October 15, 2004
Happy Birthday, P.G. WodehouseBy John B. Dwyer
Wherein we hear from Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, denizens of the Drones Club, and some of the regulars at the Angler's Rest holding forth on the 123rd anniversary of the birth of The Master.
I had recently returned to the old metrop after a spot of golf in Scotland, while Jeeves, proving once again that no living creature, including salmon, could match his brainpower, filled his creel on a regular basis elsewhere in that scenic country where inhabitants become unseemly trencherman when confronted with that beastly concoction called haggis.
I went round that place held sacred by the Scots called S'nandrews with my old pal Bingo Little. That is, until Bingo cast his eyeballs upon the nubile daughter of the head greens keeper. Never saw him after that.
Ran into famed golf expert Sandy McHoots while I was there. He fell into a reminiscent mood one afternoon and started telling me about playing golf with P.G. Wodehouse. Told me the man loved the game with a passion, much like the blighters in his golf stories, although they tended to mix their game with the divine passion, viz. love. Sandy recalled that Wodehouse once told him that he'd never won a match, having spent his golfing life out of bounds, but that ' I get more fun out of my golf than any man I know when I am hitting my drives.' Man after my own heart.
Back here in the old digs I've been reminded by Jeeves that we're to attend a birthday party tonight.
The man appeared like a djinn before the presence. Sir?
Where is it we're supposed to be going for this binge?
We're to motor to Lord Emsworh's estate, Blandings Castle, to celebrate the birthday of Mr...I should say, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, born in Surrey, England October 15, 1881. He is better known as P.G. Wodehouse and his nickname is Plum. Quite the prolific writer, sir.
You called him 'Sir' Jeeves. Was he knighted?
Yes, sir, the year he died.
Bloody lot of good that did him.
And he wrote a lot of books, did he?
And short stories and articles and lyrics...
Yes, Jeeves, but did he write the words to any songs?
Yes, sir, the lyrics, from the Latin lyricus and the Greek lurikos, meaning originally, words for accompanying music from a lyre.
Have you been reading the encyclopedia again, Jeeves?
Hmmm, I replied in a tone dripping with with doubt, if that's the phrase I'm looking for, while eyeing the man keenly with a look of penetrating skepticism. Jeeves didn't quite seem to catch it.
As I understand it, sir, P.G. Wodehouse was writing columns on dramatic criticism for the American magazine Vanity Fair, which enabled him to attend opening nights for musicals in New York City. That is how he came to know such famous songwriters as Jerome Kern. He first met Mr. Kern in 1906 at London's Aldwych Theater where Mr. Wodehouse was working as a utility verse writer. They collaborated on a song titled 'Mr. Chamberlain' which was a big hit.
And how do you know this, Jeeves?
My cousin Cholmondely was at the time Mr. Kern's butler, sir, and had occasion to meet Mr. Wodehouse several times, and, accidentally, overhear conversations. He informed me that Mr. Wodehouse was a very amiable gentleman. And he loved New York. Became an American citizen and lived in Remsenberg, Long Island from 1955 until his death.
Handed in his lunch pail?
Yes, sir, in 1975, aged 93. He was working on his next novel.
Wrote himself into the Great Beyond, eh Jeeves?
He achieved that desideratum, sir, of a very long, very productive and happy life, bringing laughter, good cheer and reading enjoyment to millions of people around the world.
And then I noticed Jeeves giving me one of those critical looks, rather like Aunt Agatha adopts when viewing inferiors through her lorgnette.
Sir, do you propose wearing that ensemble to the birthday party? I cannot advise that...that purple tie, not with your formal attire.
Ah, but Jeeves, you thought I knew nothing about this Wodehouse fellow, when in fact — note my cunning here — I popped into the Drones Club earlier and asked around. Discovered his nickname was Plum. Hence this neckwear. Rather a fruity number, eh Jeeves? Rather ooja cum spiff?
As the Romans were wont to say, tempis fugit, intoned a Bean, known to have read a book or two while at Cambridge.
A befogged Crumpet inquired, tempis whatsit?
Tempis fugit, repeated the Bean...
Meaning 'time flies' interposed an Egg, who had found the opening he'd been seeking, indicating that, before you know it, it's later than you think.
How can it be later than I think, demanded the Crumpet, looking at his watch.
He means, retorted a clarifying Bean, that time passes without our being aware of it. Take birthdays, for instance. One day you're 20. Next thing you know, you're 40.
I am not, rejoined the 39 year old Crumpet.
And today, continued the Bean, we celebrate the birthday of P.G. Wodehouse.
Name rings a bell, said the Egg.
Believe I've heard of him, chimed in the Crumpet.
The Bean now caught their somewhat bleary eyes with a knowing look. I should hope so. The man absolutely cranked them out. At last count, over 70 novels, 300 short stories, 18 plays and the lyrics or books for 33 musicals. Not to mention the scenarios for a half dozen movies. Must have had a pipeline to the Muse. He once wrote that his stories were musical comedies without the music.
