THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P G Wodehouse, originally published in 1938
Bookcase 2, Shelf 1, Book 27
Ah – this has revealed one of the problems associated with letting Fate choose from your library (ahem, that gives my collection of books a status they really do not deserve, but let’s stick with it). The rolling dice pick something you just don’t fancy reading.
Well, not at that particular time. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wodehouse – but I was feeling in a much more non-fiction frame of mind, and so, and so – this went by the board. And then I did what I promised myself I would do: picked it up and read it anyway. Unfortunately I was drinking tea at the time, and snorting + hot liquids – not a good combination.
After I’d mopped everything down, I settled into Wodehouse’s splendid language and lost myself in the saga – or rather the ‘sinister affair’ – of ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook’.
I make no apologies, by the way, for quoting. I’m with Stephen Fry, who said of Wodehouse ‘I am not alone in believing he has come closer than any writer of English to approaching Shakespeare’s complete mastery and transcendency of language’. All you have to do is tune in, and the next thing you know is that tea is coming down your nose. Inelegant but inevitable.
The cow-creamer – ‘a sort of silver cow with a kind of blotto look on its face’ – is critical. Bertie Wooster is sent on a cow-creamer-related mission by his Aunt Dahlia:
“‘Aunt Dahlia, this is blackmail!’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ she said, and beetled off…”
(who is a wonderful role model, and one I fully intend to emulate when dealing with my own nephew). This unsurprisingly results in the usual confusion, and a chaos which only Jeeves can resolve. Bertie’s aunts are some of Wodehouse’s greatest creations, notably Aunt Agatha ‘who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next the skin’. Fortunately this is Dahlia’s book. Not that it helps.
There’s no point going into minute plot details; like all of P G’s Wooster books, The Code of the Woosters builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and unwonted assumption upon unwonted assumption. Along the way French chefs have to be retained, lobster is consumed in unwise quantities, and an incriminating notebook is lost.
Of course, Jeeves sorts it all out, but only after Bertie has attempted – disastrously – to act as a substitute. But the absolute joy, for me anyway, lies in the characters. It’s packed with wonderful descriptions. Take Madeline Bassett, Gussie’s fiancée: ‘a ghastly girl … I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort’. And there’s Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s ‘fish-faced friend’ and newt-fancier.
However, my personal fave has to be Roderick Spode. The awful Spode is the ‘founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts’. Yes, that is Shorts:
…’By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, of course.’
‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’
‘Footer bags, you mean?’
‘How perfectly foul.’
Bear in mind this was published in 1938 (and Spode has the requisite moustache as well as his black shorts), and then fast-forward to what happened after the War when P G Wodehouse was accused of collaboration. I find it difficult to believe that anyone reading his shredding of 1930s British fascism in this book could have actually believed he deliberately collaborated – been ridiculously naive, yes, but not coldly collaborated. Spode, you see, has a shameful secret which I will not reveal here. Needless to say, it is Jeeves who ferrets it out.
And one final word: I love the covers of these old Penguin Wodehouse editions. The illustrator was Ionicus, aka Joshua Armitage, 1913-1998. When I was little I developed a deep love of the covers of my grandfather’s Dalesman magazine, also by Ionicus. What came first, I wonder, in my affections? Maybe I picked up P G W because of the illustrations on the covers. There are worse reasons…