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The price Wodehouse paid for creating Jeeves and Wooster
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The Daily Telegraph 17 August 2002

The price Wodehouse paid for creating Jeeves and Wooster

Tom Utley

Like everyone else, I had assumed that it was because of his behaviour during the war that G Wodehouse was kept waiting for his knighthood until a month before his death in 1975, at the age of 93.

The charge against the creator of Lord Emsworth, Jeeves and Wooster - or so we all thought - was that he had given comfort to the Nazis while he was interned, by recording five talks that were broadcast to America on German radio.

Nobody could honestly call Wodehouse a fascist sympathiser. In one of his very rare forays into politics, he had poked fun at Sir Oswald Mosley's fascist black-shirts. Mosley appeared in The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938, thinly disguised as Sir Roderick Spode, the leader of the "black-shorts".

At one point, Wooster tells Sir Roderick: "The trouble with you, Spode, is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone.

"You hear them shouting 'Heil Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode, swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher!'"

If that passage is the work of a fascist sympathiser, then I am a pumpkin. But although there was nothing in the least bit political about the five radio broadcasts that Wodehouse made from Berlin, the great man's persecutors felt it to be treachery enough that he had co-operated with the recordings in the first place.

Many great writers, including George Orwell and Auberon Waugh, argued for years that it was mean-spirited of the Establishment to vilify Wodehouse for what they said was an act of naivety, and to deny him the honour that they felt was his due.

Although I yield to nobody in my admiration of Wodehouse's writing - he was unquestionably the greatest master of the English language of the last century, and in my book the funniest of all time - I was never entirely convinced by his champions' arguments.

If he was naive, he was culpably so. He admitted as much himself, writing in May 1945: "I made an ass of myself and must pay the penalty." It was at least understandable, and particularly in the decade or two after the war, that successive British governments should have been reluctant to honour a man who, however innocently, had allowed himself to be used by the Germans.

We now learn, however, that the Establishment had another reason for denying Wodehouse an honour. It was a reason so preposterous, so fantastically silly, that it would take the comic genius of the Master himself - the "head of our profession", as Hilaire Belloc called Wodehouse - to do full justice to its absurdity.

Papers released yesterday by the Public Record Office show that Wodehouse was recommended for appointment as a Companion of Honour in 1967. The proposal was rejected, it now emerges, after it had been put to Sir Patrick Dean, who was then the British ambassador in Washington.

Sir Patrick was strongly against it, not only on the grounds that it would revive the controversy about Wodehouse's broadcasts during the war, but for this reason: "It would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."

It is hard to know where to begin to explain what a crass judgment that was. For one thing, it reminds us that there is nothing new about Tony Blair's obsession with Britain's "image" abroad.

Mr Blair would like the world to think that this is a country full of Conran restaurants and cutting-edge artists who dissect cows and pickle them in formaldehyde. In 1967, Cool Britannia had yet to be invented, but Harold Wilson was just as keen as Mr Blair on painting a picture of these islands as the place where everything was happening, the nation where it was at.

This was the Britain of the Beatles, Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties, where a modern nation was being forged in the "white heat of technology". In his memorandum to his masters in London, Sir Patrick showed that he saw no place in this arcadia of mini-skirts and psychedelic ties for the man who had given more pure pleasure to literate English-speakers throughout the world than any other writer then alive.

Apart from anything else, Sir Patrick's memo was extraordinarily insulting to Americans. He seemed to think that when they read Wodehouse's books, they would run away with the idea that life in Britain was as he described it: that this was a country full of half-witted toffs with brilliant manservants, their brains swollen by fish, a land of terrifying aunts and eccentric earls, gazing in rapt admiration at their prize pigs.

How utterly hilarious that this was a picture that Our Man in Washington felt he had a mission to "eradicate".

The whole point of Wodehouse, of course, is that he described a fantasy world that never existed and never will. That is what makes his work timeless, and why it will endure long after the Swinging Sixties and Cool Britannia are forgotten.

Like all great comedy, his books contain flashes of insight into the human condition that keep us laughing. But the idea that by honouring their creator, the government would appear to be endorsing an image of Britain as a nation of Woosters and Aunt Agathas is just plain daft.

Oh, how I wish that Wodehouse was still around to paint a pen-portrait of that frightful ass Sir Patrick, swanking about in his pin-stripes as he plotted to eradicate the Empress of Blandings. Did you ever in your puff hear of a more perfect perisher?

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