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The Price the English pay for Wodehouse
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The Sunday Telegraph 18 August 2002

The Price the English pay for Wodehouse

Kevin Myers

Well of course the British ambassador to the US in 1967, Sir Patrick Dean, tried to stop P G Wodehouse from being knighted. Of course he declared that the greatest literary stylist of the 20th century had done nothing for British interests in the US. Of course he raised the old chestnut of Wodehouse's wartime broadcasts for the Germans. And of course, he wittered - though more witlessly than usual in such communications - that Bertie Wooster, gave currency to "aspects of the British character we are doing our best to eradicate".

No doubt Shakespeare would on those grounds have been refused a knighthood for his views on kingship in Richard III: Scotland is still not talking to him because of Macbeth, and the Danes still haven't forgiven him over Hamlet. And as for the Italians... But if Sir Patrick Dean achieved nothing else with his observations, he has at least provided proof of a human version of Newton's third law of physics: that for every comic genius a nation produces, it must also produce doltishness of equal and opposite measure. So that for every literary shaft of comic brilliance, there must also within the national system be a bowl of cerebral suet.

It is of course impossible for any single individual to provide the counterweight to the radiant brilliance of P G Wodehouse; not even a score of dunderheads would bring the balance level. But Patrick Dean clearly did his best. He was - as PG wrote of one character in 1940 - "one of those men whose legs you have to count to make sure they aren't mules".

Dean and countless others like him were simply the price that has to be paid in order for England to have created P G Wodehouse and his imperishable wonders. This is still true today. Which is no doubt why there are so many unimaginative, dull, predictable, malicious, anally retentive English people: their noble sacrifices in personality have made possible the glories of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and all those many other splendours of English humour: Dad's Army, Absolutely Fabulous and Blackadder.

That's the consolation for all those baffled visitors to England - that there is actually a cosmic reason why one finds so many ungenerous, unforthcoming English people, and one which Sir Isaac Newton could have explained by some complex piece of mathematics. Basically it comes down to this: a country can't produce a P G Wodehouse without a price being paid elsewhere.

John Cleese, whose own comic genius probably has a vast number of clodhoppers to answer for, was only too horribly close to the mark when he created Basil Fawlty, the inspiration and role-model for so many people in the English tourist business. They really are everywhere. When I checked into a boarding-house in England one Saturday evening recently, I was told that breakfast would be served at nine. "Till when, please?" "Nine", my hostess replied tartly, adding, "and you're to be out of your room by ten." She then paused to give the generosity of her forthcoming announcement the majestic delivery it clearly merited: "But you don't have to be in bed by any particular time."

Needless to say, here in Ireland such creatures simply do not exist in the hospitality business: but then they don't exist anywhere apart from England, not even in the surliest corner of that grim French region of Dour-sur-Sullen. The sourest native there is a veritable Stephen Fry compared to some of the dismal creatures who run B&Bs in England.

But of course, those makeweights for the comic genius of the English also seem to do pretty well in the Foreign Office, to judge from past noises emanating from your embassy in Washington. Because it wasn't just Sir Patrick Dean who made an utter chump of himself in blackballing P G Wodehouse: his predecessor Lord Cromer did pretty much the same in 1971 when Sir Alec Douglas-Home - who was himself an example of life imitating art, being a perfect copy of Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps from the Drones - suggested the writer be knighted. Cromer vetoed the suggestion, replying from Washington that the writer's wartime activity "is not forgotten in this country".

Which is simply pig-headed asininity masquerading as diplomatic traffic: for when P G Wodehouse made his infamously naive broadcasts over German radio, the US had already recognised Vichy France and was at peace with Nazi Germany. It would hardly have been angry 30 years later over the comparable conduct of the greatest comic writer the English language has ever known and who had by then done it the signal honour of becoming one of its citizens.

No, this mountebank Pecksniff would rather genius have gone unrewarded to its grave than to have shown wisdom and generosity to an old man. But that's the Newtonian law of humour: without such priggish mediocrities on one end of the scale, there couldn't on the other be those other, opposite forces, of which P G Wodehouse was lord. And if Harold Wilson deserved our gratitude for nothing else, it was for ensuring that only months before the master's death, the Queen could finally declare: "Arise, Sir Pelham."

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