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What ho, Adolf
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The Observer 18 November 2001

What ho, Adolf

Robert McCrum

There is a fairly widespread assumption that if you are involved in researching the life of P.G. Wodehouse, as I am, you are, in literary terms, on velvet. People's responses vary, but generally, when I mention what I'm up to, they smile indulgently. 'Oh,' they say, 'that must be fun.' I nod and smile back. All in all, an impression is conveyed that investigating the life of a great national humorist is a day at the races, a piece of cake, a gas, a breeze.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The problems facing the Wodehouse biographer can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but each in its way is significant, even formidable.

First, Wodehouse was the supreme professional. Hardly a day of his long, creative life passed when the author of stories about bachelor drones and feckless baronets did not address himself to intensive literary endeavour. His ambition to be a writer had come early ('I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five') and his dedication to his craft was never less than single-minded. In later life, his invariable routine (get up - exercise - have breakfast - work - have lunch - take a walk - work again - have dinner - work a bit more - go to bed) made him, he admitted, into 'a writing machine'. For the biographer, his colossal output (letters, plays, stories, lyrics, drafts of novels, diaries, sketches) is an Everest of material that must be scaled.

That's one difficulty. Next - a related problem - there's his longevity. When he died, at the age of 93, on St Valentine's Day 1975, he had outlived almost all his family and contemporaries. His close friend and writing partner, the playwright Guy Bolton, died in 1979. His devoted wife, Ethel, lingered on until 1984. Anyone else, alive today, who knew Wodehouse in his prime, ie before the Second World War, must be a stripling of seventy- or eightysomething. In the absence of surviving friends and relations, the biographer must fossick among long-forgotten magazines, dusty newspapers and yellow clippings for tantalising snippets of personal information.

And if, thirdly, there was more than a handful of living witnesses to Wodehouse the man, it's not obvious that they would be terribly helpful. He was shy, and fanatically private. Even with those close to him, he was never very forthcoming. His wife said on many occasions that he 'lived on the Moon'.

For all that, he was much loved. This is a fourth problem. Today, a generation after his death, his memory is still revered. His fans are scattered across the world, collected in P.G. Wodehouse societies (there are at least eight of these, from Sweden and Russia to India and the United States) and located at the highest levels. It's said that the Queen Mother has his work by her bedside. The Prime Minister claims to be a fan. Other admirers include Salman Rushdie, John le Carre and, perhaps most bizarre of all, Gerry Adams. These notables, the most prominent members of an informal club whose influence can be found in the most surprising places, are, in turn, surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of Wodehouseans, men (it's usually men who are the biggest fans) like Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair and Francis Wheen of the Guardian, who can correctly identify the lineage of Uncle Fred or effortlessly reel off the rollcall of Bertie Wooster's girlfriends and, more daunting still, quote whole passages of the oeuvre at will. So, write about Wodehouse and you tread on hallowed ground. He's a writer people mind about intensely, a writer who, without strong feelings himself, encourages the most vehement reactions.

None more so than the response in certain circles to his now notorious wartime broadcasts. The popular (but now discredited) view that he somehow betrayed his country during the Second World War is woven deep into the consciousness of the English-speaking world. For everyone who expresses the view that working on Wodehouse's life must be 'fun', there's an equal number who ask, vaguely: 'Wasn't he a fascist?' or 'a collaborator?' or 'a Nazi?'

That the creator of Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle should find himself associated, however loosely, with Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels is the fifth and most obdurate problem in writing about Wodehouse. If there is one part of his long and extraordinary life that deserves the closest scrutiny and analysis, it is his experience in occupied Europe from the fall of France in May 1940 to the liberation in June 1944. Here, the enduring juxtaposition of the utterly frivolous and the profoundly sinister mirrors his own record of events, and it's here that the five obstacles to a life of Wodehouse combine into an almost intractable roadblock on the path to enlightenment.

