by Shruti Rattan
For someone whose most productive period of writing for adult readers spanned from 1910 to 1960, with some more years adding a few titles at both ends, P.G. Wodehouse surprisingly maintained his balance on the tightrope of comic masterpieces.
There was World War One that he witnessed in his early thirties. He had volunteered but was rejected because of poor eyesight.
The world went into a deep depression while he was at his most productive.
He spent a major portion of World War 2 interned in a German camp.
Following that, around him, the very lords, earls and dukes he wrote about felt the uncomfortable winds of change as society was shaken up, tottered and fell face down into a flattened expanse.
Yet, throughout the expanse of his enchanting world, master’s characters seldom talk about war, don’t complain about prohibition, financial problems and class distinctions. They continue to trot up to the Drones Club with their biggest concern being the type of shirt to wear. They get entangled in romantic riff knots, enjoy the eternal sunshine of English summers in the fields of stately homes of British peerage while sophisticated butlers carried their salvers to and fro. In the words of Evelyn Waugh, “Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; the gardens of Blandings Castle are the original gardens of Eden from which we are all exiled.”
Perhaps it was a complete disinterest in the rest of the world and an acute distaste for any sort of politics that landed him in that deplorable soup during the Berlin Broadcasts.
P.G. Wodehouse, interned in a German camp at Tost in Silesia, near the Polish border. He stayed in captivity for forty nine weeks, but was spared the rigours of manual labour because of his fifty nine years of age. When he was released in 1941 and kept in relative freedom in Hotel Adlon of Germany, he agreed to broadcast a series of five talks – which he wrote himself in his inimitable style – to be aired in the United States of America.
The talks, which gave an account of camp life in his own light hearted, side-splittingly hilarious manner, sucked him into controversies that a person like him would never have dreamt about.
In reaction to shamefully vitriolic attacks by some glorious trendsetters of the modern machinery of yellow journalism, and public condemnation by some of his brother authors, in voices that in retrospect seem more than a little tinged with envy at his enormous popularity, England was soon up in arms against the very man they loved to read. The general consensus, even before anyone in England knew what the contents of the five talks were, was that the German publicity machinery of Dr. Goebbels had actually leveraged the famed Wodehousean political naiveté and had bargained a release in exchange of propaganda.
While not many really believed in the scathing attack launched on the master by one of the most despicable journalists of England, William N. Connor under the pseudonym Cassandra of Daily Mirror, the public bought the idea that Wodehouse, without any perceivable understanding of politics, had caused a lot of damage by agreeing to air these talks.
While there have been studies and arguments which, today, clears him of most of the charges levelled on him by people during the time, my intention is to argue that we definitely give the celebrated humorist less credit than is due where socio-political awareness is concerned. He was not as totally unaware of social and political landscapes, although he did not really enjoy writing about the same. And finally, his talks, when read today, contain exceptionally brilliant disguised criticism of Germany considering the constrained liberty of airing them at their behest.
In The Inimitable Jeeves, the following dialogue takes place when Bertie Wooster wants Jeeves to find a way of persuading Old Mr. Little, Bingo Little’s uncle, to allow him to marry an waitress.
‘The method which I advocate is what, I believe, the advertisers call Direct Suggestion, sir, consisting as it does of driving an idea home by constant repetition. You may have had experience of the system?’
‘You mean they keep on telling you that some soap or other is the best, and after a bit you come under the inﬂuence and charge round the corner and buy a cake?’
‘Exactly, sir. The same method was the basis of all the most valuable propaganda during the recent war.’
The publication date of the semi-novel is 1923, and obviously Jeeves is referring to the First World War, infamous in history for the use of propaganda and public reaction. Hence, in some very subtle nooks and crannies of his lyrical prose, PGW did sometimes enclose a political comment.
He was distinctly aware of the changes in social structure as well, as in some of his novels he does speak of finishing schools which prepare the English peerage for honest labour. The term ‘idle rich’ does occur quite often in his books, and Bertie Wooster is sometimes a classic representation of the same. In one of the Ukridge stories, a tramp murmurs the words and is recruited by Ukridge to throw a piece of cake at a bridegroom during a wedding.
