‘Turbot, sir,’ said the waiter

E.S. Turner

  • 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.

We now learn that Richard Usborne (whom I have known since the days when authors and publishers addressed each other by their surnames) was the Grand Old Man’s own choice as Wodehouse scholar. Back in the Fifties Herbert Jenkins wanted someone to write about the Wodehouse oeuvre. ‘It had not been Wodehouse’s idea that there should be a book assessing his place in English literature, but he had said, in effect: “If you must, try this chap Usborne.” It would have given me confidence, and cost Jenkins nothing, if they had told me that in the first place.’ Wodehouse had liked his Clubland Heroes, but Usborne, then a one-book man, had been left to assume that others had already declined the commission, doubtless because of the measly terms. Which was how he became, in his words, ‘a Wodehouse expert, not to say fanatic, not to say bore ...’

A slice of autobiography figures in the book, the excuse being that the author’s spell as a summer tutor to the aristocracy chimes with the Wodehouse world. In 1930 he was sketching in his room at Balliol when a descendant of the Seneschals of Aquitaine, wearing a bowler hat, knocked on his door and came straight in, saying: ‘Usborne? I’m Lord Hastings, y’know.’ The 21st baron signed him on to tutor his son at Melton Constable Park, a Blandings-style establishment in Norfolk. Here he learned to sit on a chair without his back touching it, was served by white-gloved footmen, and for the first and last time took a lady to dinner in a grand procession (he did not know which arm to take, and still doesn’t). Lord Hastings was strict but fair; he discouraged fooling about at cricket; he stopped tutor and son playing football among his Chinese urns; and he tolerated only Turkish cigarettes. The tutorial den was the Justice Room, where he was given his own small decanter of whisky. From the start his 11-year-old pupil called him Dick. Unlike that unsatisfactory tutor Bingo Little, Dick had no occasion to push the boy into the lake and then rescue him, in order to impress a daughter of the house. His readings in Wodehouse had not prepared him for the business of tipping butler and gamekeeper, always an obstacle on the road to full manhood. Subsequent research has shown him that an ancestor of Lord Hastings married into the Wodehouses, who were once Norfolk squires.

Wodehouse’s love affair with the Church of England has been something of an Usborne obsession. The game was played to strict rules. It was permissible to be funny about Church and churchmen, but not to mock the faith. Clergy could be treed by vicious dogs, bullied by their wives or have their eyes blacked by burglars; surprisingly, they could even black policemen’s eyes and steal their helmets. But if they were allowed to be disorderly, they were not allowed to be drunk and disorderly. Only the bishop’s cat could lap gin. When a clerical headmaster and the Bishop of Stortford painted a statue pink and rioted in a nightclub they did so, not under the influence of alcohol, but because they had imbibed Buck-U-Uppo, a potion formulated by a Mulliner for putting into the bran mash of elephants in India, to give them courage to withstand charging tigers. Bishop Berkeley might have found it difficult to fit Buck-U-Uppo into the Chain of Being which leads to the Final Destination of the Soul, but it served Wodehouse well. The Bible was not wholly out of bounds; Wodehouse’s imagery would have been impoverished without it (a headmaster, for instance, was expected to look like something out of the Book of Revelation). There was nothing wrong in organising a Great Sermon Handicap, or a Choir Boys Handicap, with a pewter mug to be competed for by ‘all whose voices have not broken before the Second Sunday in Epiphany’. A certain amount of low comedy was tolerated within the sacred edifice (‘sacred edifice’ being one of Fowler’s ‘elegant variations’, like ‘succulent bivalve’ for ‘oyster’, and used tongue-in-cheek by Wodehouse as a connoisseur of clichés).

Where did Wodehouse get his ideas about clergymen and their turns of speech? Possibly, we learn, from school holidays spent in vicarages with clerical uncles. This prompts further, possibly irresponsible, speculation. Those clerical uncles would have been old enough to remember an event more far-fetched than a Great Sermon Handicap. In 1874 when the mare Apology won the Thousand Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger it was found that her owner, whose nom de course was Mr Launde, was an elderly Church of England vicar, who received an almighty fizzer from the Bishop of Lincoln for running racehorses instead of preparing souls for eternity. The only point of bringing this up is to ask: would Wodehouse have dared to invent a situation like that?

We do not know how well anchored in reality were those clerical uncles. They might well have obtained their preferments by advertising in the Guardian, a Church newspaper, in terms like ‘desirous of a permanent sole charge, or seaside curacy; strong clear voice; High Church views; unmarried; very musical; some private means’; or they might have answered appeals from rectors for ‘an earnest, active curate, accustomed to cottage visiting, no extreme views’. Not that this was the only medium for seeking Church employment: Exchange and Mart served in its day. Archbishop Temple asked a county magnate how he had obtained such an admirable incumbent for a Yorkshire village and was told: ‘Advertised for him in Horse and Hound – capital fellow.’

