Man and boy, I have been making my living by writing ever since 1945. Somewhere along the way I became obsessed with trying to write everything as clearly as possible, so that everyone could understand what I was trying to say. I think I even remember the occasion when this first became a priority with me: it bore on an instrument called an oscilloscope. I had no idea what an oscilloscope was, and still do not. I had scant regard for science in those days, and I remember making fun around the word, as if diminishing its importance would somehow help in understanding what it was.
Nowadays I can easily discover, with a mere reference to Wikipedia, that it is an instrument on which can be displayed the waveform of the heartbeat, in a now common examination called an ECG, or electrocardiogram exam. I often wondered what ECG meant.
You may well wonder what I am driving at with all this indirection: what I am intending to write about has nothing to do with science, but rather with the difficulty in explaining some things. I have recently been re-reading some books by one of my favourite authors P.G. Wodehouse, and it has always been my experience that explaining the attraction of this particular author’s work is virtually impossible. (I should add here that with 27 books either by him or about him, he far outstrips any other author in my now rather limited library.)
For one thing, he began writing novels in 1902, and was still at it in 1975 when he died at the age of 93, half of a new novel written beside the chair in which he died. It would hardly be exaggerating to say that he wrote the same book over and over, a novel always rooted unashamedly in its own world of unreality. “I believe there are two ways of writing successful novels,” he opined at one stage in his long life. “One is mine, making the thing frankly a fairy story and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life, and not caring a damn.”
His two most famous, and enduring characters are the man about town, Bertie Wooster, and his man-servant Jeeves, a man of incredible talent at dreaming up schemes to extricate the young master from the various terrible scrapes in which he, willy-nilly, always involves himself. According to Bertie, Jeeves is at his most efficient after eating a good meal of fish, which makes his head bulge at the back even more than usual, and virtually guarantees that he will come up with a solution to whatever ludicrous problem confronts Bertie.
Bertie is notable for having an exaggerated regard for his own talents, which usually lands him in such deep trouble that he has no option but to call in Jeeves for a solution. Bertie’s world is also populated with his two aunts, one Aunt Dahlia, the soul of goodness and understanding, while the other, Aunt Agatha, is “the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.”
To many critics, Wodehouse’s style is too flippant to require serious analysis, but there are many others who regard him as a master of the language, and I have always allied myself with them. Although I am far from being a literary critic, nevertheless I regard the opening paragraph of his novel The Mating Season, as a superb example of written English, and one that I cannot imagine anyone else writing:
“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my
bit of time at Deverill Hall, I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha, weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days. I mentioned this to Jeeves and he agreed that the set-up could have been juicier.”
This is such an irresistible mixture of slightly outworn slang and straight-forward English, all bound together with such expressions as “chirpiness, “a fiend in human shape,” to describe a child, and “the set-up could have been juicier”, as to be almost beyond analysis. It perhaps helps to explain how, many years ago, I loaned a copy of a Wodehouse novel, one of my favorites, to a friend of mine whose first language was Polish, but who had a perfect understanding (or so I thought) of English. She simply was aghast that I could have seen anything worthwhile in this ridiculous story about these absurd people. A little lacking in the nuances of the language, I would say.
Wodehouse himself was, as several full-length biographies (the best, I am sure, is Wodehouse by Robert McCrum) have revealed rather an odd character, a man who never lost his interest in the result of the Rugby team of his old school, Dulwich College, but who nevertheless, although always writing about this imaginary strata of English life, the effete aristocracy, lived most of his life abroad. Much of that was more or less forced on him by the extraordinary things he did during the war. His biographer McCrum describes the key event in the opening page of his 542-word biography:
“In the clear blue days of May 1940, a middle-aged Englishman and his wife, living in the French seaside resort of Le Touquet-Paris Plage with their Pekinese and pet parrot, found themselves faced with the threat of the invading Nazi army. Nothing could have prepared them for this moment. They were rich upper-middle-class expatriates accustomed to leisurely breakfasts, walks on the beach, afternoon golf, a preprandial martini or two and evenings with the wireless listening to the BBC, before a good night’s sleep.”