In a rather significant piece of his Jeeves and Wooster canon, Bertie escapes from a boat by colouring his face black, impersonating one of the all black music band. When he discusses the scheme with Jeeves, he refers to the black musicians as ‘niggers’ whereas Jeeves calls them ‘negroes’.
Roderick Spode is another striking piece of political satire of Wodehouse. He is described by Bertie as an amateur dictator who leads a farcical group of fascists called the Saviours of England, also known as the Black Shorts, who go about wearing footer shorts. The abominable thought of Spode going about in footer shorts makes Bertie shudder and almost drop his Gasper. According to Gussie Fink-Nottle in The Code of the Woosters, "by the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left" a masterly allusion to various fascist or right-wing groups – Mussolini's Blackshirts, Hitler's brownshirts, the Irish Blueshirts and Greenshirts, the South African Greyshirts, Mexico's Gold shirts, and the American Silver Shirts. Spode himself is modelled on Sir Walter Moseley, leader of the British Union of Fascists – also known as the Black Shirts.
He definitely did not want to pile on political ideas on his reading public – he says famously that “there are two ways to write a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.” But, real life did sometimes creep into his writing between the lyrical genius – and although he decided to ignore real life, it is not axiomatic that he did not know it.
If the political and social nuggets in his prose seem to be too infrequently interspersed to clear him of the allegation of a complete unawareness about reality, we need to turn to the early days of his career for a conclusive proof of his astute statements beneath a generous layer of hilarity.
We need to go back to 1903, when he was starting out as a talented writer who wrote, amongst others, for the Daily Express. The great political issue of the day was free trade. Joseph Chamberlain, who believed the empire could be held together by material ties, was in favour of a measure of imperial preference which would involve a tariff barrier against other countries. He was supported by a majority of the Unionist Party, although opposed by a minority. Being unable to persuade the Prime Minister to accept his policy at that time, he resigned from the government in order to hold meetings all over the country to put forward his ideas. “If you are going to give preference to the colonies,” he told the House of Commons, “you must put a tax on food.” Free trade meant that food would cost more, an idea used by the Liberal Party to eventually come to power on this issue.
On 30th September, 1903, Daily Express, a Unionist and protectionist paper, started a series of Parrot verses, all on the first page, which depicted a parrot giving his views on fiscal matters. These verses were written in fascinating verses and excellent political acumen by none other than P.G. Wodehouse. The opinions of the Parrot were published six days a week right through October until 15th November, after which it became intermittent. The Parrot mostly commented on political issues or mused on other important topics of the day.
Here are some of the verses:
When you show him that a duty is a thing of perfect beauty,
That it sets the mills a-buzzing with an ever-growing roar,
That our wages will be rising to an altitude surprising,l
He offers the suggestion that: ‘Your food will cost you more’
In the Moscow Zoo a rumour
Quickly spread from wolf to puma,
Causing even modest lions
To emit a dreadful roar,
For a Parrot fresh from London
Had declared they all were undone
Since in some surprising manner
‘Food will cost you more’
When the elephant was lunching,
Perched the bird and watched him munching
While a sad commiseration
Was the look the Parrot wore:
Till at last he started yelling –
As the beast with buns was swelling,
Swelling in the plumpest manner
‘Marvrick, food will cost you more.’
Facts defying, reason scorning,
Through the noon, the night, the morning,
Sat the wicked bird repeating
His suggestion o’er and o’er
While poor Marvrick, growing thinner,
Dropt his breakfast, lunch and dinner
In economic terror,
Lest his food should cost him more.
And his sad extermination
Is a lesson to our nation
Of the folly in attending
To a troglodytish bore.
As the elephant diminished,
So will British trade be finished
If we listen to the Parrot
With his Food will cost you more.
