Another pilgrim’s progress

Anyone who has an affinity with the English language and happens to be in London would be well rewarded by braving the crowds and paying the moneylenders at Westminster Abbey just to visit Poets’ Corner.

You’ll be able to sit there for a while, among the slabs of stone and the pompous statues commemorating many of the greatest exponents of our tongue, and ponder why it is that in a place given over to tombs and memorials for kings and queens, heroes and saints – in, as many believe, the presence of God – mere dreamers and story-tellers should be elevated to holiness in a place of their own.

Maybe you’ll find the experience as strange and wonderful as I did . . . because this was the morning after the announcement that Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was to have a memorial stone placed in the Abbey. It transformed a jaunt across half the world for a bit of fun into a pilgrimage.

My little pilgrimage started as a follow-up to my trip last year to the biennial convention of The Wodehouse Society in Washington DC . After I shuffled off the plane home from the United States I vowed “never again”. These transcontinental flights were exhausting; my ageing overweight carcass couldn’t take the strain any more.

But when the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK) – the UK is important, as I’ve explained before in these archives  – advertised its biennial black-tie bash a few months later I placed myself at the head of the queue, all memories of torture by cattle class banished to the recesses of the mind where unpleasant experiences reside.

And so it was that I acquired a dinner suit , tried out the new Qantas Perth-London non-stop run and settled in at a boutique hotel in Bloomsbury just within (my) comfortable walking distance of the dinner venue at Gray’s Inn. I’d also booked a seat at the Blenheim Palace arts festival for the performance of a new Wodehouse show.

So that was it: two Wodehouse events in a fortnight of indulging myself with visiting friends and family, wining and dining, and touring as many of London’s railway termini as I could manage . I thought I might also try to see the Wodehouse archive at the British Library, and maybe head west to Bristol literally on the track of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Little did I know.

All I missed out on was the library, mainly because I’d failed to read properly the conditions of entry to the archive. I thought my passport would be enough ID to establish my bona fides but, no, the bureaucracy required proof of my residential (albeit foreign) address, a rate notice or something similar. As it happens, I don’t usually travel with that on my person. If I’d had my computer with me the ultra-polite custodian of the vaults would have accepted an electronic flash of a suitable document. Go figure, as the Americans say.

I did make a phone call after that, though, which would more than make up for the disappointment. Would it be possible, I inquired of Dulwich College, Wodehouse’s school, to come and visit its Wodehouse Library and memorial? I’ll get back to you, was the reply. I didn’t have much hope of a yes but it was worth the call.

I then trotted off expectantly to the Wodehouse dinner at Gray’s Inn [see Note 1 below], where 148 Wodehouseans gathered under the righteous gaze of a portrait gallery of eminent jurists for some celebratory browsing and sluicing, although we didn’t know until the very end just how celebratory the event would turn out to be.

Attendees to this 11th gala included some from the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and one from Australia – me, who was surprised and gratified to find the portrait of one R.G. Menzies [2] among those present, albeit in the reception room rather than the hall proper. The delicately nurtured came splendidly attired, of course, but among the male contingent black tie conformity was not, unfortunately, universal. One facially hirsute egg dared to appear in a white mess jacket with brass buttons . . . and he wore a soft-fronted shirt. Maybe he had the imprimatur of the Prince of Wales.

Gray’s Inn Hall . . . somewhere in the middle is the Duke of Kent

After the opening formalities, and with the banquet settling under the collective cummerbund, diners sat back to savour the traditional post-prandial concert of Wodehouse readings and songs. The program devised by the formidable Tony Ring was on the theme, A Comic Crook Parade – audacious, not to say impudent, given the surroundings.

HRH the Duke of Kent, as he has often done before, led the gang in renderings from the works of the Great Man about the delights of the criminal life. They revived PGW’s very first professional lyric for the musical theatre, a lament of every old lag called Put Me in My Little Cell, from the 1904 West End show, Sergeant Brue:

Put me in my little cell
Let my job be soft,
Tell, oh tell the guv’nor that,
My heart with grief and pain is tore.
Say it’s all a blunder
That I’m not the chap they want . . .

They went on to perform Our Little Nest (from Oh, Lady, Lady!, 1918), We’re Crooks (Miss 1917, guess which year) and Tulip Time in Sing Sing (Sitting Pretty, 1914), before Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s step great-granddaughter) went straight with, of course, Bill (Oh, Lady, Lady! and Showboat, 1927).

The grand finale was the announcement of Plum’s elevation to Westminster Abbey, which opened up a whole new train of thought. As I hoofed it back to my hotel – getting a little lost among the unfamiliar surroundings of Bloomsbury – I became increasingly convinced of what I had to do next.

