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The New Statesman, 20 September 2004

Absolutely ripping

William Cook Wodehouse: a life
Robert McCrum Viking, 530pp,
ISBN 0670896926

"Right ho, Jeeves! Got your nose stuck in a book again, I see."

"Indeed, sir."

"Not another of those bally bodice-rippers you're so fond of?"

"No, sir. On the contrary, this is an extremely scholarly yet eminently readable biography of one of our foremost men of letters."

"Oh, I see. Literary cove. Know the type. Drink, adultery and divorce courts. Bodice-ripper by another name, what?"

"Quite the reverse, sir. The subject of this biography was a most abstemious gentleman, who devoted his life to perfecting the solitary craft of writing."

"By Jove, Jeeves! Doesn't sound like a very racy read to me."

"The writer's art is indeed a lonely one, sir, and difficult to describe with any sense of drama or excitement. The activity is private and sedentary. The most productive writers frequently lead monotonous lives, far removed from the vigorous experiences of the characters they describe."

"So, to put it bluntly, the book's a bore, what?"

"Not at all, sir. The author, a Mr McCrum, triumphs over his elusive material. Not only does his book provide a fascinating insight into the private life of one of the best-loved writers of the 20th century, like all the best biographies, it also doubles as a vivid portrait of its age."

"Cripes! Or, should I say, crumbs! You've lost me there, I'm afraid."

"I rather imagined that might be the case, sir."

"Hmm. So who is this McCrum fellow? Anyone I know?"

"I suspect not, sir. He is the literary editor of a periodical called the Observer."

"Not that wretched pinko rag which kicked up such a stink when I pinched that policeman's helmet on Boat Race Day? The one Aunt Agatha can't abide?"

"It is indeed, sir."

"Crikey, Jeeves! I never suspected you were a closet Bolshevik."

"It is the subject matter of this book that intrigues, sir, rather than the political affiliations of the newspaper that employs its author. Its subject is an intimate acquaintance of yours. Indeed, he was your authorised biographer."

"Not Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, otherwise known as Plum?"

"The very same, sir."

"Well, I reckon anyone would be hard-pushed to write a decent biog of old PG. Chap was a closed book. Never gave anything away."

"Mr Wodehouse did indeed seem to lack what the Germans would call a hinterland, sir."

"Not that he wasn't perfectly pleasant. Just the sort of pal to rally round if one found oneself in a jam. But I always thought these biographer johnnies far preferred writing about cads and bounders. Where's the fun in reading about a fellow who sticks so devoutly to the straight and narrow?"

"The life of P G Wodehouse was not entirely without incident, sir. As well as writing about a hundred books, he also wrote film scripts in Hollywood, and librettos for musicals on the Broadway and West End stage."

"Ah! Now that's more like it, Jeeves! Bring on the movie starlets and the cho-rus girls!"

"I fear you may be sorely disappointed, sir. According to Mr McCrum, Mr Wodehouse was relatively indifferent to the charms of the fair sex."

"Gosh! Not one of those confirmed bachelor types? I never would have guessed! So that's what they go in for at Dulwich College! No wonder he was so keen on sport!"

"Mr Wodehouse was happily married, sir, but what Observer reporters might call his "sex drive" was, by all accounts, comparatively subdued. Despite his devotion to his wife and stepdaughter, he sired no children of his own. Mr McCrum suspects the root cause may have been a youthful bout of mumps."

"And so all that surplus energy was channelled into the books, what?"

"A most astute analysis, if I may say so, sir - almost worthy of Sigmund Freud. The books are also curiously sexless, but that merely adds to their timeless appeal."

"I suppose there's lots of stuff about that beastly business in the war?"

"Inevitably, sir. After all, Mr Wodehouse's wartime internment by the Nazis was one of the few genuinely dramatic incidents in a lifetime of tranquil toil. Moreover, the outraged reaction to his light-hearted wireless broadcasts from Berlin would haunt him for the remainder of his days."

"Can't quite see what all the fuss was about, myself. Always thought he was merely showing Brother Bosch a bit of the good old British stiff upper lip. Can see why it didn't go down too well back in Blighty, but dashed easy mistake to make, all the same. There but for the grace of God and all that. Jolly good job he got that knighthood just before he popped his clogs, what?"

"A very good job indeed, sir."

"And I suppose there's bound to be heaps of psychological rot about how his parents neglected him as a child by packing him off to boarding school?"

"A certain amount sir, but Mr McCrum's book is primarily about the work."

"And if it's mainly about the work, then we must feature pretty prominently, what?"

"Fairly prominently, sir. However, there are also many enlightening passages about Mr Wodehouse's working methods, and about his other subjects - gentlemen such as Psmith (the P is silent, as in psychic) and Lord Emsworth."

"Lord who?"

"Emsworth, sir."

"Ah yes, that absent-minded chap with the prize pig. Jeeves, forgive my initial scepticism. This book sounds absolutely ripping. I can't wait to read it."

"I fear you might find it somewhat taxing sir. Hence I have prepared this precis, in easily digestible dialogue form, so that you may confidently discuss the prin-cipal points of Mr McCrum's meticulous masterpiece without having to take the trouble of actually reading it."

"Jeeves, you're an absolute marvel! You really do think of everything!"

"I aim to please, sir. Will that be all, sir?"

"What? Oh yes, of course. Carry on, Jeeves."

"Thank you, sir."

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