Cops and robbers, and other hairy tales

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.”

A Century of HumourFurther: “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.

Joy in the MorningWodehouseans 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.

F.E. BailyIn 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.”

Barry PainI 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 ( 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.

The StrandStrand . . . 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.




Snow storm in academia


The Modern Language Association of America, by way of being one of the largest intellectual institutions in the world, is initiating an innovation at its 2019 convention, by way of being one of the biggest bunfights in the world.

Let me present this idea in the MLA’s own words:

Humanities in Five: A Contest

Special Session

Scholars present their research in five minutes using language accessible to the general public. No notes, no podium, a timer, and local journalist judges.

There is so much to savour in this little announcement, especially when juxtaposed with the convention’s Presidential Theme: Textual Transactions. The president herself explains: “Textual transactions are the mutually constitutive engagements of human beings, texts, and contexts. Transactions are more than mere interactions, in which separate entities act on one another without being changed at any essential level. In transactions all elements are part of an organic whole and are transformed by their encounters, the way various organisms in an ecosystem shape and are shaped by one another.

“This theme, then, invites us to move beyond simple dichotomies that can limit the ways we think about texts: those we read and write about, those we teach our students, and those we require our students to write. It presents an opportunity to rethink the theoretical and institutional structures that reinforce divisions between the production and consumption of writing, between learning languages and understanding the cultures in which they are embedded.”

Hmmm. What was that again? Five minutes. Language accessible to the general public. No notes. Judged by journalists.

I can hear the speakers now. Um, er, like, y’know . . . The cat sat on the mat. The mat was on the floor. The floor had nails pointing up. The nails spiked the cat through the mat. The cat screeched and died.

That’s some text. There’s a series of transactions. What more could anyone want? Next please . . .

At this point I guess I should back up a little. What, for heaven’s sake, am I doing messing around with the Modern Language Association? Well, it’s an accident really. After my excursion to The Wodehouse Society convention, I got to wondering just how many similar literary groups exist and whether they have conventions. Oh boy! Curiosity can be dangerous. It killed the cat after all . . . yep, the one that sat on the mat.

I consulted Dr Google – as you do – about single-author fandoms and as expected I was presented with a plethora – e.g. the Jane Austin Society (of course), the Evelyn Waugh Society, the Anthony Powell Society, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, the Thoreau Society, the Don De Lillo Society, the Carson McCullers Society etc etc etc. What I didn’t expect to turn up, though, was the Call for Papers website provided by the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania “as a courtesy to the academic community”. I couldn’t go past it. This carries pure gold.

The site invites institutions planning conferences, conventions, seminars, symposiums and any other kind of talk-fest to post invitations to academics, wherever they might be, to submit papers on particular topics to be aired at the various planned conferences, conventions, seminars and symposiums. This led inevitably and inexorably to the Modern Language Association of America, of which, in my abysmal ignorance and to my eternal shame, I had never heard until the moment when I scrolled down the UP site.

At first I dismissed these many hundreds (maybe thousands, because I looked at only a small sample) of postings as not suiting my intention, which was, for the amusement of myself and my vast worldwide following, to skate lightly over a few author fan sites as a hook to discussing the latest activity of the band of serious thinkers at my club , which is to read, as a group, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. (I’ll have to come back to that some other day – after all there’s plenty of time, 12 volumes of it.) But I couldn’t let things go. Some (most?) of the conference subjects revealed in my quick survey were too tempting to my taste in irony, satire and mockery.

I can’t even list all those that took my eye. But what about this one: The Fates of Frankenstein, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh – a two-day conference about “adaptations and appropriations of Shelley’s novel” [on the occasion of its centenary].

Or how about: Death and Celebrity, University of Portsmouth, the posting for which offers quotes by John Milton (“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil”) and Henry Austin Dobson (‘Fame is a food that dead men eat’) – you know the latter, the 19th century English poet and essayist. Of course.

And: Seagull Books’ call for book chapter proposals on Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism.

Not to mention: The Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on the theme Do You Believe in Magic?: The Narrative Construction of Magical Worlds, Creatures, and Characters – “As is often the case in the examination of the mainstream literary cannon [sic], works incorporating “traditional” magic, Afro-diasporic voodoo and Santeria, and other mystical cosmologies are frequently dismissed as non-literature in an increasingly secular and data-driven world. But by violating the laws of empirical reality, magical narratives challenge the preferred Western emphasis on science to make room for cultural, religious, and social practices inexplicable in scientific terms.”

And then I suppose this had to happen: The Popular Culture Research Group at Liverpool Hope University “is delighted to announce” its eighth annual international conference, Theorising the Popular, which aims, inter alia, “to highlight the intellectual originality, depth and breadth of ‘popular’ disciplines”. Let’s have a conference about conferences.

However, many recent calls for papers were from organisers of proposed sessions at the 2019 Modern Language Association convention. First there was this one: Formal Transactions and the US Empire – “How do transnational and transcultural transactions among literary forms resist the hegemonic, violent and global dominance of the US Empire?” 300-word abstracts and biographies are required by 15 March 2018, so you’d better get cracking.

Down the page a bit (after the Metaphor of the Monster conference) came the one that set me on my course proper: Intertexts of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. “The American Association of Australasian Literary Studies welcomes abstracts for papers that pursue an intertextual approach to any aspect of literature, film, or performance related to Australia or Aotearoa/New Zealand. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to: Indigenous issues, immigration, health and well-being, and Australian identity. Comparative projects with other cultural traditions are also encouraged.” Given I’m fifth-generation (at least) Aussie, I suppose these matters would excite my curiosity. But really it was this that made me click: “Please note that we would like to be included in the MLA theme” . . . and the posting provided a link to the MLA Presidential Theme. I had to know. This is where we came in, folks.

Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association of America boasts more than 24,000 members in 100 countries. According to its website: “In addition to hosting an annual convention and sustaining one of the finest publishing programs in the humanities, the MLA is a leading advocate for the study and teaching of languages and literatures and serves as a clearinghouse for professional resources for teachers and scholars.” The annual convention, the MLA claims, is “the largest scholarly meeting in the humanities” and brings together thousands – more than 10,000 in some years – of professors and pedagogues to discuss new research, participate in workshops and, oh yes, build their professional networks.

MLA Chicago logoMLA-NYC2018-Logo-verticalThe 2019 convention will be held in Chicago from 3 to 6 January (the 2018 event was in a blizzard-bound New York City, which curbed everyone’s enthusiasm not a little, and served as a perfect metaphor). As you know, I was briefly in Chicago last October and I naturally wondered where this huge invasion would be accommodated. I looked and looked on the website but nowhere could I find any mention of a venue. Maybe they wanted to keep it secret, given the rancour in academia over little disputes such as censorship, no-platforming, women’s discontents and slaughter of the innocents. The MLA itself has been hit by mass resignations over its apparent refusal to join the anti-Israel putsch. After all, I thought, they wouldn’t want to risk a repeat showing of the Blues Brothers (or the Democratic Party Convention riot of 1968, or the riots of . . . name a year).

I was wrong, though. The answer is simple – the usual rule kicked in: if you have a choice between a conspiracy and a muck-up, go for the muck-up – the whole damned thing is spread all over town. A writer for the The Chronicle of Higher Education explained in his intro to a recent piece on the decline of the convention’s book exhibition: “The Modern Language Association’s annual convention is not so much a conference as a traveling city. For four days each year, more than 5,000 members of one of academe’s best-known scholarly organizations take over a cluster of hotels to hold the largest conference in the humanities and social sciences. Members don the requisite nametags as they attend panels, convene disciplinary groups and subgroups, interview job candidates, bestow awards, and conduct a sometimes-raucous legislative forum, the MLA Delegates’ Assembly.” This might prompt you to recall the explanation of the difference between a conference and a convention that I offered in a story about hie-ing off to Washington for The Wodehouse Society Convention.

Not for the first time in my occasional collisions with academia, I was struck in all this not so much by the cloud-cuckoo-landness of what the dons and their wannabes think about – it’s only what I expect – but by the sheer desperation of many of the topics and attached notes. These people are actually struggling to find something different to talk about and something interesting and/or provocative to say about whatever it is they devise. I suppose the optimistic point of view is analogous to mining: out of the tonnes of dross emerges often enough metal of real worth. It’s a pain, though.


Prof. Gere

To be utterly fair, and with my tongue nowhere near my cheek, the MLA president, the very distinguished Professor Anne Ruggles Gere, seems to recognise this kind of layman’s frustration. In her President’s Theme letter introducing the 2019 convention, after explaining textual transactions, she writes: “. . . many of us are citizens of a nation that does not always understand or value our work. The theme of textual transactions also invites questions about two ways in which we read our own writing: by focusing on what we have written – testing it against our evolving purpose – and by considering the text from the perspective of potential readers. The latter speaks to considerations of how, and if, we communicate with the public. Keeping that public in mind and recognizing that our work is not always legible to colleagues in our capacious association, this call for proposals also invites attention to the means by which we share our ideas with one another.” She also refers to “the value the MLA places on careful thought and on precise, aesthetically pleasing language”.

Prof. Gere urges convention-goers to pay attention to the Humanities in Five session. I hope there’s a queue of potential lecturers snaking down the street, all eagerly pushing their way into the hall to provide five minutes-worth of “precise, aesthetically pleasing language” that the old hacks like myself who have been recruited to judge them don’t have to translate into English for the hoi-polloi.

The indicated politics and polemics, fairies and monsters don’t give me much confidence, however. One other special session is to be held on the legacy of a trans-sexual luminary and his/her narration of “trans embodiment. Topics may include:  trans monstrosities; autoethnography; transgothic; somatechnics; diffraction; trans science/fiction”. No, it’s a mystery to me too.

Simply from a practical point of view the challenge to de-jargon this kind of stuff in five minutes is immense. The rule of thumb for the length of speeches is 100 words per minute, more or less, so that means the Humanities in Five lecturers, speaking without notes (or, I assume, without PowerPoint presentations) have to confine their thoughts to 500 words. That’s about what you get on an A4 page of single-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman typing.

What I haven’t told you is this: the call for proposals for Humanities in Five presentations seeks abstracts of 300 words. Abstracts!

Now look, I know I shouldn’t mock academic follies. It’s not sporting to bang away at sitting ducks. But really . . . as I always say, if you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss.

Doggerel days

Now where was I?* Oh yes . . . The Wodehouse Society convention in Washington DC, way back in October . . . hmmm. It was a big couple of days and I’ve tried to capture them in verse, given that’s less typing. My excuse for not expanding on the topic in my usual wordy way is that the doggerel ate my homework.

No really, thank you, the applause is too much . . .

