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.

Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse (Arrow, 2008)

First published in 1934, this is the first of the Jeeves novels, although he had appeared as Bertie Wooster’s valet in many stories since 1917.  The unthinkable has happened – Bertie and Jeeves have parted brass rags.  The casus belli is Bertie’s insistence on playing the banjolele within the confines of his flat in Berkeley Mansions, W1.

Bertie resolves to move out when the neighbours complain, settling on a small cottage in the seaside village of Chuffnell Regis in Somerset.  This is the final straw for Jeeves, who can just about tolerate the music in a relatively large flat, but balks at having to hear it at closer quarters.  So the Agency send Bertie another valet, the melancholy dipsomaniac and socialist revolutionary, Brinkley.

Bertie rents the cottage from Chuffy, an old schoolfriend from Eton and Oxford, who owns Chuffnell Hall and the whole village.  He is particularly pleased with the location because a “nigger minstrel” band is there for the summer, and he hopes to pick up few tips on playing the banjolele.

Bertie anticipates a summer spent immersed in the musical arts, with the added pleasure of an old pal he can drop in for dinner with at any time.  True, that “pair of pustules,” Dowager Lady Chuffnell and her son, Seabury, are in residence, but Bertie thinks he can avoid seeing too much of them.

So imagine his horror when a yacht the size of a “young ocean liner” drops anchor in the harbour and disgorges the four people he most wishes never to meet again.  It belongs to J. Washburn Stoker, a cigar-chomping American tycoon, and also contains his daughter, Pauline Stoker, young son, Dwight, and the famous nerve specialist, Sir Roderick Glossop.  Why is Bertie so aghast?  He got engaged to Pauline in America, but Pop Stoker put a stop to it as soon as he heard about Bertie’s eccentricities from his nemesis, Sir Roderick.  And Dwight is just as much of young thug as Seabury.

They’re visiting Chuffnell Regis so that J. Washburn Stoker can buy the estate from cash-strapped Chuffy, and turn the Hall into a fashionable loony bin for Sir Roderick.  Why?  Because Sir Roderick is the expert witness in a case involving Stoker’s $50 million inheritance and needs to be kept sweet.

Chuffy and Pauline fall in love, of course, but he can’t declare himself until he’s sold the estate.

Multiple complications ensue before Jeeves, now Chuffy’s valet, sorts it all out. Wodehouse’s dazzling web of language creates a comic world above and beyond the reality of a set of social parasites carving up a huge portion of the economic pie.  Damon Runyon does the same thing with gangsters in New York.  It’s like tearing a souffle apart with your bare hands to see what the ingredients are to even suggest that the world doesn’t work like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Wodehouse’s easy acceptance of the contemporary phrase, “nigger minstrels,” tends to give modern readers a bit of a frisson, but they were part of mainstream popular culture, with even black artists sometimes putting on blackface for that authentic look.  They survived on British television until 1978.  Here are a couple of eye-popping clips from the Black and White Minstrel Show: Part 1 and Part 2.

A large part of the plot revolves round the local reaction to these black faces.  Both Bertie and Sir Roderick end up putting on blackface – genuine ingredients, burnt cork and shoe polish – and find themselves outcasts until they can find the necessary butter with which to get it off.  Obviously written for laughs.  But I wonder if Wodehouse was making a point, as in the portrayal of Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts in other novels.  As Bertie says:

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.  I mean to say, a Bertram Wooster with merely a pretty tan calling at the back door of Chuffnell Hall would have been received with respect and deference….But purely and simply because there happened to be a little boot polish on my face, here was this female tying herself in knots on the doormat and throwing fits up and down the passage.

I don’t want to tear into this delicious souffle any more.  Bertie and Jeeves get back together in the end, as you must have guessed, and everyone lives happily ever after – until the next novel.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

When I think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, I now think of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  That these two actors have so thoroughly eclipsed their predecessors obviously has a lot to do with the medium of television, but it’s mostly due to Steven Moffat  and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant reinvention of a Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.  They set the tone in the first episode of the first series (2010) with  A Study in Pink, and carried it through to A Scandal in Belgravia.  As with Moffat’s other project, Doctor Who, I have to watch each episode twice to get catch everything the writing and acting has to offer.

In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock meets his match in the supremely intelligent and beautiful dominatrix, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver.  Her clients from the upper reaches of the British establishment tell her everything, and she has it all stashed away in her cameraphone, protected by a passcode that takes Sherlock almost the whole episode to discover.

This duel of minds and sexual attraction (“Brain is the new sexy”) is the core that runs through A Scandal in Belgravia, relegating the serious business of why these secrets are so important to the subplots that weave around it.  Irene’s first meeting with Sherlock, when she walks into the room naked, was stunning.  It set the agenda for her plan to seduce him into complicity, something she seems to have accomplished until he confesses to feeling her pulse at that opportune and tender moment.  So deducing that she was in fact aroused, and extrapolating from it the passcode for the cameraphone.  What else but SHER?

But Sherlock is also smitten enough to rescue Irene from terrorists about to cut off her head.  “The Woman.  The Woman” says it all.

There is so much to enjoy.  A jumbo jet filled with dead people, so terrorists don’t realize that their plot to blow it up has been discovered, is wonderfully Gothic.  The kicking the CIA agents get is thoroughly satisfying – couldn’t happen to more deserving characters.  I particularly like the way their leader falls out of a window several times after brutally interrogating Mrs Hudson.  And it’s heartwarming to see how Sherlock reacts to her being in danger.  He’s a good boy, and he protects the people who care for him, despite his offhand manner.

That said, he’s also cruel in his honesty.  Poor Molly is humiliated at the Christmas party when she turns up dressed to seduce, armed with the knowledge that she’ll have Sherlock to herself when everyone leaves.  Sherlock’s dissection of her behaviour, and discovery that the present was meant for him, is painful to watch.  His apology is even more surprising.

Then there’s the assumption that Sherlock and John are a couple.  Even Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) accepts that John is now part of the family and can be trusted with emotional secrets.  Irene thinks they are, and so does John’s date at the Christmas party when he stays behind to keep an eye on Sherlock after Irene’s purported death.  At Mycroft’s insistence, no less.  Only John is convinced he’s not gay, and they’re not a couple.  Yet there’s a whisper of jealousy in the way he asks Sherlock if he’ll see Irene again, when she’s revealed as still alive.

John’s blog is a great joke, and making it the reason for Sherlock’s runaway success as a consulting detective is inspired.  Leading as it does to them fleeing the paparazzi in a hasty disguise, which of course means Sherlock grabbing a deerstalker.  What else would he wear?

Terrific stuff.  Can’t wait to see what Mark Gatiss makes of the Hound of the Baskervilles next week.  Robert Downey, Jr. can take his action/adventure, CGI-enhanced Hollywood Sherlock and stick it where the sun don’t shine.