THE FEUDAL SPIRIT | Blogging a dead horse

Blogging a dead horse

Is a barrel of naked monkeys more fun than a barrel of hairy ones?


P.G.Wodehouse, the quintessential English writer, was threatened with being tried for treason by the British and spent most of his working life in America. It's a funny old world.

Reading P. G. Wodehouse is like a warm bath, or should that be a cold shower, as there is something of the public school about him. The question is, is it comfort food or the sort of swill served with suet that old Dulwich boys fondly recall as lunching with one’s chums? It is hard to work out if the Wodehouse oeuvre is a deeply revolutionary lampoon of the idiocy of the ruling classes, or a fond ribbing of the best of the British. We Brits applaud and consume it but are deeply grateful for Clement Attlee, even if he was a boring little man with ulcers. Hitler gave Clem the chance to do away with the Drones of the Wodehouse World, which both saddens and delights us. Saddens us because fools that they were, they still ruled the world! Delights us because without the 1944 education act, I would probably be doffing my cap to such educated idiots, instead of being an educated idiot myself.

Wodehouse not only bought into the American stereotype of the English, he probably created it. The World of Wodehouse was always a rather peculiar take on the British, honed as much if not more by Wodehouse’s earlier success in Broadway comedies than his stint at Dulwich College. Trust me, we aren’t all living in crumbling mansions stealing French cooks off each other, and neither was Wodehouse. There is a hint of the Marx Brothers in this enterprise, which is probably as close you get to Marxist intensions behind the comedy, but the image he created was part of the British Government’s reluctance to hand the man a knighthood until six months before he died. In short, he played into the demeaning American stereotype of the clapped out imperial power full of high-faluting morons given far too much weight in the world.

Americans are not the only admirers. Indians are perhaps even greater lovers of Wodehouse. Wodehouse makes the British look like fools, but then it also makes Indians wonder what the Indians are after being so outrageously dominated by the British! As a modern Brit would say, it kind of means they are a bunch of wankers. Pelham Wodehouse would have put it better. They might well love the wordplay that all crossword-loving communities derive pleasure from, but beside the unnerving association of power and foolishness, backing up the status quo is the feudal spirit.

In the modern feudal world, the unwashed are excluded and one can live in one’s gated community decrying the creeping chaos of democracy gone mad, as there is nothing so luny or self-destructive as poverty baked zealots with religion and the vote. Standards may be perpetually slipping, but in the world of the middle class with dreams of ever upwards mobility, one should at least attempt to maintain them; that is, if one knows what standards are. Hence the value of a dip into Wodehouse, as here Jeeves explains them and exemplifies them. If only every servant and housekeeper could understand the nobility of their calling, and realise their masters were their creations, then the efficacy of cow urine would be cast asunder by Jeeves clearing his throat and quoting appropriately from the Hippocratic oath.

One would expect the Chinese to be similarly enamoured with this satire of decadent old colonials, who mostly are unaware of a grumbling disloyal native. Wodehouse’s father was a magistrate in Hong Kong, so the Hong Kong variety of Brit probably runs in the genes of many of his characters. But cleverness of plot, sharpness of dialogue, and an in depth knowledge of rhetoric and Aristotelian logic, put to the service of amusement, amorality and a willingness to admit that the great poets are indigestible bores and that far greater poetry could be found in winning a double on The Oaks and The Derby, is as bewildering to the Chinese as anyone basking in the joy of a student of Thucydides letting rip a twenty four gun salute of subordinate clauses. Far more preferential in certain Chinese literary circles would be a three-character slogan leaving the meaning to be unpacked through deep meditation, and attention to some aged authority’s annotated commentary.

To be amused by a feudal spirit that cuts against the grain of the times, takes far too much effort, or at least too much effort for one to find Wodehouse’s books in Chinese bookstores, even amidst the educational English section. I have looked and they are rare. A Chinese poet must be drunken and crazy and not concerned with entertaining anyone, least of all themselves, and most certainly not be an affable bald-headed man typing away to pay off the fees for his golf club. The British moon’s enticing reflection in the lake is an occasion for farce, not profundity. Far more important to the Chinese curriculum is the social drama and sentimentality of Dickens, than Plum Wodehouse’s Edwardian flippancy. Hong Kong movies, unconstrained by Shanghai censors, ventured into similar madness in the form of Chow Sing Chi’s movie oeuvre, but as China's imperial reach expands, one suspects po-facedness increases with it and Wodehouse leaves them as cold as a German stand-up comedian with a frozen frankfurter down the front of his trousers. Which enforces the idea that the Wodehouse world was created in America, far from the tut-tutting of stuffy Britain.

The world Wodehouse inhabits is one of stately homes and statelier maiden aunts bellowing like mating mastodons. Conversations are unfortunately overheard, the proffered stick is inevitably grasped at the wrong end, and infallible logic is applied as absurdly as possible. The idle, ignorant and often rather dim-witted rich do little but play, aided and abetted by Jeeves, a servant who is a deep well of arcane cultural knowledge flowing with biblical quotations, Shakespearean epithets, and Classical philosophy.