Wodehouse’s Sir Watkyn Bassett, another country magnate, is a patron who can ‘spout vicarages like a geyser’. Here young Stiffy Byng pleads to him the cause of her beloved, the curate Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker:

‘You know that vicarage you have in your gift, Uncle Watkyn! What Harold and I were thinking was that you might give him that and then we could get married at once. You see, apart from the increased dough, it would start him off on the road to higher things. Up to now, Harold has been working under wraps. As a curate, he has had no scope. But slip him a vicarage, and watch him let himself out. There is literally no eminence to which the boy will not rise, once he spits on his hands and starts in.’

   Stiffy wiggled from base to apex with girlish enthusiasm.

Although Sir Watkyn resists this appeal, a local squire who is determined to build up his village rugby team snaps up Harold on learning that he was once prop-forward for England. Other benefices in Wodehouse are distributed for less admirable reasons; Lord Emsworth deliberately foists a troublesome vicar on Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, who is suspected of skulduggery over pigs and pumpkins. But at least no whiff of simony hangs over this haphazard dishing out of holy offices.

In the year that Wodehouse was writing Galahad at Blandings a glance at Crockford’s shows that the right to nominate clerics was held by Smith’s Potato Estates and Cornish Manures Ltd (which alternated with a bishop on the basis of Bishop, two turns; Cornish Manures, one turn). At Great Bircham in Norfolk the rule was: HM the Queen and Miss A.C. Henderson alt. Other lay patrons included Sir Osbert Sitwell, Certain Landowners of Colton and two peers who at that time had had eight wives between them. Again, would Wodehouse have dared?

It is good news that the man who solved the Tanagra figurine mystery has tracked down the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Wodehouse introduced this pious bibelot, which attracted such vandalistic passions, in 1912 and used it again in 1914; a notable revival came in 1938 when Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia, seething with high emotion and seeking an outlet, had her attention drawn by Bertie to this terracotta challenge on the mantel, whereupon she ‘thanked him briefly and hurled it against the opposite wall’. Usborne, privileged to visit a secret Wodehouse archive, spotted an original of this artefact: ‘three inches of curly-headed white plaster innocence, in a nightgown, his hands in the Dürer position of prayer, kneeling on a low stool or hassock with ten bare little toes peeping from the drapery behind. Ugh! Wonderfully vulnerable and breakable.’

From time to time the reader is invited to help unravel Wodehouse puzzles still outstanding. ‘Where can, or could, justices of the peace in England repose on a settee in their own homes and sentence a suspected miscreant to a fortnight’s imprisonment without trial, without lawyers, and without argument? Lord Emsworth thinks he can, and clearly he has been a JP for many years and should know the ropes.’ But Lord Emsworth should have known that this was prohibited in 1848 by the Summary Jurisdiction Act (for an account of proprietorial justice see Harry Hopkins’s history of the poaching wars, The Long Affray). Sentence was passed in just such a Justice Room as tutor Dick occupied at Melton Constable. Unfortunately new laws take time to sink in among the nobility and gentry. The purchase of Army commissions was stopped in 1871, but in 1914 Society ladies were still trying to buy them for sons and nephews. Another Usborne question: can any of us point to one single person who, since World War One, has had a gentleman’s gentleman to go with him everywhere, to cook, valet and drive his car and (he might have added) to carve his master’s initials, and those of his loved one, on a tree? Well, Lord Curzon had his tipsy valet Arketal to accompany him to a conference at Lausanne, but that hardly counts. In 1937 a long-drawn-out clamour to scrap the annual tax of 15s on menservants was at last successful, but this is unlikely to have stimulated the hire of Jeeveses (the Times thought the tax was discouraging people from hiring the unemployed as gardeners).

Usborne the indefatigable has resolved to read more of a writer called George Ade, who had a pretty turn of phrase and may have influenced the master. His Knocking the Neighbours (1911) contains the following:

   He had a temperature of 102 and his ears were hanging down. Also, during the period of coma, someone had extracted his eyes and substituted two hot door-knobs.

   He looked deep into her eyes and began to throb like a motor-boat.

May one suggest there is also a case for investigating Thomas Earle Welby (1881-1933), whose single entry in the Oxford Book of Quotations survived the second edition shakeout and is now in the third: ‘ “Turbot, sir,” said the waiter, placing before me two fishbones, two eyeballs and a bit of black macintosh.’

Perhaps there should be a hook called The Rivals of P.G. Wodehouse, to match Sir Hugh Greene’s The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, would Usborne, who long ago wrote a wildly funny piece on French translations of Wodehouse, and who has even dipped into an Esperanto version, care to tackle the possibilities of Jeeves novels in Pitman’s shorthand? The Pitman best-seller was probably the shorthand Bible: anyone who could cope with the ‘begats’ and all those names like Aholibamah and Hazarmaveth deserved his reward hereafter. Incidentally, there used to be a small bust in white Parian marble of Sir Isaac Pitman, costing £2, which could well have expiated frustrations in the same way as the Infant Samuel at Prayer.