Saturday, 1 October 2011

Plum's England

Sharing the actual premises of Strand and fictional ones at Simpsons-on-the-Strand with Sherlock Holmes, P.G.Wodehouse’s association with London is more varied.
Location of the Hongkong Shanghai Bank

Before becoming one of the mainstays of Strand for 35 years, he started his career as a clerk in Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank at GraceChurch Street in the City.

Every morning, if his recollections are to be believed, Wodehouse used to run from his Chelsea lodgings to the bank, and as he neared Gracechurch Street, would speed up and charge flat through the entrance doors and up the stairs, cheered on by groups of clerks, so that he could clock in on time and save his bonus. He recalled that this kept him in excellent condition.
 His departure was nowhere near the sporting excellence that his daily entrances were. It seems he had torn off a page from the new ledger to write one of his short stories, and admitted to the crime. He may have got away with the misdeed, but, after the head cashier had accused the head stationer of supplying defective materials, the latter replied that only an imbecile would tear out the first page of a ledger. And it was then, after a moment’s thought, the cashier realised that he did have such an imbecile working under him – Wodehouse. The culprit was summoned and interrogated and admitted the blame. Wodehouse later certified himself as the ‘worst bungler ever to have entered the portals of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.’ The experiences did, however, account for a lot of what makes up the novel Psmith in the City.

Berkeley Square
However, the ruined career in finance perhaps left too deep a mark in young Wodehouse’s mind to spend too many words on the working of financial institutions other than a passing reference of the stenographers jotting down the dictation of millionaire go-getters in the form of streptococcus and impressionist sketches of pneumonia germs.

His Jeeves and Wooster capers are centred around the Mayfair area, before they leave the crowded city for the country houses holding various ghastly girls and to be purloined silverware. Betram Wooster resides in the fictitious Berkeley Mansions on Berkeley Street. One can imagine him tottering back from Drones through the square late at night, the world in a blurry haze till Jeeves comes in with the restorative the next morning.

Buck's - the inspiration for Drones
However, after the pick me up, and a quick earful of ‘A telegram from Mrs. Gregson, sir,’ from Jeeves, he would trot down – a or bolt for cover depending on the nature of the missive – along Hay Hill, Grafton Street, New Bond Street and into Clifford Street. Here at number 18 stands Buck, the gentleman’s club. According to many, it is the blueprint based on which P.G.Wodehouse put together his masonry of unparalleled imagination to create the Drones Club teeming with Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, with Pongo Twistleton, Freddie Widgeon, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Tuppy Glossop.

However, different landmarks all over London were frequently used for different incredible ways in which the young men of his novels got into trouble.

Bertie receives a reprimand and fine from magistrate Watkyn Basset for pinching a policeman’s helmet in Leicester Square (currently under scaffolding for the 2012 Olympics preparation) on a boat race night in the Code of the Woosters. Egged on by Catsmeat Potter Pirbright, Gussie Fink Nottle wades into Trafalgar Square fountains and is sentenced to fourteen days in jail in The Mating Season. There are numerous occasions when the fiancé is spotted with another girl, peers with chorus girls, sons of earls with seedy professional men in numerous books in lots of lots of nooks and corners around the city. Trains are taken from Paddington, Charing Cross, King’s Cross. The Theatre district is always buzzing with playwrights, actors, conmen, lyricists – all of whom contrive to come together and create one hilarious caper after another.

However, there are occasions when the great humorist tires of the city and moves to the outskirts.
His happiest days were probably passed in Dulwich College, where as a fit, carefree youth, he wrote stories, while playing cricket and golf to his heart’s content. It is not surprising that he sets the beautiful suburb of Valley Fields, a recurring location of some novels, based on Dulwich Village.
He also goes as far as Clapham, where in his early 1909 novel Mike, Psmith and Mike Jackson are invited to the Clapham Common home of the left-winger Mr. Waller.

However, the crowded cities with the curious and often realistic characters skewed and stretched by the humorist’s type writer, held only a limited appeal for him.  He often wrote of New York too, with the world of musical comedies, dancing girls, struggling writers, actors, the archetypical millionaires and away from home English gentlemen lighting up many a ditty. But, the most heavenly light of language and lyrics shone through when the action shifted to the English countryside. Be it Blandings, Brinkley Manor, Totleigh Towers or standalone castles of solitary novels – Beevor and others – he took us to the original gardens of Eden where man had not yet bitten into the forbidden fruit.

Whenever we close our eyes and reflect about P.G.Wodehouse novels and stories set in the lush green countryside –always in the height of summer unless the plot demanded cabinet ministers to be marooned in swan infested islands during pouring rain –there is one image that lovingly comes to mind. A muddle headed elderly earl pottering about in his garden, dressed in corduroy trousers and patches on his sleeves, arguing about the exact amount of fertiliser needed for his roses with his Scottish gardener. Near at hand is the beloved expanse of the prize winning sow, the star contender for the next year’s title of the Shropshire Fat Pigs contest.  

