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The Scotsman, 2 August 2002

Leave It To Plum

Robert McNeil

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 consideration.

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 Blackshorts.

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 perisher?'"

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 with treason."

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 of treachery.

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 halls.

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 Indian ones.

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 cities."

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 95th novel.

One hundred years after his first, he's still the best natural pick-me-up since a stiff snifter.

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