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An act of reparation to an old friend
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The Times 23 August 2004

An act of reparation to an old friend

In old age, and exile in New York, Wodehouse craved solitude as much as redemption. In a return to childhood habits, he wanted more than ever, he said, to be left alone with his characters. At first, his house on Long Island was simply a summer retreat, a place of cooling ocean breezes, but gradually Remsenburg became the home that he preferred, ideal for afternoon walks and well suited to the Wodehouse menagerie.

As part of his drive for re-acceptance in England, he wrote regular pieces for Punch and published Over Seventy, subtitled An Autobiography with Digressions, a masterpiece of contrivance, perpetuating the myth of "Dear old Wodehouse", and advertising a mood of contentment.

There was no thought of returning to live in Europe. America was unequivocally his home now. Besides being the country that had given Wodehouse refuge after the war, it was the place where he was free from the fear of prosecution. Even after a decade of peace, he was still tormented by such worries. "Till now," he wrote, "I have always had the idea that there might be trouble if I went to England....but I imagine they would hardly dare to arrest an American citizen!" So, at his wife's urging, Wodehouse began to follow the logic of their situation and consider taking American citizenship. Early on the morning of December 16, 1955, after months of agonising, he was driven to the court house in Riverhead, Long Island, and underwent the formalities which, according to his friend, the New Yorker writer Frank Sullivan, "makes up for our loss of T. S. Eliot and Henry James combined". In grateful exhilaration, Wodehouse replied that, now he could vote, he anticipated a lot of changes. "I see myself directing the destinies of this great country and making people sit up all over the place," he joked. "I may decide to abolish income tax."

Shortly before the final move to Remsenburg, Wodehouse accepted an invitation from the poet Stephen Spender, then editor of Encounter, to publish the script of his Berlin broadcasts. This was a very big deal but the version published by Encounter differs in a number of significant ways from the original texts. Having learnt that to make light of his experience in Nazi Germany did not go down well with the public, Wodehouse cut out the paragraph which had described internment as "quite an agreeable experience" along with a number of other troublesome sentences.

It was typical of Wodehouse that he should amend his own work without indicating that he had done so. And of course, his ulterior motive was to present himself in the best possible light. He still did not -and never would -grasp the historical dimensions of his offence. It would never have occurred to him to indicate how the version he was printing differed from what he had actually read out from a studio in Berlin.

As he approached 80, Wodehouse's quest for rehabilitation reached its apogee. On July 15, 1961, 20 years to the day since Cassandra had launched his BBC assault on "Pelham Grenville Wodehouse", Evelyn Waugh broadcast a birthday salute, also on the BBC, "an act of homage and reparation" to his friend. "An old and lamentable quarrel must be finally and completely made up and forgotten ..." he said.

Waugh's remarks were a rebuke to the English establishment's treatment of Wodehouse, a rebuttal of Wodehouse's supposed treachery, followed by a celebration of his "idyllic world". But while he easily disposed of the charge of treason, he was unable to eradicate the accusations of collaboration. That, as scores of Wodehouse commentators have discovered, would prove impossible.

# These are edited extracts from P. G. Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum, published by Viking

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