Wodehouse in Exile


There was an excellent BBC dramatisation today of P. G. Wodehouse’s internment by the Nazis in WWII. See it on iPlayer if you can, because it’s well worth watching. He was living at Le Touquet at the time of the invasion of France, unable to get away. Nearing 60, he would have been released at that age, but the Nazis saw a propaganda opportunity in getting the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster to broadcast humorous accounts of internment camp life from Berlin to America. The aim was to present a favourable image to the Americans, in order to delay their entry into the war.

So the naive and undeniably foolish Wodehouse was manoeuvred into the broadcasts with the aid of a British collaborator in the internment camp. This man was also sent to Berlin, all the better to keep up the pressure on Wodehouse. As portrayed in the programme, he simply wanted to lighten the burden of his fellow internees, and to show a sort of stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. There is one suggestion that he didn’t want to hear about the sounds coming from a concentration camp not far away, but it’s quickly passed over.

The British and Americans did not take kindly to the broadcasts from Berlin. “Cassandra” (William Connor), a columnist for the Daily Mirror, called him a traitor and lied outrageously about Wodehouse’s lifestyle in France, including saying that he hosted cocktail parties for the German officers. I’d like to have quoted him but I can’t find anything online. George Orwell, my other great literary hero, defended Wodehouse in forthright terms, while also pointing out his gullibility. Orwell’s piece is as much good literary criticism, and worth reading for that alone.

Wodehouse, the quintessentially English writer, never returned to England, becoming an American citizen. A secret MI5 report cleared him of treason, but was never published in his lifetime, a thoroughly cowardly course of inaction. It still makes me angry to think about this treatment of the greatest comic writer England has ever produced. If you have any doubts about what Wodehouse really thought of fascism, then I give you one of his great comic creations – Roderick Spode. He is clearly based on Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, with their trademark black shirts. With Spode, Bertie Wooster’s nemesis, it’s black football shorts

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

Lovely stuff, from a gentle, funny man, who brought such joy to the world through his writing.

George Orwell on writing, poverty, and the comfort of tea

This is a companion piece to George Orwell on Tea, in which the circumstances are less ideal. Gordon Comstock, impoverished poet, makes a forbidden cup of tea in his boarding house.

When he went back to his room the oil lamp had got going, more or less. It was hot enough to boil a kettle by, he thought. And now for the great event of the evening–his illicit cup of tea. He made himself a cup of tea almost every night, in the deadliest secrecy. Mrs Wisbeach refused to give her lodgers tea with their supper, because she ‘couldn’t be bothered with hotting up extra water’, but at the same time making tea in your bedroom was strictly forbidden. Gordon looked with disgust at the muddled papers on the table. He told himself defiantly that he wasn’t going to do any work tonight. He would have a cup of tea and smoke up his remaining cigarettes, and read King Lear or Sherlock Holmes. His books were on the mantelpiece beside the alarm clock–Shakespeare in the Everyman edition, Sherlock Holmes, Villon’s poems, Roderick Random, Les Fleurs du Mal, a pile of French novels. But he read nothing nowadays, except Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, that cup of tea.

Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar, and listened. No sound of Mrs Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was the major household offence, next to bringing a woman in. Quietly he bolted the door, dragged his cheap suitcase from under the bed, and unlocked it. From it he extracted a sixpenny Woolworth’s kettle, a packet of Lyons’ tea, a tin of condensed milk, a tea-pot, and a cup. They were all packed in newspaper to prevent them from chinking.

He had his regular procedure for making tea. First he half filled the kettle with water from the jug and set it on the oil stove. Then he knelt down and spread out a piece of newspaper. Yesterday’s tea-leaves were still in the pot, of course. He shook them out on to the newspaper, cleaned out the pot with his thumb and folded the leaves into a bundle. Presently he would smuggle them downstairs. That was always the most risky part–getting rid of the used tea-leaves. It was like the difficulty murderers have in disposing of the body. As for the cup, he always washed it in his hand basin in the morning. A squalid business. It sickened him, sometimes. It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you; and indeed, she was given to tiptoeing up and downstairs at all hours, in hope of catching the lodgers up to mischief. It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you.

Gordon unbolted the door again and listened intently. No one stirring. Ah! A clatter of crockery far below. Mrs Wisbeach was washing up the supper things. Probably safe to go down, then.

He tiptoed down, clutching the damp bundle of tea-leaves against his breast. The W.C. was on the second floor. At the angle of the stairs he halted, listened a moment longer. Ah! Another clatter of crockery.

All clear! Gordon Comstock, poet (‘of exceptional promise’, The Times Lit. Supp. had said), hurriedly slipped into the W.C., flung his tea-leaves down the waste-pipe, and pulled the plug. Then he hurried back to his room, rebolted the door, and, with precautions against noise, brewed himself a fresh pot of tea.

– From Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

When I get depressed, I tend not to open my letters.  This last bout has been going for a while now, and there are 5-6 weeks of unopened letters sitting in a pile in front of me.  Delay makes it even more difficult to face the problem, yet I keep inventing displacement activities to put off the feared task.  This blog post is a displacement activity.  But writing about finally opening these letters is one way of forcing my hand.  Even so, I don’t know if I’ll publish it.

Only 15 letters, about the thickness of a novel in total, less than I’d expected after such a length of time.  I could sort them by priority, as indicated by the envelopes, but that would be another displacement activity.  So it’s cold turkey, as they come off the top of the stack.  Promised myself not to eat unless I did this.

  1. Specsavers.  Advertising crap.  Toss.
  2. SPCA, asking for a donation.  Would if I could.  Toss.
  3. Car insurance.  Don’t have a car.  Advertising crap.  Toss.
  4. UK bank, telling me I’m overdrawn.  Already knew that.  File.
  5. Final Reminder from Scottish Hydro Electric.  Pay tomorrow out of my overdraft.  O Lucky Man!
  6. UK bank, telling me I’m overdrawn.  File.
  7. American bank, telling me of changes to the account.  Harmless.  File.
  8. Scottish Hydro Electric, Notice of Termination, dated August 30.  This is not good, but at least the leccie’s still working.  Call them tomorrow before paying the bill.
  9. Pension Credit, asking about changes in circumstances.  Call tomorrow.
  10. Post Office Telephone & Broadband bill, already paid by direct debit.  File.
  11. UK bank, telling me I’m overdrawn.  File.
  12. UK bank statement.  Guess what?  I’m overdrawn.  File.
  13. American bank statement.  In the black.  Woohoo!  File.
  14. UK bank, telling me I’m overdrawn.  File.
  15. UK bank, telling me I’m overdrawn.  File.

That wasn’t so bad.  Cleared the logjam, allows me to eat.  Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…Who am I kidding?  This is no way to live.

George Orwell said (and lived) it best:

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty.  You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different.  You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated.  You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.  It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.