Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century

10: PG Wodehouse, Comic Writer
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The Independent Culture
FOR SOME of us, the invention of the name Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright might serve as a lifetime's achievement. PG Wodehouse also managed 96 novels, 16 plays, the lyrics for 28 musicals, more than 300 short stories, some humorous verse, and the scenarios of half a dozen films.

It is not Wodehouse's prodigiousness, though, that makes him a hero - although it does earn him the undying admiration of those of us who toil in similar areas - but the extraordinarily high quality of so much of his production line. When Hilaire Belloc, in a radio broadcast in the mid-Thirties, suggested that Wodehouse's writing was among the finest in the English language, eyebrows were raised. Today it is more or less conventional wisdom.

Wodehouse waited a long time for recognition. Maybe he should have written less - or have been less dismissive of his own gifts. "I always wanted to be a writer," Wodehouse writes in his autobiographical work Over Seventy, "I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don't remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)"

He complains in the book that his life has been too much of a breeze to provide much good copy for an autobiography, typically ignoring the shameful hue and cry over his wartime broadcasts, which made him a hate figure in his home country for two decades.

Wodehouse was captured in France by the Germans in 1940, and spent much of the war interned in Berlin. In 1941, he foolishly agreed to make five radio broadcasts to the United States, humorously describing his experiences as a prisoner. The texts of the broadcasts are reprinted in Frances Donaldson's biography of Wodehouse, and show that, far from supporting the Nazis, the author in fact manages subtly to ridicule his captors.

In fact, Wodehouse only made one political statement. "There was nothing wrong with England," he wrote, "that a ton of bricks falling on Spode's head wouldn't cure."

Roderick Spode features in one or two of the Jeeves stories, as the leader of a gang of political extremists, the Black Shorts, who embody all the inherent ridiculousness of the British Fascists. They are damned with faint banter. Spode, for instance, looked as if: "Nature had intended to make a gorilla and had changed its mind at the last minute."

When you start reading Wodehouse - what an enviable position to be in - the similes strike you. "Three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page," according to Evelyn Waugh. Thus, Honoria Glossop, who unaccountably views Bertie Wooster as a matrimonial prospect, is "a robust girl with a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge", and Aunt Agatha conducts a tete-a-tete with her nephew "as if he were somebody half a mile away whom she had observed riding over hounds".

Wodehouse is so rich in figures of speech, you imagine he must have spent hours minting them. But it was the plots over which he laboured. His notes show the work he put in to make sure his stories made complete sense. Characters may have been called Stilton Cheesewright and Chuffy Chufnell, but that didn't mean you could skimp on logic in the plot department.

And how especially heroic that a man of such industry should take the time to comfort the rest of us wasters. Here he is on a problem most of us must have faced: "Reading the Complete Works of William Shakespeare was a thing I had been meaning to do these last 40 years. But you know how it is. Just as you have got Hamlet and Macbeth under your belt and are preparing to read the stuffing out of Henry the Sixth, parts one, two and three, something of Agatha Christie's catches your eye and you weaken."