That anyone capable of penning these lines daily and manufacturing magical rhymes while brimming with political message can metamorphose into an absolutely politically agnostic scribbler living in a dreamland of his own is somewhat difficult to believe.
If we look at his writings, the initial novels and stories of the tens and early twenties did keep somewhat in step to reality, while as he became popular and immensely so, he gave free rein to what he wanted to write about. He plainly did not want to produce social commentary or political satire, unless irritated by someone like Sir Walter Moseley. When he is in captivity, he says in his interview with a Columbia broadcaster, Harry Flannery, that his novels of the future would definitely not have anything to do with the life of a prisoner of war. “Good God, no, Mr. Flannery. There are enough other people writing about the war, and my readers, I believe, would rather have something different.”
However, when scripting the broadcasts, I fully believe he used his genius in leaving specks and traces of critical commentary of situation in the jovial humour of the narrative.
It is of little wonder that while headline happy journalists steeped in yellow ink and envious fellow writers eager to bring him down from his giant stature as an author launched a vindictive and contemptible attack on him in England before the broadcasts were even heard there, in America, they were used by the intelligence training schools as models of writing Anti-Nazi propaganda.
Here are a few excerpts which demonstrate how the genius worked in letting the world know about German atrocities even while maintaining the fascinatingly amusing tone of his writings.
One's reactions on suddenly finding oneself surrounded by the armed strength of a hostile power are rather interesting. There is a sense of strain. The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternize and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek. All the German I know is 'Es ist schönes Wetter', I was a spent force, and we used to take out the rest of the interview in beaming at one another.
I had a great opportunity of brushing up my beaming during those two months. My villa stands in the centre of a circle of houses, each of which was occupied by German officers, who would come around at intervals to take a look at things, and the garden next door was full of Labour Corps boys.
It was with these that one really got together. There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a beaming party on the porch afterwards.
And so, day by day, all through June and July, our quiet, happy life continued, with not a jarring incident to mar the serenity. Well, yes, perhaps one or two. One day, an official-looking gentleman with none of the Labour Corps geniality came along and said he wanted my car. Also my radio. And in addition my bicycle. That was what got under the skin. I could do without the car, and I had never much liked the radio, but I loved that bicycle. I looked him right in the eye and said 'Es ist schönes Wetter' - and I said it nastily. I meant it to sting. And what did he say? He didn't say anything. What could we have said? P.S. He got the bicycle.
While ostensibly giving the impression that the incidents were light enough to be made fun of, he does say that the houses were invaded, his car and radio and bicycle were taken away.
In a striking example of what the press can do without adding a single word, the same Daily Express for which Wodehouse had penned the parrot poems vitally misquoted him by printing “There was scarcely an evening when two or three of them did not drop in for a bath at my house and a (beaming) party on the porch afterwards” from the above passage, omitting the word beaming and changing the perception altogether. It was rumoured that Wodehouse had hosted parties for the Germans in his villa.
Here is another passage through which he relates the way he was made to pack up and leave for the camp in ten minutes. Related again with exceptional humour, one can see the infernal German guard standing behind him, barking orders to be quick, while in a heart-wrenching scene, he is separated from his wife and dogs, while his heart sinks with uncertainty of separation. The way he packs tobacco and Shakespeare and forgets his passport also tells us a lot about the man, who wanted to live in his own erudite world, and spoke about it in his own way.
Presently the interpreter stepped forward and announced that we were ad going to be interned. It was a pretty nasty shock, coming without warning out of a blue sky like that, and it is not too much to say that for an instant the old maestro shook like a badly set blancmange. Many years ago, at a party which had started to get a bit rough, somebody once bit me on the bridge of the nose with an order of planked steak. As I had felt then, so did I feel now. That same sensation of standing in a rocking and isintegrating world.
I didn't realize at the time how much luckier I was than a great many other victims of the drag-net. All over France during that Sunday, British citizens were being picked up and taken away without being given time to pack, and for a week those in Boulogne had been living in what they stood up in at the Petit Vitesse railroad station. For some reason, Le Touquet was given a substantial break. We were allowed to go home and put a few things together, and as my home was three miles away, I was actually sent there in a car.
