P.G.Wodehouse's guide to life
It takes all sorts to make a world, my aged grandmother used to say with a sour edge to her voice. And she was right to be suspicious. Among the many sorts of undesirable you can be unfortunate enough to meet with are those who have never read — and worse, never want to read — the novels of P.G.Wodehouse. There are people among us who find the great man positively pointless.
Realising that someone you know and respect, whose company you have hitherto naively enjoyed, is one of those un-Wodehousean types can be seriously awkward. It creates a feeling between two people that can only be compared to realising you don’t speak the same language or that only one of you could feel the erotic frisson in the air and was now regretting having acted on it.
It can invoke the sort of profound distress akin to discovering that your friends or relatives are the sort of Communists who would enthusiastically hang you from a lamp-post come the revolution. Or perhaps sooner.
God be praised, I am not one of these people. If I know there is an un-read Jeeves and Wooster book close by I get agonies. Not the painful agonies you get from indigestion, workplace appraisals, or seriously-held religious beliefs. This is the agony of knowing there is freshly made custard in the house, or realising that you are more than halfway through having to endure a visit from your distant relatives. It is the agony of bliss anticipated but not yet accomplished.
No small part of this joy comes from the fact that P.G. is, like Swift, Austen, DeQuincy, and Eliot, the sort of exemplar of syntax that children ought to be forced to imbibe at school, like spoonfuls of cod liver oil. Observe.
It was a lovely afternoon, replete with blue sky, beaming sun, buzzing insects and what not, an afternoon that seemed to call to one to be out in the open with God’s air playing on one’s face and something cool in a glass at one’s side, and here was I, just to oblige Bobbie Wickham, tooling along a corridor indoors on my way to search a comparative stranger’s bedroom, this involving crawling on floors and routing under beds and probably getting covered with dust and fluff. The thought was a bitter one, and I don’t suppose I have ever some closer to saying ‘Faugh!’ It amazed me that I could allow myself to be let in for a binge of this description simply because a woman wished it. Too bally chivalrous for our own good, we Woosters, and always have been.
If only half the people who go around shamelessly making their living as writers could achieve anything like this sort of control over their sentence structure, the world would be a happier place.
He’s more than a box of grammatical tricks, of course. I only have to think about reading Right Ho! Jeeves and I cannot sleep because I am giggling at the thought of young Bertie sending imbecilic telegrams to his aunt before toddling off to the Drones club ‘to throw cards into a hat with some of the better element’. When I used to shunt back and forth to work on a train that smelled like an old shoe that had been forgotten in a damp part of the house, all I had to do was summon up the image of Lord Emsworth who was ‘happy in the way that only a woolly minded old man with a large private income can be happy’ to feel some of his joy rub off on me.
It’s a technique I can heartily recommend, like a plate of the finest eclairs. When you are faced with someone intransigently stupid in an office meeting distract yourself with the thought of Bertie Wooster being caught leaning nonchalantly on a whangee that wasn’t his, which he didn’t remember having picked up, simply because he had an automatic and unconscious habit of always leaning against any whangee he found to be close at hand.
If you are caught repeating your jokes and plagiarising your own work, if you are accused of being a one trick pony, have been indicted as a boring old fart with no new stories, or simply get given the feedback that doing the exact same thing in the exact same way for twenty years isn’t the makings of a career, direct your critics to the preface to Summer Lightning, about as sharp a piece of literary criticism as there is.
A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
For days when you are down in the dumps, you might not be able to go to the apothecary and buy a reviving bottle of Mulliner’s Buck-You-Up-O, but you can always crack open the collected stories and twang an intercostal muscle laughing at Mulliner’s nephew Archibald winning Aurelia Cammarleigh’s heart by doing a five star impression of a hen laying an egg. (If we hadn’t thought people would have objected strenuously to a twenty-minute-long interlude in the ceremony, that was going to be a reading at our wedding.)
Whenever you are forced to make awkward conversation with people you don’t want to talk to, but who you really should engage with for the sake of keeping body and soul together — close colleagues, new clients, your boss at the office summer party — remember the problems Bertie used to have with small talk, and take heart.
“What ho!" I said.
"What ho!" said Motty.
"What ho! What ho!"
"What ho! What ho! What ho!"
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
We have all been faced with people we would rather see laid out cold on a slab like a gutted fish rather than have them continue to be live and dangerous within twenty yards of wherever we happen to be standing, but only young Archibald has come up with the words we can mutter to relieve ourselves of the pain of existence. Repeat peacefully to yourself that all your pestilent interlocutor needs ‘is a fluid ounce of weedkiller, scientifically administered.’ Muttering that under your breath can have a remarkably soothing effect at parties.
And for those times when you want to be the one inciting people to incant the benefits of weedkiller, try channeling the spirit of a dictator described as having ‘the sort of eye that can open an oyster at 60 paces’, or better yet summon up Aunt Agatha who had a ‘ringing voice which cracks window-panes and upsets vases.’ Very few people ever got the better of her.
If you are reading this in leisurewear, having found a taste during lockdown for tracksuits and the less breathable sorts of synthetic fabrics, type out this quotation and pin it on the wall where you can read it every day until you have been cured.
“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’”
“The mood will pass, sir.”
We might have taken the vicissitudes of the last year in our stride a little more if we had been sensible enough to commit the following little quotation to memory as a way of following Samuel Johnson’s advice that literature exists to help us better enjoy life or endure it.
I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.
When you feel the lead piping coming down on you, or you begin to resemble ‘the melancholy-looking man who had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle’, put aside therapy, self-help, alcohol, chocolate, long phone calls, bad moods or any other anodyne like that — all of that is like treating depression by reading Hamlet or dealing with a spot of family trouble with a bracing re-enactment of King Lear. Nothing is anywhere near as effective as reaching for Wodehouse. His is the life advice you can carry with you always.
(We should clarify, just before we go, that P.G.’s advice is not always to be followed. He tells us there is no sounder basis for friendship than a shared interest in literature. And I should confess that my wife is not a Wodehouse reader. With the honourable exception of the passage where Archibald imitates a hen laying an egg, she has never responded to his wit with anything other than cold hearted indifference. Watching her react to some of the juicier passages is what I imagine meeting a sociopath must be like. Now I know, I know, I opened by dismissing a good proportion of my fellow humans for their lack of interest in Wodehouse. My wife, however, is an honourable exception to the rule, for many reasons — not the least of which is that she makes exceptional custard.)
There are three great Wodehouse series to tuck into.
And for those of you who have read the books already, here is an excellent article by someone who has read The Inimitable Jeeves a hundred times.
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