Monday, February 14, 2011

The Books of my Life II

I wasn’t going to write this, the second of my posts on important books in my life, for a while.  I have a backlog of reviews to write and a rather busy schedule at the moment so getting this one written is a bit of an ask.  Given the date, though, it feels right to do it now.

Back in the mid-1980s, I was a pupil at a small public school in the East of England.  Although the school itself had been founded in the 16th Century, most of the main school buildings had been built in the Victorian period and were pretty fine examples of Victorian Gothic architecture.  The school library was in one of these buildings and was exactly how you would imagine an old library to be.

In the summer, the sun used to shine in through the leaded windows and it always seemed that there were motes of dust dancing in the beams.  A smell of wood polish pervaded the entire room and, if it was a hot day, sleep came very easily to any boy bored with his work.

When I wasn’t in lessons or out on the sports field, I loved spending hours in there, rummaging around in the shelves.  It was full of slightly odd volumes as well as the expected sets of classic authors and academic texts.  There was an excellent collection of early 20th Century drama and a wide range of general fiction, largely ignored by most of the school, which was only interested in books relating to their schoolwork.

Once we were past the first year at school, there was a system by which, depending upon the academic options you chose, you would have a certain number of free periods during the week, known as “spares”.  As I was taking an unusual combination of subjects and had  also taken some exams early, I always managed to end up with more spares than anyone else in my year and, although they were intended for use as time for study, I spent mine reading random books from the library (except when I was sneaking in an extra sleep).

Anyway, one warm day in the summer, I was pottering about amongst the fiction shelves when I saw two shelves filled with books by one author, a writer I had never come across before.  I picked one out at random, thinking that if I liked him, there was plenty of reading material for me to get stuck into.

I started reading this book in my next spare and it was the start of a love affair that has lasted to this day.  I have read most of his 96 books, many of them several times.  They never stale although the world that they depict has long since vanished, if indeed it ever really existed.  They are guaranteed to raise a smile, to cheer up a sad soul and to make the world seem a lighter and better place.

The author?  P.G. Wodehouse.  That first book?  The Code of the Woosters.  A classic instalment in the Jeeves and Wooster canon, The Code of the Woosters sees Jeeves somehow extricate Bertie from being thrown into prison, being beaten to a pulp by Roderick Spode and he has preserved two engagements and ensured that Bertie’s Uncle Tom obtains possession of a prized silver cow creamer from the aforesaid Spode.

I was hooked from page one.  The characters, the stories, the ridiculous scrapes that the younger characters are continually getting into are all captivating but, above all, Wodehouse’s use of language is simply other-worldly.  His turns of phrase are justly legendary.  Just a couple of examples to whet your appetite:

I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

“A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

“As a rule, you see, I'm not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James's letter about Cousin Mabel's peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle ('Please read this carefully and send it on Jane') the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It's one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor - and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that.”

I could – and, given a little encouragement, would – go on all day like this.  Having started with Jeeves and Wooster, I rapidly worked my way through Lord Emsworth, Psmith, Ukridge, Ickenham, the Golf stories, the school stories, Mr Mulliner and his many other works.  It is difficult to pick a favourite but I think now that the Blandings stories have overtaken Jeeves and Wooster in my heart.

Wodehouse self-confessedly was not interested in serious issues or writing deep and meaningful books.  He wanted to entertain and delight and still does so today.  I hope that I am preaching to the choir about him but, if you have not already tried him, please do so I implore you. 

I mentioned above that I felt I had to write this post today.  You see, thirty-six years ago today, roughly a decade before I found him, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse died, aged 93, six weeks after being knighted for his services to literature. Thank you, Sir Pelham, for all the joy you have given me.


R said...

I had no idea that he died on this day!

You are indeed preaching to the choir, in my case. Like you, I discovered Wodehouse during my free periods while browsing in the school library. I ended up spending essentially all my free periods systematically going through every book of his that I could find (though we had a lousy collection and I couldn't find many).

(Also: This might be an odd thing to say, but I like that you've made a post on 14th February that isn't related to Valentine's Day.)

Falaise said...

R - thanks for the comment. I think I was very lucky that some old school librarian at my school had clearly also been a Wodehouse fan!

David said...

Choir here. Message received. Jeeves and Wooster are better than any pharmaceutical product you can find for lifting the mood.

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