The soldier who escorted me was unfortunately not one of those leisurely souls who believe in taking time over one's packing. My idea had been to have a cold bath and a change and a bite to cat, and then to light a pipe and sit down and muse for a while, making notes of what to take with me and what could be left behind. His seemed to be that five minutes was ample. Eventually we compromised on ten.
I would like my biographers to make careful note of the fact that the first thing that occurred to me was that here at last was my chance to buckle down and read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was a thing I had been meaning to do any time these last forty years, but somehow, as soon as I had got, say, Hamlet and Macbeth under my belt and was preparing to read the stuffing out of Henry the Sixth, parts one, two and three, something like the Murglow Manor Mystery would catch my eye and I would weaken.
I didn't know what interment implied - it might be for years or it might be for ever - or it might be a mere matter of weeks - but the whole situation seemed to point to the complete works of William Shakespeare, so in they went. I am happy to say that I am now crammed with Shakespeare to the brim, so, whatever else internment has done for me, I am at any rate that much ahead of the game.
It was a pang to leave my novel behind, I had only five more chapters of it to do. But space, as Jeeves would have pointed out, was of the essence, and it had to go, and is now somewhere in France. I am hoping to run into it again one of these days, for it was a nice little novel and we had some great times together.
I wonder what my listeners would have packed in my place - always remembering that there was a German soldier standing behind me all the time, shouting "Schnell" or words to that effect. I had to think quick. Eventually what I crammed in were tobacco, pencils, scribbling blocks, chocolate, biscuits, a pair of trousers, a pair of shoes, some shirts and a sock or two. My wife wanted to add a pound of butter, but I fought her off. There are practically no limits to what a pound of butter can do in warm weather in a small suitcase. If I was going to read the complete works of William Shakespeare, I preferred them unbuttered.
In the end, the only thing of importance I left behind was my passport, which was the thing I ought to have packed first. The young internee is always being asked for his passport, and if he hasn't got it, the authorities tend to look squiggle-eyes and to ask nasty questions. I had never fully realized what class distinctions were till I became an internee without a passport, thus achieving a social position somewhere in between a minor gangster and a wharf rat.
Having closed the suitcase and said goodbye to my wife and the junior dog, and foiled the attempt of the senior dog to muscle into the car and accompany me into captivity, I returned to the Kommandantur.
In his second broadcast, he speaks of the abysmal food supplies on which he had to survive with his cell mates in the first gaol in which he was interned. The description, as usual is side splittingly funny, but underlines the inhuman conditions, forging them into the mind through the potent weapon of laughter.
What the morrow brought forth, at seven sharp, was a rattling of keys and the opening of a small panel in the door, through which were thrust three tin mugs containing a thin and lukewarm soup and three loaves of bread, a dark sepia in color. This, one gathered, was breakfast, and the problem arose of how to play our part in the festivities. The soup was all right. One could manage that. You just took a swallow, and then another swallow - to see if it had really tasted as bad as it had seemed to the first time, and before you knew where you were, it had gone. But how, not having knives, we were to deal with the bread presented a greater test of our ingenuity. Biting bits off it was not a practical proposition for my companions, whose teeth were not of the best: and it was no good hammering it on the edge of the table, because it simply splintered the woodwork. But there is always a way of getting around life's little difficulties, if you give your mind to it. I became bread-biter to the community, and I think I gave satisfaction. At any rate, I got the stuff apart.
In the fourth talk of the series, he speaks of the nasty Kommandant of the Huys camp, but does it again in the same innocent language with the vitriol tucked away in the sweetness of humour. But the message strikes home most incisively, while it gracefully dances around the strictest of censors. Wodehouse’s humour was an weapon for which dictators had no answer.
the slogan seemed to be 'Go and see what the internees are doing, and tell them they mustn't'. I remember an extra parade being called, so that we might be informed that stealing was forbidden. This hit us very hard.
