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)

October 28–30, 2011

A Wodehouse Weekend at Emsworth

On a fine weekend at the end of October 2011, twenty Wodehousians, assorted partners and interested observers assembled at the Brookfield Hotel in Emsworth, on the coast of Hampshire. On the pretext of marking the 130th anniversary of Plum’s birth, they had been lured by promises of erudition, browsing, and sluicing in a comfortable setting, a short stagger out of the centre of the small town where Plum was largely based between the years 1903 and 1914 before leaving for America.

Weary of the cut and thrust of high finance in the post room of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, and having had some success in selling articles and short stories, our hero prudently quit the City before being invited to do so by the authorities, in order to concentrate on his writing. He took up the suggestion of fellow aspiring writer Herbert Westbrook to join him in the small fishing town west of Chichester, where Westbrook was an assistant master at the small prep school Emsworth House. Westbrook (“that Prince of Slackers” according to the dedication in The Gold Bat) was something of a likeable if exasperating rogue and is believed to have been a model for Ukridge.

Plum stayed in a small room above the stable block and wrote. The secluded life, the nearness of the school cricket field and the increasingly steady flow of editors’ cheques suited him, and he shortly took a lease of Threepwood, a fairly recently built 6-bedroomed, detached house in nearby Record Road, which backed on to the playing fields of the school. It will not have escaped the keener intellects that some of these place names have a familiar ring, and there were many more to come…

Tony & Elaine Ring and Norman & Elin Murphy had only just returned from the US Wodehouse Society’s convention in Michigan, but they rose splendidly to the challenge of hosting the affair. To get us in the mood at our Friday evening’s meal, we declaimed selected short quotes or nifties from the canon before sucking anguished pencils over a Wodehouse quiz. It’s all very well trotting out the school where PGW spent his formative years, and, at a pinch, a few of Bertie’s fiancées, but how about listing all his uncles?

Saturday morning kicked off with a scene-setting chat from Norman, who introduced Linda Newell, administrator of the Emsworth Museum and clearly a Plum fan, who spoke of the town’s history.

We trotted off with Norman in some of the Master’s footsteps on the way into town. Emsworth House School is alas no more. Norman saw it being demolished several years ago and relates how he caught a tantalising glimpse of a bedstead in the room above the stables. However, the name lives on as the Emsworth House care home for the elderly. We stood reverently in Record Road and goggled at Threepwood, then on down Havant Road. Like Bertie, Plum had a platoon of aunts, and it’s a fair bet that a random pin stuck in a map of Edwardian England would pierce one of their lairs. So it proved to be the case in Emsworth, and soon Norman was able to wave his brolly at the house Forbury, where his aunt Juliette and uncle Captain Walter Pollexfen Deane dispensed tea to their nephew and saw to it that he observed the social niceties of calling on the local nobs.

We pressed on to the Emsworth Museum above the fire station, a small but comprehensive collection of local interest entirely run by volunteers, and well worth a visit. Opening times at weekends between April and October are on the website (click here).

Linda Newell has written Emsworth’s Plum, a small booklet on PGW and his connections with the town, which is available from the museum. It includes a page of local family, business, and place names which crop up in PGW’s works. There is also a small leaflet illustrating a town walk stressing the Wodehouse theme. Tony spoke of the town in the period when Wodehouse knew it, and we were able to browse in the Wodehouse corner, which includes some of the letters Plum wrote to his housekeeper Lily Barnett, with whom he kept in touch until her death in 1974, sending her cheques for birthdays and Christmas.

We were then let loose to explore the town, which has fortunately not yet succumbed to the bland curse of the chain store. There is a small second-hand bookshop which generally has a few PGWs, but not many on this occasion. Maybe visiting pilgrims should in future make it their business to take in a few of their dispensable duplicates while passing through, to maintain the eternal flame.

After lunch, Linda led a tour of Emsworth, showing us the house of Plum’s housekeeper, Lily, in Westview Terrace on Bridgefoot Path, by the side of the old tidal millpond, and exploring some of the town’s colourful past as a centre of fishing, oysters, shipbuilding and smuggling.

Back at the hotel, tissues were restored with tea while toying with another quiz inviting us to identify actors who had performed PGW works on the stage. Then it was time to prepare for the highlight of the weekend, the Gala Dinner. There had evidently been some publicity going on locally, as our numbers were swelled to around 60, many splendidly arrayed in period evening costume.

To the sound of the Palm Court Trio, we ate an excellent meal, including Lord Emsworth Smokies, Lord Bosham Sorbet , Empress of Blandings roast pork fillet and a Lady Constance Sweet Chocolate Trio. Two tables of our intrepid weekenders are pictured on the left of this page.

Over coffee, the top table gave us a very entertaining dramatised reading of ‘Trouble down at Tudsleigh’. In this searing tale from Young Men in Spats, Freddie Widgeon loves and loses April Carroway after feigning a deep appreciation of the works of Tennyson, provoking the jealous rage of Captain Bradbury of the Indian Army, and fleeing trouserless back to London due to the unprincipled scheming of the adored object’s foul kid sister. Unsurprisingly, Freddie vows never to read Tennyson again.

All during the weekend we had been urged to improve the idle minute by composing Wodehousian limericks and clerihews. Sunday breakfast saw the announcement of the results of the various competitions, including the reading by the blushing authors of their winning morceaux. Some of these will shortly adorn the pages of Wooster Sauce.

After the award of prizes (PGW audiobooks, CDs, and lovely crisp copies from the Everyman series), we thanked our hosts and said our farewells after what all agreed had been a most colossal and successful binge.

– Graham Johnson

Wodehouse lived here ...

... and there’s Norman Murphy, the irreproachable and irrepressible Plum Source, pointing out a blue plaque to prove it.