The following piece appears in the latest edition of Wooster Sauce, the quarterly journal of the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). I wasn’t going to post this because I thought it too specialised, but my friend Ashok Bhatia (who, you might recall, wrote a poem for my grandson, Clarence) encouraged me to have another look at it. So with some suitable tweaking, and a few footnotes, here it is.
In 1934, P.G. Wodehouse had his name attached as editor to a collection of short stories titled A Century of Humour. This tome runs to 1024 pages and as Wodehouse notes in his preface: “It is not, of course, for women and weaklings, who will be unable to lift it . . .” He thought perhaps “a retired circus strong man who has not let his muscles get flabby” would not regret straining a bit: “I think this collection may be considered quite fairly representative.”
Further: “There are things in this book which I have not read since I was at school, but they have lingered with me down the years and when the call came to select up they bobbed. One never quite forgets a story that has made one laugh.”
Plum also never forgot a story that he could, er, adapt for his own use, as he often and freely discussed. He wrote to Bill Townend in 1935, for example: “I have now got a new system for writing short stories. I take a Saturday Evening Post story and say ‘Now, how can I write exactly the same story but entirely different’. . .”
So I was more bemused than startled when, having deployed my handy household crane to shift the volume from bookshelf to bedside, I came across a couple of stories in A Century of Humour that had bits of plotlines in common with later Wodehouse yarns. M’Lud, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present the following exhibits, call them A and B respectively: Spare A Penny by F.E. Baily on P87 and The Refugees by Barry Pain on P449.
Let me begin with Exhibit A. This is a complex tale featuring Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age, more reminiscent of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh than of Wodehouse but the central character, Lady Lisa Heaven, is a kind of elegant Bobbie Wickham. No need to go into the intricacies of the plot but at one point she remarks to another character, a Detective Inspector Snatchley, that he doesn’t seem like a policeman. He wears a Savile Row suit and an Old Hartonian tie, and has “the quiet confidence of one accustomed to mixing in good society”:
Inspector Snatchley produced a gold cigarette case and offered it. ‘You see, Lady Lisa, things have changed in the Force . . . I assure you that today in nine cases out of ten a policeman’s uniform is no bluer than his blood’.
It is later revealed his nickname, carried from school, is Trousers.
Wodehouseans will be right up with me now. For the benefit of “nons”, I am drawing a parallel with the curious case of G. D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, once of Eton and Oxford and now of Steeple Bumpleigh, where he is the resident copper in the novel Joy in the Morning. “Half the men you know go into the police nowadays,” Stilton tells Bertie – and Bertie explains: “This was undoubtedly true. Since they started that College at Hendon, the Force has become congested with one’s old buddies.” Stilton has ambitions of “getting into Scotland Yard and rising to great heights” in his profession.
In October 1932, Wodehouse wrote to Denis Mackail: “Incidentally did you read the story in this month’s Strand by F.E. Baily called Spare a Penny? It gave me a nasty shock, being about twice as good as anything I’ve ever written. I hope he isn’t going to go on in that vein Thank goodness, most of the stuff he writes isn’t funny. But Spare a Penny is great.” [That’s Baily at left.]
Here’s the time line. Plum reads Spare a Penny in 1932; he includes it in A Century of Humour in 1934; he begins writing and almost finishes Joy in the Morning before being interned in 1940; he completes Joy in Germany after being released and has it published in England in 1946. I’m not saying village bluebottle Stilton Cheesewright is thus proven to be in the direct bloodline of Trousers Snatchley of the Yard, but you’d have to concede the circumstantial evidence is strong.
There’s a bit more than a pennyworth in this tale. The lovely Lady Lisa has a father, Lord Tombs, who luxuriates in a beard down to his waist. Alas another visitor to Lady Lisa has a beard reaching almost to his knees. This “human wind-vane” speaks through a “thick natural entanglement” which conceals his mouth. Lord Tombs spots the interloper and his longer beard:
“I consider it damned bad form, and in my own house, too,” Lord Tombs said coldly, and went out again.
This hirsuted huff is more the germ of an idea than anything else, I suppose, but it surely looks like at least a possible inspiration for Buried Treasure, a 1936 Mulliner story that’s collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937). This is the story of Mr Mulliner’s artist nephew, Brancepeth, and his encounter with the phenomenon of duelling moustaches in the rural districts of England:
“Life has not much to offer in the way of excitement to men who are buried in the country all the year round, so for want of anything better to do they grow moustaches at each other,” said Mr Mulliner. “Most of the vintage moustaches nowadays are to be found in Norfolk and Suffolk. I suppose the keen, moist sea air brings them on.”
I go now to Exhibit B, The Refugees by Barry Pain (pictured, right). Plum says in his introduction (or preface, if you prefer) to A Century of Humour: “I have not looked at that since it first appeared in Punch. Circ. 1900 it was . . . but I remembered it without an effort.” It leapt off the page for yours truly because of one thing. A character is telling a story of how he committed a burglary:
In another pocket, I had a small bottle of treacle and a sheet of brown paper . . . I found a likely window, spread the treacle over the brown paper, put that on one pane, and then smashed it with my fist. Of course, as the broken glass stuck to the paper there was no sound.