PGW logo

The Stepper Goes to Washington†

What ho, old bean, they brayed
as The Stepper hove into view.
G’day, I grinned, undismayed
amid the Plummy crew.

I’m the boy from Oz, how’re’y’all
doin’ here in Washington?
What, what, what, they said ’n’ all,
just to be clear, what again?

Well, I knew I couldn’t keep this up
for a whole weekend so I reverted
to English and they offered the cup
of kindness usual to the converted.

Up on the Hill they’re plotting the last Trump,
down below we’re unravelling the mysteries
of Jeeves and Bertie and things that go bump
in the night of Wooster’s Edwardian histories.

We sing the songs of the Trio of Musical Fame
and shake a dashed efficient ankle
at the Charleston of night-clubbing shame
before hearing some serious rankle.

Riveting talks take us to Blandings Castle,
dramas with the sisters Threepwood
and how the FBI began to wrestle
with Piccadilly Jim the spy – they would!

A prof named Constance, not Gally’s sister,
is bringing her students to Plum
by explaining irony – I say, hey mister,
it’s an irony-free zone, old chum.

There’s solemn talk among the assembled:
what’s the best of Wodehouse, they ask?
Right ho, Jeeves, I say – but, they dissembled,
we plump for Psmith he’s pfit for the ptask.

It seems the Americans prefer Lord Emsworth
and his supreme black pig, the Empress,
to the Drones, their girlfriends of much mirth
and the valet who rules the dress to impress.

Ah Jeeves! His eyebrow would have lifted
that merest fraction at the sight of
the soup and fish with soft shirt fronts,
and ties gents should’ve thought better of.

When we get down to browsing and sluicing,
a famous Washington Post writer
sends me to sleep with a speech loosing
his knowledge all over us, the blighter.

I wake up in time for the closing sketch,
a piece about the American Revolution
featuring Jeeves and Bertie, a wretch
of a wife and husband of Oily pollution.

I knew all the jokes, I’d heard ’em before,
and so had the author, in movies no less,
but I laughed anyway as I left the floor.
That’s Wodehouse, man of infinite jest.

So I got back on the train, headed for New York
to give my regards to Broadway where Kern
and Wodehouse a century ago were all the talk:
six shows up in lights at once – what a turn!

If you’re reading this, it means you actually got to the end of my doggerel in the window, the fun with the waggly tale.

No really, you’re too much . . .

The convention program was probably a bit esoteric for the uninitiated but I think it had two highlights that could have been well appreciated by any blow-in seeking to escape the wail of sirens and the rumble of tourist buses outside the auditorium.

One was the concert by Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard of their P.G. Wodehouse song repertoire. In case you haven’t caught up with this, Plum was a prolific lyricist for the Broadway musical theatre in roughly 1914-35 but he made his name in company with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton as the Trio of Musical Fame up to about 1921. Click on Wodehouse to the Rescue Again in these archives for the full story.

Maria and DanMaria, a highly accomplished operatic soprano, and her accompanist/fellow singer, Dan, are paid-up Wodehouse tragics and their renditions of his songs gave a whole new meaning to lyrics most of which I had only ever read. Maria has done extensive research into the oeuvre, even travelling to the Library of Congress from her home town of Minneapolis to dig out the original manuscripts of the songs and their contexts, the shows for which they were written. Her version of Plum’s most famous song, Bill, from Showboat (although it wasn’t written for that), gives it a playful tone entirely missed by the torchsong reading mouthed by Ava Gardner in the movie. I find descriptions of music and musical performance in words very frustrating, so I won’t go on. I merely recommend that anyone who’s interested in what these songs sound like look up Maria and Dan on YouTube or go to their websites – and

The other possible highlight for the non-Wodehousean – and especially the Australian n-W – was a paper by an eminent academic on how she is using the works of P.G. Wodehouse to explain irony to her students. I remarked to a woman beside me that the rest of the world (actually meaning Oz) regarded America as an irony-free zone. Didn’t register . . . straight through to the keeper.

walkerThe speaker in question was Constance Walker PhD, the Class of 1944 Professor of English and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College. She called her paper Jeeves Among the Hipsters (with a PP presentation of course) and it was a mix of serious exposition and apt humourous references, which I found most interesting. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her in Washington but I wrote to her afterwards. She was very friendly, using part of her e-mail to tell me her son shared my interest in trains, and went on, as requested, to give me a synopsis of the paper.


irony 1irony 2“I talked,” she wrote, “about designing an undergraduate course on British comedy loosely based on Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, and about a syllabus that allows students to appreciate both where Wodehouse fits into the tradition and where his originality lies. For the rest of the talk, I argued that millennial students are actually advantageously poised to be able to appreciate PGW, due to 1) the pervasiveness of irony in contemporary cultural life (this fits well with PGW’s masterful deployment of situational, structural, and dramatic irony); 2) their keen interest in style and presentation of themselves on social media; and 3) the playfulness and inventiveness with language that’s a hallmark of both PGW’s style and modern discourse, with examples drawn from internet memes.”

I don’t mean to be facetious, or in any way mocking. I am after all, like her, not merely a fan but a student of Wodehouse (and others besides) but. . . I’ve remarked on this before: Americans are very serious people and, when they choose to study something, or even be enthusiastic, they do so . . . exhaustively. It’s a mark of Prof. Walker’s experienced teaching method, I suppose, that I don’t remember her paper being as, um, challenging as that. Perhaps that’s why the cryptic notes I took were almost meaningless when I looked at them later.

I think I got it, though. It’s simple enough: she’s using irony to explain irony. Ironic, isn’t it . . . and in America, too.

Bless my soul, as Lord Emsworth would say.


*This is an echo of (later Sir) William Connor, P.G. Wodehouse’s arch wartime denunciator. Connor, a journalist who wrote under the name, Cassandra, began his first column in the Daily Mirror after WWII with the words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted . . .”

†More echos. The convention convenors adapted the name of the Jimmy Stewart movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (roughly the story of a naïve bumpkin abroad in the cynical world of politics). Yours truly has taken the persona of The Old Stepper from the Wodehouse story Ukridge and the Old Stepper, for The Wodehouse Society’s e-mail forum. The yarn plays on the old poverty-stricken English fantasy of the rich uncle turning up from Australia and solving all their problems.

Nothing gold can stay

It’s been a while . . . what with one thing and another . . .

My mother died on 2 January, aged 91. The following is what I said at her funeral, and is published with the blessing of my father, who is 93. Just to make it clear, the geographic progression is from Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, to Maryborough, Queensland, via the bush, then Ipswich, Brisbane again and, finally, to my parents’ retirement home on Bribie Island, in the same region of south-east Queensland.

pink shirt 2Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
       –Robert Frost (1874-1963)


For most of the past 69 years, Esme Annie Bushnell was simply “mum” to me . . . then to my brothers and sisters, as she brought them into the world behind me – Dianne, Clark, Robyn, Ian, Alison and Elaine. To the 18 grandchildren she was “grandma”. And eventually to the great grandchildren I’ve no doubt that, if they had gotten to know her, she would have been, inevitably, “great grandma”. In fact, grand-daughter Dorothy, who’s 5½, was talking about “great grandma” and “great grandpa” just the other day. There are six “greats” at present and mum received the news just before she died that another was on the way. It gave her great joy in her last days.

For dad, I never heard him call mum anything but “Es” or occasionally “love”. What endearments they might have used out of earshot of us kids will remain a matter for dad and his memories. But somehow I reckon it would have been plain speaking, nothing elaborate . . . for that has always been their way. Straightforward . . . clear.

And so today this little farewell will be about just plain “mum” . . .

Mum was born to Emily and Harry Hambrecht in the Brisbane suburb of Lutwyche where her grandmother ran a nursing home. This was a Scots-German pairing – Em was a Campbell, only a generation away from a place called Espie in Argyll, and it was with this side of her parentage it’s my impression that mum came to identify herself, more than the Hambrecht side. Certainly, we talked about the Scots ancestry more, and mum liked her Scottish heritage.

Harry Hambrecht was a forester by profession and had been a Lighthorseman in the Great War. Early in life, therefore, mum went bush . . . to a speck on the map named Bauple, deep in the forest between Maryborough and Gympie. Bauple wasn’t even big enough to be called a one-horse town . . . but in any event the Hambrechts owned a horse. Mum used to tell stories of riding four miles through the bush to the one-teacher school, or if she really wanted to impress us kids with how well-off we were, the story was about walking four miles . . . barefoot. There was another story, too, of a sulky ride through the bush to get grandma to hospital in Gympie so she could give birth to mum’s sister.

Mum was the eldest of the four Hambrecht children. She was followed by Ray, Mima and Norm – all long gone. I don’t recall her talking about growing up in the Depression but I imagine it was just as tough for the Hambrecht family as it was for everyone else. But they got through it, came out of the bush and settled in Maryborough where mum went to high school . . . and this is where the story really begins.

Fast forward to 1947, sometime around mum’s 21st birthday. She’d had a few jobs since leaving school . . . in a book shop, in a news agency and a pharmacy. She was what would be known now as a shop assistant . . . but then in the language of the day, a shop girl. Life was jogging along until one day a handsome young man named Graham, not long home from the war, crossed her path. My sisters tell me mum’s story was that she met dad one day on a street corner in Maryborough. As dad tells it, he doesn’t remember any street-corner encounter. As far as he’s concerned, he met mum at a party . . . and things developed from there. Whatever happened, it was fate . . . and it wasn’t long before he was wheeling mum around Maryborough, doubled-banked on the bar of his bike. That bike was famous in our family. Mum and dad were to ride double-banked through the next 70 years.

With dad, mum found her calling . . . to be a wife and mother. Other vocations may be more glamorous, or receive more accolades these days, but none is more important. Mum became a wife in July, 1948, and a mother in November of that year. In a way, therefore, you could say mum’s calling found her, and I for one am pretty happy about that.

Indeed, she fulfilled her calling as well as anyone could. Between 1948 and 1969, when she was 42 years old, she carried eight babies – the third of whom was stillborn. As far as I could observe, she faced this tragedy stoically, as women have always had to do, and will always have to do. It was an event not much spoken about in the family but it was not buried. Mum herself raised it during her 90th birthday party . . . from which I think we can infer that her lost child was never far from her mind.

She made a comfortable and loving home for us all, until such time as we started to make our own way in the world. And even then, although she and dad branched out themselves, quite rightly, to expand their own lives, there was always a home for us when we came visiting.

It was a home of scones straight out of the oven, and apple pie. To this day, no one bakes apple pies as good as mum’s. Her method of making rissoles has been passed down the family chain. She taught us other small survival skills – sewing and knitting and washing and ironing. She was tough with us when she had to be, and nurturing all the time.

