Leave It To Plum
Feeling glum? Send for Plum. Plum is PG Wodehouse and it's a hundred
years since his honey-laden words first saw publication in book form
Never was there a cheerier writer nor a more reticent man. Yet, for a
time, he was maligned in his own country as a traitor. The charge
proved unfair, though several counts of naivety must be taken into
This sublime innocent - christened Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (as
Bertie Wooster says: "Golly, Jeeves, there's some pretty raw work
pulled at the font") - first bawled politely at the world in 1881,
when he was born in Guildford, Surrey.
After working for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, his first novel,
The Pothunter, was published when he was 20. This was really a
collection of public school stories, as were the following five books.
Ostensibly about the conflict between love of cricket and duty to
learn, these early efforts conveyed the code of honour that was later
used with such comic effect.
As Wodehouse found his feet, his style shimmied across the literary
landscape. Ordinary, trustworthy names like Mike Jackson were ditched
for Gussie Fink-Nottle, Oofy Prosser, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and,
of course, B Wooster Esq.
Jeeves and Wooster are his most famous creations, but other main
characters included Stanley Featherstone, Ukridge and the amiable,
eccentric and gloriously absent-minded Lord Emsworth.
Wodehouse described his approach as "making a sort of musical comedy
without music and ignoring real life altogether". This is no accident.
He wrote his first lyrics for musicals in 1904, the same year as his
first visit to America, and later collaborated with Jerome Kern on
shows like Miss Springtime, Have a Heart, and Oh Boy.
This was good, clean stuff and the musical genre also provided Plum's
literature with a sense of structure in which characters come on and
do their turns. Prehistoric aunts, knowing butlers, clueless
constables, dithering vicars and cads who are arguably mad, only
slightly bad and never dangerous to know, flit across the stage.
It's true his oeuvre is formulaic - sometimes he had to re-read
earlier works to make sure he wasn't repeating himself - but that just
adds to the snug feeling of security one gets on picking up a
Wodehouse. No-one is going to die, no-one is going to get their kit
off and no-one is going to get all heavy about politics.
Wodehouse books do contain politics, usually the larks and lunacy of
the old-fashioned hustings. But the politics are scrupulously fair in
party-political terms and the only character subject to sustained
ridicule is Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the comically fascist
In one episode, Wooster reduces Spode to a snivelling wreck by
threatening to reveal his professional sideline as a designer of
women's silk underwear.
Bertie also tells him: "The trouble with you, Spode, 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
This was in 1938. By 1944, Wodehouse was being denounced as a traitor.
In 1940, he was living in northern France when it was overrun by the
Germans. He was taken to an internment camp.
Thinking to use the popular writer, the Nazis let him make radio
broadcasts to America, then uninvolved in the war. Wodehouse, for his
part, thought to use the Nazis' offer to reassure concerned Americans,
many of whom had written to him in captivity, that he was all right.
It was a dumb move. Goebbels sent the tapes to the BBC and a furore
erupted. The Daily Express called him "Herr Wodehouse". The BBC banned
anything by him and broadcast condemnations.
His own broadcasts had taken a whimsical look at life in internment
(Plum's case was not helped by the fact that he was shortly released).
In one, he said: "I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable
to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I'm about to feel
belligerent about some country, I meet a decent sort of chap. We go
out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings."
The Germans seemed largely to have left him to his own devices, not
even censoring remarks such as "the internees at Trost camp all
fervently believe that Britain will eventually win".
This was fine and dandy, but the fact remained that he seemed to be
living in a happy, fantasy world while thousands of people were being
killed. No-one wants to drag anyone into the real world, particularly
at that time, but what of duty?
Two British Intelligence officers, one of them Malcolm Muggeridge,
cross-examined Wodehouse in Paris in 1944 and concluded he was naive
but not a traitor.
A Whitehall official's note described him as a man "without political
cause who lives in a world of his own and is only interested in
creating humorous characters and incidents to please himself and his
book-buying public". It added: "He was a silly ass and a selfish ass
to broadcast, but there seems no point in trying to charge such an ass
Distressed and bewildered, Wodehouse apologised fulsomely for his
misjudgment. But, while being cleared officially, there was no going
back, and he spent the rest of his life in America.
It did not help that his characters were drawn from the upper classes,
against some of whom feelings were running high following allegations
But most of Wodehouse's fictional toffs are irredeemably foolish and,
since this isn't real life, many are rendered amiable. I'm as
left-wing as the next man and I don't have a problem with it.
Wodehouse once wrote from America to a friend: "What a weird country
England is, with its class distinctions and that ingrained snobbery
George Orwell, who defended Wodehouse against his wartime detractors,
nevertheless quibbled on this point, noting: "On the contrary, a
harmless old-fashioned snobbishness is perceptible all through his
work ... Wodehouse's real sin has been to present the English upper
classes as much nicer people than they are."
A good thing too. Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth and the Honorary
Galahad Threepwood would make a complete hash of the goose-stepping,
not to mention all that "heiling". They are also attractive to us
because they needn't work and can devote themselves to their
interests: hats and cocktails; pigs and dozing; horses and music
Wodehouse's works heave with splendid similes ("a soul as grey as a
stevedore's undervest") and wonderful descriptions ("a tubby little
chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and
forgotten to say, 'When!'") His tendency to pick the tangential over
the obvious word lifts the page ("He's like one of those birds in
India who bung their astral bodies about.")
Shashi Tharoor, the novelist and Under Secretary-General for
Communications at the United Nations, has written recently of Plum's
continuing massive popularity in India, noting: "This insidious but
good-humoured subversion of the language, conducted with
straight-faced aplomb, appeals most of all to a people who have
acquired English, but rebel against its heritage. "
Tharoor says Plum's continuing popularity is not necessarily a
hankering for the Raj, nor a desire to bear out Muggeridge's remark
that "Indians are now the last Englishmen". The characters, he argues,
are stock figures in a nevernever land as unreal to English readers as
And so, what of England's last colony, Scotland? Famously, Wodehouse
wrote: "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a
grievance and a ray of sunshine."
A terrible thing to say. Terribly funny too and with a ring of truth
about it. Then again, in a letter from America to Compton Mackenzie,
he wrote: "I never have any urge to revisit England, but I do
sometimes pine for Scotland ... Edinburgh and Paris are the only two
Wodehouse died in 1975 near Remsenburg, Long Island, one month after
being knighted at the age of 93. He was working on something like his
One hundred years after his first, he's still the best natural
pick-me-up since a stiff snifter.