Years ago I did some charity gig with Will Self, a sort of Desert Island Books. He had chosen a Raymond Chandler, and I remarked on the similarities between Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse. Both were educated at Dulwich College, both were wonderfully stylish and stylised writers, both were masters of the dazzlingly witty, totally unexpected metaphor.
Will Self favoured me with the de haut en bas curled lip familiar from television. There was no comparison, he said. Wodehouse wrote about a discredited imperialist age; Chandler by contrast tackled the gritty reality of life on the mean streets of LA — or words to that effect.
He was wrong. Chandler’s world, of unfathomable — indeed inconsequential — plots, and gorgeous dames packing heat, was as artificial as Blandings Castle or the Drones Club, Philip Marlowe quite as unreal as Bertie Wooster. Both adored language and loved to make it do tricks, like a performing dog. Wouldn’t Wodehouse have been proud of a gangster who ‘looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake’? Or a woman so beautiful she could make ‘a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’?
Chandler used to slice A4 sheets of paper into four, horizontally, allowing him to type roughly 25 double-spaced words before changing the sheet. If he hadn’t introduced a new character, a plot development or a brilliant turn of phrase, he’d rip it out and start again. Wodehouse is much the same; every sentence has to pay its way. There is no padding. (Incidentally, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA once revealed he was a Wodehouse fan. ‘Not the Paisley balaclava today, I think, Sir — or any day, murmured Jeeves…’)
Wogan on Wodehouse (BBC2, Friday) did not add greatly to our knowledge, even if it was a treat for fans.