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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 102 - A Plum of a masterly comic writer

AT THE end of the Second World War, as a book-loving warrior, I advanced into the public library of Southport - a Lancashire resort where I was billeted - and asked for a PG Wodehouse novel.

The female librarian regarded me as one who, if God had reached down to pull me from the sink of iniquity would not have dragged me further than the depths of degradation. In a voice like the rasp of steel wool, she said: "Wodehouse was a traitor and we do not stock his works."

With the book-issuing bedlam in my sights, I pressed my verbal trigger and let her have a short rat-a-tat. "Wodehouse is no traitor," I blazed as I left her sagging behind her literary ramparts.

My view, formed more with faith than evidence, has been reinforced by innumerable books on Pelham Grenville Wodehouse - "Plum" to his friends - who, while interned by the Germans in a converted lunatic asylum in upper Silesia, made five humorous, non-political radio broadcasts for American readers who had sent him food parcels.

Typical extract: "The only concession I want from Germany is that she gives me a loaf of bread and tells the gentlemen with muskets at the main gate to look the other way. In return, I am prepared to hand over India, an autographed set of my books and to reveal the secret process of cooking sliced potatoes on a radiator ..."

Hardly credible treachery, and not comparable with that of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) or the American poet, Ezra Pound, whose war-time, anti-democratic broadcasts from Italy led to his indictment in America for treason, the trial abandoned because he was adjudged insane.

IN POLITICAL awareness, Plum was probably a verb short of a simple sentence, but he apparently aided the enemy and Britain reacted furiously. I remember the broadcast of Cassandra (William Neil Connor), the Daily Mirror columnist, that compared Britain’s sufferings and bravery with Wodehouse’s comparatively easeful life in Germany; he was released from internment shortly after the broadcasts, but not in a quid pro quo.

It was a poisonous polemic and his character-assassination was continued by other writers and broadcasters, although shops continued to sell Wodehouse books and, while some public libraries banned them, Edinburgh’s, if I recall aright, did not.

It seemed that his well-loved, fairy-tale creation was ingrained deep into Britain’s literary psyche and not all the slings and arrows of outrageous anti-Wodehouse propaganda could change it.

Essentially Edwardian and 1920s Britain in character, it was a page-scape of well-heeled young men, sometimes, in early novels, with monocles and spats, amiable but often "mentally negligible", dotty earls, aunts with carrying voices like "mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps", public schools, steeped in "play the game" ethos, determined young women, one with a laugh "like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge", aristocratic estates, upper-class London clubs and expensive golf ones. The Wodehouse world was, apart from some exceptions, as close to social realism as Earth to the planet Pluto.

THAT was its prime attraction, a construction of hilarious situations and dialogue, neatly-intricate plots, masterly use of English and memorable characters such as Bertie Wooster and Jeeves his manservant who, like the butler in Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, towers in intellect and general ability over his employer.

Working-class characters, often in the comic mould of Dickens’s Sam Weller, appear as well as one with risible Fascist tendencies, called Spode. There is no sex in the revelatory sense - double-beds are only useful if made into apple-pie ones.

Generally, plots are sunny with a breezy facetiousness. Lord Emsworth wins first prize with his pig, the Empress of Blandings, Ukridge, visionary and quasi conman, still seeks his fortune and Jeeves once again rescues Bertie from designing females, predatory aunts, tasteless ties or purple socks.

I welcome a new biography, entitled Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum.

The more books there are about the master, the more people will realise that we had one of the finest humorous writers in the English language who was cleared of treachery, became an American citizen and, in a fitting gesture of British reconciliation, was created KBE in 1975.

Bertie told Jeeves, "You absolutely stand alone", and received the reply, "I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir." Wodehouse did - on both counts.

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