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)

Society Meeting, July 15, 2014

The Great Sermon Handicap at The George

Your correspondent has always prided himself on never being late, but the Society Meeting on Tuesday, 15 July, was one of the rare exceptions. At least I had the best possible excuse – I was on important Wodehouse business elsewhere.

A few days before, an email had arrived out of thin air from an American lady who said she had danced with me at The Wodehouse Society convention at Providence in 2007, and I had mentioned I conducted Wodehouse Walks in London. She would be in London from the 15th to the 17th and would it be at all possible ... ?

So, around 5 pm, I met McKelette Dowers from Florida at Green Park, and off we went. We did Bertie Wooster’s Mayfair, then turned east to look at Gally Threepwood’s/Ukridge’s London, the Criterion, Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Clement’s Inn (PG’s lodgings 1909, hence Psmith & Mike Jackson’s lodgings in Psmith In the City) before arriving slightly late at The George in The Strand.

I was delighted to see there was a good crowd there – not quite as many as usual, but the weather was remarkably warm and the bar did very well that night. Our Chairman was beginning her Parish Notices and had just welcomed Bob Rains from Philadelphia, vice-president of The Wodehouse Society (USA), and his wife, Andrea Jacobsen (the two are known among their American Society compatriots as Oily and Sweetie Carlisle). Hilary went on to announce that this might or might not be our last meeting at The George – not because of our rowdy behaviour, you understand, but The George’s owners intended to renovate the place and our room was to become a restaurant. But she assured us our Committee would work something out.

Hilary told us of the Jeeves & Wooster literary bench now installed near Russell Square (click here for details) and announced that this was the last year the Society would be sponsoring the Berkshire Champion of Champions competition. This was sad news but, since the event was now moving north, it would be impractical to continue. She urged members to attend the last show at Newbury on 21 September this year.

With a reminder of the Society Dinner on 16 October and the announcement that Tony Ring still had one of his books of PG’s poetry for sale (he had begun the evening with six), Hilary introduced Paul Kent.

Paul has the unenviable task of thinking up bright ideas to amuse us, and he hasn’t let us down yet. This time it was a new twist of the Great Sermon Handicap and, just in case there were some present who did not know PG’s short story, Paul summarised the plot for us.

Bertie, staying with friends in the country, finds Bingo Little in residence while cousins Claude and Eustace and a few other young men are staying a nearby vicarage. To break the monotony, they decide to stage a sporting event. The winner is whichever of the clergyman in ten nearby parishes will preach the longest sermon on a given Sunday. It is one of Wodehouse’s best short stories and, of course, Jeeves is the only one to make any money.

The question for those at The George was simply – how long would Paul take to narrate the story to us? And for those who had read the story recently, Paul warned that he would be reading a slightly condensed version and would occasionally pause for dramatic effect. Slips of paper were handed out, people put down their estimates/wild guesses/well-considered judgements and handed them in, after which Paul began his reading.

Although most of us knew the story very well, Paul gave us that something extra that makes all the difference. Making full use of his long experience in radio, including involvement in Wodehouse audio books, he adopted different voices and cadences for the various characters. We had a bewildered but optimistic Bertie, a love-sick Bingo Little, a reedy Claude and Eustace and a respectful and dignified Jeeves. To my mind, the best of all was his rendition of the voice of the elderly Rev. Mr Heppenstall. It had a sonorous, measured dignity that was exactly right. I could almost hear an unspoken closing ‘Amen’. A tour de force which we all admired and enjoyed so much we were sorry when it came to an end.

And then the judges sat down and worked out the placings.

Some had thought the whole thing would be over in as little as under nine minutes. Another punter decided it would take at least half an hour but, surprisingly, four people got to within a minute of the correct time, which was 23 minutes, 9.86 seconds.

My Wodehouse Walk guest from America, McKelette Dowers, came in fourth with 23.47; Patrick Carroll was an excellent third with 23.27.03; and Andrea Jacobson, another American visitor, was the runner-up with 23.27. The outright winner was Nirav Shah with 23 minutes, 5 seconds.

His prize was, of course, a volume of The Great Sermon Handicap, but in 12 different languages. James Heineman, the late American enthusiast, had had the story translated into 57 languages, and this was volume 5 of the series (English, Sanskrit, Armenian, Arabic, Maltese, Ancient Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, Somali, Coptic and Phonetic English). I was asked to write the introduction to one of the volumes and chose this one because I had never forgotten that the Rev. Mr Heppenstall’s sermon on Brotherly Love included a ‘rather exhaustive excursus into the family life of the ancient Assyrians’. And I since the Assyrians spoke Aramaic, this was the one for me.

It was a pleasure to give one of my copies as a prize, and an even greater pleasure occurred a moment later. Paul presented Nirav with his volume and mentioned that he would like to have a copy himself. Our admirable Chairman, Hilary Bruce, is not just a pretty face. She had looked ahead, asked me to bring another copy, and presented it to Paul with our thanks for a splendid evening.

It was a very hot evening, so a final demand for lagers/Cokes/gin and tonics helped to strengthen the feeling of Brotherly Love Mr Heppenstall advocated many years ago.

– Norman Murphy