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Guardian 22 September 1999

Wodehouse's final farce

Francis Wheen.

Terry Wogan let out a weary sigh after the 8am news bulletin on Radio Two last Friday. "God," he groaned, "they're not dragging up that old canard about PG Wodehouse again, are they?" They are indeed. I suspect that half a century hence this reheated canard will still be served up at regular intervals, the blackened and desiccated carcass disguised with large dollops of orange sauce. But despite its fresh garnish of "documents from the Public Record Office", the story of Wodehouse's dealings with the Nazis remains the same old dead duck.

The essential facts are well known. Wodehouse, who lived in France during the early months of the war, was arrested by the Germans in 1940 and sent to an internment camp. In June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, he was transferred to a hotel in Berlin, in keeping with the Nazi policy of releasing internees when they turned 60. Soon afterwards he met a friend from Hollywood who suggested that he broadcast a series of light-hearted talks to the US, to reassure American fans that he was none the worse for his ordeal. Although Wodehouse's scripts had no trace of Nazi propaganda, the very act of broadcasting from Germany branded him a traitor in the eyes of British journalists and politicians. Two years later the Germans exiled him to Paris, where he was obliged to remain in the Hotel Bristol until the liberation of France.

Wodehouse confessed that the broadcasts were a hideous mistake. "I made an ass of myself," he wrote in May 1945, "and must pay the penalty." But was he guilty of anything worse than culpable naivety? After studying the latest batch of MI5 files last weekend, several newspapers reported that he had received "unexplained payments" via the German embassy in Paris, and must therefore have been "on the Nazi payroll".

Actually, there is a perfectly straightforward explanation for this alleged mystery. As Frances Donaldson asked in her 1982 biography of Wodehouse, "What should someone do who finds himself in an enemy country during a war and is forced to live at an expensive hotel?" Unable to get at his British bank accounts, he had to improvise: selling his wristwatch and his wife's jewellery, borrowing from friends. He also chased up royalties from neutral countries such as Sweden and Spain - which were paid through the German foreign office, since he was still a detainee of sorts. Hence the receipts from the embassy.

Technically, no doubt, he thereby committed the offence of "trading with the enemy". But how else was he to survive? As he pointed out to his MI5 interrogator, "I would either have to starve or else buy a gun and a black mask and go about Paris holding up the fortunate people who have a bit of stuff on them. And I don't know enough French to stick natives up."

In a famous essay written in February 1945, George Orwell argued that the British establishment's hounding of Wodehouse represented the punishment of the guilty by the far guiltier. "If we really want to punish the people who weakened national morale at critical moments, there are other culprits who are nearer home and better worth chasing." In the desperate circumstances of 1941, he conceded, it had been excusable to feel angry at Wodehouse's behaviour, "but to go on denouncing him three or four years later - and more, to let an impression remain that he acted with conscious treachery - is not excusable... I suggest that it is now time to regard the incident as closed."

Fat chance: only last Friday, the Independent described Wodehouse as a "sinister character, with extreme rightwing views and even Nazi sympathies".

Though he may have been a political simpleton, Wodehouse had rather better anti-Nazi credentials than some of his persecutors. The Tory MP Quintin Hogg, who in 1941 accused Wodehouse of "committing just as much an act of treason towards this country as Lord Haw-Haw", had himself stood as a pro-appeasement candidate at the famous Oxford by-election of 1938 - the same year in which Wodehouse published his bracing satire on Mosleyite fascism, The Code of The Woosters.

Oswald Mosley appears in the novel as Roderick Spode, the leader of the black-shorts. "The trouble with you, Spode," Bertie Wooster tells the would-be dictator, "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 the author of this gleeful anti-authoritarian put-down was really a second Lord Haw-Haw, I'm the Empress of Blandings.

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