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Ask Jeeves, or any web Wodehousean
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Times Online 23 December 2002

Ask Jeeves, or any web Wodehousean

Murray Hedgcock

Seek among enthusiasts, especially on the internet, for information on P. G. Wodehouse, and it is quite possible you will be directed to the omniscient exposition of the P. G. Wodehouse Society (UK) — or perhaps the Russian Wodehouse Society. For the thoughts of fellow “Plum” buffs on some aspect of Wodehousean scholarship, you are well advised to go to the discussion group run by the Wodehouse Society, based in America but with a worldwide membership.

For there is a continuing global appetite for the works of this quintessential Englishman, who made his name writing of a distinctive never-never-land peopled by idle young playboys, formidable aunts and sparky young women, aristos of all styles and interests, and domestic servants of marvellous ingenuity and varying integrity.

Though born in the quintessentially Home Counties town of Guildford, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was to live much longer abroad than in Britain. He had several years in France and moved back and forth across the Atlantic between the wars before settling in America in 1947 for the latter 48 of his 93 years.

His writing career began with a focus on something typically English — the public school, which he knew from his six full and hugely happy years at Dulwich College — but after his first visit to New York in 1904 he increasingly used American settings or characters.

Yet the lure of that lovely fantasy world he created, somewhere between the Edwardian age and the Roaring Twenties, in which he himself seemed so much at home, persuaded him to continue the inimitable tales of the Drones, Lord Emsworth and his innumerable relations, and of course Bertie Wooster and the incomparable Jeeves, almost until his death on February 14, 1975, just six weeks after being knighted.

Throw in the Mulliner tales told in the Angler’s Arms (often set in Hollywood, a legacy of Plum’s time as a scriptwriter), and the golf stories, the short stories, magazine articles and Broadway musical lyrics, and you have a writer whose output was so enormous that even the most assiduous researcher can never feel he or she has it all under control.

Which is where the Wodehouse societies come in. They have benefited hugely from the internet, running websites of varying levels of ambition, sophistication, content and news sense. This means the lone Wodehouse enthusiast can feel just as much involved in Plummy delights as members within reach of society meetings — those convivial affairs marked by much “browsing and sluicing”.

The P. G. Wodehouse Society (UK) a few weeks back held its biennial black-tie dinner in the imposing setting of the Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, where entertainment was provided by. among others, Sir Tim Rice and Wodehouse’s step-great-grandchildren, Hal and Lara Cazalet — both stage professionals. This UK society, of which Richard Briers is president, was set up in 1994, and enjoys a productive relationship with “official” Wodehouse interests. Its patrons include Tony Blair, Henry Blofeld, Ian Carmichael, Stephen Fry, John Mortimer, Griff Rhys Jones, Tom Sharpe and Keith Waterhouse. The society’s magazine, Wooster Sauce, and its American equivalent, Plum Lines, offer articles on topics such as “Which Earl of Emsworth did Butler Keggs work for?”, “Could Winchcombe be Market Blandings Station?”, “The Book Wodehouse Never Wrote”, “Where is the Blandings Cricket Pitch?”, and even a genuine report, “Wodehouse as an Aid to Coping with Serious Illness”.

In recognition of Wodehouse’s lifelong love of cricket — he was in the Dulwich XI and played six times at Lord’s for the Authors against the Actors and the Publishers — the UK society fields an occasional team, the Gold Bats (named after the PGW school novel, The Gold Bat). Its debut was against the Dulwich Dusters, representing the masters’ common room. Somewhat unkindly, in the view of the Wodehouseans, the masters have at different times fielded the current Victoria State wicketkeeper, Darren Berry, and the head of Italian, Mrs Jac-kie Henderson, a charming blonde who alternately distracts the Gold Bats by appearing in shorts and frustrates them by wearing flannels.

A new fixture is a challenge match against the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. On the grounds that Holmes memorably declared “It is always 1895”, this is played under the laws of the day, with the requirement that both sides employ an underarm lob bowler.

The chairman of the UK society is Norman Murphy, who conducts regular walks about “Wodehouse’s London”, and who, in a pleasing reminder of PG’s international scope, a year ago married the president of the American society, Elin Woodger. Further undermining a belief that Plum appeals less to women than to men, the new US president is Mrs Susan Cohen.

The 2003 biennial Wodehouse Convention is being hosted by the Detroit chapter of the US society, whose members looked round their town and felt the most suitable place for such a jamboree would be Toronto — a mere 230 miles away.

The web-based Moscow society was established in 1996 by a Moscow State University lecturer, Mikhail Kuzmenko, who fell for Wodehouse on seeing Jeeves and Wooster on television. Offering “Russian stuff” and “English stuff”, the site is astonishingly detailed. Its “Bibliography of Bibliographies and Biographies” lists no fewer than 40 major studies of Wodehouse works, and records everything from “Wodehouse info in Italian” to “A logic puzzle of P. G. Wodehousean theme”.

The translator Natalya Trauberg explains that Wodehouse was published in the Soviet Union briefly in the 1920s, his tales of the foibles of the upper classes being approved as satire until a newspaper article denounced him as decadent.

Indians have a special love of PGW, as the novelist and UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor explained in an article this year: “The popularity of P. G. Wodehouse among Indians is two-fold. One, his readers do not have to identify with any of his characters. Two, his 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.”

Sweden, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands all have Wodehouse societies. So too does Australia, where scattered members find PGW provides a stimulating link across distance.

It seems there is always more to say. Next Saturday, December 28, BBC Two will screen a 90-minute documentary on The Secret World of P. G. Wodehouse, and enthusiasts are looking further ahead to September 2004, when Penguin will publish a new life by Robert McCrum.

As the authorised biographer, McCrum has dug up much that is new, and Wodehouseans worldwide will immerse themselves in his pages, fascinated by its revelations while determined to argue lightheartedly over the tiniest controversial issue about the man they revere as The Master.

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