P.g. wodehouse

The country house is dead: that’s why we love it so

The true English disease is Downton Syndrome. Symptoms include a yearning for a past of chivalry, grandeur and unambiguously stratified social order, where Johnny Foreigner had no place unless perhaps as butler in the pantry or mistress in the bedroom. And the focus of the disease is the country house, Britain’s best contribution to the world history of architecture. Except often the architect was Johnny Foreigner. The typologies are well understood: from great halls with their Tudor feasts to Italianate palazzi, with Alexander Pope scribbling in the garden; thence to disturbing Victorian horrors corrupting their inhabitants (q.v. Balmoral), lovable Arts & Crafts by Lutyens and, latterly, the wince-making middle-brow pastiches

Covid, like war, brings less obvious shocks

Domenica Lawson, daughter of Rosa and Dominic, the former editor of this paper, has Down’s syndrome. She is classified as ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ to Covid and has therefore been living with her parents since October. When Rosa was briefly not around to interpret last week, Domenica opened a letter to herself from the NHS: ‘You are considered to be at highest risk of becoming very unwell… you are someone with Down’s syndrome, and so the government now considers you to be in the highest risk category.’ This shocked Domenica. ‘I have spent the last year trying to protect her from the worst of the news and now she is more

Adapting Wodehouse for the radio is a challenge – but the BBC has succeeded brilliantly

Everyone knows a Lord Emsworth. Mine lives south of the river and wears caterpillars in his hair and wine on his shirt and has just occasionally written for this magazine. That doesn’t much narrow it down. When you look at him, you understand a little better why P. G. Wodehouse is topping the lists of authors to read during lockdown. It’s not just that the books are funny. With an Emsworth or a Bertie Wooster you’re guaranteed that idling and dithering will land you somewhere. Even if it is in the soup. Adapted for Radio 4 this fortnight, Leave it to Psmith, the second in Wodehouse’s Blandings series, sees the

Diary – 3 January 2019

You’ll be relieved to learn my penguin is back. ‘How long was it gone?’ you ask. About six months. ‘And sorry, it’s a real penguin?’ Actually, no. Here’s the story: back in 2005, I was staying at the 60 Thompson Street Hotel in Manhattan. On my first afternoon in town I went for a stroll along Bleecker Street and popped into a shop called Leo Design where I spotted and purchased a charming bronze penguin — three inches high, and ounces heavy. Back in my room I placed Mr Penguin among my coins and keys, and thought little of him. The next afternoon, after housekeeping had visited, I spotted Mr

Borislike allusions

In Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Bertie is moved to reward his inestimable valet for solving the unsolvable. Before requesting the sacrifice of the Alpine hat that Bertie had recently been sporting, ‘he coughed that sheep-like cough of his’. And there it was in the Foreign Secretary’s speech last week. EU integration deepened, he said, ‘in spite of sheeplike coughs of protest from the UK’. I enjoyed the social side of squeezing myself into a chair beside my husband for Boris Johnson’s historic peroration, within sight of the strangely scaffolded tower of Big Ben. I waved to Miriam Gross and swapped a cheery word with Lord Trimble in the lift. As for

Do we give a hoot?

‘There is room for a very interesting work,’ Gibbon observed in a footnote, ‘which should lay open the connection between the languages and manners of nations.’ The manners of the peoples of the United Kingdom and of the United States are very different, although not always in the way that received prejudices have it: any English visitor to America must be struck by how much politer most Americans are than the average run of his compatriots. But The American Language, as H.L. Mencken called his great book, has developed in a way that isn’t always dainty. It has a vigor and color of its own, and a rich vocabulary which


Susie Dent has been trying to make us love Americanisms on Radio 4. Now Miss Dent knows far more about language than she has had much chance to express during her 25 years in Dictionary Corner on Countdown. She is quite aware that there is no such thing as an Americanism tout court (or perhaps one should say ‘an Americanism period’). It is true that British speakers of English are annoyed by hearing their compatriots use an American word for something already covered by a perfectly good British word. A Briton would have to be cracked to use hood for bonnet; sidewalk for pavement; mad for angry; diaper for nappy.