When the war broke out, Wodehouse was living peacefully with his wife and their dogs at Low Wood, a comfortable villa anglais next to the golf club in the pine woods of Le Touquet. He had first come there to work on the musical Anything Goes with Cole Porter. Now, as the international picture darkened, he paid little attention to current affairs. So out of touch with world events was he that on 23 April 1939 he wrote to a friend: 'A feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been further from a war than it is at present... I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war he would have a nervous prostration.'

Possibly the 'phoney war' confirmed his view that things weren't going to change much. When, in May 1940, the German's blitzkrieg broke through the Maginot Line and drove the British Expeditionary Force towards the sea at Dunkirk, Wodehouse was working on his latest novel, following his usual routine. Like many other expats, he and Ethel were caught napping by the speed of the Wehrmacht's advance. They made an abortive attempt to flee. Their getaway car broke down and, anyway, the roads were clogged with French refugees in scenes that recall nothing so much as the displacement of people during the recent Balkan wars. Shortly afterwards, the Nazis occupied Le Touquet. Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: 'Went to church, read P.G. Wodehouse [who has been lost along with the Channel ports], watched old men in Panama hats play bowls, and forgot the war.' No doubt Wodehouse, who was not 'lost', but simply trapped in occupied France, tried to do the same.

After some weeks of uneasy calm, the blow fell. On 21 July 1940, a German sergeant arrived at Low Wood, gave Wodehouse 10 minutes to pack and bundled him into a bus with 12 other British men living in Le Touquet. A few days later, Wodehouse, who was then 58, was interned as an enemy alien in the grim Citadel at Huy, a sleepy market town on the River Meuse some 30km from Liege.

When Wodehouse came to describe this episode in his Berlin broadcasts, How To Be an Internee and Like It, a lifetime's habit of writing what he called 'musical comedy without music' ensured that he would describe the experience with a flippancy more appropriate to his fiction:

'I propose to pass fairly lightly over my five weeks' stay at Huy. Don't let that name confuse you, by the way. It is spelled H-u-y, and in any other country but Belgium would be pronounced Hoo-ey... the Citadel of Huy is one of those show places they charge you two francs to go into in times of peace... it is one of those places where, once you're in, you're in. Its walls are 14ft thick, and the corridors lighted by bays, in which are narrow slits of windows. It is through these, if you are a married man with a wife living in Belgium, that you shout to her when she comes to visit you... the whole thing is like something out of Il Trovatore. '

The truth about Huy is that it was a hellish experience, one its inmates never forgot, and in some cases never really recovered from. The citadel is a Napoleonic fortress-cum-prison brooding over the town on a rocky promontory. It was here that Wodehouse and about 800 fellow internees, rounded up by the Nazis in the hot summer of 1940, endured a month of privation, not knowing their fate, certain only that there was no prospect of release.

There are many possible ways to visit Huy today. You can take the Eurostar; you can take a cross-Channel ferry and drive through northern France to Belgium, or you can arrange, as I did, to have a guided tour of the citadel with Kris Smets and Philippe Dejaive, members of the Drones Club of Belgium.

The Drones Club of Belgium? In the world of Wodehouse, such a society is not only normal but even respectable and quite serious-minded. To walk around Huy with two senior Belgian Drones is to experience again that surreal juxtaposition of the frivolous and the sinister that characterises Wodehouse's experience during the war.

The approach to the citadel is made up a gruelling zigzag ascent (what Wodehouse called 'a steep, winding path') leading to a massive stone portcullis and guardhouse. The internees were marched up here, in file, were registered by Nazi guards in a bleak reception room and then billeted in cells without blankets or mattresses. There was a lot of hostility and the threat of casual violence. Aside from what the Germans brought to the citadel, the atmosphere of the place is still dank, menacing and gloomy. Outside the cells, up another flight of stone steps, is the prison exercise yard, a lozenge-shaped courtyard overlooked by fortifications in which, incongruously, on one wall is an inscription, commemorating Wodehouse's stay, ending with the cheery envoie: 'Anything Goes. Sauve Qui Peut.'

