Diary

Richard Usborne

I have had, as a holiday task, to cut the sixty-five-thousand-word P.G. Wodehouse novel Quick Service, published in 1940, down to about twenty-five thousand words for a BBC Radio Book at Bedtime. Ten periods of 14 minutes, nine of them to start with a minute or so of re-cap of earlier chapters, and all except the last to end, preferably, at a gasp-moment, to encourage listeners to switch on again tomorrow night. I have done several such jobs for BBC Radio on Wodehouse books. I have not found him easy to abridge. His plots are very tightly-laced and you cut at your peril. A snatch of dialogue or narrative on page 20 may be a plant for a twist in the story on page 220. Wodehouse himself could cut his novels when occasion demanded – i.e. when the payment for a shorter version was big enough. Sometimes top-paying American magazines, such as the Ladies’ Home Journal, would ask for his new novel, to run it as a ‘one-shotter’: sixty-five thousand words cut to twenty-five thousand as a complete story, in one issue, while the novel was fresh in the bookshops in hardback. Wodehouse did the job and he produced a balanced story, fast and funny. I have read more than one of his ‘one-shotters’ and then read the full-length originals. One prefers the full-length, of course. But the potted flower is in all essentials the good Wodehouse floribundus of the garden.

Quick Service is one of the best Wodehouse light novels. Joss Weatherby, the brash, buzzing, bouncy hero (how, in Wodehouse, with that name could he be anything but the hero?), and Sally Fairmile (find me a Sally in all the ninety or more Wodehouse books who is not the heroine, or at least on the side of the angels) are headed for the last-page fade-out towards the altar. It’s painful to cut a word of Joss’s bright, amorous fencing. He’s the sort of Wodehouse hero his elders call ‘a darn sight too fresh’: the sort who, in love at first sight, grabs the heroine to kiss her, and gets his shins kicked. But Sally is soon shocked to find she likes it, engaged though she may have become last night to Lord Holbeton, who has perfect manners, an outsize adam’s apple and a rather good tenor voice in which he sings ‘Trees’. Can we do without Lord Holbeton and thus save ourselves a few thousand words across the board? No, he is twined into the plot in a dozen places. Well, what about Chibnall the butler, engaged to Vera, barmaid at the Rose and Crown? Surely we shall be able to confine Chibnall to his butlerine duties and omit vapid Vera altogether? No, not a chance. If Vera doesn’t report that J.B. Duff’s moustache is false (Chibnall had come into her bar unexpectedly and seen her stroking it and jumped to the wrong, jealous conclusions) – no, the plot is far too intricate for such deep cuts. Well, what about J.B. Duff’s dyspepsia? From long study of Wodehouse I know that a middle-aged unmarried man’s dyspepsia is going to be cured, later if not sooner, by the advice and medicaments of that kindly unattached middle-aged woman: and love will take the place of heartburn in the party of the first part. You’ve got to let Duff keep his dyspepsia.

The breakfasts must stay. It’s mouth-watering to read, and it would be really sad to cut, a Wodehouse country-house English breakfast: ‘silver dishes warmed by little flames, smiling from the sideboard’, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, fish and kedgeree. And, in this case, a large, pristine ham is waiting to be sliced. One of Duff & Trotter’s Paramount hams. (What a challenge to today’s fibrous breakfasts!) Following Wodehouse and, I imagine, paying his estate handsome tribute for the name, there is now a Duff & Trotter, in SW8 and the London telephone book. I understand they cater (food, wine and waiters) for the sort of parties that get a mention from ‘Jennifer’ and the Tatler. ‘Jeeves of Belgravia’ is now an established name for cleaning and valeting services in London. There is a Drones restaurant at 1 Pont Street. And now Punch has started an ‘Oofy Prosser’s City Column’. Who else in the fiction of this century has provided names for such a handful – a catering firm, a valeting service, a restaurant and a City column? What next?

In his courtship of Sally, Joss compares her to an exquisite Tanagra figurine. Much of Wodehouse’s humour is word-play with cliché and jargon: the clash of pulpit prose with racecourse slang, Shakespeare with Music Hall. Wodehouse knew that ‘exquisite Tanagra figurine’ was a cliché, but I bet that he, and Joss and Sally, thought that a Tanagra figurine was exquisite. I know better now. The passage in Quick Service made me realise that I had never to my knowledge seen a Tanagra figurine, nor did I know where Tanagra was – assuming that it was a place, not a sculptor. So I went to the British Museum: up the main stairs and then sharp to the right. A trove of small terracotta figures was dug up by archaeologists in 1873 in a village, Tanagra, in Boeotia, north of Athens. The BM has three showcases for Boeotian terracottas, two of them for items from Tanagra. Dates BC 300-200. The figures are not much disfigured by age, and a number of them retain the colours that were painted on them two thousand or more years ago. Gods, demi-gods, heroes, goddesses, satyrs, animals, small groups. But none at all seemed to me to rate the word ‘exquisite’, which is part of the cliché. In fact, amateur work, I’d say. Some of the figures could have been shaped by children puddling clay, as toys. They are between three inches and 12 inches in height. Not even attractive. If Joss Weather-by had seen the BM’s Tanagra figurines, he wouldn’t have compared his loved one to any of them. Had Sally seen them, she might have gone back to kicking Joss’s shins for his intended compliment.