British placenames

British placenames are so good you can read the map for entertainment rather than navigation. Hardington Mande-ville, Bradford Peverell, Carlton Scroop — they sound like characters in a novel. In fact, P.G. Wodehouse often raided the atlas when writing: Lord Emsworth is named after a town in Hampshire, while a village in the same county gave Reginald Shipton–Bellinger his surname. There’s plenty of silliness out there — Great Snoring in Norfolk, Matching Tye in Essex, Fryup in Yorkshire. Some good old-fashioned smut, too: Lusty Glaze, Pant, Bell End and a couple of Twatts. Kent boasts a Thong — and it’s only a mile or so from Shorne. But enough of

Long life | 26 May 2016

When your mind suddenly goes wonky, you may be the one person who doesn’t realise that there is something wrong with it. That’s what happened a month ago when I was on a country holiday in Tuscany with my wife. It was lovely weather, and lunch had been laid out of doors. I had cooked a sea bass and was feeling rather pleased with myself. We were both happy, and things could hardly have been better. But everything began to go wrong when my wife decided to ask if I could pass her a knife. A knife? I didn’t know what a knife was. I had never heard of such

Jeeves and the Cap that Fits

The Secret Service said it would investigate Donald J. Trump’s longtime butler over Facebook posts laced with vulgarities and epithets calling for President Obama to be killed. — New York Times, 12 May 2016 I had only just risen from a deep slumber, when in shimmied Jeeves with the cup that cheers. ‘Does the day look fruity, Jeeves?’ I yawned. ‘Indeed, sir,’ he assented, opening the curtains to an expanse of cloudless sky, ‘decidedly clement.’ ‘Perfect conditions for a perusal of the racing form in the long grass, would you say?’ ‘I would, sir. However your aunt has asked me to inform you that she desires you to entertain a

Spectator books of the year: Marcus Berkmann on two perfectly-pitched comedies

Nothing makes me happier than a perfectly pitched comic novel, and this year I chanced upon two. Kate Clanchy’s Meeting the English (Picador, £16.99) introduces a young Scottish Candide into upper-middle-class arty north London, where his goodness and common sense are buffeted by the blinding self-absorption of the other characters. This is social comedy so warming and nutritious, so fresh and elegantly executed, it comes as rather a surprise to learn that this is Clanchy’s first novel. It’s probably not compulsory to live in north London to enjoy it, although I have to admit I have given it as a present to several friends who are inclined to regard Hampstead

‘Clean eating’ is a great word of the year… for 1906

The word of the year, according to Collins, the dictionary people, is binge-watch. It means to watch DVDs consecutively or, more voguishly expressed, a box-set back-to-back. But I was taken by the runner-up, clean eating. This is a trend. There is a magazine called Clean Eating and the definition is not simple. ‘The soul of clean eating is consuming food in its most natural state,’ it says, if that helps. You should avoid artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate, trans fats, some common food dyes and sulphur dioxide (which I admit makes dried apricots taste horrible). There’s plenty more. We have been here before. In Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906), about immigrants,

I think I’ve found the perfect title for my Thatcher biographies

One of the best of P.G. Wodehouse’s works is The Inimitable Jeeves, which I have recently re-read. In order to impress his friend Bingo Little’s rich uncle, Lord Bittlesham, Bertie Wooster has to pretend that he is the romantic novelist Rosie M. Banks, whose writing Bittlesham greatly admires. The trick succeeds. Eventually, when Bingo wishes to marry a waitress without being cut out of his uncle’s money, he begs Bertie to go and plead with Lord Bittlesham on his behalf. He advises him to ‘start off by sending the old boy an autographed copy of your latest effort with a flattering inscription’. ‘What is my latest?’ asks Bertie, who is