Jeeves is the epitome of the feudal spirit. He lives to serve and serves to live. For him, taste is all about quiet well-matched colours and well-proportioned geometry. He considers loudness and asymmetry to be the death of the Empire. Above all else, Jeeves believes standards of decorum and civility have to be maintained, so that the status quo will always emerge from the chaos of inappropriate passions. In pursuit of these ideals, Jeeves is not above lying, cheating, and applying a boot to the unsuspecting seat of the pants. The ability to disappear and only appear when needed is a measure of his genius. And his worldly knowledge coated in the sugar of the education supposedly only available to the aristocracy, indicates a secret life where one gains expertise in sin, debauchery, thievery and fraud as well as access to some very well kept libraries. Jeeves reads so that his betters need not bother.

Sean O’Casey said of Wodehouse “If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget for ever the pitiful antics of English literature's performing flea". This was said in a fit of pique brought on by Wodehouse’s unfortunate series of Berlin radio broadcasts in 1940 whilst he was interned by the Germans. Despite the notoriously humourless Nazis, they too admired his work, maybe because of its satire of the English, and treated him much better than they treated a lot of other people. But a year in the bunks of a German internment camp would probably have had most of us agreeing to make a few amusing broadcasts from Berlin in exchange for going back to one’s French home, wife and dog. Whereas others faced down firing squads in the name of freedom, the war, for Wodehouse, was mostly an inconvenience, something which did not go down well in a bankrupt post-war Britain, who wanted him arrested, dragged back in shackles, tried and shot for treason.

However, George Orwell pointed out that being in the hands of the Germans and having little to say upon the politics of any time, meant that his broadcasts were not made in the spirit of malice, treachery or anything else for that matter. He pointed out that far greater hypocrites who had real treacherous intentions to sell out to the Nazis at the beginning of the war, were howling for Wodehouse’s blood at its end. They doth protest too much, was his basic message. The critics were further silenced by Evelyn Waugh’s support for Wodehouse, though one perhaps detects the closing ranks of old boy sentimentality. Waugh however was no slouch during the war, being out there in the muck and bullets, as well as finding enough moments to rattle his typewriter to some effect. Waugh, proven patriot and lover of the old aristocratic order, still thought Wodehouse undeserving of criticism. Malcolm Muggeridge, then with Military Intelligence and investigating Wodehouse, pointed out that Wodehouse was unsuited to an age of ideological conflict and hated too little, thinking nearly everyone to be decent sorts, thus was easily duped into stepping in some of the smellier dollops of wartime bullshit. Being naïve and pleasant is hardly a hanging offence. Even so, P. G. Wodehouse never returned to Britain and as a man who had held his own in Hollywood, the naïve bit was probably a little overstated. It is possibly more the case that in 1940, Plum rather thought of himself as American and they as yet were not in the war.

Wodehouse was essentially a man locked down in his own private theatre, well away from the mental virus’s of the times. His works are structured like three act plays with limited sets full of doors and french windows. Dialogue is everything, and action is often off set and reported with vigorous unreliability in colloquial slang. He writes the English that we would all like to speak, but fail to nowadays through the sheer laziness engendered by our technological connections. Imagine what Wodehouse would make of our lock-downed existence! He would not have simply forwarded an amusing gif featuring a cat. Instead, through a complicated plot of misinformation and half-baked knowledge, Bertie would have discovered that the quarantine was all some frightful misunderstanding, and the cat would win the best in show ticket at the local Vicarage Tea Party. For in Wodehouse’s world, the status quo emerges from all catastrophes and all catastrophes are simply in the mind.

The escapism of Wodehouse is the result of hard work and an attention to details that amuse. It is designed to earn money, and yet somehow has turned into an exercise in high culture. For English has rarely been so well used and if one wishes to fight for anything, it is Wodehouse’s use of English. It is hard to imagine him having peers operating in other languages. It is hard to imagine translations of the man’s language into foreign tongues actually meaning anything at all. As Shakespeare has fared well in translation and adaptation between countries and eras, Wodehouse is firmly English of the 1920’s and 30’s! Even when venturing into the 1950’s, the music is still that of the Charleston and it is jarring to discover references to TVs in a Wodehouse work, but gladly they sit monochromatically in the background sputtering with indifferent reception, miscontrolled by puzzled nitwits.

Despite this decadence, this total lack of relevance to modern Britain, or perhaps any Britain, we have elevated P.G. Wodehouse to the status of a literary classic. He is a comic genius that epitomises English wit and a self-deprecating modesty that we have much to be modest about. He is, we think, one of us though long ago dipped in American ketchup. And every now and then, just as we traipse out TV series based on Jane Austen, we find a couple of actors fitting to play Wooster and Jeeves and give them a six part run. He is no longer lampooning us, but them, the pucker sahibs and chinless wonders of a long gone era. We are all, so we believe, better off for them getting it well up the Khyber. The feudal spirit shall never darken the doors of the British ever again, except of course, we still vote for old Etonians and would feel inclined to swoon at the whiff of The Kensington Royal’s customised car freshener. Our comedies are dimmed by the woke and virtuous, and cruder in compensation, brooking little erudite undermining of the nonsense of present existence. Funny though the sitcom The Windsors is, it is the humour of outrage and cartoon extrapolations rather than wit. We turn to Wodehouse, as one might turn to Fred Astaire. There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight, and music and love and romance. Let's face the music and dance.