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Bobbles and Plum on the South Bank

Report by Norman Murphy

If you get the Observer newspaper, you will have seen the piece entitled 'Earliest Wodehouse satires discovered' which told the world that Calder's Bookshop at 51 The Cut, Waterloo (which, I suppose, is technically on the South Bank) had a book launch on 25 July of "Bobbles and Plum" edited by Paul Spiring.

In 1903, 1904, 1905 and 1906, Wodehouse and a friend named Bertram Fletcher Robinson wrote four humorous playlets on events of the day. These were published in the Daily Express, Vanity Fair and The World magazine. The playlets dealt with such topics as Joseph Chamberlain and his Tariff Reform that split the country; Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP; the Suffragettes; Gaiety Girls and the Entente Cordiale. Although the playlets are noted in the McIlvaine bibliography, they are not well known and Paul Spiring decided they deserved a new audience. It was their re-publication under the title "Bobbles and Plum" that we were there to celebrate.

It was a pleasant evening and about 30 people crowded into the bookshop, which doubles up as a miniature theatre. The evening began with Hilary Bruce and myself enjoying drinks and canapés and meeting lots of people, including June Arnold who devises the Wodehouse acrostics for Wooster Sauce. It was a different 'feel' from the normal Wodehouse evening but nonetheless enjoyable for all that, though, since Hilary and I were booked as speakers, we both felt that slight tension which prevents one from accepting any more than two glasses of wine.

The formal proceedings began with Hilary, who wrote the Foreword to "Bobbles and Plum", pointing out how long-lost works by famous writers seem to be fashionable just now. A hitherto unknown Wodehouse short story emerged this year and a lost Graham Greene work is in the news this week. She reminded us how Wodehouse and Robinson were both still making their names when they wrote the playlets but how these early efforts gave clear indications of the wit and skill with words we would come to know so well later. She concluded by making the point that there are two sides to this question of reviving a writer's early work. Sometimes it was not very good and, sometimes, she felt, the writer would rather it was forgotten. In the case of the playlets, however, she had no doubts. She was delighted to see them re-published.

I was on next and told the audience how I had spent years reading everything I could about English social life from 1884-1914 since that was the world in which Wodehouse grew up and the world in which his novels were often set. I then pointed out that each playlet has at least one song – and each is immediately recognisable as a straight imitation of WS Gilbert. Nothing wrong in that; Wodehouse regarded Gilbert as a librettist genius and just about every writer of light verse of the time tried to write in Gilbert's style.

I then turned to Conan Doyle, with whom Robinson will always be associated (he gave Doyle the story of the Hound of the Baskervilles). I told the audience how Wodehouse and Doyle had probably first met in 1903, how they had played for the Authors against the Actors at Lord's and how they used to lunch together at the Constitutional Club (we know it as the Senior Conservative). I concluded by mentioning a few of my discoveries about the sources of some of Wodehouse's characters and places; Stanley Ukridge, the Drones Club and Bertie's Aunt Agatha. And saying that "Bobbles and Plum" had inspired me to look at if Wodehouse ever used Bertram Fletcher Robinson as a source for a character. Well, I won't say I definitely found him but I found someone who fits very well. I won't give the name here but most readers of this website should know my methods by now. Think about it.

Paul Spiring then told us how he was originally a Conan Doyle enthusiast, had read much about him and learned of his friendship with Robinson who, while staying in Cromer, had told Doyle the legend of the savage Dartmoor hound. He told us how he had then looked deeper into Robinson's life and career as a writer and editor and had resolved to bring his name back to the prominence he felt it deserved. He described his delight when he discovered the connection with Wodehouse and their working together, probably from the time Wodehouse wrote the Parrot poems for the Daily Express, where Robinson then worked. He then went on to describe the main topics of the four playlets and concluded by reading one of the songs (for my money, certainly by Wodehouse) where, by the third line, people had recognised the Gilbert source and were quietly humming Sullivan's accompaniment.

A very pleasant evening.

There now follows a review of "Bobbles and Plum" by Norman Murphy

"Bobbles & Plum", edited by Paul Spiring, is published by MX Publishing Ltd. 109 pages, price £9:99.

The core of the book is the re-publication of four playlets written by Wodehouse and Bertram Fletcher Robinson from 1903 to 1906. The book opens with a short eulogy to Robinson on his death in 1907 written by Jessie Pope (whom Wodehouse also knew) followed by a Foreword by Hilary Bruce. There is then a thirteen-page introduction by Norman Murphy and Tony Ring which summarises the careers of the two men, hypothesises on their meeting during the Parrot poem craze and discusses their subsequent collaboration in the playlets and Robinson's commissioning short stories from Wodehouse.

We then get the four playlets which deal with the political and social events of the time that everybody talked about. There was some comment in the Observer on Wodehouse being 'political', but the writer of this article had not realised that, from the time Wodehouse got work on The Globe in 1903, that was his job. He had to turn out a humorous column each day on what was topical and, in the early 1900s, that meant Chamberlain and Tariff Reform, the split among the Conservatives and Liberals over Tariffs and Home Rule for Ireland, Suffragettes, the activities – and expenditure – of the new London County Council, the Entente Cordiale and Gaiety Girls marrying into the aristocracy.

It may seem all very dated today. Of course it is but, if you have read The Parrot and Other Poems, you will already have a feel for the period. In any event, the playlets (49 pages in total) are followed by 36 pages of explanatory notes.

An interesting, enjoyable publication though slightly marred by occasional typos including, I regret to say, 'Woodhouse' for Wodehouse.