These extra parades were a great feature of life at Huy, for our Kommandant seemed to have a passion for them.Mind you, I can find excuses for him. If I had been in his place, I would have ordered extra parades myself. His headquarters were down in the town, and there was no road connecting the Citadel with the outer world - just a steep, winding path. So that, when he came to visit us, he had to walk. He was a fat, short-legged man in the middle sixties, and walking up steep, winding paths does something to fat, short-legged men who are not as young as they were. Duty called him now and then to march up the hill and to march down again, but nothing was going to make him like it.
I picture him starting out, full of loving kindness - all sweetness and light, as it were - and gradually becoming more and more soured as he plodded along. So that when he eventually came to journey's end with a crick in the back and the old dogs feeling as if they were about to burst like shrapnel, and saw us loafing around at our ease, the sight was too much for him and he just reached for his whistle and blew it for an extra parade.
Extra parades were also called two or three times a day by the Sergeant, when there was any announcement to be made. At Tost we had a noticeboard, on which camp orders were posted each day, but this ingenious system had not occurred to anyone at Huy. The only way they could think of there of establishing communication between the front office and the internees was to call a parade. Three whistles would blow, and we would assemble in the yard, and after a long interval devoted to getting into some sort of formation we would be informed that there was a parcel for Omer - or that we must shave daily - or that we must not smoke on parade - or that we must not keep our hands in our pockets on parade - or that we might buy playing cards - (and next day that we might not buy playing cards) - or that boys must not cluster round the guard-room trying to scrounge food from the soldiers - or that there was a parcel for Omer.
To me, these broadcasts were absolute gems, the supreme use of linguistic mastery to pass information transparently, in front of the eyes and ears of the lurking enemy. If these had been accepted as such and studied, they could have painted Wodehouse as a war hero at the age of sixty.
No wonder when asked later about the broadcasts, Plum lamented that they had been some of the best things he had written. Of course they were. They were the pinnacle of Wodehousean humour with scathing criticism of the Nazis, disguised as harmless fun.
Whether the man himself had intended them to be anti-Nazi propaganda or not is subject to debate. With Connor (Cassandra) using all his negative journalistic vices to launch an all out attack against PGW without referring to the actual transcripts, with Daily Express doing their subtle best to misquote him, and his envious brother authors nipping at his metaphorical ankles like scavenging hyenas, the master said that the main reason why he had agreed to the broadcasts was that he wanted to reply to the thousands of worried mails that he had received from America. He ends his broadcasts saying with very non-Wodehousean show of emotion, “With this talk, I bring to an end the story of my adventures as British Civilian Prisoner Number 796, and before concluding I should like once more to thank all the kind people in America who wrote me letters while I was in camp. Nobody who has not been in a prison camp can realize what letters, especially letters like those I received, mean to an internee.”
It was later proved that there had been no deal to release the author in exchange of the broadcasts. The idea of the broadcasts was born after his release, and, as some say, was welcome to Wodehouse because that gave him an option to make his work available to the world yet again. A prolific writer like him had been unable to publish anything for the duration of his internment. The channel may have seemed inviting. After all an author lives to reach out to his readers.
True, he did say in different forums that he had enjoyed camp, but that was because it was perhaps true. For a man such as him, with limited social skills, the camp camaraderie with its schoolboy code of honour and gallantry made him belong to a social group for the first time since college days at Dulwich. I personally believe that though he did not write about the experiences apart from in the broadcast scripts, he did store the episode in his sponge like mind to squeeze out subtle drops for his future work.
On the other hand, none of the people who attacked him had ever been interned in a German camp – and with a few exceptions, all had their hidden agendas.
Some of the personal attacks now read something out of Lord of the Flies, juvenile attempts at vile and malicious attacks at someone who had become successful through decades of incredible hard work.
A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, was of the manufactured opinion that Wodehouse did not want to take responsibilities, but would like to be have all the reflected glory of one who did. “He once said to me that he wished he had a son, but added characteristically ‘but he would have to be born at the age of 15, when he was just getting into House eleven.” Years later, Richard Usborne realised and communicated to PGW that Milne had actually quoted from Psmith in the City.
