A fresh brew of P.G. tips
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.
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
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
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
Wodehouse, of course, compared it with an English school, noting that
one man returned from the town 'with a jam tart wrapped round his
'Atmosphere like Dotheboys Hall after escape of Smike,' Wodehouse