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HomeThat Reminds MeThat Reminds Me: Further Homage to Wodehouse

That Reminds Me: Further Homage to Wodehouse

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IN previous columns here and here I wrote about Homage to PG Wodehouse, a 1973 tribute compiled by Thelma Cazalet-Keir, sister-in-law of Wodehouse’s beloved stepdaughter Leonora. Here are some more selections.

The writer and actor Basil Boothroyd (1910-1988) knew a fair bit about comic literature, doing an 18-year stretch as assistant editor of Punch. His contribution is titled The Laughs and begins:

‘Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes’.

Boothroyd writes: ‘Plunder a whole lexicon of disapproval, and you can’t say more. Many would try. Even inspired with the image, they’d ruin the expression by dragging in the Matterhorn. Wodehouse goes straight there and seems to mine his gem already cut and polished.’

The butler in question is the imperious Beach, who in Pigs Have Wings answers the back door of Blandings Castle to George Cyril Wellbeloved, Lord Emsworth’s malodorous pig man. The ice forms after Wellbeloved addresses him thus: ‘Hoy, cocky!’

Praising Wodehouse’s dialogue to the heavens, Boothroyd recalls a scene from Thank You, Jeeves after the doughty valet dispels J. Washburn Stoker’s impression that Bertie Wooster is out of his mind because he keeps fish under his bed.

Bertie tells Jeeves: ‘You have done well. Regarding the matter from one aspect, of course, it is negligible whether Pop Stoker thinks I’m a loony or not. I mean to say, a fellow closely connected by ties of blood with a man who used to walk about on his hands is scarcely in a position, where the question of sanity is concerned, to put on the dog and set himself up as an . . .’

Arbiter elegantiarum, sir?’

 ‘Quite.’

Bertie goes on to say that Stoker’s change of heart is welcome and his peace offering will be accepted. ‘I regard it as . . .’

‘The amende honourable, sir?’

‘I was going to say olive branch.’

‘Or olive branch. The two terms are virtually synonymous. The French phrase I would be inclined to consider perhaps slightly more exact in the circumstances, carrying with it, as it does, the implication of remorse, or the desire to make restitution. But if you prefer the expression olive branch, by all means employ it, sir.’

‘Thank you, Jeeves.’

‘Not at all, sir,’

‘I suppose you know that you have made me completely forget what I was saying?’

Boothroyd asks: ‘Did anyone, before Wodehouse, get laughter out of frivolous classical references and contextually mis-applied crumbs of the higher education? From Twelfth Night: “And what is worrying her is that he does not tell his love, but lets concealment like . . . like what, Jeeves?” “A worm i’ the bud, sir” “Feed on his something . . .” “Damask cheek, sir.” “Damask? You’re sure?” “Quite sure, sir.”

‘The scriptures are raided from Abimelech to Zakariah, Jezebel coming about half way: “Eaten by dogs, wasn’t she?” “Yes, sir.” “Can’t have been pleasant for her.” “No, sir.” “Still, that’s the way the ball rolls”.’

Boothroyd concludes his piece by asking: ‘Have I at all added to, or illuminated, the Wodehouse legend, captured even a shred of the supreme Plum? Most of us are content, and wisely, to say it in four words and leave it there. He makes us laugh.’

The only contributor to Homage still with us is the 86-year-old Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye when it was funny. He refers to Wodehouse’s huge output of more than 90 books. ‘It is certainly true that some of the best writers write very sparingly and one can spend much fruitless time regretting that one’s favourite authors wrote so little. All the more reason, though, to bless the name of Wodehouse who has written enough to keep all but the most voracious readers happy for the rest of their lives. Whoever else fails, there is bound to be a Wodehouse to hand which you have not read before.

‘But even that is not the whole story, because it does not really make any difference whether you have read it before or not. It is often difficult to tell. The titles are all rather similar and the same names recur. Wooster, Jeeves, Emsworth, Glossop, Threepwood, Baxter, butlers, chefs and aunts. Flicking through the pages it is impossible to say for certain that you have not already read it. But what does it matter? Second or third time round it is guaranteed to give you the same pleasure. It is like falling back into a large comfortable armchair or a hot bath, inducing a warm familiar glow as one joins Wooster nursing his hangover in bed or Lord Emsworth ruminating by the pig-sty. There is no preliminary spadework to be done. Wodehouse plunges you, to use a Jeevesish tag, in medias res. No unnecessary words are used to set a scene or introduce a character, and this economy will extend throughout the book. Wodehouse has laid down, I think, that the correct length for a book is 188 pages. But how few authors are prepared to discipline themselves to that extent?

‘I suspect none of us has any idea of the amount of work he has put into his books and the careful discipline he has employed to write them. Chesterton says, “It is so easy to be solemn; so hard to be frivolous.” It is a truth that I should think Wodehouse knows only too well, and knows, equally, how few people know it. He once said that he wrote the Jeeves stories because it gave him pleasure and helped to keep him out of the pubs.

‘The grateful reader should be content to say the same.’

In the next part of this series we shall hear from Malcolm Muggeridge how he was asked to investigate whether Wodehouse was a wartime traitor – and grew to love the old fellow.

Old jokes’ home

My mother made us eat all sorts of vitamins and supplements, until one day I nearly choked on part of the Sunday Times.

A PS from PG

I hadn’t heard the door open, but the man was on the spot once more. My private belief, as I think I have mentioned before, is that Jeeves doesn’t have to open doors. He’s like one of those birds in India who bung their astral bodies about — the chaps, I mean, who having gone into thin air in Bombay, reassemble the parts and appear two minutes later in Calcutta. Only some such theory will account for the fact that he’s not there one moment and is there the next. He just seems to float from Spot A to Spot B like some form of gas.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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