Elin Woodger Murphy and Sir Edward Cazalet
Society Gathering 15th Feb 2017
Report by Paul Kent
Norman Murphy really was a one-off. Nature broke the mould when he was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and during his tenure as Founding Chairman and later Remembrancer, he indelibly stamped The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) with his own unique impression. Marrying painstaking scholarship to a sense of fun and even the ridiculous, it was never going to be difficult to trawl our memories for anecdotes about this extraordinary man, and a selection was shared at the Society meeting on 15 February which took place at the Savoy Tup.
Wodehouseans turned out in considerable numbers, and the evening was kicked off by Norman’s widow, Elin, who described her “First Murphy Experience” in 1993, when Norman took her and a friend on an all-day walk around London that left their feet aching for weeks afterward. The walk thoroughly covered Norman’s two great passions - Wodehouse and London - and so involved was he in his subject that he neglected to build a lunch break into the proceedings. Elin was also “blown away” by just how much Norman knew about the American Civil War. “Never one to do anything briefly,” he nevertheless “made me laugh something fierce” – and subsequently, over the years, a Special Relationship was forged that eventually led to marriage in 2001, two years after the death of his first wife. Their union was announced officially at The Wodehouse Society’s convention in Philadelphia, where Norman stated that “we are now wife and husband”.
His passion for sharing his knowledge sometimes bordered on obsession: “Boy, did he love to answer questions,” Elin remarked. James Hogg aptly described Norman as “a specialised human Google” who did “the frothier end of popular culture” a great service by focusing his “first-rate brain” on it. James then described how they were both thrown out of the Reading Room of the British Library for exchanging ideas too volubly. Tony and Elaine Ring’s daughter Melanie reportedly commented: “I think I got a complete history of England in half an hour” on their first meeting, to which Norman turned up in a bowler hat, carrying a bunch of carnations in one hand and his trademark tightly-rolled umbrella in the other. Patricia O’Sullivan remembered how on one Society outing, Norman – ever the gentleman – demonstrated the principle behind kissing-gates to half a coachload of lady members.
And then there were The Walks. When he led his perambulations around London’s busy West End, Norman’s enthusiasm was such that everything was conducted at breakneck speed. Robert Bruce recalled his first walk being accompanied by a lot of noise, “not all of it coming from the Chairman”; Norman greatly enjoyed that line when it appeared in Wooster Sauce. Lesley Tapson commented how on an occasion at the National Theatre, when Richard Briers was being interviewed on stage, Norman called out a question from the audience, asking, “Have you any advice on how to speak slowly?” Richard’s response wasn’t recorded, but it clearly made little impression.
Still, Norman did hone his skills at herding things around – and not just his fellow walkers. Hilary Bruce recalled how, at one Royal County of Berkshire show, Norman added yet another string to his bow when he won third place in the novice pig handling event, partnering a sow called Truffle to whom he gave a back-scratch “in just the right spot”. The porker promptly “toppled to the ground in ecstasy and eventually had to be revived by her owner so the next event could begin”.
In addition to sharing knowledge on his own walks, Norman was also intensely interested in - and often very critical of - whatever snippets were available for consumption on other people’s tours. Elaine Ring recalled his being so involved in a “Boston By Night” event during the 1995 convention that she thought Norman was the one leading the tour (the official guide being hardly able to get a word in edgewise). Elin could only recall one occasion – at Fort Erie in Canada – when Norman failed to correct or amend the official guide’s spiel.
Apologies to all those whose memories we haven’t the space to include, but surely the climax of the evening arrived when Edward Cazalet, having challenged “the best shorthand writer in the world to keep pace with Norman’s speech,” presented Elin with an embossed commemorative case containing the fibre-tipped pen and pencil found at Plum’s side when he died. Not a dry eye in the house. To conclude, Hal Cazalet attempted something no one else had dared – a vocal impersonation of Norman that was uncannily accurate – before launching into a wonderful rendition of “My Castle in the Air”.
Perhaps the last words should be left to Norman’s long-standing companion in Wodehouse (they met in 1973), Murray Hedgcock, who commented that he was “much the better person for having known him”; and to Christine Hewitt’s friend Anne, who, on first encountering the great man at a Savage Club meeting, remarked that on his own, Norman was worth the Society’s annual membership fee.
Before we knew it, ninety minutes had flown by. Quite aptly, considering they were passed in the company of Norman Murphy.