The journalists were not alone in misquoting the man.
A lot of others, including William Townsend and Dorothy L. Sayers supported Wodehouse, but there were egomaniacs like Sean O’Casey, who could never digest the immense popularity of a mere humorist over more serious writers such as himself. The lack of perspective, confusion of issues political and literal, petty schoolboy sense of rivalry and the frustrated sense of peer pressure drips from this particular piece of communication from O’Casey to Daily Telegraph.
It is amusing to read the various wails about the villainy of Wodehouse. The harm done to England’s cause and to England’s dignity is not the poor man’s babble in Berlin, but the acceptance of him by a childish part of the people and the academic government of Oxford, dead from the chin up, as a person of any importance whatsoever in English humorous literature o ay literature at all. It is an ironic twist of retribution on those who banished Joyce and honoured Wodehouse.
If England has any dignity left in the way of literature, she will forget the pitiful antics of English Literature’s performing flea. If Berlin thinks the poor fish great so much the better for us.
It definitely seems that O’Casey could have done well to sit at the feet of Wodehouse to take lessons in coating acrimonious attacks in likeable charm. However, similar jealousy tinged confusion of issues was sadly expressed by another notable author E.C. Bentley.
In spite of malice and evil journalism, Wodehouse was cleared of any charges of collaborating or being sympathetic to Nazis. The British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence papers, contained in the MI5 files, show that by 1947 the British authorities had concluded that Wodehouse had no case to answer either over the broadcasts or the money, and, in the words of the Foreign Office, contained in the file: Mr Wodehouse made the celebrated broadcasts in all innocence and without any evil intent.
In his article in Times Literary Supplement, Iain Sporat says:
In fact, nobody who reads the text of those broadcasts today can fail to see that they are no more than light-hearted accounts of Wodehouse's capture and internment by the Nazis. They contain not one single word of pro-Nazi, or anti-British, sentiment. Indeed, they poked fun at the Germans, and made clear that morale among British internees was high. As Wodehouse himself said in a cable to the editor of the American magazine, the Saturday Evening Post (America had not yet joined the war), who had complained, after the first broadcast, that Wodehouse had been "callous about England": "Cannot understand what you meant about callousness. Mine simple flippant, cheerful attitude of all British prisoners; it was a point of honour with us not to whine." In fact, in a conversation which I had last year with the distinguished historian, Barrie Pitt, who had been a fellow internee of Wodehouse's, he told me the following: to help keep up morale at Tost, it was decided by the British internees to have a series of talks and concerts. The first of these talks, one Saturday morning, was given by Wodehouse. The text of his talk was pretty much the text of the five broadcasts. The talk was received by his fellow internees with much laughter and applause.
Be that as it may, it left Plum with a lot of torment. The very facts that there was parliamentary questions and that he had to appear before Major Cussen for investigation of the broadcasts was a source of intense distress. For a peace loving soul like him, whose only interests in life were reading, writing and golf, the controversy must have been very, very awkward and painful. Primarily because, apart from being politically uninitiated, he did have an upright schoolboy standard of honour all life.
In his statement to the Cussen investigation, he said, “I should like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action.”
It speaks for the mental resilience and the indomitable discipline and spirit of work of the great man that this incident did not result in making his subsequent offerings bitter. If he at all had problems with his plots it was because What the devil does one write about these days, if one is a specialist on country houses and butlers, both of which have ceased to exist?
However, for nearly another three and a half decades after the broadcasts, he continued to delight us, doing what great men usually do in the face of most undignified and unjust antipathy, to go back and do what he did best, to go back to the tool of his trade, the type writer, and turn out those novels and short stories that have made more English speaking people laugh than any other author.
Shruti Rattan is a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta’s latest novel The Best Seller.
An Amsterdam based researcher on political science, she is also a talented author and compulsive punster.