Happy Birthday Plum!!!
The day is just right for a swim through the blighted world of ghastly aunts, under whose gaze sprightly young men wilt and shudder, whilst burdened with affectations of love and equally urgent situations to make or break betrothals and engagements with girls who are dashed pretty and charming, but bring it all down with their talk of God’s daisy chains and laughter that resembles the rumble of trains running into tunnels, landing the poor subject in situations rummy enough to merit stealing helmets while a cop was under them, silver cow-creamers and even pigs from castles’ all in all, to be saved by the unquestionable intelligence of majestic butlers who eat fish, have incredible horse sense and will go to any lengths to avoid seeing their master dressed in checked suits.
Every time I turn a single page of one of P G Wodehouse’s novels, I feel, to use the master’s own words, ‘positively bucked’. Today, on what would have been his 130th birthday, I can’t help but marvel at how he wove the sublime art of humour the way he did. I can perhaps look to the following dialogue between two of the best-known characters he created young Bertram Wooster and his butler Reginald Jeeves.
B: If you ask me Jeeves, art is responsible for most of the trouble in the world.
J: It’s an interesting theory, Sir. Would you care to expatiate upon it?
B: As a matter of fact, no Jeeves. No. The thought just occurs to me, you know, as thoughts do.
I am sold to the belief that Wodehouse lived life on a ‘need-to-write’ basis. He said in an interview once about how it’s the only thing he feels happy doing, ‘I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose. Wodehouse, a master author, playwright and lyricist, churned out over ninety novels, 15 plays and some 250 lyrics for 30 musicals before he passed away at the age of 93 weeks after being knighted by the British Government.
He turned humour into art. It was effortless, pure and totally refreshing. Not for him sultry jokes or dark humour and its moribund ways. The darkest he gets is: There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.
His peerless language was as if a magical piece of music Â rich lyrics, extreme similes hitting high notes of comedy and comic relief that was anything but a relief to a reader convulsing with laughter. In a style that was inimitable, the punchline was as much the author’s as the reader’s. I personally find the following exchange between Bertie and Jeeves irresistible.
B: I’ve never heard of him. Have you heard of him, Jeeves?
J: I am familiar with the name Bassington-Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family ‘ the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent Bassington-Bassingtons.
B: England seems pretty well stocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons.
J: Tolerably so, sir.
B: No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?
I have, for years delighted in his similies and never wished to recover from them. ‘He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.’ Or, ‘She had more curves than a scenic railway’, and, ‘Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It’s best not to stir them.’
This was his world. And it meant the world to him, for it’s the only thing he wrote about. Many authors, reviewers and intellectuals have time and again pointed this out, during his lifetime, and after. He made no apologies for characters that lived in castles, waited upon by butlers, were supported by handsome allowances extended them by ‘a gaggle of aunts’, notably unpleasant fathers-in-law or a dead relative, presided over six-course oeuvres served up by French cooks and their greatest worries were about how to sneak in some ‘spirit’ into a beaker of orange juice in order to ‘buck up’ a mate enough so he’ll propose to a girl he calls ‘lodestar of his life’.
Many have attempted to psychoanalyse the master and his characters too, especially Jeeves, not perfectly ready to accept the humour ‘as it was’, complaining that this world had no reality to it. Not so for the master, though. Touching upon it, Wodehouse explained, ‘I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.’
And, to imagine that he wrote on such side-splitting humour between two of the deadliest wars the world has seen, totally unimpressed with the grim realities surrounding him even while he was interned in France! It turns out that this is how he saw the world.
For, all writers seem to draw from the influences and experiences of their life, unpleasant moments in their past and such Wodehouse, who was sent to boarding school in England, while his parents lived in Hong Kong, spent his childhood waited upon by nannies and visited his aunts during breaks, saw his parents for a total of only six months between the age of three and 15 years, regarded that life rather fondly in an interview. I personally wouldn’t mind feeling a bit envious for being born happy. Another one of his lines come to minds, ‘Flowers are happy things.’
For those who complain his rather simple, one-sided approach to life, I detect an intellectual streak in the ‘non-intellectual’ way he looked at life and work. If his way of humour was about exaggerating the vagaries of life, every book of his is a master-stroke. For all those who question him, following traces of conventional wisdom wrapped up in loads of laughter are unconquerable:
‘Everything in life that’s any fun, as somebody wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal or fattening.’ Or, ‘It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.’ Or even, ‘Providence looks after all the chumps of this world, and personally, I’m all for it.’
Mean intelligence was at work in how Jeeves used the ‘psychology of the individual’ every time his master received deadly blows from rotten fate. Almost as if Shakespeare was at the funnies.
‘I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments.’
‘Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.’
There was crazy lyricism even in the name of his characters, be it Psmith with a P (silent), Orlo Vosper, Lady Constance Keeble, Ukridge, Augustus Fink-bottle (referred to as Gussie spink-bottle by a disapproving aunt), Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright, Pongo Twistleton and the singularly sentimental Madeline Bassett, called The Basset by Bertie.
It’s only just right that the world hasn’t seen another author of such mettle, who could create humour out of practically nothing at all. And then some more,
‘What ho,’ I said
‘What ho!,’ said Motty.
‘What ho! What ho!’
‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’
‘After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.’
Well, Happy Birthday, Plum!