This will not break code of the Woosters

WODEHOUSE'S WARTIME broadcasts surface every few years like a horned floating bomb, breaking the millpond surface of his long and glorious career. Without the endlessly reiterated tale of the five talks he recorded for the Nazis in 1941, to be broadcast to America and, later, to Britain, his reputation would be too good to be true: that of an industrious old sweetie with a ceaseless facility for farcical plots and vivid similies, who doted on his public school (Dulwich College), wrote 98 books and 200 songs, amassed a fortune by shrewd fiscal husbandry, was happily married and, in letters, referred to his own daughter as "old boy".

But the broadcasts refuse to go away, and with them the suggestion that this astute creator of a fantasy England was secretly in the pay of the Third Reich; a scenario as likely as Corky Pirbright (heroine of The Mating Season) moonlighting as Mata Hari. Only three years ago, files released from the Public Record Office accused him of being "a man without political sense who lives in a world of his own and is only interested in creating humorous characters and incidents to please himself and his book-buying public".

Wodehouse will, of course, survive this new assault on his bona fides. He is beyond such things. His world of braying aristocrats, florid peers, saurian aunts, drooping flappers and imperturbable butlers may not leave every reader swooning with bliss, but is extremely hard to dislike; and criticism is generally taken as a sure sign that the critic is mad, insensitive, humourless or foreign. When a revisionist biography by Barry Phelps tried to detect undercurrents of angst and heartbreak behind the adventures at Blandings Castle, the critic Philip Norman remarked: "It is like watching someone get the Comic Muse down on asphalt and twist its arm behind its back."

Plum apologists can also point to his depiction, in The Code of the Woosters, of a Mosley-ish fascist called "Roderick Spode", leader of the shadowy "Black Shorts" movement. How, the logic runs, could such a trenchant satirist of dictatorship ever be attracted to totalitarianism?

The man known as "Plum" is the ultimate safe bet in a world where one has learned to express enthusiasm with caution. And that is why, one assumes, Tony Blair not only became an honourary member of the P G Wodehouse Society in 1995, but lent his support to a promotion of the great man's works in May this year.

So did a score of other commentators, some predictable (John Mortimer, Stephen Fry, Keith Waterhouse) some less so (Peter O'Toole, Christopher Hitchens, Cardinal Basil Hume).

Together they sealed Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse's reputation as the best comic novelist of the century - and the author who uncovered the British public's secret love for chap-and-butler stories. Wodehouse didn't set out to be subversive, nor was he temperamentally capable of political radicalism; the indications are that he did most things because he thought they might be rather jolly.

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