Mum didn’t just tell us how to behave. She showed us. She showed us strength and resilience in the face of adversity. We had some rough passages over the early years, when household resources were stretched to the limit. Mum used to make our clothes, at first on a treadle machine and then on an electric one that dad found the money for somehow. My high school uniforms were sewn on that machine. One day I have never been able to forget, I asked her at a meal time why she wasn’t eating when we children were. Not hungry she said, but even then as a child I suspected the real answer. She showed us the value of sacrifice.

For me, though, the most wonderful thing she did for us kids was to pass on her love of words, and not just the love but an understanding of the power of words. She might have been only a shop girl but mum knew about words. She used to read to us when we were babies, read with us when we were older and always made sure we had books around. She was never without a crossword, both the ordinary kind and cryptics, right up until her last days. She encouraged all of us in our writing, and to take notice of what was going on in the world. None of us is therefore notably lost for words. The great Bushnell debating society was born over the kitchen table in Ipswich and rolls on through our various households.

Mum was very competitive. She played hockey as a girl, well enough to represent Maryborough in state tournaments, and you’ll find a number of hockey players through our various family branches. And I remember her playing tennis until the pressure of family life took over. The love of the contest never left her – family Scrabble games were a form of blood sport. Mum inherited a strong bottom jaw from her mother and, when she wanted to assert herself (which was most of the time), that jaw would jut out and the teeth would grit. I guess the ladies at the bowls club on Bribie saw it more than once as she split the head with a well placed bowl.

Mum’s love of reading allowed her to travel the world even while she was necessarily confined to home. So when the chance came to get off the page and on the road, she was an enthusiastic traveller. She and dad did the grey nomad thing a few times. They had several caravans over the years after dad retired in the mid-eighties and they roamed many thousands of miles around Australia. Dad tells me she was still keen to get out there again until quite recently. They rode The Ghan [Australian transcontinental train] and dad insisted mum take a helicopter ride over Katherine Gorge. I never thought this woman who was afraid of heights would go up in a chopper but she did, and loved it. Dad says she’d go anywhere in a car, a bus, a train or a plane but would not contemplate a ship. The two of them covered Britain and Europe, Egypt and Gallipoli, China and New Zealand. The irony is that her children, to whom she’d opened up the world, had all been to see it years before she did.

One of the benefits of her long life was that she reached milestones worth celebrating and so when she hit 90 it was a grand experience to draw the family together at a lunch to mark the occasion. We all told stories about her and she told a few of her own. Even though she was by then getting frail, she soaked up a glass of red, some loud music and the party atmosphere. The collection of photos we had on display was evidence that it was not the first time she’d enjoyed a party, something that perhaps people meeting her might have found surprising. She was quite reserved in her public face. Dad says she was shy, and he should know. But I suspect there was also an element of sizing people up until such times as she had their measure. After that, though, the warm and fun-loving woman emerged. She was a caring and steadfast friend, and an implacable foe.

What we also saw gloriously on display at her 90th birthday party was what had been apparent for seven decades to anyone who wanted to see . . . and that was the life and strength she drew from the partnership with dad. She found her calling double-banked with him, and that’s how it was forever. She died at home in her own bed, lying alongside dad, where she’d been for 70 years.

It was a good end to a good life. Amen.

Rome on the Potomac

If it seems like an age since I promised to bring you my observations on Washington DC, it’s only because, well, because it’s been three weeks and, as you know, a week is a long time in politics, even longer if you’re travelling. Since I wheeled my suitcase out of the Wodehouse convention, I’ve put a week in Manhattan, a continent, an ocean and an unwelcome dose of the coughs and sneezes between me and the capital capital.

butt sign DC

Funny place, Washington

I am now, of course, by Wodehousean measure an Expert on the United States, if not all things American. My first piece in this series explained why this would be so and I see no reason not to claim Expert status. In three weeks, I supplemented my infrequent visits to the US over 30 years with a second train journey from the west coast across what I’ve seen referred to as “flyover country”, starting in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles (as I did 20-odd years ago), setting foot in Chicago, conventioneering in DC and marching through Manhattan. I have transported, housed, fed and watered myself mostly in ways not much different from those of the people around me, sometimes better than average and sometimes less than. In Washington I stayed in a rundown hotel that catered for the budget tourist and consequently was full to the brim with school groups, some of them foreign. The Wodehouse convention meant I was closeted for three days with a couple of hundred middle Americans from all over the country – all reasonably affluent, it is safe to say; mostly of a certain age, but not all; mostly white, but not all; and mostly Anglo, but not all.

I am an Expert then, and it is from this exalted position I declare that I’m damned if I know. I no more understand America than all the others who have traipsed through that vast and diverse experiment in civilisation. The only thing I have concluded is that, if you want to understand America, as everyone is always trying to do, you need to start in Washington DC.

This might seem counter-intuitive, given the way other Experts of all persuasions have fanned out across the nation over the past year, trying to get a handle on what happened in the Presidential election. Mostly, it seems to me, they’re trying to find out where they went wrong in their prognostications. If they really wanted to understand their own country, I reckon they should start by joining a tour group at the Capitol. Not only would they actually meet “deplorables”, they would hear what it is ordinary Americans are told about the foundations of their country and what it is they, oh so deeply, believe about it. Go to the source is an early lesson in journalism, and this is it.

Capitol pin cardAs anyone knows who has eyes to see and a TV to switch on, the United States Capitol is a gleaming white, neo-classical, domed pile built on a hill overlooking the broad sweep of the National Mall past the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument down to the Lincoln Memorial at the western end on the banks of the Potomac River. I bought a lapel pin at one of the Capitol souvenir shops. It has a quite handsome enamel image of the dome against a red background, which I shall be quite pleased to wear. But I’m a little reluctant to separate it from its card because the blurb on that card is a masterpiece of writing – maybe not the Gettysburg Address but in its own way a gem of succinct prose:

The United States Capitol is the most widely recognized symbol of democratic government is the world. It has housed Congress since 1800. The Capitol is where Congress meets to write the laws of this nation, and where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their State of the Union messages. For more than two centuries, the Capitol has grown along with the nation, adding new wings to accommodate the increasing number of senators and representatives as new states entered the Union. Its ceilings are decorated with historic images, and its halls are lined with statues and paintings representing great events and people from the nation’s history.

The 1875 Appleton’s guide book, so beloved of Michael Portillo, says simply: “It is probably the most magnificent public edifice in the world.

Capitol east side

Since 2008, visitors have had access to the Capitol via a huge two-level bunker under the building – not a bit under, but right under – approached through an unobtrusive entrance on the eastern plaza (the back side of the building, above). This “visitors’ centre” is not unlike a railway station – a big open space and booking windows where you acquire your ticket for a tour or maybe a seat in the gallery of the Senate or the House of Representatives. Off to the sides are a large cafeteria and at least three souvenir shops. You can book tours in advance or, if you’re like me, just blow in and wait your turn, which on the day I went meant a few minutes in a queue, and getting organised into manageable groups.

Capitol tourThe tour starts with a movie (of course: this is America) explaining where you are and the meaning of it all. Then, equipped with a radio receiver and earphones, you follow your guide upstairs and down, round the corridors, while he or she points out the salient features. I’m not going to reproduce that here, even if I could, but housed under that familiar dome, as the pin card says, is all the grandeur and pomp of what I term the imperial republic of the United States of America.

Our guide on my day was a young man with a basketballer’s name whom I took to be of African American heritage, at least in part. He had a very smooth and dead-pan, witty line of patter, which lightened the necessary dullness of “the Capitol was built in . . .” and “the statue in front of us . . .” One remark he made has stayed with me.

Capitol dome insideGeorge Washington’s presence is everywhere in the Capitol. The crypt was supposed to be his tomb but he willed that his body be buried at his home, so the space is empty. High up under the dome is a painting very reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling called The Apotheosis of George Washington – that is, the first president becoming a god. On the wall of the rotunda under the dome, among many large historical paintings, is one of Washington resigning his commission as a general. Our guide stated this really meant he was declining an offer to become king. Then he said:  “George Washington refused to be king, so we made him a god instead.” He did not smile. He is possibly the only master of irony in Washington DC, if not the whole of the USA.

Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, apparently insisted when the Federal capital was being planned that the home of Congress be named the Capitol, a designation associated with the Capitoline Hill of Ancient Rome. This was the site of Rome’s most important temple and it was surrounded by the Area Capitolina, a precinct where certain assemblies met, and numerous shrines, altars, statues and victory trophies were displayed. In Washington DC today, the Capitol is at the heart of a precinct of Federal Government buildings, all linked by a labyrinth of tunnels. Monuments abound. And they are all in various incarnations of classical architecture. Even nearby Union Station, from which I entered and departed Washington, was built in the same style.

This is pomp and circumstance well before Elgar gave it to the British Empire. The tone is entirely deliberate. The Founding Fathers set out to create a capital city that reflected the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and expressed their ambitions for their fledgling nation, even then glimpsing its manifest destiny. Born in revolutionary zeal, theirs was not to be a country which compromised on freedom and democracy, nor surrendered anything to Britain or France or any of the European empires. This was the New World and its capital was to be greater than anything from the old.

This is the Myth upon which the United States of America is built and that Myth is embodied in all the stones, in all the concrete and steel of all of Washington’s monuments, museums and institutions. And day by day, as the tour buses roll through, that Myth is being continually defended, reinforced and disseminated. You have to go to Washington and see it and feel it. The Stars and Stripes flying proudly over a forlorn little cottage beside the railroad in the middle of the desert then becomes understandable. The loyalty of people who have little reason to be loyal becomes explicable. Even the insularity of Americans becomes clear.

The point, it seems to me, is that when you see upheavals in the US, as one section of the populace or another rises in loud and often violent protest, it’s not the Disunited States on show. It’s quite the contrary. The Myth is real; the people live it and breathe it. They are united in their belief – it’s just that those who feel left out, or pushed out, want (back) in. It’s their birthright. SPQ . . . not R . . . A.


