Quotations from P G Wodehouse are copyright of, and reprinted by permission of, the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate © 2019 The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

asks Norman Murphy

Why Can’t All AGMs Be Like This?

November 18 saw the Society’s Annual General Meeting at The Savoy Tup off The Strand. Those of us who followed the prudent practice of arriving early to get a drink in the downstairs bar before proceeding upstairs found there was another organisation occupying our meeting room. This meant we had to shout to make ourselves heard in the overcrowded bar until 6 o’clock, when we all charged upstairs and continued to shout as more and more members joined us. There were, as always, several old friends plus a heartening number of first-timers, including one who had come from the south of France for the occasion.

The volume of noise grew ever louder until Hilary Bruce called us to order and, fully conscious of her responsibilities, conducted the meeting with commendable dispatch. She informed us our membership was about 900 and 90 new members had joined in the last year. Our finances were in sound shape, and she recommended we use Gocardless to pay our subscriptions, which makes our Treasurer’s life much easier. On behalf of the Editor of Wooster Sauce, Hilary told us we needed more people to report events and review books and shows, and she finished with a stirring reminder that Christmas was coming and what better present could there be than a gift subscription to the Society?

Our Treasurer, Jeremy Neville, was happy to tell us that, despite the inevitable increase in printing costs, we were in a very sound financial position. Even better, he was delighted to report that he had found a successor to take over as Treasurer, an announcement that raised another round of applause. The election of officers and committee members followed, after which Hilary closed the official proceedings and gave the floor to Edward Cazalet.

Edward told us that Wodehouse’s beloved Dulwich College was founded in 1619 and was publishing a series of books to mark the Quatercentenary. Appropriately, the first of these was Wodehouse’s School Days by Dr Jan Piggott, lately Head of English and Keeper of the Archives at Dulwich. Edward displayed a copy of the book and recommended it as a superb account of Wodehouse’s time at Dulwich, as well as demonstrating how Wodehouse used the routine of Dulwich in the seven school stories that made his early reputation.

Paul Kent then introduced our speakers for the evening – a double act, no less, of Jonathan Coe, novelist and winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and the writer David Quantick. Jonathan and David were going to discuss humour in the English novel. They started with a bang by reassuring us this was not going to be an esoteric discussion resembling the conference of French academics they had recently attended in which one speaker had given a talk on the subversive sub-text of The Code of the Woosters!

It was a fascinating duologue, with both regretting the death in August of David Nobbs. They gave us an extract from Nobbs’s Second from Last in the Sack Race, in which, as David or Jonathan pointed out, there is subtle humour in the constant repetition of intoning the headmaster’s full name: ‘Mr E. F. Crowther’. They discussed the humour of the surreal and the absurd, as exemplified by Monty Python and the incongruity of John Cleese walking sedately to his office in bowler hat and umbrella, then suddenly breaking into his silly walk. It is the unexpectedness, the contrast with convention that was the hallmark of N. F. Simpson who specialised in such surreal absurdities. And, to make the point, they reminded us of Simpson’s One Way Pendulum, in which a young man teaches a hundred Speak Your Weight machines to sing the Hallelujah Chorus!

It was a splendid and erudite examination of modern humour, and our speakers acknowledged Wodehouse’s super skill with words with two extracts from Leave It to Psmith and ‘The Indian Summer of an Uncle’. They made the important point that some comedy soon becomes dated, but they agreed that Bertie and Jeeves have lasted because Wodehouse’s magic was to create ‘a sealed world’, a world outside our own where different rules and circumstances apply and it becomes the most natural thing in the world for Rupert Baxter to throw flower pots through bedroom windows. It is because of Wodehouse’s skill in creating that world, together with his superb writing, that has caused so many later humourists to admire him.

These sound sentiments brought a round of applause to end a splendid evening.