This brought me back immediately to Joy in the Morning, which I had just re-read. Bertie gets conned into faking a burglary. Boko Fittleworth, a writer of spine-chilling mysteries, wants to know whether he has the treacle and the paper:
The treacle idea was Boko’s . . . According to him, and he is a chap who has studied these things, the knowledgeable burglar’s first act is to equip himself with treacle and brown paper. He glues the latter to the window by means of the former, and then hauls off and busts the glass with a sharp buffet of the fist.”
Bertie is inveigled into repeating the trick in the short story Jeeves Makes an Omelette (1959).
Barry Pain may or may not have been the source of this piece of felonry. It could have been any one of a number of writers from around the turn of the 20th century, including E.W. Hornung who had the gentleman burglar Raffles treacle-up regularly. Wodehouse was a fan of both, and played cricket with Hornung and his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, I can’t even be certain Wodehouse left it until 1940 to go trick or treacling. Given his love of burglarising, it might be elsewhere in the canon and I just can’t find it.
One further thing. Over the years I’ve often wondered just how genuine the treacle-and-brown-paper scenario was. I mean, I know Plum pirated stuff from everywhere but did real burglars ever do it? The answer is emphatically yes.
I turned up from a report (www.oldbaileyonline.org) of the trial on 19 July 1909 of one Curtis, Albert Edward (22, stoker), on a charge of
attempted burglary in the dwelling-house of William Irons, with intent to steal therein; being found by night, having in his possession, without lawful excuse, certain implements of housebreaking – to wit, one glass-cutter, one knife, one sheet of brown paper, and one bottle containing treacle.
Detective Sergeant John Marshall and Detective Joseph Payne both testified that treacle and brown paper were commonly used for deadening the sound of broken glass. Unlike the treacle, however, the two prototype Trousers Snatchleys couldn’t make the charge stick and Bert Curtis was acquitted.
Why treacle? I suppose there must be good technical reasons for preferring this particular icky-sticky goo over similar viscous substances, such as paste, for example. Why brown paper? Why not, say, newspaper? Too thin and absorbent, perhaps?
Wodehouse claimed in an essay included in the Louder and Funnier collection (1932) that his books were popular in American penitentiaries. He had had so many letters from these institutions that he was beginning to think “the American criminal must look on one or more of my works as an essential part of his kit”. He envisioned the crim’s mother putting “Wodehouse novel” in the check list of his equipment for the night’s job, then reminding him: “Remember what your dear father used to say: Tread lightly, read your Wodehouse, and don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
Inexplicably there is no mention of treacle and brown paper. I guess some things just don’t cross the Atlantic well. That is, at least until Joy in the Morning was published in the US in 1949. It might be worthwhile checking the crime stats to see whether there was an upsurge after that date in American burglaries per medium of windows broken in an exotic way.
FOOTNOTES (for non-Wodehouseans)
Wodehousean . . . I notice that most of the followers of P.G. Wodehouse describe themselves with an “i” – as in Wodehousian. So did I, once. But then some little while ago, having taken a long pedantic look at this, I decided that, if you were going to add the suffix “ian”, you would have to do it like this: “Wodehouseian”. Or maybe with a hyphen: “Wodehouse-ian”. Aficionados of James Joyce, for example, don’t do that. They are “Joyceans”. So having spent two years reading Ulysses with the little band of serious thinkers at the Melbourne Savage Club, I am a Wodehousean. And, as James Thurber (another favourite) might have said: “To hell with it.”
Bill Townend . . . Plum’s lifelong old school chum with whom he corresponded regularly.
Lady Lisa Heaven . . . the F.E. Baily story is littered with smart-alec, punny names like this. Detective Inspector “Trousers” Snatchley and Lord Tombs appear in following paragraphs. Wodehouse’s character names, by contrast, are either ordinary (see, e.g. Bobbie Wickham below), satiric plays on oddities among the English upper classes and schoolboyish nicknames (e.g. Boko Fittleworth – given names: George Webster).
Old Hartonian . . . Geddit? No? Oh very well, it’s a combination of Harrow and Eton.
Bobbie Wickham . . . Roberta, as her parents named her, is one of Wodehouse’s favourite female types, a tomboy who uses her physical charms (and, as another writer might have said, her bobbishness) to con dimwitted males into doing her bidding. The one thing she has in common with Baily’s Lady Lisa and her pals is her almost total self-centredness.
Denis Mackail . . . a writer with whom Plum corresponded regularly.
Strand . . . The Strand Magazine published short fiction and general interest articles in Britain between 1891 and 1950. Circulation of almost 500,000 copies a month lasted well into the 1930s. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were first published in The Strand, as were E.W. Hornung’s Raffles yarns. Other prominent contributors included H.G. Wells, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Wallace, Winston Churchill and, of course, P.G. Wodehouse.
Interned . . . Wodehouse was caught by the German invasion of France in 1940 and was sent to prison in Germany, where he made his infamous radio broadcasts. The Germans released internees when they turned 60.
Mulliner . . . Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner (he has no first name) is resident raconteur of the Angler’s Rest, where (lubricated by hot scotch and lemon) he regales his fellow bar flies, through several volumes, with tales of his vast and spreading family.