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The Friday Fillip: In Praise of Piffle

There are many ways for writing to come to grips with the contingent nature of life. One of the oddest has to be the prose of P. G. Wodehouse, which occupies a niche in the neighbourhood of nonsense, farce, satire, and fairy tales. It is as light as down, utterly lacking in apparent social import, and seemingly artless. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss it for any of these reasons. The writing is the product, in fact, of a brilliant mind and a great deal of careful labour, and it treats the poignant fact that we are all at times hapless, life-tossed bits of fluff.

How cunning of Wodehouse to pick as a milieu that most inconsequential of societies, the 20th century English aristocracy, where the getting and spending that beset the rest of us, the climbing, the comparing, the establishing, are banished from discussion if not from life itself. Freed of the fear of meeting themselves in the plot, readers are able to relax and laugh and, perhaps, bestow affection on the characters and their utterly silly antics. And able, too, to take delight in the language.

If you’ve not encountered Wodehouse before (his name is pronounced wood′-house, by the way), I encourage you to dip into his oeuvre, perhaps starting with one of the celebrated Jeeves and Wooster stories. May I suggest Right Ho, Jeeves? It’s in the public domain now, unlike a lot of his later writings, and available as a Gutenberg book in all of their usual formats, including HTML, ePUB, and Kindle. I’ll give you a sample from the first few pages below, but trying to pick just a portion is not an easy thing, as one segment after another vies for inclusion. This is an exchange between Bertie Wooster and his man, Jeeves.

This Fink-Nottle, you see, was one of those freaks you come across from time to time during life’s journey who can’t stand London. He lived year in and year out, covered with moss, in a remote village down in Lincolnshire, never coming up even for the Eton and Harrow match. And when I asked him once if he didn’t find the time hang a bit heavy on his hands, he said, no, because he had a pond in his garden and studied the habits of newts.

I couldn’t imagine what could have brought the chap up to the great city. I would have been prepared to bet that as long as the supply of newts didn’t give out, nothing could have shifted him from that village of his.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You got the name correctly? Fink-Nottle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, it’s the most extraordinary thing. It must be five years since he was in London. He makes no secret of the fact that the place gives him the pip. Until now, he has always stayed glued to the country, completely surrounded by newts.”

“Sir?”

“Newts, Jeeves. Mr. Fink-Nottle has a strong newt complex. You must have heard of newts. Those little sort of lizard things that charge about in ponds.”

“Oh, yes, sir. The aquatic members of the family Salamandridae which constitute the genus Molge.”

“That’s right. Well, Gussie has always been a slave to them. He used to keep them at school.”

“I believe young gentlemen frequently do, sir.”

“He kept them in his study in a kind of glass-tank arrangement, and pretty niffy the whole thing was, I recall. I suppose one ought to have been able to see what the end would be even then, but you know what boys are. Careless, heedless, busy about our own affairs, we scarcely gave this kink in Gussie’s character a thought. We may have exchanged an occasional remark about it taking all sorts to make a world, but nothing more. You can guess the sequel. The trouble spread,”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Absolutely, Jeeves. The craving grew upon him. The newts got him. Arrived at man’s estate, he retired to the depths of the country and gave his life up to these dumb chums. I suppose he used to tell himself that he could take them or leave them alone, and then found—too late—that he couldn’t.”

“It is often the way, sir.”

One of the significant features of Wodehouse’s writing is is ability to come up with good comic names, as you see from his introduction of Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle. In fact there’s a long list of them on Wikipedia. Just a few from that list: Empress of Blandings (who is Lord Emsworth’s beloved black Berkshire sow), Pongo Twistleton, Honoria Glossop, “Bingo” Little . . .

An interesting sidelight — and Wodehouse’s life is full of such — comes from Wodehouse’s dedication of Right Ho, Jeeves to one Raymond Needham, K.C. Wodehouse spent almost half his life in the U.S., often shuttling back and forth between New York and London. At one point, however, he found the income tax demands from both places too oppressive. Here’s an excerpt from Wodehouse in His Own Words, by Barry Day:

“I’m off tomorrow to Paris … I find that if I stay longer than six months [in England] I am liable to pay income tax on everything I make in America as well as England; in addition to paying American income tax!” (Letter to William Townend —21 February 1921))

Over the years various advisors offered him a number of imaginative suggestions to circumvent this archaic legislation, while remaining within the law. Some worked, some didn’t and all were expensive. In a situation worthy of a Wodehouse plot, several vere taken to court by the revenue authorities as test cases. In the UK Wodehouse prevailed against the Special Commissioners but the US situation turned out to be more complex. However, he managed to win his fair share of the legal arguments and even appeared successfully before the Supreme Court [ed. note: Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Wodehouse 337 U.S. 369] at the end of the 1940s before the Great Tax Saga ended. It was a subject which was to recur both in his fiction and his private correspondence. In his dedication to Right Ho, Jeeves (1935) he originally intended to make a flamboyant dedication to Raymond Needham, KC, the man who had represented him before the Special Commissioners . . .

Who put the tax-gatherers to flight
When they had their feet on my neck
And their hands on my wallet.

. . . but was eventually persuaded that he might further antagonise the Inland Revenue and so restricted himself to a more orthodox line!

[Uncle Tom's] just had a demand from the income tax people for fifty-eight pounds one and threepence, and all he’s been talking about since I got back has been ruin and the sinister trend of socialistic Legislation and what will become of us all. (Right Ho, Jeeves)

Of course, I couldn’t go on about Jeeves and Wooster without referring to the brilliant TV adaptation of the stories in which Hugh Laurie plays Wooster and Stephen Fry is Jeeves. Here’s a full-length video of one of those shows, chosen more or less at random from the selection available on YouTube:

And in case that’s not enough Wodehouse for you, here’s a link to a page on The Toast, where you’re invited to choose your own Wodehouse adventure — in a very modest way.

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