Pelham Grenville (Plum) Wodehouse was a comic writer and lyricist, who, in the words of Hugh Laurie, “was quite simply the funniest man ever to put words to paper”.
I remember the first time I ever read Wodehouse. A year or so ago I bought a copy of “Thank You Jeeves” and it is not too much to say that my world of reading was transformed by it. On finishing the book I recall being staggered, absolutely flabbergasted, by the thought that if I hadn’t read Moab and found out that Stephen Fry liked Wodehouse, I would never have discovered him for myself – a thought that still sends shivers up my spine even now. How, HOW had no one told me about this?? I suddenly felt as though I understood how born-again Christians feel when they first discover Jesus. I wanted to stand in the town square brandishing my copy of the book and shouting: “Have you heard about Wodehouse? Have you experienced his mastery of prose, the beauty of his language, the glorious comedy of his plots? Read one of his books today and BE SAVED from a lifetime of dullness and boredom!” That is quite honestly what it was like.
Many of you I know are already familiar with the wonderful works of this man, so I would ask you to be patient with me for a few paragraphs whilst I hassle the poor ignorant devils who have not yet seen the light and stepped onto the path of eternal joy and amusement.
Here is what I have to say to the lost souls wandering in a desert of cheerlessness and despair. Firstly, I appreciate that not all of you have the time or the inclination to actually pick up one of the sacred volumes of this man’s work. That’s okay. There are other ways to be saved. One word: audiobooks. There is a marvellous collection of these and they are read by such luminaries as Jonathan Cecil, Simon Callow and Martin Jarvis, providing hours of listening pleasure whilst you are on the bus, tube, train or plane – or indeed just walking down the street. A word of caution however. Please be aware that you will almost certainly end up grinning your face off and possibly giggling at odd moments, which may perhaps cause other passengers to look at you askance. If this does not bother you, so much the better.
Oh yes, and while we’re on the subject, don’t sit there shaking your head and saying: “But aren’t his books all highbrow and intellectual? I mean Stephen Fry reads them, for heaven’s sake!”
No no no no NO! This is not the right attitude at all. You must correct the tendency to think in such a wrong-headed manner. I don’t know where people get this ridiculous notion from, because it Simply. Isn’t. True. Yes, his books are filled with earls, butlers, and other ornaments suggestive of a seriously posh education at Eton and Oxbridge, complete with Latin, rugby matches and dormitories. And yes, his stories are full of references to Shakespeare and other poets such as Keats. This is because Wodehouse uses his own childhood and background to draw on for his stories. It’s not meant to exclude or alienate people because they may or may not have gone to a public school, or know Shakespeare off by heart. Proof of this can be found in the fact that Wodehouse is immensely popular in India, as this article shows:
“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.”
Now no more excuses please. I expect to find that you’ve picked up your first Wodehouse within the next week.
For those who have already discovered Wodehouse, I would now urge you to consider joining the P G Wodehouse Society. Or indeed any Wodehouse Society, because I’ve discovered that there are in fact several. PGW Societies exist in the Netherlands, Russia, India, US, Australia, Finland, Sweden, Italy and Belgium (details of all these can be found at http://www.wodehouse.org/OtherSocieties.html). Being a member of only one of these, I am only able to write properly about that one, but having heard tales of what goes on in some of the other Societies (“practical-joke-week” in one of the Indian ones and “bread-roll-tossing” in the US one) I am sure that they are just as full of japes and jollity as the UK one!
On joining the P G Wodehouse Society (UK), you will be let in on numerous opportunities for the aforementioned japes and jollity, as mentioned on the Society’s website (http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk). “We organise many enjoyable social events for members to meet fellow enthusiasts and produce an excellent quarterly magazine, Wooster Sauce, as well as additional papers and supplements.”
Wooster Sauce contains copious amounts of Wodehouse-themed news, reviews, quotes and puzzles to keep you up-to-date and entertained – I always get ridiculously excited on receiving my latest copy in the post. The Society events are great fun – I feel that I can say that with confidence, even though I’ve only attended two events so far. The cricket match at Dulwich College (where Wodehouse went to school) in the summer was hugely enjoyable – and though I was a little worried about the fact that I didn’t know anyone, it turned out that this wasn’t an issue at all, because everyone was so fantastically friendly and welcoming – and also amazingly tolerant of the fact that I had only the vaguest idea about the rules of cricket! I should point out that the Society members were not expected to actually play cricket, only spectate and cheer on the PGW Society team, who were playing against Dulwich College.
I found this warmth and friendliness again when I attended the bi-annual Society dinner last week. I met a couple of people who recognised me from the cricket match and even though only one of these people was seated at the same table as me for the dinner, they were all so lovely that this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I did have a slight moment of horror when I looked down the list of names and saw that HRH the Duke of Kent was attending (he’s a patron of the Society) and thought “What if he’s on my table?? What on earth would I say to him? How do you even address a Duke? “Oi, Kenty!” sounds a little over-familiar for the first meeting…” but I need not have worried because he was in fact seated at the other end of the hall. I was on a table right at the back with the other loudmouths and troublemakers (!), clearly someone had done a bit of research and decided to try and minimise any disruption by keeping us well out of the way – a cunning plan, which, surprisingly, succeeded.
One explanation for this unexpected, yet heartwarming level of camaraderie is that -apart from us all being jolly decent chaps and chappesses (we’re Wodehouse fans, how could we not be?) – we all have something in common right from the start. This was pointed out by someone sitting at my table during the dinner and I think he was absolutely right. There were about…oh let’s go for a nice round figure, 100 of us in the hall, only about 10% of which I had spoken to properly, but every single one of us had at least one thing in common, viz. that we all adored the works of Wodehouse. This means that you have one conversation topic sorted out already, even if you are speaking to HRH the Duke of Kent – should you manage to work out the correct term of address for him, of course!
After the dinner, which was very tasty, the dessert in particular, which was a hot rich meltingly delicious chocolate pudding….where was I? Oh yes, after dinner there was an entertainment consisting of a short musical adaptation of the classic Wodehouse short story “Uncle Fred Flits By”, masterfully performed by a stellar cast including Tim Brooke-Taylor, HRH the Duke of Kent and a couple of Wodehouse’s descendants – the Cazalets. All in all it was a wonderful evening and I’m pretty certain that a merry time was had by all who attended.
The next day I went on a Wodehouse Walk, led by Norman Murphy, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of both London and Wodehouse is, I venture to suggest, unparalleled. I really should have got out my notebook and pen and made notes – or at least taken more photos, but I fear that it would actually have diluted my enjoyment of the whole affair, so perhaps it is best that I did not. There are many places around London that Wodehouse used in his stories: the building(s) where the Drones club was based, Berkeley Square where Bertie Wooster lived, the Criterion bar that Gally Threepwood used to frequent….these and many more can be viewed on one of Norman’s delightfully informative tours. We also saw the building that used to house the offices of the Globe (a magazine that Wodehouse used to work on), the last remaining sewer-gas-lit lamp in London and the first mahogany door in the whole of England, along with many other delights that I have sadly forgotten! Oh yes, and also the Barnes hotel where Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call.
In conclusion, if you read Wodehouse, you will be introduced to a world of linguistic delights and merry amusement, and if you take this further and join a Wodehouse Society, you will meet some wonderfully friendly and interesting people!
I have included below two short articles by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie that celebrate the joy of Wodehouse far more eloquently than I have done. These also contain some stonkingly good quotes from Wodehouse’s stories.