How, then, had the phrase ‘exquisite Tanagra figurine’ come into the language with sufficient mileage to make it a cliché? I went to the London Library and looked up Tanagra in the Subject Index. I was referred to a pamphlet: a print-off of an address given by Quentin Bell in May 1976 – his fifth Gwilym James Memorial Lecture at the University of Southampton. I recommend the pamphlet, titled ‘A Demotic Art’. It told me, learnedly and amusingly, just what I wanted to know about the ‘coroplasts of Boeotia’. (The nearest my Shorter Oxford Dictionary comes to ‘coroplast’ is ‘coroplasty’, a word used in eye surgery, ‘an operation for forming an artificial pupil’. Professor Bell’s word must come via the ancient Greek for ‘a modeller of small figures’, which I found in my Liddell & Scott lexicon.)

These small terracotta figures have been found, as easy-to-make dolls and grave-offerings, all round the Mediterranean, and some in the Crimea. Christianity diminished the demand for them. It was not till the big find at Tanagra in 1873 that they became fashionable possessions for collectors. Tanagra figurines suddenly became the rage. They were claimed to be ‘the most charming works of Hellenistic civilisation’. Prices soared. ‘Tanagra, once trash, had become Art, or acquired the status of High Art,’ says Professor Bell. By 1877 the Greek Government had to put guards round the Tanagra excavation site. Theft, fraud, forgery and clumsy restoration were rampant. Bodiless heads were stuck onto headless bodies, eyebrows and lips touched up with new paint.

There arose a factory for forgeries at Myrina, second only to Tanagra as a productive dig. The British Consul in Piraeus warned travellers and collectors against the most barefaced local restorers – Xacousti, Lambros and Rousopolis were names to remember, he said. Then the market broke: partly because forgeries had swamped it, but largely because Greek art of the last centuries before Christ was no longer regarded as the all-time absolute of beauty. Professor Bell remembered that in his youth Boeotian coroplasts were being sold, cheap and in quantity, like Christmas-tree decorations, at a little Mediterranean coastal village called St Tropez, which was so far off the map then that he and his friends were able to swim in the sea without costumes.

Professor Bell’s pamphlet answered my question. The phrase ‘exquisite Tanagra figurine’ became current in the short period when fashion dictated that the figurines were exquisite, in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. Then fashion and taste (and prices) turned away from the glory that was Greece, and the bottom fell out of the market for Boeotian coroplasts, whether made two years ago or two millennia. But the cliché lives on.

On the blisteringly hot last Friday of the Wimbledon fortnight (semi-finals of the Men’s Singles on the Centre Court) we were shuffling along in the queue on the road towards the gate. Suddenly the calm was broken by running figures, a man, perhaps a bag-snatcher, pursued by a policeman. The miscreant sprinted across the road and turned in at a gate towards the Golf Club. The young cop in pursuit was going well, and the last I saw of the chase was the cop throwing his helmet into the shrubbery the other side of the fence. I hope that, thus disencumbered, he caught his man.

There was a don at Corpus Christi, Oxford named Grundy, of whom good stories were told, in imitation of his voice and glorifying his exploits. Grundy may well have been a tutor at Corpus to P.G. Wodehouse’s elder brother. Armyne Wodehouse took a Double First (Mods and Greats) at Corpus and won the Newdigate, the University’s annual poetry prize. He also played cricket in the Freshers’ Match, and was a good pianist. He became a Theosophist and for a period was in charge of the young Krishnamurti who, he believed, was the new Messiah. Well, yes, Grundy ... I never met Grundy when I was at Oxford. He may have died before that, leaving a fragrant memory in the Grundy stories. One of them (and I won’t try to cope with the voice effect) was of a Varsity rugger match in which he had performed in the year dot. It went this way. ‘It was the Inter-University Match, and Cambridge that year had a very fast wing-three-quarter, very fast. The score in the last minutes was ten points to us, nine to Cambridge. Then this Cambridge winger broke clean away from a scrimmage, clean away, and raced for our line. Our captain came up to me and said: “Grundy, catch that man.” My word, what a crash we came!’

Policemen’s helmets were trophies in several of the Bertie/Jeeves novels and stories. I fell to wondering, as we shuffled on, what Bertie would have done that afternoon had he been in my place in the queue at Wimbledon. He had a strict code about pinching policemen’s helmets – a game that roused graduate members of the Drones Club to their best efforts in Leicester Square on Boat Race nights. The code of the Woosters was strict and Bertie had been arrested more than once for sticking to it. A policeman’s helmet is only a fair cop and keepsake if it has been removed from the very head of the officer – the forward push followed by the upward lift. Bertie would not have left the queue and gone to the shrubbery to pinch the cop’s lid. Unsporting. I hope the cop, having got his man, retrieved his helmet safely from the shrubbery.

For the Wodehouse archive he is assembling, Edward Cazalet, grandson of the 99-year-old widowed Lady Wodehouse, recently bought, for £175, a short ts. letter from Wodehouse to a Mr Slater, dated 2 July 1953. Mr Slater had asked Wodehouse where Market Blandings was, the station for the Castle, with Jno Robinson’s taxi waiting to rattle you up to the home of the Earls of Emsworth. Wodehouse wrote: ‘I have never revealed the fact before, but Market Blandings is Marlborough. I passed through it years ago on a motoring tour and was much impressed by it. It seemed to me just the town which ought to be two miles away from Blandings Castle.’ This late-revealed statement will put the cat among the pigeons in the tight little world of Wodehouse topographical scholarship. In this context the names of two retired soldiers, Colonel Norman Murphy in Cumbria and Colonel Michael Cobb in Devon, spring to the lips. Marlborough is now on the metaphysical overlay map of Wodehouse’s Merry England. Back to your plotting-boards, colonels!