Makes me think of Freddie Widgeon, the Egg opined.
Freddie? Why he doesn't compare at all to this man's obvious genius and...
I mean to say, interjected Crumpet, that we once said that if all the girl's Freddie had loved and lost were placed end to end, they would reach halfway down to Piccadilly.
So, replied Egg, if we place all the works of Wodehouse end to end, they'd stretch from here to...
Siberia, averred the Bean with great force.
No, to moon, most likely.
None of it, said Crumpet hotly, from here to California at least.
The Bean, sensing for some time that the conversation had become jejune, was happy to notice a heightening clamor that interrupted discussion.
Why, its Freddie Widgeon himself, he cried, and there's Pongo Twistelton and his Uncle Fred, not to mention Gussie Fink—Nottle, and...
I say he an old Etonian, the insistent voice of Freddie Widgeon declaimed above the din.
Not so, my lad, disagreed Fink—Nottle, looking rather like a diseased carp.
He's right, you know. The Earl of Ickenham, a.k.a. Uncle Fred's tenor tones squelched the rest.
Not an old Etonian at all. In fact. Wodehouse is an Old Alleynian. He came to Dulwich the year I went out the other end. Or was it the other way round? He was quite a decent footballer and cricketeer. Boxed too.
No, no, Uncle, that's the way to Lord Snorker's place. To get to Blandings...
Freddie Widgeon had had enough of this geographical gibberish.
To get to Blandings, dear friends, to absolutely deliver yourselves to X marks the spot, you must orient your bally compass to the nor—nor'west. You then proceed to Chipping Pigglebury, onward through Market Wigsnort, giving Flack's Bottom the miss, and on into the welcoming embrace of Nertleby Under Gugglewich, Blandings lying just beyond.
In the bar parlor of the Angler's Rest the conversation had come round to what the foregathered happy assemblage considered their favorite songs.
The Whiskey and Splash, patriotic from the tip of his brogues to the brim of his deerstalker, opened with 'Rule Britannia.' What else could it be? He asked.
If we're allowed any category of song, my choice would be 'White Cliffs of Dover, the Small Bass said nostalgically.
A deep—voiced Draught Stout allowed as how his favorite was 'Old Man River.'
At this juncture our erudite and accomplished barmaid, Miss Postelthwaite, began singing in a low, tuneful voice 'I love him because he's wonderful, because he's just my Bill...
Very pretty, Miss Postelthwaite. Mr. Mulliner, who had been sipping his Hot Scotch and Lemon while taking in the conversation with a look of fond interest in his honest blue eyes, rose with the compliment and joined the little group.
Miss Postelthwaite favored him with a smile. If any of you gentlemen can tell me who wrote those song lyrics, she said, I'll give you a free drink.
The answering trio echoed through the bar parlor.
I'm afraid you are all quite close, but not quite right in your answers, interjected Mr. Mulliner. Quite close in that that the man who wrote those lyrics, P.G. Wodehouse, worked with all three of those illustrious gentlemen. And of course Jerome Kern wrote the music for that song from 'Showboat.'
Wodehouse also did a stint in Hollywood in the 1930s. My cousin, Abednego Mulliner was out there at the time, employed as second assistant to the second assistant director at Magno—Mongo Studios and remembers seeing him on the lot.
Didn't Mr. Wodehouse work on a movie based on one of his books?
Yes, Miss Postelthwaite, he returned to Tinseltown in 1936 for the production of Damsel In Distress, starring Fred Astaire.
Here's your free drink, Mr. Mulliner, said Miss Postelthwaite, placing another Hot Scotch and Lemon in front of him
The Draught Stout took the occasion to pose a question. Didn't Wodehouse live to a rather ripe old age?
Yes, indeed, replied Mr. Mulliner. He lived to be 93 years of age. And it is my opinion that this was due not only to the daily mental activity of writing, but also to physical exercise. I read somewhere that in 1919 he happened to see an advertisement for the Daily Dozen exercise regimen as developed and advocated by the famous American football coach, Walter Camp. From that time until his death he did them every day before breakfast. And he took daily walks with his beloved dogs, whether Pekinese, Alsatians or Dachshunds. Pekes were his favorite.
But, my friends, intoned Mr. Mulliner, introducing a decidedly solemn note into the proceedings, life was not all comfort and ease for P.G. Wodehouse. He was unfortunate enough to be living in France in 1939. The Germans scooped him up. He spent the rest of the war in an internment camp in Austria. But he kept on writing. Then later in life his only daughter, I should say step—daughter, died at a relatively young age.
Miss Postelthwaite sighed. And yet, she said, he wrote all those lovely novels and stories that make us all smile and laugh out loud.
Here, here chorused the happy quartet in earnest agreement, clinking their glasses together.
And now, said Mr. Mulliner, its time we were on our way to Blandings for the birthday party.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian, when he isn't enjoying reading P.G. Wodehouse