For those not up with the modern world, the above is not a typo. There is in Washington an institution called just that, and I thought it was dedicated to exploring and explaining the world of news, journalism and the media. As an old-time hack I made it my first stop in my tour of DC, ahead of even Union Station.

newseum guideIt is a six-level, modern edifice of concrete, steel and glass on Pennsylvania Avenue, the direct road link between the White House and the Capitol. Once you get inside, having paid your $15 for two days’ access, you receive a visitor’s guide which states on its cover: “The Newseum promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment.” Mmmm, not quite what I was expecting but, to be fair, I hadn’t done any preparation. Clearly, then, everything to do with news in the Newseum is related to the text for the day, any day, the First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Everywhere you go in the place, you get a good dose of this from the Big Brother screens that constantly blare out “information” about what you’re seeing, and indeed what you’re not seeing. The ideals of the First Amendment cannot, and should not, be denied, but various illuminated faces are on continuous loops declaring that freedom of speech in the US is absolute, despite the contrary being demonstrably the fact of the matter. Somewhere in the place some nonentity is quoted as saying something along the lines that you are free to speak but not free to be stupid. Right there is a limit on freedom of speech, leaving aside all the other issues that statement raises. I suppose that if I’d started shouting some of the many words prohibited these days just about everywhere in the US, or places influenced by the US (like Australia), I’d have been shut down quickly and thrown out of the joint, maybe even arrested and charged under the hate speech laws. It takes only a quick perusal of Wikipedia to discover the limits on freedom of speech and the other four freedoms in the First Amendment. The Newseum does not even start to acknowledge the case.

Newseum selfie

The Capitol peers over my shoulder at the Newseum

There’s more. The guide book advises you to start your tour on the sixth-floor balcony from which you get a brilliant view of the Capitol. I would like to think that the positioning of the Newseum and its view of the seat of power is a metaphor for the tensions that must always exist between government and the media – the eyes of the people, if you will. However, the received message from the Newseum is that the media, empowered by the First Amendment, is in fact an institution within the body politic – the Fourth Estate, in the British tradition – and, underneath all the show and bluster of the daily news cycle, has a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship with the shining white symbol on the hill.

Two current exhibitions on at the Newseum put a QED for me on this assertion. One is a gallery of photographs labelled Creating Camelot, marking the centennial – I would have said “centenary” but let it go – of the birth of John F. Kennedy. The other is Inside Today’s FBI: Fighting Crime in the Age of Terror.

The Kennedy show is entirely of pictures by Jacques Lowe, a photographer who became embedded with the Kennedys during JFK’s campaign for President and stayed on until the fatal day in Dallas. Lowe created all the images that the rest of the media turned into Camelot. Nowhere does the Newseum address what we all know more than half a century later: the Kennedy Camelot was as much a myth (no capital letter on this one) as that of King Arthur. Emblazoned above it all is a quote from JFK’s father, Joe, that they were going to sell Jack like a can of peas. I would like to think someone smart added this to the display to lend some counterpoint to the Camelot contrivance. But, like the view from the balcony, I doubt it. The whole tone of the exhibition is one of approval and admiration. Oh, you might say, the presidency and the government are two different entities – and you’d be right. The government sits on the hill and the presidency way down on the other side of the paddock. The physical separation reinforces the constitutional. But there have been times in America when the two have become synonymous, and the Kennedy years, from the outside at least, constituted one of them. The message I received from the Newseum was: “We did this. We created Camelot and it was good.”

I didn’t enter the FBI exhibit. I just couldn’t. The FBI is clearly in PR campaign mode, with feel-good stuff placed strategically around Washington, and heaven knows it does need some good PR at present. I have no problem with that. But for the Newseum to mount a display by a powerful police force that has often been an enemy of the five freedoms of the First Amendment is perplexing, to say the least. Perhaps some Federal funding found its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Newseum, I am sad to say, is more about propaganda than anything else. It promotes and defends, as it says, but doesn’t do much explaining in its stated focus on free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. The news, journalism and the media are merely tools in its self-appointed mission, and its positioning at the heart of government.



I don’t know of any railway station anywhere that is as much part of a deliberate nationalistic image as Union Station in Washington DC. It was built in 1907-08 in response to legislators’ wish to banish the messy and noisy railroads from the middle of the grand Washington Plan that the capital managers were busy turning into the place we see today. The two major railroads servicing Washington came together under its roof (hence Union Station, like all the other Union Stations dotted around the US).

The result is a neo-classical building within walking distance of the Capitol in the style of the other grand (not say grandiose) buildings of the Capitol precinct. Indeed, the architect is said to have based his design on sketches he made of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. One author in my library described it this way:

Detraining, one crossed southwesterly through the huge glassed-over concourse, into the vaulted Main Hall with its high Constantinian arches and gold-leafed ceiling panels, and out under mammoth military statuary into the Plaza, which opened on lawns and gardens leading directly to the Mall and the Capitol. This was a gateway rather than a central square. Visitors to the new Rome were initiated through a succession of environments providing a proper transition from the earthiness of trackside to the grandeur of the Capitol dome. Outside, the marble cornices, the arched entries, the epic inscriptions, and the plaza fountains constituted a fitting monument to the Columbian spirit embodied in the railroad and the nation over which the capital presided.

historic union station

Union Station . . . once upon a time

In practical terms, what the railroads did with this vision was to keep themselves close to the heart of government and, not incidentally, make their presence indispensable. Which is the way it was for nigh on half a century until the post WWII decline of the railroads made the florid edifices of major stations burdens to their owners. Many, like Pennsylvania Station in New York, fell under the wrecker’s ball. Others lay rotting away for years while passenger services were relegated to demountable sheds and single track platforms. You can still see this today, if you have travelled as far on Amtrak as I have. Once-grand stations have become bus stops.

Starbucks Union Station

This is Starbucks at Union Station

Union Station in Washington has been saved by turning it into a shopping mall. Mind you, what you see today represents several attempts over half a century to make the place viable as a commercial enterprise. I gather that the shopping part of the station was much bigger and busier when it was first established and I have to say that as of October 2017 trading looked not much more than desultory. The irony of it all is that, as a station, it’s probably never been busier, nor more important, with the growth of commuter traffic from the suburbs and towns of Maryland and Virginia, and with the demand for less hassle in transport along the Washington-Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor.

Grand Hall union station

The result is that the edifice part of the station – the main hall, the side halls and the shops – is airy, open and spacious (albeit with few places to sit) and the train side is closed-in and crowded worse than airport departure lounges, not a little dingy and staffed by Amtrak people who couldn’t care less. The departure procedure is regimented in a way that I now recognise is standard throughout the land of the free – you get in line where and when you’re told, you use ESP to divine what those instructions are as signage is at a minimum and, when released through the platform doors by the guardians of the queue, you make a mad dash for the train.

The whole experience is summed up by a mini-incident I had in a Walgreens shop in Washington. I rolled up at the checkout with my modest needs – toothpaste, I think – and waited while a woman at the counter completed her purchases. She went and I presented. The woman on the cash register refused to deal with me. “You have to go through the line,” she insisted, twice when I protested that I was the only person there. What I had to do was wind around through the roped-off, designated queue line. She was adamant and I had to stifle my annoyance because I knew what the result would be if I didn’t. That’s the way it is, I’m afraid: you keep your mouth shut and you do as you’re told.

NEXT: Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington


To stop the pedants from revolting, let me just note that the word “media” when used as a collective to describe the many mediums of communication has long since lost its plurality. I am a staunch defender of the English language but it’s not on my agenda to deny the sense of new usages like this.

The quote about Union Station comes from Making Tracks by Terry Prindell (1988), a man who took a year off his work as a teacher to travel the then 30,000 miles of the Amtrak system. It is a measure of the way Amtrak has failed to reinvent itself that, 30 years on, Terry’s work remains a reasonable picture of the network.

From sea to shining sea

WASHINGTON DC,  20 October 2017

People I’ve met here have all reacted in the same way to my story of actually travelling by train across the country from San Francisco: “That sounds like fun.” Some are clearly dubious about the whole proposition but they’re being polite, and it’s part of the American way to be positive at all times. Others, though, mean it and start reminiscing about their various train trips, mostly long ago before cheap air fares.

For me it’s fun enough to roll 5000km on a pair of steel rails through some of the most interesting country anywhere, whatever the surrounding circumstances might be. But if your definition of fun includes old movie frames of smoothly tailored, trimly moustached gentlemen and haute-coutured ladies in little hats lounging in armchairs while a dazzlingly white coated, black steward named Sam, with feudal manners and a smile to match his jacket, serves them martinis and Cubans . . . forget it. If that vision ever existed beyond the railroad companies’ publicity, it most certainly does not apply now.

Amtrak doesn’t do style, comfort or deference. Amtrak does service with a “cop this” attitude. Passengers seem to accept irritation as part of the experience. Many of the people I met on the California Zephyr into Chicago and the Capitol Limited into Washington were doing the trips for “the experience”. It’s doubtful whether any of them will ever become repeat train travellers. Amtrak doesn’t really care – and that emerges in myriad ways, both large and small, from surly staff through tired rolling stock to stations that make bus stops look inviting. Dammit, in the land of the souvenir, you cannot buy any Amtrak merchandise on the trains or in the stations.

Grrr, I didn’t want to gripe. I wanted to tell you about a transcontinental crossing that even in the travel-jaded 21st century is an epic journey. It is one that still symbolises the construction of a nation. The joining of the rails from the east and rails from the west at Promontory in remote Utah in 1869 was the physical realisation of manifest destiny, the spread of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It’s a grand story, amid an horrendous Civil War and the assassination of the President who not only prosecuted the war to set free half of the then US but initiated and ensured the great rail project.

Australians would do well to reflect on the meaning of such linkages, as some of us celebrate this weekend the centenary of the departure of the first train on the Trans-Australian Railway, completed a few days before, on 17 October 1917. The Trans, as it used to be known, was the fulfilment of a promise to Western Australia that, if it joined the Federation, the new Commonwealth would fill in the gap between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. So it really did tie us together as one nation, although our transcontinental railway was to remain a piecemeal affair. In 1967 a journey I took from Brisbane to Perth and return involved seven different trains over four gauges. It wasn’t until the Sydney-Perth line via Broken Hill was standardised in 1969 that the present day Indian Pacific would allow passengers to travel unchanged for the entire 4500km run.

Which is one up on the Americans. They have never been able to go coast-to-coast snuggled in palatial suites-on-wheels pampered by hot and cold running Sams. When the first transcontinental railroad was up and running, passengers had to make their way to Council Bluffs on the eastern side of the Missouri River, cross to Omaha, board a Union Pacific train and then change at Ogden in Utah to a Central Pacific train for the run into Sacramento. Much later everything became centred on Chicago, so that when P.G. Wodehouse, for example, went to Hollywood in 1930, he boarded the Twentieth Century Limited at Grand Central in Manhattan for Chicago where he changed to the Chief for Los Angeles via Kansas City and the south-west states.

For more than a century after the driving of the golden spike at Promontory, various companies operated various trains over various routes. By the 1970s, however, they were all done and the US Government formed Amtrak to take over long distance passenger services. It’s a system very much pared down since the heady days before the development of the interstate road system and the airliner heralded by the DC3. Today, Amtrak operates four routes to the west coast – Chicago to LA, San Francisco and Seattle, and New Orleans to LA. Or if you want to look at it as westerners do, it’s the other way round (hello Perth). In Chicago you connect with two routes to New York and the north-east, and one to Washington DC.

