase 'to make an ass of himself' in this way.

The contents of the broadcasts were completely harmless. They were jokey, apolitical pieces, and George Orwell was perfectly right to see that Wodehouse's 'main idea was to keep in touch with his public and - the comedian's ruling passion - to get a laugh'.

'All that happened as far as I was concerned,' wrote Wodehouse, 'was that I was strolling on the lawn with my wife one morning, when she lowered her voice and said: "Don't look now, but there comes the German army," and there they were, a fine body of men, rather prettily dressed in green, carrying machine guns.' It might not be the funniest paragraph Wodehouse ever wrote but it is still amusing, breathing as it does that essential benignity which is so characteristic of P. G. Wodehouse's genius.

He was a man devoid of malice or hatred; his writings always cheer us up because they contain no rancour. As Evelyn Waugh said, for Wodehouse there had been no Fall of Man.

Bit it was not how it seemed in 1940-1944. His light-hearted accounts of his arrest were seen by the British Minister of Information Duff Cooper as an act of treason.

He commissioned the journalist William Connor, - 'Cassandra' on the Daily Mirror - to denounce Wodehouse both in print and in a primetime wireless broadcast just after the nine o'clock news.

The broadcast received many complaints including one from Dorothy L. Sayers: 'It was as ugly a thing as ever was made in Germany.' But it was not long before public libraries were banning Wodehouse from their shelves and vindictive politicians (Quentin Hogg, Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper) were calling for him to be punished when the war was over.

Some wanted him hanged.

McCrum's sensible, loving and well-written book is the work of a confirmed Wodehousian, and his analyses of the stories, their consummate craftsmanship and humour, is always percipient.

As a life, apart from the wartime business, P. G. Wodehouse's was blissfully uneventful.

He escaped the drudgery of working in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank by writing, and for most of his adult life he did little else. He even wrote in prison, the same airy, timeless tales of twits getting into scrapes.

Only obsessive chroniclers of the Conservative Party have today heard of Duff Cooper or Quentin Hogg. Anthony Eden, if remembered at all, is known as the Prime Minister who made a far worse ass of himself and of his country over Suez than poor Wodehouse ever did over the broadcasts. But while these vindictive, small politicians moulder in deserved obscurity, Lord Emsworth, Mulliner, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster live for ever.

McCrum has raised a fitting monument to his hero, and there is much fascinating new material, not least debunking any notion that Wodehouse was given an especially easy time by his Nazi captors.

His first prison, Citadel of Huy in Belgium was a nightmare. Prisoners-slept on straw on the floor. They were constantly taunted by the guards with the threat of being sent down the salt mines. Food was woefully inadequate.

Wodehouse, of course, compared it with an English school, noting that one man returned from the town 'with a jam tart wrapped round his chest'.

'Atmosphere like Dotheboys Hall after escape of Smike,' Wodehouse noted.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.