The Price the English pay for Wodehouse
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
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
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
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."