This breezy, but meaningless, phrase is something of a watchword with Kris Smets and his fellow Drones. Of all the Wodehouse societies that put on stripey blazers and throw bread rolls, from Philadelphia to Amsterdam, surely none is as idiosyncratic as this Drones Club. Its members number some 60 enthusiasts for 'British humorous authors' of the period, notably Saki (H.H. Munro). Their idea of relaxation is to compose into Flemish (and occasionally Walloon) competitive translations of a classic Wodehouse story such as 'Pighooey'. True Belgians to a man (once again, there are few women members in evidence), they like also to hold occasional dinners at a remote rural retreat - Millfleet House - deep in the Louvain countryside.

Eccentric they may be, but these Belgian Drones also attract some remarkable Wodehouse fans. On this occasion, they are joined by Muhammed Zamir, the Bangladeshi ambassador to Belgium, Roger Janssens, a professor of arts from the University of Leuven and Bob Whitby, an octogenarian who is one of the select few who can say that he was interned with Wodehouse in 1940.

Champagne, port and lager flows. The Drones' magnificent dinner is served. Kris Smets, the chairman, rises to his feet. 'Dear Drones!' he begins, welcoming outsiders to the table, and moving on to a celebration of 'our refined cuisine' as 'an essential part of our Belgian culture'. My neighbour, Bart Peppermans, is the headmaster in the group. Speaking of the Wodehouse oeuvre he says: 'I've got them all - not every one in first editions, you understand.' He mentions some early and very rare Wodehouse titles, for example Not George Washington and The Swoop, as evidence of his bona fides. 'In fact, you know, there are not many in Belgium who have got them all.' Well, fair enough. You would no more expect his English counterpart in Droitwich, to have a complete set of Georges Simenon.

When Smets has finished, four more Drones jump to their feet and cluster round the piano to sing their song. Slightly the worse for wear, they admit to missing some crucial stanzas, but my notes accurately record part of the performance as follows:

     We are Drones,
     Body and soul
     Anything Goes
     Sauve qui peut
     We are Drones
     Anything goes,
     Sauve qui peut...

OK: it does not look much on paper, but after an evening of Belgian hospitality, it begins thrillingly to combine the glorious uplift of a magnificent anthem with the inspired drollery of a great comic song. The Drones dinner at Millfleet Hall is oddly typical of Wodehouse studies. With one exception, the merry figures disporting themselves around the table in their dinner suits and bow ties are happily united in an abstract love of Wodehouse and his work. That one exception is Bob Whitby, and his presence at the dinner is symbolic of the way in which, behind the insouciant moonshine of the Wodehouse world, and the studied nonchalance of Wodehouse's broadcast pronouncements, there is rather more pain, even suffering, than the writer himself liked to admit.

To understand this, you have only to talk to Bob Whitby. This old gentleman is a remarkable survivor. Now 80, but with the bearing and the handshake of a much younger man, he is one of that tiny group of survivors who can claim actually to have met 'Plum' Wodehouse. More than that, he was actually interned with him, witnessing at first hand an experience that Wodehouse himself would retrospectively describe as 'really great fun'.

Whitby is now a Belgian citizen, but he was born half-English, the eldest son of a First World War English major who married an Antwerp girl after the Armistice. In 1940, aged just 19, he was rounded up by the Germans as an 'English' citizen, and shipped to Huy just a few days before Wodehouse and the Le Touquet contingent arrived.

'We were very frightened,' he recalls, 'because my mother had told us about the First World War, the cruelties and so on... [and] because of the uncertainty of what was going to happen to us.' Whitby was, he says, 'very young', and remembers Wodehouse in Huy with special gratitude. The older man was solicitous and kindly towards him. 'He was very nice. He was trying to be a friend and to encourage me to make me feel better. To cheer me up.'