I knew all that when I stepped on to the California Zephyr at Emeryville (aka Oakland, when I first went through there 20 years ago) but I still had it in my mind that I was re-enacting, first of all, the travels and travails of the railroad pioneers and, second, the glamorous adventures of those who had ridden the Zephyr before me. This is entirely fantasy. The original Zephyr dates only from 1949 and lasted 11 years. It never ran over the original transcontinental route built by Union Pacific and Central Pacific. In fact there are no passenger trains today over that route, and to do justice to the story of the transcontinental railroad today you would need to get on one of the massive freight trains that trundle over it constantly.

That’s a pity, not only because it destroys the first part of my dreaming but because I didn’t get to do a proper Portillo with my Appleton’s guide from 1875. I had it tucked in my bag but, apart from being entertaining reading, it didn’t help much. Furthermore, like the lazy Amtrak route notes today, it takes a resolutely east-to-west direction – which is understandable given it was compiled only six years after the completion of the railroad and in the middle of one of the great one-way migrations of all time.

It is scarcely believeable that, when Union Pacific started to push out from Omaha in 1862, the Great Plains were inhabited only by the small population of Native Americans (don’t accuse me of being PC – these people were never “Indians”, as mistaken by Christopher Columbus) and millions of bison (also misnamed). Both were overrun by history, as we know, and replaced by millions of European migrants and the greatest agricultural industries ever developed (baa one). So when people today tell me travelling across the relentless, featureless plains east of the Rockies into Chicago is boring, I respond that I have done the trip twice now – once before, out of LA 20-plus years ago – and I have not been bored: I am amazed. The inland plains of Australia are essentially semi-desert or real desert in large part. They can be highly productive of course but not like the Great Plains of the US and Canada. It’s exhausting to see but, to me, never uninteresting.

I know, I know, all you critics, I don’t live there, I’ve never been in winter and, anyway, I’m hermetically sealed in my own manufactured environment – unlike in 1879, when Robert Louis Stevenson joined a migrant train to travel to California. Conditions on the train were primitive by his account – for example, you had to hire a plank to sleep on and meal stops were quick and grubby – and he climbed up on the roof of his carriage to take in the view as the train chugged across the plains. He described it as like being at sea, nothing but waving fields of grass for mile upon mile. The beautifully written Appleton’s concurs: “Settlements and farms are . . . swallowed up in the immensity of the interminable levels which roll off to the horizon like the sea”. Its view of a regular passenger service was more upmarket than Stevenson’s, as you might expect, and advised booking sleeping berths for a total of $14 each, which I suspect was a lot of money in those days.

The price of a sleeping compartment in today’s Superliner, double-deck carriages is nearly twice the price of a basic seat. So-called “coach” seats are not the hardship slots of airline cattle class – you can, for example, go and sit in the glass-roofed “sightseeing” car with us first class passengers, and dine with us, too – but for the best part of three days on a train a private compartment with a bed and access to a shower is what you want. The price per day includes meals so it’s not by any means outrageous, if you measure everything by the dollar.

It’s the “sightseeing” that matters. Isn’t that what we’re here for, folks? After getting over the novelty of travelling on a train instead of in a car or an aluminium tube, it’s the promise of grand scenery, an eye-level tour of wonderful parts of America that has caused many of us to take days out of our lives, connected only sporadically to phone cells and not at all to wi-fi. Oh yes, and this is the one part of the experience that Amtrak delivers, probably because it’s out of Amtrak’s control. Amtrak could make it better but that’s a topic for another day.

I always like staring out of train windows into the backyards of human habitation. Down by the tracks, wherever I’ve been, is the dumping ground of all sorts of ugliness – and that’s interesting – but the parts I really don’t want to unsee come from the Earth directly or from its human conquest. The Earth and humanity are in a constant struggle, of course, and the Earth often wins, but humanity has wrestled Mother Nature into submission and in the process has created sights for us on the Zephyr to marvel at.

Sierra Nevada

Winding up through the Sierra Nevada

One of these is the railroad itself, up through the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento, a tortuous ascent carved by hand and black (gun) powder out of the granite. Thousands of Chinese labourers chipped out the tunnels at the rate of an inch a day. Many of them died in the process. They sheltered from the 10 metres-deep winter snows in these burrows of their own making and the bodies of those who couldn’t were found in the spring, frozen to death. Today the Zephyr traverses essentially the same route, although there have been inevitably some improvements in 150 years. If you can tear your eyes away from the deep canyon of the American River, you can see where the alignment has been shifted, straightening the curves a little and eliminating a tunnel or two.

At the top, you pass by Donner Lake, named after one of the great tragedies of the westward pioneers. In pre-railroad 1846, a small wagon train became trapped in the snows up there and its 87 people began slowly starving to death. It took four months for a relief party to find them. By then the survivors had resorted to eating the bodies of their already dead companions. Forty-eight made it to California. Today, before the winter, Donner Lake is a pretty tourist resort giving no hint, from the train at least, of its grim past.

Reno station

Reno station

At Reno, the station is a concrete canyon buried somewhere in the city. The train pulls up between two poorly lit grey vertical slabs, unadorned even with advertising. There’s a door to a lobby that promises better above. After that, on this train running to a delayed schedule night closes in and Nevada passes by as we enter Utah, famed for the Great Salt Lake and Mormons.

I shared a dinner table with a family, and it emerged that the husband and father had spent two years in Sydney some time ago as one of those polite young men in black trousers and white shirts who knock on your door from time to time. Somehow he had developed a love of the Hawthorn Football Club (to my irritation – Go Tigers!) and a liking for cricket, so much so that his wife complained he had been sitting up in the middle of the night to watch the recent Australia-India one day series. I suggested she should direct him to the porn channel. This brought a genuine laugh but I thought I should quit while I was ahead and not mention The Book of Mormon.

The train reached Salt Lake City at about 4.30am. It was raining. The station was a series of tracks without shelter and a station house (or deepoh) a hundred metres away. John Betjeman might have made something of the dark figures in hoodies struggling with bags through the amber-lit drizzle to board a looming giant beast, growling and groaning to get away into the rising sun.

Mullock heaps

Well, that sun never rose for another 2½ hours, and by the time it really got going we were running into the vast open space that is Utah and Colorado, the vault of heaven held up by flat-top mountains and sheer cliffs. Though 1500 metres above current sea level it’s clear this land was once under water. Even to my unpractised eye, these are sedimentary rocks. The sides of the mountains are sliding (and I mean the present tense) on to the plain. Over more eons they will waste away. The long escarpments are like ancient city walls, except there’s nothing behind them. Big mounds of earth could be mullock heaps left by gold mining titans of long ago. Other large tracts look like nothing less than strip mines. They’re not – whatever has been taken from this land, it is Mother Nature who has done it. Her rehab program will take more than legislation to ensure.

Utah desert

All day the train runs through canyons in this tawny, yellow and sometimes grey landscape, following for a couple of hundred kilometres the course of the Colorado River.

Nile valley

The sphinxHardy humans in places have cultivated the river flats or created irrigated pastures, so that I started to think I’d seen this before – a green strip either side of a river flanked by bare plains and mountains, with as sharp a definition as if it had been carved by a knife. And I believe I had, in Egypt along the Nile. The strip was narrower in Colorado, the river was smaller but the desert was just as clear cut and just as stark. At one place a rocky bluff reared up out of the canyon like a sphinx gazing timelessly and imperiously upon his subjects below. These are unforgettable scenes that rarely feature in the picture books and the TV docos.

After a long day’s journey into night, passengers on the train going east miss seeing the western side of the towering Rockies and the descent into Denver, said to be a spectacular engineering triumph over the seemingly impossible. The train takes the 10km Moffat tunnel through the continental divide. Its length is such that train passengers and staff are warned not to move between the carriages for fear of being overcome by the fumes from the twin diesels up front. When we emerge, Denver can be seen below in all its brilliant lighting. For once, the station actually looks like a station as the Zephyr shares it with Denver’s new rail facilities for its rapidly growing urban population.

UP terminal OmahaFrom there it’s a run through the night to rendezvous with the original Union Pacific railhead at Omaha on the Missouri, where the train crosses the river by a circuitous route and barrels the length of Iowa, missing entirely the historic Council Bluffs, terminus of all railroads west before the transcontinental line and where then presidential candidate Abe Lincoln cooked up with railroad engineer Grenville Dodge a scheme to send the rails to California. I would have liked to have glimpsed this pivotal point – it would have given me something to think about as the train lurched its way along some poor track through lunch and the rest of the afternoon across the Mississippi and finally to Union Station in Chicago.

I had originally intended to cross straight over to Track 26 and board that evening’s Capitol Limited to Washington but in the end, from across the ocean and half a continent, I booked a night in Chicago because I didn’t have enough faith in Amtrak to make the connection even though the “layover” was about four hours. As it turned out I would have made it – the Zephyr that day was only about three hours late, including the rescheduling. I’m glad I saved myself the rush, if only because I got to see American Gothic close up. I was able to front up to the rigours of Amtrak that night with renewed optimism.

The last morning of my journey was spent on the Capitol Limited in the forests of Pennsylvania and the Appalachians. From the train the region seems to be still fairly sparsely populated country, with dense forests crowding in on both sides of the train, broken by odd farmhouses and clearings and a few small towns. This is the backwoods and I could half-hear banjo music as we trailed through river valleys. But chimneys and communication towers that peeped above the tree line from time to time suggested that what you see in this pretty country is not necessarily what you get. Later on, those modern excrescences on the skyline, wind farms, made their presence felt and contrasted with loaded coal trains sitting among the trees. Coal is still being mined in the Appalachians of West Virginia but the industry is slowly dying under the assault of green politics.

Then after the famous Harpers Ferry, the train begins its run into the towns and suburbs of Maryland and eventually into the railyards of Union Station in Washington DC. Non-Americans probably need reminding that when they hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it arises from the perhaps more familiar John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, referring to the raid slavery abolitionist John Brown led on the Federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War. He was hanged but his soul goes marching on.

Next stop: the wonders of Washington DC.

Gothic communication

CHICAGO, 16 October 2017

Like I said, the foreigner in these United States can find a reference point in popular culture, especially the movies, for just about everything that happens to him (or her, if you must). Right now what I’ve “got here is failure to communicate”. When I “detrained” in Chicago and emerged “momentarily” into the street, I wondered whether to go left or right towards my hotel in West Adams Street. So I asked a policeman, of course.

