The debate about P.G. Wodehouse’s wartime radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany has been raging for more than 60 years. It is re-ignited by Robert McCrum’s admirable new biography of the great writer. Most reviewers have taken the line that ‘Plum’s’ talks were inconsequential. Though sympathetic to his subject, Mr McCrum is a little sterner. ‘His behaviour,’ he writes of Wodehouse, ‘was incredibly stupid, but it was not treacherous.’
What business is it of a media column to re-enter these difficult waters? My excuse is that Wodehouse was almost destroyed by a journalist, and he has over the years been defended and largely rehabilitated by writers who were also journalists. His reputation has been settled by the fourth estate. The man who tried to ruin him was William Connor, ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror, who much later became Wodehouse’s friend. Connor’s main assault came not in the columns of his newspaper but in an address on the BBC which was disowned by the governors, and criticised in 133 out of 166 letters or telephone calls to the Corporation. Connor’s attack was extreme, but it is useless to pretend that Wodehouse’s broadcasts — though largely innocuous and nowhere displaying the slightest pro-Nazi sympathies — did not arouse passions in the breasts of reasonable people. Harold Nicolson, clearly no extremist, wrote in his diary: ‘I do not want to see Wodehouse shot on Tower Hill. But I resent the theory that “poor old Wodehouse is so innocent that he is not responsible”. A man who has shown such ingenuity and resource in evading British and American income tax cannot be classed as impractical.’
The second journalist to be involved in this affair was Malcolm Muggeridge, who was sent as a British officer to interview Wodehouse in Paris after its liberation. Arriving as a sceptic, Muggeridge was soon enchanted, and became a lifelong defender of the writer. Then, in the spring of 1945, George Orwell published his famous essay on Wodehouse. It was a defence with a sting, since Orwell describes Wodehouse as a ‘comedian’ stuck in a pre-1914 public-school time warp, and he certainly does not bestow the accolade of greatness. In March 1946 Orwell was sent to Paris by the Observer, where he met the comic anachronism in person. Wodehouse’s own observations were amusingly sharp. Orwell struck him as ‘one of those warped birds who have never recovered from an unhappy childhood and a miserable school life’.
Orwell’s essay was certainly influential, but the tide was decisively turned by another writer-journalist, Evelyn Waugh. Whereas Orwell had admitted impropriety, but excused it on the grounds that Wodehouse could not be expected to know any better, Waugh’s famous 1961 radio broadcast marking the writer’s 80th birthday did not concede any fault at all. He addressed himself to Wodehouse thus: ‘You tell me that you have met and conceived a great liking for a man who 20 years ago did you so grave an injury [William Connor]. Will you please extend your forgiveness to everyone who ever spoke or thought ill of you?’ Waugh set the tone for many more journalistic knights in shining armour, not least his son Auberon (who opened up a front against Duff Cooper, the government minister who had egged on Connor), my friend and colleague Francis Wheen, and even the esteemed editor of this magazine.
The charge of treachery against Wodehouse is not supported by any facts. Mr McCrum — another journalist, by the way — is adamant that the writer never accepted a single mark from the German authorities, and paid his own way once he was released from prison in Germany. (New readers may not know that he was interned after having been arrested in Le Touquet at the beginning of the war.) As I have said, there was nothing remotely pro-Nazi in any of Wodehouse’s five broadcasts. The worst he can be accused of is a certain insensitivity to the plight of his fellow countrymen, and of being used as a pawn by the German authorities who at that time, in 1941, wanted to convince the Americans (at whom the broadcasts were primarily directed) that Germany was not such a bad place. The most offensive thing Wodehouse said came in a 1941 interview with CBS, in which he wondered aloud ‘whether the kind of people and the kind of England I write about will live after the war — whether England wins or not, I mean’.
As a writer Wodehouse is my great hero. For what it is worth, he was also a better and kinder man than almost any writer I can think of. But his behaviour in Nazi Germany cannot just be written off as clumsy innocence, let alone be wholly excused, as it was by Evelyn Waugh. It was a monumental misjudgment, a serious moral lapse by a highly intelligent man who should have had some awareness of what he was doing. Yet it seems to me that the whole debate is misconceived, though one can understand why it started. We should not judge writers by their common faults. Of course, if P.G. Wodehouse had turned on the gas taps at a concentration camp, it would be difficult to like his books, but he did not. Dickens was beastly to his wife, T.S. Eliot was probably anti-Semitic, Ezra Pound was a fascist, and Kipling in many ways a racist. Evelyn Waugh, according to Auberon, ate the first bananas that his family had clapped eyes on after the end of the war. These writers had human failings, as we all have, but readers judge them by other lights — by their work.
The debate about the rights and wrongs of Wodehouse’s broadcasts has gone on long enough. In a way Robert McCrum makes too much of them, though one can see why he does. He wants to make his judgment. But the real judgment about P.G. Wodehouse — the only one that matters — should be on the books. All the things Evelyn Waugh said in his famous broadcast about their literary virtues are true. Wodehouse has created characters and places and a world that will last as long as Shakespeare’s, and his books will be read while there are still people on this planet who can read. That is all that really counts.
Melvyn Bragg is to some a figure of fun. Perhaps it is his limpet-like loyalty to Tony Blair. Maybe some people are jealous of his great wealth. Very possibly his luxuriant hair, which looks as though it has been lovingly spun by highly skilled Italian weavers, provokes jealousy. Doubtless there are many reasons for resenting him.
But Melvyn — whom I have met only for a few fleeting seconds some years ago — is another of my heroes. This is because of the programme he introduces on Radio Four on Thursday mornings called unpromisingly In Our Time. A new series has just begun, and should not be missed. Melvyn is interested in everything — literature, history, science, mathematics, philosophy — and invites specialists to talk about their subjects. But he is knowledgable enough and confident enough of his own intellect to ask them pertinent questions, and is never overawed by their learning. In the age in which a few people specialise and everyone else dumbs down, Melvyn stands out as an old-fashioned intellectual who wants to understand it all.