‘Turbot, sir,’ said the waiter
- After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse by Richard Usborne
Hutchinson, 201 pp, £15.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 09 174712 0
When Bishop Berkeley wrote his philosophical treatise linking tar-water, that sovereign cure-all, with the sublimest mysteries of the Christian religion, a lay critic said it reminded him of the man who began by talking about Alexander’s battles and ended up by describing an Armenian wheelbarrow. That is how it was in the bar parlour of Wodehouse’s Angler’s Rest: ‘In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving bacon fat.’ There is more than a touch of this creative restlessness in After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse. Readers of this journal may recall a Diary by Richard Usborne (LRB, 4 October 1984) in which a determined investigation into the origins of Wodehouse’s use of ‘exquisite Tanagra figurine’ led to an evocation of the days when cut-price Boeotian coroplasts cluttered the shops of St Tropez. That Diary is reproduced in this devotional work: an assembly of writings and addresses (at home and abroad) on Wodehouse, with the transcript of a seance thrown in. Devotional, did one say? Yes, but witty, sagacious and an example to the dons and soldiers tilling the same vineyard.
Vol. 13 No. 10 · 23 May 1991
In his review of After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse (LRB, 4 April) E.S. Turner quotes Richard Usborne’s words to the effect that Herbert Jenkins told him ‘that Wodehouse had advised them to put me on the job of writing Wodehouse at Work.’ While it is certainly true that P.G.W. agreed to the invitation, the fact of the matter is that the initial suggestion came from me. At the time (mid-1954) I was working as an editorial assistant at Herbert Jenkins and happened to read Usborne’s Clubland Heroes, which I greatly enjoyed. I took the book to Derek Grimsdick, the chairman of the firm, and suggested that Usborne be invited to compile a similar study of Wodehouse’s characters to that of the Buchan, ‘Sapper’ and Dornford Yates characters which he had produced for Clubland Heroes. After reading the book, Grimsdick agreed with my proposal and wrote to P.G.W. outlining the idea and recommending Usborne as the author. As Usborne himself says, Wodehouse was not overwhelmed by the plan but agreed the invitation should be extended, which it duly was by Grimsdick over lunch at Quaglino’s. Certainly, no other author was ever contemplated or invited to produce Wodehouse at Work. It was simply that Usborne seemed to be the best person for the job, and so it proved. Furthermore, it is probably fair to add that, as P.G.W. was still persona non grata in many circles in the mid-Fifties, an invitation to a more established literary figure might well have fallen on stony ground. The terms offered were certainly modest, although princely by Jenkins’s standards, which is why I left the company not long afterwards, unable to live on the salary they were prepared to pay me, or, perhaps, felt that I deserved. This meant, sadly, that I never worked on Usborne’s book.
I do wish to say that having E.S. Turner’s ‘Turbot, sir’ is by itself worth a year’s subscription.