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)

Report by Mike Swaddling, pictures by Peter Nieuwenhuizen

British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist

It has been said that if Plum had fallen under a bus before 1930 he would only be famous as one of the 20th century’s most accomplished song lyricists, up there with the Gershwins, and Kern, and Porter. On Saturday 28th January the British Library, flushed with pride at having received the Wodehouse archives the previous month, celebrated this lesser-known, and perhaps overshadowed, period of Plum’s life.

Roly Keating, the BL’s Chief Executive, commented on Plum’s lasting “pulling power” when welcoming the audience of around 200, especially as there was a contingent from the Dutch Wodehouse Society. He expressed his gratitude to Sir Edward Cazalet for this gesture to the nation, and said it confirmed PGW’s place in the pantheon of great British literary figures. Given the number of books he wrote and the number of languages they had been translated into, it was unlikely that he would ever be surpassed.

Sir Edward, Plum’s step-grandson, as one of only two people still alive (his sister being the other) who had known Plum and Ethel well in their later years, then gave a summary of his early life followed by an illuminating look behind the public face that they presented. The most striking fact for me was to be reminded how one person’s misfortunes became the good fortune of millions, in that Plum’s father’s financial problems meant that Pelham could not follow his brother Armine to Oxford. Had he done so he might have, though Sir Edward doubted it, become a don. As it was, he had to get a ‘proper’ job with the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, and it was from the disillusionment with that that he launched his literary career.

In any event such as this, or indeed any conversation about Plum, there is always a chance of hearing a quote that you haven’t heard before. Sir Edward provided me with one that I will definitely be mining many times in the future, namely PGW’s advice on choosing a wife. He said that the biggest mistake a lot of men make is not “travelling the full length of the counter” before making their choice!

The event was introduced and chaired by journalist Robert McCrum, author of the definitive Wodehouse biography, and also on the ‘panel’ was Sophie Ratcliffe, whose “Life In Letters” was published in 2011. Sir Edward’s children, Hal and Lara, were also on hand to entertain us with renditions of some of Plum’s most significant show songs, including the very first one he wrote, “Put Me In My Little Cell” from Sergeant Brue, “You Never Knew About Me” from Oh Boy! “The Enchanted Train” from Sitting Pretty, and, of course, the original lyrics for “Bill”, from Oh, Lady! Lady! This was my first time of seeing our man’s musically-gifted descendants.

Between the songs we then had a most entertaining journey through the development of show lyrics in the first two decades of the last century, and what a major role Plum played in the transition from the previous era which had been so dominated by Gilbert & Sullivan – it is well known that he is the only songwriter to have had five shows running on Broadway at the same time. Anecdotes peppered the air, my favourite being PGW’s comment to a friend after watching the coronation in 1953, that it should have been cut by an hour and they had missed a trick by not bringing on the dancing girls!

No Wodehouse event of this ilk is complete without a round of favourite quotes, and although the question seemed to come unprompted from the audience, all those on the stage – Hal, Lara, Sir Edward, Robert, Sophie and Tony Ring – seemed to have a selection written down on cards. Maybe they carry them around in a back pocket permanently in case similar occasions arise.

The afternoon came to a conclusion with Hal and Lara showcasing their talent in fine style with the classic “Anything Goes”, before we all spilled out of the Knowledge Centre Theatre into the BL’s central concourse. We had been amused, entertained and informed in equal measure – the bar for future BL Wodehouse events has been set pretty high.