“Excuse me,” I said, in my best Homeland Security humility, “which way is west?” And the young policeman, equally politely, pointed me to my left. Well, I knew instantly this was wrong (as indeed you do, too; otherwise what’s the point of this story?) because Dr Google’s Maps had advised me weeks ago the hotel was up among the skyscrapers, and the buildings to my left were clearly diminishing in size. But like a good boy I set off in the direction indicated, trailing my suitcase behind me, and I must have gone five or six blocks and over a seriously major freeway before I decided I should ask someone to confirm what I most assuredly knew. Back over the freeway and then the canal and a few blocks more, and I puffed into my hotel to be confronted with the usual supreme and deflating indifference of hotel check-in staff everywhere.

This was all my own fault. I had asked the policeman the wrong question. If I’d asked him to point me towards the address of my hotel, there’s no doubt he would have done so. But you see, after only a couple of days in the country, I’m sinking into the American idiom. They always seem to know N, S, E and W and I’d just spent most of three days on the California Zephyr being directed accordingly. At breakfast on the train I asked the man opposite me (curiously, he was wearing those American Gothic bib-and-braces, denim dungarees) where we were. “Lancon,” he said, meaning Lincoln, adding when I didn’t understand, “about 50 miles west of Omaha.”

West. In Chicago, I had this address on West Adams Street. It’s obvious: go west, young man. I asked the policeman which way was west, and he told me. As I beat myself up over this performance, I could see “The Captain” Strother Martin laying into “Cool Hand Luke” Paul Newman and diagnosing the problem with his stubborn prisoner: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It didn’t help that Amtrak offers Newman’s Own salad dressing to passengers, in support of the Paul Newman Foundation’s Roundup River Ranch for sick kids in Colorado.

Of course Chicago is my kind of town . . . well, Frank’s anyway. He thought it was a toddlin’ town too, whatever that is, and State Street was a great street. It’s OK and I’m not sayin’ old blue eyes could be wrong. I ventured Frank’s opinion on New York – i.e. if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – to a couple from Brooklyn on the train. “Huh,” said the wife, “he’s from Hoboken, New Jersey.” She wasn’t joking.

But look, a million other references notwithstanding, there’s only one Chicago and that’s the Chicago of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood. At breakfast I was offered three kinds of toast – whole grain, white or dry. I think the young waitress might have been baffled if I’d asked for “dry white toast” with “two fried chickens”. I settled for bacon and eggs, which prompted her to ask whether I wanted the “full English breakfast”. Just cos I talk funny don’ mean I’m British. Anyway on the Adams Street-Michigan Avenue corner opposite the Art Institute of Chicago a black woman in a red top was preaching about something, I don’t know what exactly, but she was definitely on a mission from Gard.

Over the road the woman standing guard at the door got busy organising early arrivals into orderly lines, and everybody did so. None of this land of the free stuff for people interested in art. No, we weren’t all tourists, either. By the way, the place opens at 10.30am, despite the tourist guides touting 10 – hence the bunch of us standing on the steps in the bracing breeze for half an hour.

It was worth a little chill, though. This gallery is everything you’ve ever heard of it. It’s the only thing apart from Union Station and the inside of my hotel room I saw in the Windy City. I’m glad I didn’t try to rush around. If you love the Impressionists you’ll be stunned: the building is not the Musée d’Orsay but the display of Monet, Manet etc is, well, impressive. The feature is the famed Seurat painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (which the bilingual institute calls A Sunday on La Grande Jatte).

OzAm Gothic

OzAm Gothic

In the middle of the US, though, you can’t sit staring at 19th century France. You have to look for America and there it is, in acres of rooms . . . after you’ve walked down the avenues of ancient, classical and Asian sculptures and artefacts. In that context, the Grant Wood American Gothic in room 263 on level 2 could not be more confronting. Everyone knows this image and everyone sees it as the epitome of hard-ass attitude. Not so, according to the note in the Institute guide book, Wood was portraying “the Puritan ethic and virtues he believed dignified the midwestern character”. It is a compelling picture, whatever the back story, and I found it hard to get away.

Train landscape

Quite a sandwich

On the other hand, somewhere in the intellectual desert of the “contemporary” collection I was attracted by a name, Train Landscape, before I located the painting on the wall. Comprising what looked like three, deft and accurate horizontal swipes of the roller, this effort by an American named Ellsworth Kelly is his impression of viewing fields of lettuce, spinach and mustard from a speeding French train some time between 1948 and 1954. Claude Monet loved trains but I doubt everything blurred into solid stripes for him. As Mel Brooks said: “That Hitler, there was a painter . . . one day, three rooms.”

untouchablesAfter that, I strolled back to Union Station. This time, instead of going into the Adams Street portal I went to the real station, the formidable grey one with the classical pillars, like a Parthenon of the railroads. I pushed my way with my bags through the twin, unfriendly doors to the top of the staircase down into the Great Hall. No escalator, no lift. This was for real. So I started down, clunk by clunk. A couple of men, who sounded German, were taking pictures of each other on the stairs. Clunk, clunk. I said: “You need a pram for that.” The man with the camera looked at me and grinned: “You mean the Untouchables, yes?” Indeed I did. Much satisfied mutual smiling ensued.

So ended my day in Chicago. I’ll get around to Amtrak and my journey from sea to shining sea when I reach Washington. Don’t go away.


hotel lift panelIn San Francisco, my hotel had an interesting button on its lift panel. Earthquake. Right at the top, under the red emergency buttons. Of course, it could have been the name of the penthouse suite. But somehow, given San Francisco’s shaky history, I think not. I was tempted to press it and see what happened. Would the earth move for me, dear?

Down by Union Square, shops devoid of customers in the vast Westfield (Frank Lowy and the boys) centre, which includes Bloomingdales and Nordstrom, were advertising for “sales associates”. Could it be there are no shop assistants because there is nobody to assist? And the shops don’t display prices in the window – they advertise “50% off” but not off what. I don’t enter shops where I can’t see, at least, the price level. I hate shopping.

Mr RooterWho you gonna call? Just a cheap, juvenile Aussie joke. It reminded me of the garbage contractor in Port Moresby years ago who worked under the name of Mr Shit. His logo was a cute toddler dropping dollops.

San Francisco is clean – in three grades of public transport: “clean air” vehicles, “hybrid” vehicles and “no emission” vehicles. These last would be electric trolley buses and the city’s collection of vintage trams. Chicago is slightly more honest: they have “clean hybrid” buses.

street bannerI noticed some banners way up on SF light poles, particularly around China Town, proclaiming, with a picture of an AK47: “A uterus is more heavily regulated than an assault weapon.” Turned out, when I looked at the other half of the banner, this was an ad for a law firm. I glimpsed a billboard from the train in Reno, Nevada: “What’s your freedom worth?” Another law firm.

Also from the train in Reno, this billboard: “Adam and Eve stores. Where passion begins.” On one level, I kinda figured it out real quick. But when you know Reno’s reputation as the home of the quicky divorce, the message might be different. I mentioned Reno’s divorce industry to a train acquaintance and it took a while to register: “Uh. I see, married quick in Las Vegas and divorced in Reno.” Maybe.

I’ve always regarded Reno as the Capital of Crass (notwithstanding Vegas and I’ve never been to either place) and I must say the trackside ads and the lit-up casinos gave me no reason to change my view. The first giant billboard I saw advertised a marijuana dispensary. I was so startled I didn’t note the slogan. Another said this, with some kind of image: “Pre-K – 12 early prevention program. Keeping our kids safe.” I gathered the idea was to educate children from kinder (K) to pre-teen about the dangers of various activities. Like doing drugs, maybe.

Well, this is all fun but, really, I don’t know where to go with an ad I saw on a sports channel showing a Major League Baseball game between the Yankees and the Dodgers (these days, New York v. Los Angeles). The earnest looking chap below popped up extolling the virtues of the self-inserted catheter. Yep the little tube that goes . . . yeah, there . . . so your bladder can empty whenever. He never said exactly why he needed a catheter but he was a pilot, he said, who took long trips in his light aircraft. Apparently he was test pilot like Maverick and he crashed his plane one day and, as he says, he woke up a catheter user. You can watch him go through his paces on YouTube. Dr Google informs me these ads are controversial in the States but are the result of new Medicare benefits to cover a serious need. All sorts of stuff are advertised on American TV (and Australian, these days) and if it’s advertised it means you can get it. Walk into Walgreens, the drugstore chain, and ask. I’m sure no one will blink for a moment. Coming right up sir, one self-lubricating catheter. Would you like to wear it home, sir? Perhaps that’s the solution to a leaky West Wing.







Capital, capital

SF other bridge

SAN FRANCISCO, Thursday, 12 October 2017.

Tomorrow it begins. I shall be crossing San Francisco’s other bridge to Oakland and board the California Zephyr for a 5000km pilgrimage towards a junction with the 2017 convention of The Wodehouse Society in Washington DC. Think about the elements in that statement for a moment or two. Eccentric doesn’t really cover it.

Here I am already many thousands of kilometres from home on the other side of the Pacific Ocean so I can travel many more kilometres by sleeper-car passenger trains, relics of a golden era never to be repeated, to a meeting of mostly Americans obsessed by the work and life of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the long dead author of comic yarns anchored in Edwardian times whom they see as a quintessential Englishman but who lived half his 94 (nearly) years in the United States, helped change the face of American musical theatre, got his big break from the also extinct Saturday Evening Post, irked Hollywood with an outbreak of candour not often seen in that part of the world and placed many of his best stories in American settings. The Wodehouse Society therefore not only capitalises its T and abbreviates itself to TWS but sees no reason to differentiate itself from other Wodehouse groups around the world, including the one in the UK. Like The Open, a golf tournament that breaks out annually in Britain, as far as TWS members can see they were there first and all the others are johnny-come-latelys.

The TWS – no, you can’t say that; it’s like having a PIN number. TWS, then, has these conventions every two years and so it is entirely serendipitous that this one, dubbed Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington after the Jimmy Stewart movie, is being held in DC at this time of rich farce in American politics. Whatever your view of The Donald, you cannot deny his Administration has provided plenty of material for humourists. Life is imitating art again, and the TWS e-mail traffic over the past few months suggests this has not escaped the Wodehouseans.

Indeed, I hadn’t long put the full stop on the previous paragraph when a message lobbed inviting TWS members to look at a piece in The Spectator from last year titled Jeeves and a Man Called The Donald ( The occasion for recalling the article was news that its author, Ben Schott, is about to write a new Jeeves and Bertie book. That looks like me creating a new book for the Bible but I concede the guy is a fair mimic, at least being able to sustain the act in a short piece.