Michael Gove’s department should take a few style tips from P.G. Wodehouse

Michael Gove has suggested that civil servants take inspiration from George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, when writing correspondence. The recent invitation to compose a memo generated by either the Department of Education or the Ministry of Justice as it might have been written by a writer you would like to see Whitehall bureaucrats model their writing style on produced a large and lively entry. My head was turned by Josh Ekroy’s Gormenghast-inspired memo about prisons and Carolyn Thomas-Coxhead’s Virginia Woolf briefing on nit-awareness day. But they were outstripped by the winners below,who earn £25 each. Brian Murdoch takes £30. Brian Murdoch/C.S. Lewis From: Under-Secretary Screwtape

Will Self is in no position to criticise George Orwell

In The Mating Season, P.G. Wodehouse – perhaps George Orwell’s only rival as the century’s greatest English writer – puts this piece of advice into Bertie Wooster’s gormless gob: ‘In dishing up this narrative for family consumption, it has been my constant aim throughout to get the right word in the right place and to avoid fobbing the customers off with something weak and inexpressive when they have a right to expect the telling phrase. It means a bit of extra work, but one has one’s code.’ Orwell, I think, would have approved of Bertie’s code. If Will Self – who recently put out an essay describing Orwell as ‘the supreme

The imitable Jeeves

For as long as I can remember — I take neither pleasure nor pride in the admission — I have been one of those people who feels an irresistible curling of the lip at reviews of the ‘I laughed till I cried’ variety. Something about that hackneyed claim, invariably trumpeted in bold letters outside West End theatres, inspires absolute scepticism. No longer. At two memorable moments in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells I did indeed laugh until I cried. To readers unfamiliar with his role as a team captain on Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, the literary quiz which culminates each week with a pastiche of an author’s style, Sebastian

My dear old thing! Forget the nasty bits

There can be a strong strain of self-parody in even the greatest commentators. When Henry Blofeld describes the progress of a pigeon in his inimitably plummy tones, or greets a visiting Ocker to the commentary box with a jovial ‘My dear old thing!’, he is impersonating himself as surely as Rory Bremner has ever done. Just where ‘Blowers’ ends, though, and the man behind the act begins, can be tricky to judge. In Squeezing the Orange he does occasionally show us behind the scenes. He reveals, for instance, the advice which led him to his obsession with describing buses, and cheerily explains how he came by that ‘silly’ catchphrase, ‘My

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson, edited by Harry Mount – review

It’s just a guess, but I suspect that the mere sight of this book would make David Cameron gnash his tiny, perfect dolphin teeth until his gums began to bleed. What on earth can he do about Boris Johnson? What can any of us do? There’s something inexorable — irresistible even — about his progress,  and this slender volume of drolleries represents another small step on the increasingly well-lit path to ultimate power: what may come to be known as the ‘Boris Years,’ or even the ‘Boris Hegemony’. This book thus becomes more than merely amusing and entertaining (it’s both, needless to say); it becomes potentially significant. Future generations may

Eleven Days in August, by Matthew Cobb – review

It is fair to assume that Professor Matthew Cobb has often been asked if he is related to Professor Richard Cobb since he begins the acknowledgements of his new book by announcing that he is not. Richard Cobb wrote books about France — where he was known as l’étonnant Cobb and, according to his obituary in the Independent, ‘once greeted the dawn nude, in the company of a dozen similarly unattired men and women, in the fountains of the Place de la Concorde’ — and he had a son called Matthew; and Matthew Cobb’s father was called Richard, so the question is understandable. It must also be annoying, though, because

In praise of Plum

This blog post is not going to say anything original. You’ll have read it all before. Its sole purpose is to convince you that P.G. Wodehouse is the master so everyone else should give up, particularly the people who’ve tried to adapt Blandings for the telly. Blandings on TV is not all that bad. I’ve laughed at the gentler moments of farce. Some of the dialogue sparkles. The performances are good-ish. The setting has some charm. But I’m inclined to agree with everyone else who has spent brain power on it: the screen can’t do Wodehouse. My father once told me that he kept copies of The Code of the Woosters