Lord Emsworth is so well known and adorable it is not difficult to make out his form, leaning over the fence as the train rushes by the English country side.
What tends to be surprising is that the actual Emsworth village is not the setting for Blandings.
As a young man, he was working for the Globe when he met Herbert Westbrook, a schoolmaster in the Emsworth village of Hampshire. On his invitation, he took the train down to Emsworth and liked it. Eventually, he found the place to be ideal for writing and took a job as an assistant master in the Emsworth House School, who would work with the boys at cricket.

In the cricket novel, Mike, the hero is asked which school he has been to. And he answers, “A private school in Hampshire at a place called Emsworth.”
Site of the old school
P.G.Wodehouse lived in Emsworth in long and short periods, in fits and starts, even when he was travelling regularly to the United States. His last visit to the town was probably in 1929. His mind had soaked up the names around Emsworth like a sponge and they delightfully appear all over his works.
Threepwood House
He purchased and lived in the Threepwood House, which still stands in the Record Road. Lord Emsworth’s family name is Threepwood in the Blandings canon. Galahad Threepwood is one of the most resourceful bounders in English Literature. The Emsworth House has been demolished, but the ground still stands. Opposite to the school grounds is a small byway by the name of Beach Road. 

As is so often the case with butlers, there was a good deal of Beach. Julius Caesar, who liked to have men about him who were fat, would have taken to him at once. He was a man who had made two chins grow where only one had been before, and his waistcoat swelled like the sail of a racing yacht.

Emsworth Museum
All around Emsworth are places with so familiar to us who are in love with his canon – Fittleworth, Worplesdon, Clarence Pier, Southbourne, Hayley, Bosham, Chicester, Havant, Wickham, Southwick, Deverill Hall, Arundel,Bognor, Stockheath, Warblington.
There is a quaint museum in the town, with collection of artifacts dealing with the seafaring families of Emsworth. However, there is a delightful little corner dealing with the writer and his connection with the place.

Blandings Castle, as noted earlier, is not located in Emsworth. There have been many conjectures about the actual location of the castle that inspired Blandings.
Map showing places with
 Wodehousean names around Emsworth
In 1987, Norman Murphy in his In Search of Blandings looked at a whole range of criteria based around architecture and landscape features of different castles all over England. His main suggestions were Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire for the castle itself, and Weston Park, Staffordshire for the gardens. The owners of Sudeley, also the resting place of Queen Katherine Parr, have since emphasised the Wodehouse connection.
In 1999, Norman Murphy again suggested Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk, the home of the LeStrange family from 1137 to 1954, where Wodehouse visited in the 1920s, as inspiration for Blandings, its master, and "the real Empress of Blandings".

In 2003, Dr Daryl Lloyd and Dr Ian Greatbatch, two researchers in the Department of Geography and Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London, made use of a Geographic Information System to analyse a set of geographical criteria, such as a viewshed analysis of The Wrekin and drive time from Shrewsbury. Their final conclusion was that Apley Hall in Stockton, Bridgnorth, Shropshire was the best suited location for fulfilling the geographical criteria.

Apley Hall - Blandings?
Whatever the reality, the place of Blandings is in our hearts and souls, for us to revel in ever and ever as he created musical comedies with words that were set in the sprawling fields around the castle.
In Little Nugget, the school depicted is the actual Emsworth House and he describes its setting at the beginning of Chapter 2.

The real Marshmoreton Arms
The slightly peculiar fact is that when he did use the location of Emsworth for a novel, he called it Belpher, the location of A Damsel in Distress. There in the High Street stands The Crown, the unmistakable model for the Marshmoreton Arms in the novel.  It is described in the book as a comfortable, respectable hostelry catering for the village plutocrats.
Belpher (Emsworth) Waterfront
The foreshore harbour that the town ends up in is almost brought to life by the master. Herein I intend to show that not only did his works create music for the soul, there was perhaps a hint of satire of human emotions and social commentary – very, very subtle – which is overlooked because of the overwhelming image of Wodehouse as the writer of comic fiction.

The oyster industry of Emsworth was the envy of every fishing community in England at the end of the 19th century, and overnight it was destroyed by oysters being infected with typhoid and causing illness and death. Here is what Wodehouse wrote in A Damsel in Distress about Belpher.

Belpher, in addition to all the advantages of the usual village, has a quiet charm all its own, due to the fact that it has seen better days. In a sense, it is a ruin, and ruins are always soothing to the bruised soul. Ten years before, Belpher had been a flourishing centre of the South of England oyster trade. It is situated by the shore, where Hayling Island, lying athwart the mouth of the bay, forms the waters into a sort of brackish lagoon, in much the same way as Fire Island shuts off the Great South Bay of Long Island from the waves of the Atlantic. The water of Belpher Creek is shallow even in high tide, and when the tide runs out, it leaves glistening mud flats, which is taste of the oysters to prefer to any other habitation. For years the Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them, chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line of popular homage and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters, and oysters are no exceptions to the rule. There was a typhoid scare – quite in passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy, by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water was still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them. The glory of Belpher is dead; and over its gates Ichabod is written. But, if it has lost in importance, it has gained in charm; and George, for one, had no regrets. To him, in his present state of mental upheaval, Belpher was the ideal spot. 
Wodehouse collection at Emsworth Museum

No comments:

Post a Comment