So they just sat there, waited and were eventually captured. In another account I have read of this, they sat and waited because their dog had been ill, and they didn’t want to upset it by forcing it to travel. The Germans soon realized they had in their hands one of the best-known English writers, so they transferred them to a fairly comfortable internment, which after some weeks they suggested might be enlivened if the man would care to write for their radio an account of their confinement, to be broadcast to the United States. Wodehouse, thinking the assignment called for his usual light touch, was happy to agree.
“It is just possible that my listeners may seem to detect in this little talk of mine a slight goofiness….If so the matter, as Bertie Wooster would say, is susceptible of ready explanation. I have just emerged into the outer world after forty-nine weeks of civil internment in a German internment camp…and I have not yet quite recovered that perfect mental balance for which in the past I was so admired by one and all.……There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons, and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal.”
Wodehouse, no doubt, thought he was being amusing. But when once the news reached the popular columnists in London, headed by the famous William Connor, known as Cassandra, on the Daily Mirror, it marked the end of the road for Wodehouse and England. Connor set out to destroy his reputation, and largely succeeded. Oddly enough, later in life, these two men became friends, lost in mutual admiration.
He stopped such an onslaught of vilification as a traitor that he never set foot in England again, retiring to live permanently in the United States after the war. It was not for a good twenty years that Evelyn Waugh came to Wodehouse’s rescue with extravagant praise, and managed to pull his reputation back to the point that he eventually was once again acknowledged to be a master. Just before he died he was elevated by a British honour of a knighthood.
Undaunted, it seemed, after the war he took up the Wooster and Jeeves stories where he had left them off; in fact, if you want my opinion, those that were published immediately after the war--- I have in mind here Joy in the Morning, 1947, and The Mating Season 1949 ---and that apparently were at least started during the war, were even funnier, the prose more inventive than ever before, and the general loopiness of the plots even more bizarre.
Fully engaged in these stories were many of the favourite characters, in addition to the infamous Aunt Agatha, such friends and fellow members of the Drones club, where, as the wine took effect members began to throw pieces of bread at each other, just as a matter of every day behaviour, men such as Stilton Cheesewright, Boko Fittleworth, Catsmeat Potters Pirbright, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, normally a fancier of newts, who raised his eyes just long enough to get engaged to one of the ghastly girls who had previously been engaged to Bertie, Florence Craye, daughter of the well-known loony doctor. Bertie’s relationship with these young women was unique: he regarded himself as a sitting duck for any of them who had the notion to become affianced to him, himself helpless to resist. Wherefrom, only an appeal to the genius of Jeeves with his exceptional brain power could rescue the poor blighter.
“Honoria, you see, is one of those robust dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight, and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to encounter over breakfast. Brainy, moreover.”
No wonder poor Bertie, caught by direct fire from Honoria’s dynamism, saw no object but to surrender unconditionally (except for the reserve brainwork of Jeeves, always a reliable ally).
One of my favourite passages from Wodehouse, illustrating the lunacy of his method, occurred when Bertie greets one of his pals, Motty:
“What ho,” I said.
“What ho!” replied Motty
“What ho!” replied Motty
“What ho! What ho.”
“What ho,” I said, rather clinching the thing.”
The famous actor Hugh Laurie, who, before becoming a fixture on American television as the infamous, addicted Dr House was a comedian who played Bertie in a TV series against Stephen Fry’s Jeeves, gives another example of the Wodehouse eccentricity with language.
Bertie leaving in a huff: “Tinkerty tonk,” I said, and I meant it to sting.” How the devil could any actor do justice to such a line, asked Laurie.
“I’m not absolutely certain of the facts,” says Bertie, elsewhere, “but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow feels braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”
Okay, enough of this. If I haven’t persuaded you yet, I never will. But, as Bertie might have said, “Wot the hell! Wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.”
* * *
“Extinction Rebellion is the last hope for this dying planet. That is why we are involved, because we know that science and facts did not save the Great Barrier Reef, nor the majority of our rivers here in New Zealand. Only a huge number of people willing to hold their governments, corporations and media accountable can create the system change we so desperately need. This is why I am a ‘rebel for life’ and this is what I want Extinction Rebellion to achieve: a new eco-socialist way of life where all people and other species have the same right to live peacefully, to have clean water, land and air, and where the short-term greed of the few does not dictate the survival of all.”
Dr Sea, 43, environmental scientist, Wellington, New Zealand
Dr Sea, 43, environmental scientist, Wellington, New Zealand