Richard Usborne

Champion of P. G. Wodehouse
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The Independent Online

Richard Alexander Usborne, writer and editor: born 16 May 1910; married 1938 Monica MacArthur (died 1986; one son, one daughter); died London 21 March 2006.

With his first book, Clubland Heroes (1953), written in early middle age, the writer Richard Usborne achieved what most social commentators only manage after a lifetime's effort, if then: a work that changed forever a received wisdom - in Usborne's case the critical perception of a literary genre.

The genre was the thriller, bastard child of the detective story and treated with contempt ("thud and blunder stuff") even by genre reviewers. Usborne's approach - influenced to an extent by the pioneering work of the writer E.S. Turner, whose Boys Will Be Boys (1948) looked at the heady world of boys' adventure, sport and school story- papers - was to write about the thriller teasingly and with great affection, pointing up its power not only to entertain but paint a recognisable (even if largely false) picture of contemporary life.

In Clubland Heroes, he pondered his childhood favourites - Richard Hannay, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, Barry Pleydell and Jonah Mansel - along with their creators John Buchan, Sapper (H.C. McNeile) and Dornford Yates (C.W. Mercer). Regretfully, he came to the conclusion (especially in his revised edition of the work, issued over 20 years later in 1974) that, while thrillers certainly reflected society's prevailing manners and mores, they could also feed society's worst prejudices.

He recognised that an incessant diet, in adolescence, of Buchan, Sapper and Yates had certainly conditioned a good deal of his thinking, as well as that of his generation - and by extension later writers to later generations. But there was also the guilty knowledge that much of what these authors stood for, however inappropriate 30 years after the event, yet retained a measure of seductive charm. Ironically, as an officer in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, Usborne was to inhabit for a while the peripheries of the shadowy worlds of espionage and intelligence all three writers celebrated so glamorously - only to discover that reality was a far cry from romantic adventure.

Usborne's secondary love was P.G. Wodehouse, an author he had liked as a boy in much the same way as he'd liked Conan Doyle, A.E.W. Mason or Michael Arlen - without the fervour he reserved for his trio of adventure writers. All that was to change. Wodehouse himself, after reading Clubland Heroes, suggested to his publisher that Usborne might be persuaded to write about him. Wodehouse at Work (1961) - not so much a biography as a celebration of both Wodehouse and his oeuvre and revised as Wodehouse at Work to the End (1977) after its subject's death in 1975 - was the brilliant result.

It was an amused, affectionate and scholarly, yet at the same time utterly approachable book, which, together with the MP Iain Sproat's groundbreaking study of the calamitous period Wodehouse spent interned in Germany during the war, Wodehouse at War (1981), did much to restore Wodehouse's somewhat shabby post-war reputation. Wodehouse at Work to the End, in particular, over the years became a landmark in popular fiction studies.

Richard Usborne was born in India, in the Punjab, in 1910, the son of a member of the Indian Civil Service and thus one of the lower orders of the "caste" he was to write about throughout his long career. His prep school was Summer Fields, his public school Charterhouse, his Oxford college Balliol. Health reasons foiled entry into the ICS so he taught for a while, went into advertising, then bought into a listings magazine, London Week, nearly bringing it to its knees due to an amusing restaurant review he wrote, which the restaurateur found so unfunny he successfully sued.

Usborne went back to advertising, then, on the outbreak of the Second World War, joined the organisation which later became SOE and was sent to the Levant. After the war, Usborne returned to journalism, joining, with Hubert Cole, Robin Jacques as art editor and Macdonald Hastings as editor, The Strand Magazine in its post-war re-flowering. When The Strand finally died in 1951 (Macdonald Hastings wearing a black armband as he saw the final issue to press), Usborne went back to advertising, his "day job" until retirement in 1975.

Meanwhile, he scribbled amusing trifles for Punch, wrote Clubland Heroes and, after Wodehouse at Work, became the supreme Wodehouse exegetist. When the great man died, Usborne was persuaded to edit Sunset at Blandings (1977), though wisely he refused all blandishments to complete the unfinished text. He also put together several thoroughly entertaining compilations, including A Wodehouse Companion (1981), Wodehouse Nuggets (1988) and After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse (1991, a selection of his journalism and more fugitive pieces).

During the 1980s, he adapted a number of Blandings novels for Radio 4 with the late Richard Vernon splendidly cast as the affable and pusillanimous (at any rate when up against sister and/or head gardener) Lord Emsworth.

Jack Adrian