PG Wodehouse was captured in France during World War Two and later made broadcasts on Nazi radio, but he was naive, not treacherous, and deserves to be honoured with a plaque near Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, writes Tom Peterkin.
The great English humorist PG Wodehouse is not noted for his sympathetic portrayal of Scottish characters. The Scots in his novels and short-stories tend to be rather one-dimensional, especially when compared with the glorious tapestry of comic figures and garrulous English eccentrics that bring his works to life.
Grumpy gardeners employed by English aristocrats or taciturn golf professionals – usually called Angus McAllister or Sandy McHoots – are the lot of Scots in the Wodehouse canon. The skill of these individuals with a pair of secateurs or a mashie niblick contrasts violently with their vocabulary, which rarely extends beyond the use of the word “mphm”.
Wodehouse, of course, was also responsible for coining an oft-quoted denunciation of the Scottish personality.
“It’s never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine,” is a quotation from the Blandings Castle series, which rejoiced in the adventures of Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth and his prize-winning pig.
Given the author’s fondness for a particular type of Scottish stereotype, it would be easy to imagine that many Scots might be tempted to nurse a grievance against him. Not so. The sheer brilliance of Wodehouse’s wit, the sublime ridiculousness of his plots and his exquisite use of language are usually more than enough to seduce readers north of the border regardless of how they compare to a ray of sunshine.
READ MORE: Book review: PG Wodehouse, a Life in Letters
I witnessed Wodehouse’s ability to cross the Scottish/English divide a couple of years ago when I attended a quintessentially Scottish event – a bagpipe competition in Edinburgh. In addition to a set of pipes, my Kilberry collection of piobaireachd and some spare reeds, I armed myself with copy of Wodehouse’s “Psmith, Journalist”. For the uninitiated, it should be pointed out that piping competitions are not for the faint hearted. Each piobaireachd can last around 15 minutes when tuning time is taken into consideration. When there are upwards of 25 competitors, it can be a bit of a marathon for even the most hardened music lover.
The idea was that dipping into Wodehouse would give me some respite from the piping during the long stretches when I wasn’t competing (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). As I read, I couldn’t help notice that many pipers commented favourably on my choice of reading material – a splendid caper that saw Psmith take charge of the magazine “Cosy Moments”.
One well-known piper waxed lyrical about holidays in Speyside which began with his father – another well-known piper – insisting the family listened to recordings of Jeeves and Wooster stories on the drive north.
This was a piper for whom drones did not necessarily refer to the parts of the bagpipe which produce the sustained chord that is such a distinctive part of Scotland’s national music.
For him, the word could also refer to the “Drones Club”, the London gentlemen’s club that serves as a home from home for Bertie Wooster and the various other “eggs, beans and crumpets” whose entertainment value is only rivalled by their idleness.
Given Wodehouse’s enduring popularity across the English-speaking world (including Scotland), it is, therefore, only right that Westminster Abbey is finally going to recognise him as one of the great writers.
The recently announced memorial, which is likely to be near Poets’ Corner, marks the rehabilitation of the writer, whose hideous naïvety during the Second World War led to an episode far removed from the carefree world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club.
To this day, there are those to whom mention of Wodehouse conjures up vague thoughts of an English Lord Haw Haw thanks to a terrible misjudgment that saw him make a series of broadcasts that were used as Nazi propaganda.
Captured by the Germans while living in France, he agreed to make a series of broadcasts from Berlin over the Nazi radio network.
Wodehouse thought his whimsical musings would reassure his American readers that he was surviving the war, but in Britain they were seen as treacherous. During his lifetime, his reputation never really fully recovered.
After the war, he lived in exile in the United States and he was not knighted until a matter of months before his death aged 93 in 1975.
These days most would agree that the broadcasts were the act of an innocent abroad rather than a deliberate act of treachery. To Wodehouse lovers, the quality of his writing transcends his foolish mistake, while other great writers regard him as a master of his craft.
“Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale,” said Evelyn Waugh. “He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
The latest recognition of his comic genius by the Dean of Westminster is a reminder of the delight in retreating to that idyllic world with its rich young wastrels, resourceful valets, terrifying aunts, eccentric aristrocrats, beguiling chorus girls and even monosyllabic Scots.
Like a healthy slug of Mulliner’s “Buck-U-Uppo” or an anecdote from the Oldest Member, the world of Wodehouse offers an escape from the harsh reality of life. Take it from me, it’s lot more fun than Brexit.