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)

by Robert Bruce

Sweet Home Chicago – A Wodehouse Celebration

Chicago, as Frank Sinatra once sang, is ‘that toddling town’. I had never understood what that meant. But in the Union League Club of Chicago, where the latest, the 17th, Wodehouse Society Convention was being held, the gin and tonics in its Rendezvous bar were of such icy magnificence that the concept of ‘toddling’ did come rather more into focus, if that is the right phrase.

Chicago is a glorious and invigorating city, with light flooding in through its streets from the lake on its eastern flank and stunning architecture stretching skywards along its river and throughout ‘the Loop’ of its centre. And running around this loop is the elevated railway, the El, a subway clanking and groaning above the traffic, the antiquated structure casting shadows, and flakes of rust, onto the people below. There could hardly be a better place to evoke the heyday of the world when PG Wodehouse held sway with his stories in the Saturday Evening Post.

And so it was that around 150 members, old and new, gathered across the end of the week which marked Plum’s 132nd birthday. The theme, with a logo depicting a vast pig floating above the skyscrapered skyline of Chicago was: ‘The Empress Strikes Back’. Some members had wondered whether the Union League Club, though most definitely a club for gentlemen, might be rather too stuffy for the Wodehouse celebrations. After all, engraved in stone above the fireplace in the main dining hall, which itself was only marginally smaller than Victoria station, was: ‘Welcome to Loyal Hearts. We join ourselves to no party which does not carry the flag and keep step to the music of the union.’ That all sounded rather serious. But then we learned that the vast portrait of George Washington standing alongside the backside of his horse, which hung to the right of the doors, had had to be hung in a less prominent place in earlier days because of the enthusiasm of members for throwing darts at the horse’s prominent anatomy. Suddenly we detected kindred spirits. And we gathered again in the bar.

Friday saw much registration of members and much flinging of arms around the necks of long-lost friends. The rummage sale to raise funds got under way. Everything from rare Wodehouse volumes through to pink china pigs stretched the length of the room on trestle tables. A clothing rail of 1920s frocks developed an alarming propensity for collapsing on eager shoppers, who then had to be dug out from underneath the fallen fripperies. A tour of the Club’s art treasures took place, starting with an agreeably large Monet, bought in 1894 for a sensible $500, and wending its way through a collection which currently numbers some 785 pictures.

By the evening members had gathered in force, invested in a few drinks, gorged their way through an extensive and fine buffet offering and settled down content to the evening’s entertainment. This was provided by a well-known and much revered Chicago theatre-group, the City Lit, which, amongst many glorious efforts, is well-known for regular performances of Wodehouse’s stage works. So we all sat and savoured and laughed through zippy readings of ‘The Man Upstairs’ and ‘Ahead of Schedule’. It was a brilliant curtain-raiser to the weekend’s events.

Saturday is traditionally the day of ‘The Riveting Talks’ and a packed house eagerly awaited the first. What other Convention in the world would start the day’s proceedings with a talk ‘On Mumps and Men’ given by a retired anaesthesiologist with specialist interests in drowning and palm trees? The great Chris Dueker stepped up to the plate. He ranged far and wide, observing at one point that ‘like squirrels, mumps is always with us’. He gave a glorious overview of the history of mumps, the world of mumps, the current state of mumps research, and told us sternly that, against the traditional biographical grain, Wodehouse was unlikely to have had mumps twice. He pointed out that mumps, in those days more prevalent in schools, was an example of the secondary value of illness when, as in Mike and Psmith, a school match was called off because of an outbreak of mumps. Mumps might have been feared but it was also cheered at such times. Dueker ranged far and wide. He pointed out that in the case of speculation about Wodehouse and such un-Wodehouse things as libido and impotence we simply didn’t know. Such effects had, in the medical view, been over-emphasised as possible effects. But such things, in the Wodehouse case, should remain private.

Next up was Dan Garrison, veteran Chicago Wodehousean and Professor of Latin and Greek, who appropriately applied ‘the Greek Comedy Formula’ to Wodehouse’s plots. He pointed out that Greek and Latin verse had been a Wodehouse favourite in his Dulwich schooldays and that he had enjoyed the comedies. Charts appeared showing plot structure similarities between Plautus and co., and Wodehouse plots. One chap by the name of Mostellaria was apparently the clear precursor of Uncle Fred. It was learned stuff agreeably explained. And he was followed by Tony Ring, who gave us an enjoyable ramble around the theatrical successes of Wodehouse.