Blurring the line between fact and fiction may be normal in the (The?) States these days. For this foreigner who hasn’t been here for a dozen years, the possibility weighs in strongly the moment the flak-jacketed, black-uniformed  security guards make their presence felt at the airport. Here is Homeland Security in all its TV glory. And so it goes: everything has a pop culture reference. It’s not fake news that California really is the nanny state we’ve all seen on the screen (complete with homeless peoples’ camps in San Francisco, ignored by all just like everywhere else that’s caring-and-sharing,). In the autumn cool, which the locals insist is really hot (19C today), deadly bushfires are devastating the wine country north of San Francisco Bay. The city air is thick with smoke that, for once, does not come from a fragrant weed. For super-hip Californians this is global warming at work and we’re all going to burn, baby, burn. Not, I hope, before I get on the train tomorrow.


The route of Amtrak’s California Zephyr

I am looking forward to settling down in the observation car and watching the scenery go by for a couple of days. Like Michael Portillo I have my Appleton’s guide from 1875 to provide some perspective on what I might see (and indeed not see, since the route is different now) but, alas, my wardrobe is deficient in bright jackets and pants. Look out for some Portillo-ing as I go along. Right now, I’m Wodehouse-ing.

Wodehouse sketch

PGW, not NGB

Old Plum, were he around tomorrow, would rejoice in what I am up to. First of all, I’m going conventioneering, and second I’m about to become an Expert on The United States of America. Two stories in My Man Jeeves, the first book of the genre, nailed these activities the small matter of a century ago.

Conventions, you must understand, are different from conferences. Even in the US, conferences are where serious people get together to discuss important issues, issue high-minded communiques and go home fired up to Do Something. Conventions, however, are about having fun. They reach their fullest expression in the presidential election conventions every four years but traditionally they’re about a bunch of guys from somewhere over the rainbow hitting the Big City for a weekend to promote whatever it might be the want to promote. This involves dressing up in garish ornamentation, waving flags and generally visiting as many bars as their livers will take before shuffling off back to Buffalo, or wherever it is the wife and kids live in suburban bliss. I have no idea why anyone thinks this will do the trick for them.

Jack Lemmon must have starred in every movie that featured a convention. He would most assuredly have been in the running for a major role in Wodehouse’s tale of The Hard-Boiled Egg. For reasons you don’t need to worry about, Bertie and Jeeves are in New York and looking for likely lads willing to pay an emolument for the privilege of meeting a genuine English aristocrat. They haven’t found any takers until Jeeves has a fortunate encounter.

“I happened last night, sir,” he informed Bertie over his morning cuppa, “as you had intimated that you would be absent from home, to attend a theatrical performance, and entered into a conversation between the acts with the occupant of the adjoining seat. I had observed that he was wearing a somewhat ornate decoration in his buttonhole, sir – a large blue button with the words ‘Boost for Birdsburg’ on it in red letters, scarcely a judicious addition to a gentleman’s evening costume. To my surprise I noticed the auditorium was full of persons similarly decorated. I ventured to inquire the explanation, and was informed that these gentlemen, forming a party of eighty-seven, are a convention from Birdsburg in the State of Missouri.”

Well, of course, I don’t know what to expect from Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington but somehow I think it might be a fairly staid affair, given most of us will be of a certain age and the seriousness with which TWS-ers seem to approach their topic precludes revelry beyond the level of Mr Mulliner in the snug on a Sunday evening. I’m led to believe, however, there might be a certain amount of dressing up “in character” at the Saturday dinner. Maybe someone from Birdsburg will turn up. I live in hope The Donald might appear.

That would put the cherry on the cake of my putative status as Expert. You see, by then, I shall have climbed the Sierra Nevada, crossed a desert or two, tunnelled through the Rockies, traversed the Great Plains, the Missouri and the Mississippi, overnighted in Chicago and rolled through Pennsylvania and Virginia to the capital of This Great Nation. I shall have been eight days in the country, facing a further 10 in DC and New York for a grand total of 18. As Lady Malvern told Bertie in Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest, relating her plans for her latest book:

“I have to pay a visit to Sing Sing prison. I am extremely interested in prison conditions in America. After that I work my way gradually across to the coast, visiting the points of interest on the journey. You see, Mr Wooster, I am in America principally on business. No doubt you read my book India and the Indians? My publishers are anxious for me to write a companion volume on the United States. I shall not be able to spend more than a month in the country, as I have to get back for the season, but a month should be ample. I was less than a month in India, and my dear friend Sir Roger Cremorne wrote his America from Within after a stay of only two weeks.”

On that basis, I think I can safely claim Expert rank, don’t you, even though the closest I might get to Sing Sing will be Wall Street? Wodehouse characterised Sing Sing in a number of stories as a kind of finishing school for New York financiers. He loved little quirks of American culture like this that he picked up from the newspapers, and he was frightfully amused at the insights of Experts on America, especially pompous peers who have to get Home for the Season. Not only did Wodehouse live many years in the US, he made return trips across the continent by rail at least twice and he was a trans-Atlantic commuter for the better part of 30 years. So, he Knew.

Lady Malvern, by the way, is the subject of one of Wodehouse’s most memorable quotes. She was, said Bertie, “a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season”. For those wondering, OP is opposite prompt – this is Plum showing off, as he often did, his intimate knowledge of the theatre.

You may have noticed that, following the example of The Wodehouse Society, capitals proliferated in this post. It just Seemed Right somehow. After all, I am going to the US capital and when I get back to Oz I am expected to use my Expertise to inform and amuse the little band of Serious Thinkers at my club in Melbourne. Capital, capital.

My happiness engineered

My fellow Australian WordPressers and readers, you must have noticed that our pages this past little while have been headed by a rainbow band. You can hardly not know what it means, given the clamour reverberating around the world. I certainly understood instantly.

Nevertheless, when I had calmed down from being angry to merely annoyed, I asked our host a question. I wanted to see what the reply would be. I wanted to know whether our controllers would be honest, or fudge the issue with weasel words.

So I sent an e-mail to the WordPress support address:

I want to remove the pop-up rainbow strip from the top of my blog.

An e-mail came back quickly with “ – Expert Unable to assist further” in the subject line and the following message:


Thank you for submitting your question to our Experts. For your question below our Expert wasn’t able to help. A Happiness Engineer from our customer support team will be in touch to resolve your question.

Thank you, Experts

They were true to their word. Less than 24 hours later came this:

adelineAdeline Y. (Automattic) [sic]

Hi Noel,

Thanks for getting in touch!

Australia will be holding a national survey on marriage equality over the next two months. To show our support for marriage equality, we’re showing the rainbow bar to all our Australian visitors. You can read more about the marriage equality campaign here:

We cannot remove this banner for individual sites. We understand it looks a bit different to what you’re used to, but it’s here for everyone. We absolutely respect your right to publish the content you choose to your site, but the navigation bar styling reflects’s brand.

Best regards,

Adeline Y. – Happiness Engineer

So I sent back:

Thank you Adeline for your prompt and frank reply. That banner, however, makes a political statement that I don’t support, and I intend saying so.

The automatic reply carried “Directly – Expert Rerouted Question” in the subject line but no message. I have waited a few days to see whether Adeline or any other capitalised Happiness Engineer or Expert wanted to carry the matter any further but nothing has happened, so here I am carrying out my intention.

WordPress in this case has been completely transparent in what it is doing and why. Furthermore, in telling me the navigation bar is part of the WordPress brand, it is clearly marking out what is theirs and what is the user’s on WordPress pages. The implication is, if I don’t like the brand and the conditions that go with it, I can take my custom elsewhere. Oh, and I’ve taken note of the “absolute respect” with which WordPress regards my right to publish. I was tempted to remove the link to the campaign website but I left it to show my absolute respect.

I am not in much of a position to argue – as I knew from the first – if only because I operate The Traveller on WordPress’s freebie level. I suppose similar services exist elsewhere but I wouldn’t know where to look. Wikipedia tells me WordPress is the most popular website management or blogging system in use on the WWW, supporting more than 60 million websites. WordPress is used by 60 per cent of all the websites whose content management system is known, or 27.5 per cent of the top 10 million websites. It’s clear to me that moving to another supplier or setting up my own website would entail untold cost and trouble. I don’t have the skills or the money and, frankly, after working through the whole damned transition from typewriters, paper and hot metal printing over several stages involving OCR, mainframe processing and acoustic modems to PCs, the Web and desktop publishing, I really can’t be bothered.

Cancelling out would be futile. I would be the only loser. Quite apart from the above, I would have no outlet for my ego and my little obsessions. I mean, after all, who would notice if I wasn’t around any more? My readership is so small that WordPress has not bothered to place any ads on my site. WordPress could not care less, despite their Happiness Engineers, whether I came or went. This is not a whinge, merely a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

But I do object to WordPress using its brand to suggest to my readers that I support something I do not, and furthermore to suggest to all readers of all sites that all users support the campaign. I actually would object to WordPress doing it, even if I supported the campaign, any campaign. It should be obvious that opinion on any issue will be divided within the WordPress “community” of 60 million websites. And yet nobody thought to ask. Most probably the WordPress owners and operators believe themselves to be supporting a righteous cause but also probably those same righteous people more cynically have an abiding confidence that most, if not all, of their clients will stay put because there are no easy alternatives.

We have seen a number of large organisations over the years tie themselves to trendy causes in the belief that this will engender goodwill among their customers and clients, and those they wish to be their customers and clients, only to have the stratagem blow up in their faces – in the case of BP, quite literally. Who remembers now BP styling itself “bp, beyond petroleum” in the hope that the world would think a) BP petroleum was green, or at least more green than that of the other oil majors; and b) BP was ultimately planning to move out of fossil fuels (i.e go out of business)? That all disappeared in a hurricane of flame and smoke one night in the Gulf of Mexico.

Like the WordPress insiders, however, I don’t think they’re in for that kind of nasty surprise. I doubt they will have a revolt on their hands over their homosexual “marriage” campaign – they have Happiness Engineers, after all.

That was the really stunning revelation from my e-mail exchange with WordPress. I knew what the answer would be on the rainbow ribbon but I never guessed there would be this fallout. Oh, Aldous! Oh, George! Where are you when we need you? Or, indeed, where are the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence? Does the pursuit of happiness lead inevitably to Happiness Engineers?

I hope Adeline Y. and her colleagues are themselves happy in their work. I hope nothing happens to disturb the tranquillity of their lives, and they never feel the need to have their own happiness engineered. I hope they can smile and whistle under all circumstances, as Lord Baden-Powell advised, and they take their soma pills regularly according to the instructions. I hope they believe everything they’re told. I hope all their relationships are full of love and laughter, and never clouded by the reality that rainbows are products of storms and rain and a trick of the light.