Whitby's account is of special interest because it casts new light on Wodehouse's deep humanity in extremis. It also explores areas that Wodehouse himself was unaware of or, more likely, chose not to examine. In particular, Whitby's recollection of the four-day train journey made by the internees across wartime Germany to their ultimate destination, another internment camp in Tost, Upper Silesia, a converted lunatic asylum in which Wodehouse would spend some 10 months, reveals what the writer could never bring himself to acknowledge: the full horror of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Whitby again: 'Each time the train made a stop in some station, the German guards [with] bayonets on top of their rifles... were walking alongside the train. And sometimes, somebody who had the nerve [asked] the German soldiers, "Where are you taking us?" The answer was always, "Salt mines. To the salt mines." I was scared to death of the salt mines.'

It does not take much imagination to understand that, deprived as they were of water and basic provisions during four days and three nights, the internees on the train to Upper Silesia must have suffered a fearful torture of uncertainty.

Things weren't much better once they got to Tost. In his own account of the place, Wodehouse cheerfully liked to stress the lack of interference by the authorities: 'The great advantage of a real internment camp... is that the internee is left to himself all through the day.' What Wodehouse's broadcast leaves out was something that Bob Whitby was only too well acquainted with: despair.

Whitby now says that the psychological strain of internment was terribly damaging to many of his fellows. Unlike many co-internees, he was able, on his release, to return to Antwerp and take up the threads of a comparatively normal civilian life as a government servant. He's a proud survivor. 'I was young and strong. It made me stronger and harder and more determined.' Others, however, were broken by the regime. 'Some committed suicide in the camp. [One man] cut his throat... one was hanged.' Others, again, went mad; several simply gave up and died. Wodehouse, meanwhile, worked on his novel Full Moon, and Whitby recalls talking to him in the summer of 1941, as he sat outside at a desk with a typewriter. 'He said, Boy, you look young. Why weren't you released at Huy?' That was always his question...'

On 20 June 1941, or possibly 21 June, Wodehouse was interrupted during a game of camp cricket and taken by train to Berlin, arriving in the city on the very day the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa against the Red Army. Four days later, he made the first of his now infamous broadcasts, initially to America and then, in August, to Great Britain. Very few listeners actually heard these talks (which were transmitted shortwave) and read today, 60 years on, they seem inoffensive enough, and mildly humorous, as he intended.

George Orwell later commented: 'Wodehouse's main idea in making them [the broadcasts] was to keep in touch with his public and - the comedian's ruling passion - to get a laugh.' In this, he failed dismally. It's clear from the very opening that he had completely misread the mood of his audience, battered as they had been by the Blitz, the Battle of Britain and the U-boat war in the Atlantic.

'It is just possible that my listeners may seem to detect in this little talk... a slight goofiness, a certain disposition to ramble in my remarks. If so, the matter as Bertie Wooster would say, is susceptible of a ready explanation. I have just emerged into the outer world after 49 weeks... in a German internment camp and the effects have not entirely worn off.'

Predictably enough, although to Wodehouse's astonishment, there was a furore. Questions were asked in the House and cries of 'traitor' raised in the British press. Wodehouse always acknowledged that his action was a dreadful error of judgment. The argument about his behaviour would reverberate through the last 30 years of his life like a seismic shudder from that dark place he neither wanted to acknowledge nor explore. Nothing he ever said or did could persuade those who saw him as a traitor that he was just an innocent abroad who had misjudged his step.

Bob Whitby's extraordinary war story reveals a world as remote as it is possible to be from the dotty earls and vapid Mayfair Johnnies familiar to Wodehouse readers. Now in retirement, Whitby is a spry widower still living in Antwerp, modestly unaware of the crucial importance of his testimony. He provides, perhaps for the first time, a portrait of a writer concerned for his fellows, finding solace by concentrating on the one thing that made sense in a world gone mad - his 'musical comedy without music' - his life's work. It's at this moment that the various obstacles to an understanding of this solitary man seem, briefly, to disappear.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.