Then came that moment, which occurs at every Wodehouse Convention, when something which sounds wilfully obscure turns out to be both riveting and very funny. Peter Nieuwenhuizen, Chairman of the Dutch PG Wodehouse Society, turned his attention to the exploits of the English polymath and, in this case, soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, on the battlefield of Zutphen, in Holland in 1586. Here, as he lay wounded in the thigh, he spurned the offer of water and handed it to a dying soldier with the words: ‘Thy necessity is yet greater than mine’. This myth of the saving cup of water on the battlefield, argued Nieuwenhuizen, had obviously made a great impression on the young Wodehouse during school history lessons, as it cropped up in no less than 20 of his books, (including Rumoer op Blandings Castle, better known as Heavy Weather, and Met Jeeves door dik en dun, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit). It was one of those talks which starts slowly and then speeds up as the dominos fall ever faster. As a case study in how Wodehouse makes his characters mangle historical references it was a masterpiece. But the end of his talk came with a terrific twist in the tale. The Dutch Wodehouse Society has now unveiled a plaque on the battlefield site honouring the multiple Wodehouse usages of the Sir Philip Sidney myth. Fact and fiction collide on the battlefield. It was a talk which deserved a standing ovation.

He was followed by Nina Botting Herbst who reminisced about the time when she played Bobbie Wickham in the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. She sparkled with anecdotes and revealed that there had been no rehearsals before filming and that several dogs had played Mackintosh. It was a delight.

Lunch then intervened before the traditional ‘Dread Business Meeting’. This included a Treasurer’s Report which consisted of two words shouted from the back of the room: ‘We’re solvent!’ The revamped and relaunched Wodehouse.org website was announced and Karen Shotting was elected as the next Society President and Bob Rains as Deputy. And the meeting also brought the joyous news that the 2015 Convention would be held in Seattle and called ‘Psmith In Pseattle’.

A very short talk by Michael Pointon, who once helped in the efforts to organise a commemorative plaque on Wodehouse’s 1930s London home back in 1988, then followed before the great Norman, (NTP), Murphy took the stage. In ‘Wodehouse and the Girl Friends’ he presented extensive research into the women with whom Plum had been friendly in his bachelor days. And then he talked of the occasion when Wodehouse, happily married to his beloved Ethel, had allegedly had a brief affair with a chorus girl. Ethel had challenged him with an: ‘You’ve been having an affair’, to which Wodehouse had, in Murphy’s words, come up with ‘the worst possible reply’: ‘Who told you?’

Norman then revealed the content of conversations which he had hitherto kept private which suggested that Wodehouse had indeed had an affair. But he concluded these researches with the suggestion that ‘if it was more than just a hug I’d be very surprised’.

After that came an update from Ian Michaud, deputising for Anita Avery, into the research project referred to as ‘The PG Wodehouse Globe Reclamation Project’. This aims to review the 1,400 columns which appeared in the Globe between 1901 and 1910 at the time when Wodehouse was writing contributions to the column. These are, of course, un-attributed contributions. From Wodehouse’s account books and notebooks it is known which days his stuff was printed. That narrows it down to 178. But the whole lot are being digitised and then examined for traces of the Wodehouse style. A book of collected Wodehouse contributions must eventually follow.

At that point the talks came to an end and people scurried off to prepare for the evening of fancy costumes and banquet. This all started early, with a gallimaufry of costumed characters downing cocktails and finished late with the incomparable Maria Jette singing Wodehouse songs. Effortlessly and brilliantly performed her latest discoveries amongst the Wodehouse songbook will be available soon on CD*. And afterwards there was dancing and then further noisy activity in the bar.

Sunday morning started unreasonably early with the traditional brunch. Entertainment came from Tad Boehmer ably assisting the heavily false-bearded Masha Lebedeva in a reprise of her traditional reading of the Vladimir Brusilov character from ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’. This was then followed by the lovely Nina Botting Herbst reading several chunks of the Wodehouse canon to universal acclaim and rousing cheers. The brunch was then followed by tearful farewells and another Convention came to a close.

But there was, of course, more to come. The following morning saw the Chicago Tribune devote almost all of page two to the convention (click here to view), describing it as ‘a sight to warm a bookish heart’. We exited the city of Chicago, warmed.

* “The Siren’s Song – Wodehouse and Kern on Broadway” by Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard will be available, if not now then soon, from www.mariajette.com