Poetry and politics

Like Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ holistic detective, I am interested in the connectedness of things. I don’t know that I agree all events are linked but sometimes coincidences grow into more than just serendipitous collisions, like atoms in a jar. Last Sunday afternoon I had it in my mind to create a small literary prank to play on a few of my pals and so I took down from my bookshelves a slim volume that contains one of the great literary practical jokes in the hope I might be able to borrow something from it. I hadn’t read it for years and so I read it again, with much amusement and wonder at its insights. Later that night, in a quite separate frame of mind, I delved into the Review liftout of the Weekend Australian and found there a piece that I thought gelled with my afternoon’s reading. The old book gave the Review article a resonance that I’m sure the Review writer would not have intended, nor would he have wanted me to make the connection I did.

This is about Capital A Art and fashion, sins of omission and commission, and censorious politics. Let’s start at the end.

The piece I read in the Australian was by a Melbourne poet named David Campbell who decried the absence of poets from a recent anthology who actually write rhyming verse in a regular metre. The anthology, Contemporary Australian Poetry, purported to be a survey and critical review of material written since 1990. Without having the book in front of me, I inferred that, if you picked through this book, you would gain the impression that the only significant Australian poetry produced in the past three decades was in free verse.

David Campbell

Not so, according to Campbell. Scores of poets working in a genre misleadingly labelled “bush poetry” had simply been ignored, he said. “It’s as if all the poets and their books, and the hundreds of published award-winning poems, have been completely airbrushed from history.”

Campbell says a lot of the kind of poetry that he would have liked to have seen included in the anthology is not merely “bush verse” – it “tackles all of the contemporary themes that preoccupy writers of any persuasion”. Look up his website ( and you’ll find he’s not a disinterested critic. He writes “bush verse”, it has been published widely and he has won awards for it. So he’s open to accusations of talking his book, or just complaining he’s been left out.

But Campbell himself works both in poetry grounded in “metre, rhyme and clear communication” and in free verse. His concern is not about the merits of one form of verse over another but with the apparent prejudice of the editors and the blame they, and others like them, must shoulder for the decline of public interest in Australian poetry. The latter he attributes, at least in part, to the celebration of poems that are “little better than minced prose” or “crippled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vocabulary and a tin ear” – descriptions quoted from a review of the same book, Australian Contemporary Verse, by playwright Louis Nowra.

Campbell also quotes Clive James about “critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete” and furthermore: “The ruling majority of people concerned with poetry in Australia think free verse is a requirement of liberty, and anything constructed to a pattern must be leaving something essential out.”

Oh well, so what? Literary spats, or, more broadly, artistic arguments reverberate around the around the luvvy world all the time. Eventually they all come down to the one question: what is Art? Everyone knows what it is, and everyone knows what it isn’t. Right? OK then, move along . . . nothing to see here.

Except that, the old book I had read earlier that day was Ern Malley’s Poems, which should ring bells. For me, the commentary in it rather skewered the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry in a way that neither they nor Campbell could have known. I need to make clear at this point that I have not consulted Mr Campbell for this post, nor should anyone infer that he shares the opinions expressed herein, beyond what he had to say in the Australian. Indeed, I really shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer but it will become clear why I feel I must. David Campbell may well have enough come down on his head for his Australian article without copping anything that might come my way.

Max Harris . . . post wild child

Anyone who has taken an interest in Australian literature since World War II knows the story of Ern Malley, or at least has heard of it. The yarn is more than 70 years old now but it remains a cause celebre in Capital A Art – and not irrelevant to Campbell’s and James’s complaints about the judges of recent Australian poetry.

To refresh everyone’s memory. In 1940, despite the war, an 18-year-old would-be surrealist poet named Max Harris from Adelaide established a magazine named Angry Penguins, typically self-referential in that the name derived from a line in one of his own poems. His patrons were OzArt gurus John and Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan. Angry Penguins promoted the avant garde in visual art and published poems of that nature.

In 1944 a couple of scallywag poets (and soldiers), James McAuley and Harold Stewart, aged 27 and 28 respectively, decided they’d had enough of Angry Penguins poetry and sat down together at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne one Sunday afternoon – it seems to be the appropriate time for cerebral activity – with a few random reference books, extracted likely looking words and phrases from them and produced 16 “poems” under the group title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They named the author Ern Malley, gave him a life story and a helpful sister, Ethel, and passed the poems off to young Max as the unpublished life work of the late, unknown Ern. Harris bit and printed the poems with suitable accolades. The secret didn’t last long and the two naughty boys were soon exposed as hoaxters in a Sydney tabloid named Fact and then in the Sydney Sun afternoon paper. Harris might have been embarrassed but not much: he insisted the things had literary merit and continued to do so over ensuing years.

There the situation might have rested . . . the tiny OzArt world squirming over the discomfiture of the Adelaide upstart while the giggling rest of the country got on with the war . . . when an idiotic Adelaide policeman named Vogelsang (true: in a case like this you couldn’t make up such a name) decided to charge Harris and Angry Penguins with indecency, in part because of the content of seven Ern Malley poems. An even more idiotic magistrate agreed with Detective Birdsong, on the basis of a law which even he conceded could have had Shakespeare in the dock. None of the content complained about would cause remark these days, let alone pursed lips or a raised eyebrow. Poor old Vogelsang would die of shame just by turning on the TV now.

And so Ern Malley escalated from a practical joke to a debate about sexual censorship and from there to an enduring discussion about, yep, “what is Art?” The perpetrators insisted they had not intended to show up Max Harris. They were conducting a serious literary experiment.

James McAuley . . . c.1944

“For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,” they wrote in a statement after the exposure. “Mr Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.

Harold Stewart . . . a bit later

“Our feeling was that, by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would be intellectuals and Bohemians, here and abroad, as great poetry.

“Their work appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure; as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house. [Wow, what a line!]

“However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.

“What we wished to find out was: Can those who write and those who praise so lavishly this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense?”

McAuley and Stewart then went on to describe in detail how they had gone about their Sunday afternoon, in one instance lifting a passage from an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes and presenting it as the first three lines of one of Ern’s poems. Making up the Life of Ern took more time than composing his works.

The poems were accepted as brilliant, not only by Harris and co-editor John Reed but also by a lecturer in Australian literature at Adelaide University and an American poet who had some of them published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse.

“However,” wrote McAuley and Stewart, “that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove a complete lack of intelligence. It proves something far more interesting. It proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people.”

So we come back, to our local critic Campbell and his concerns about prejudice, and to celebrated expat James and his line about free verse as a “requirement of liberty”. I suspect neither would want to go further and call the bypass of “bush verse” censorship, or at least a politically motivated act. But I don’t mind doing so. Chaos and continuous disruption, jagged forms and discord, rather than order and harmony and, dare I say it, beauty, are the elements of a certain kind of political activism, not merely in art, that is as glaringly apparent in these uncertain times as it was in Ern Malley’s wartime days.

McAuley and Stewart saw it: “Such a literary movement as the one we aimed at debunking . . . this cultism resembles on a small scale, the progress of certain European political parties. An efficient publicity apparatus is switched on to beat the big drum and drown opposition. Doubters are shamed to silence by the fear of appearing stupid or (worse crime!) reactionary. If anyone raises his voice in protest, he is mobbed with shrill invective. The faithful, meanwhile, to keep their spirits up, shout encouragements and slogans, and gather in groups so as to have no time to think.”

If that passage from deep in the past does not describe to you the current state of debate in Australia – and elsewhere – about important public policy issues, you haven’t been paying attention . . . or worse.


Ern Malley’s Poems was published by Landowne Press in 1961 with an introduction by Max Harris and a cover design by Vane Lindsay. In his introduction, Harris relates how the poems came to him, how he came to be told they were fakes and neither Ern nor Ethel had ever existed, and how he reacted to the news. The book reproduces the statement by the culprits and statements by various luminaries lauding the literary worth of the poems in a 1960 ABC documentary (which also included interviews with both McAuley and Stewart reiterating their views of 17 years before). The indecency prosecution is discussed and the magistrate’s judgement appended. Laudably, Max plays it straight most of the time, something he had a reputation for not always doing.

All the poems are reproduced in full, as first published in 1944, with one significant exception. McAuley and Stewart noted in their post-exposure statement that the last line of the last poem Petit Testament had been printed as “I have split the infinite”, whereas the manuscript read “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything”. The 1961 reprint dutifully reverts to “infinitive”. You would have thought the original editor (undoubtedly Max) might have paused over “correcting” infinitive to infinite and maybe had a little doubt. But if you’re 22 years old and you have a scoop . . .

Today Ern Malley has his own website (of course) and you can read all the poems there (  Make up your own mind as to whether McAuley and Stewart accidentally created Art. Max Harris had no doubt. “Perhaps the best answer,” he wrote, “was the phrase I used at 3 am and in a state of semi-somnolence (when Mr Colin Simpson [of the Sydney Sun] chose to phone me: ‘The myth is sometimes greater than its creators.’. . . The main statement of support came from Sir Herbert Read . . .”

Sir Herbert Read

This eminent English art historian, poet, literary critic and philosopher cabled Harris ahead of a letter: “I too would have been deceived by Ern Malley but hoaxers hoisted by own petard as touched off unconscious sources inspiration work too sophisticated but has elements of genuine poetry.” Read elaborated in his letter: “If a man of sensibility, in a mood of despair or hatred, or even from a perverted sense of humour, sets out to fake works of imagination, then if he is to be convincing he must use the poetic faculties. If he uses these faculties to good effect, he ends by deceiving himself. So the faker of Ern Malley.” Read praised some of the content but dismissed other bits as “merely sophisticated or silly”.

None of what the authoritative knight had to say addressed the central issue McAuley and Stewart raised in their statement – that the guardians of what is deemed by the fashionable to be great and good, no matter how stupid, routinely employ totalitarian methods to intimidate and to suppress dissent. The parade of praise for the Ern Malley oeuvre on the ABC 17 years after the event and the continued appreciation of The Darkening Ecliptic today rather proves the point. The authors said the poems were nonsense but the promoters of such stuff have simply refused to take any notice. The poems are Art.

I am reminded of a TV documentary I saw long ago in which the late David Bowie described a method he used for writing one of his famous songs (not being a fan, I can’t remember which one). He said he wrote down a stream of words on paper, cut them up individually, threw them down and then, one by one, picked them up and randomly put them together again. This sort of rubbish was carefully left out of the flood of praise in the voluminous obituaries. Bowie died in 2016, Harris and Stewart in 1995, McAuley in 1976 and Read in 1968. Ernest Lalor Malley b. 1944 – still going strong.