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An act of chumps with no clue about comedy and literature
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Times Online 16 August 2002

An act of chumps with no clue about comedy and literature

Philip Howard

THE Foreign Office has always been a source of unintended humour rather than an admirer of the angelic quality. Today’s documents released by the Public Record Office reveal one of Whitehall’s fruitiest farces.

To block official honours to P. G. Wodehouse for 30 years after the war because he sympathised with the Nazis and propagated an unhelpful image of Britain was the act of chumps. They would be blackballed even from the Drones’ Club, on the grounds that if their brains were made of silk they would not provide enough to make a pair of camiknickers for a canary.

Sir Patrick Deane, then British Ambassador to Washington, noted to the FO in 1967 that an honour for Wodehouse “would give currency to the Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate”.

His observation misunderstands Wodehouse. It misunderstands literature and comedy. It is a category mistake at which even Bingo Little would smirk.

Bertie’s mental powers were dismissed as negligible, by Jeeves and by his dragon aunts. But no reader of Wodehouse ever mistook Bertie for a typical Englishman.

He and Jeeves, Lord Emsworth and Mulliner belong to the pantheon of English characters, along with Falstaff and Pickwick, Sherlock Holmes and Billy Bunter. They live in the golden never-never land of humour, not in Park Lane Mansions or Baker Street. They are not role models or images of the English character.

Nobody, not even in the twinkling Twenties, actually went about continually pinching policemen’s helmets and cow-creamers, wearing Old Etonian spats and twirling a whangee, and being terrorised into declaring their engagement to earnest or soppy females.

The hero is Bertie’s gentleman’s gentleman. Bertie, though he would “Dash it!” a bit at the description, is Jeeves’s unconscious (often in both senses of the word) foil.

The Foreign Office’s other secret reason for denying an honour to Wodehouse is equally fatuous. The five broadcasts he made from internment in Berlin to America in 1941 were comic pieces in his personal vein, meant to reassure the people who had written to him or sent him parcels. Wodehouse would not have recognised politics if it had jumped up and bitten him in the fleshy part of the lumbar regions.

British black propaganda presented him as a man who had served the enemy in return for his release from internment. “Cassandra” (William Connor) in the Daily Mirror and Lord Beaverbrook’s Savonarolas vilified him as a traitor. This has been proved to be untrue.

In fact, in his portrayal of Roderick Spode (later Lord Sidcup) as the English Fascist, swanking around noisily in black footer shorts, Wodehouse did far more to disarm Sir Oswald Mosley’s New Party than the appeasers at the Foreign Office. He made people laugh at Fascism. No wonder the mandarins and politicians wanted their secret correspondence about Wodehouse hushed up for 30 years.

It is even funnier than Spode’s guilty secret (he was the proprietor of Eulalie Ladies’ Lingerie).

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