And the next morning I did it – I went directly to the Abbey and shuffled along in the tourist queue until I reached Poets’ Corner. The Abbey keepers have thoughtfully placed chairs around this space. I suppose they get used but I was the only one who took the opportunity that morning. The greatness on show there might not have been what the rest of the tourists had come to experience.

Behind me were the memorials to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Opposite was Oscar Wilde and right in front of me were stones holding the names of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. The floors and walls are covered with Milton, Pope, Dickens, Austen, the Bronte Sisters, both Eliots, Betjeman of course, Kipling, et al, and theatrical greats like Sheridan and Olivier (and, believe it or not, David Frost). I sat thinking for a good half-hour about how Plum might have regarded his being honoured with a place among such spirits, his elevation from one-time pariah [3] to immortal – and my own presence there. I’ve made my life out of the English language – it was like a homecoming.

Next day my Wodehouse pilgrimage continued to Blenheim Palace and its annual arts festival, for a one-off performance of the new show, Wodehouse in Wonderland. Blenheim is a magnificent pile near Oxford set in a vast park, an aristocratic edifice not unlike Blandings Castle, the ancient seat of the Earls of Emsworth [4], (Indeed my driver got lost later trying to find our way out. If it weren’t for some friendly natives, we’d still be there; the place is so big.) This is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Daunting in every aspect.

William  Humble  in  wonderland

Tucked away off a gallery on the lefthand side of the massive internal quadrangle is the Marlborough Room, a smallish space dominated by a huge portrait of the Duke. It was here that about 100 fans and festival-goers packed in to see the actor/singer Robert Daws go through his paces as Wodehouse himself in a biographical one-man show written by William Humble, a stranger to me. The piece as performed that day was still a work-in-progress, albeit fairly well along the path. Whether it will ever  reach the spotlight as a fully formed commercial play remains to be determined.

Humble, who did his best to be so in a speech to the audience, has composed his play out of Plum’s own words – from his stories, his unreliable memoirs and his letters, and illustrated it with his lyrics to music by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello — including my favourite, The Land Where the Good Songs Go (Kern). Of course I loved it. Daws, whom I had never seen or heard before the previous evening at Gray’s Inn, turned out to be one of those wonderful versatile performers who make up the huge English repertory company we see on TV all the time without knowing their names. He was, by turns, funny, dramatic and touching.

The bit I liked best – call me shallow if you like – was his rendition of the pig call from the story Pig-Hooey. Here’s how Wodehouse described it:

You want to begin the “hoo” in a low minor of two quarter notes in four-four time. From this build gradually to a higher note, until at last the voice is soaring in full crescendo, reaching F sharp on the natural scale and dwelling for two retarded half-notes, then breaking into a shower of accidental grace notes.

I’ve asked my friend the composer whether this is a valid musical sequence. He says it is but would not amount to much. Perhaps the vocalist is the key. According to Wodehouse:

 You need a voice that has been trained on the open prairie and that has gathered richness and strength from competing with tornadoes. You need a manly, sunburned, wind-scorched voice with a suggestion in it of the crackling of corn husks and the whisper of evening breezes in the fodder.

I doubt whether Robert Daws, for all his virtues, has spent much time on the open prairie getting sunburned but, I tell you what, he called those pigs home like he was way out in the middle of Nebraska. Fair dinkum, I reckon there must have been porkers Down Under that day whose ears at least twitched at the sound.

With that ringing around my skull I set off westward to Bristol for a spot of admiring the works of the great Victorian engineer, railway, ship and bridge builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Three days later, nursing a bruised knee and the beginnings of a nasty infection in my leg (which kept me laid up, filled with antibiotics, for a fortnight after I got home), I was standing on Brunel’s Temple Meads station in Bristol, which serves his Great Western Railway, waiting for an uncertain train to London – an accident overnight in the rail corridor into London had disrupted all traffic from the west – when my phone rang. Can you come to Dulwich tomorrow – 11.30am or 3pm? And so it was that the next afternoon I rolled out of Victoria station for the short trip to Dulwich College, in a south-eastern suburb Wodehouse immortalised in a number of stories as Valley Fields.

Dulwich College (above) was founded in 1619 and, despite its longevity and record of achievement, it is still not regarded as being in the top rank of English public schools. The Empire might have been won on the playing fields of Eton but it was damned-well administered on the glowing greenswards surrounding Dulwich and other such “second-rankers”. Wodehouse was sent there in 1894, rising 13, and finished there in 1899. It was at Dulwich that he learnt the language skills that were the foundation of his literary art. Other famous Alleynians (named after the founder) include Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer and one of those heroic English failures, Raymond Chandler, the American crime novelist, Trevor “Barnacle” Bailey, the cricketer, and Nigel Farage, the Brexit politician.

I must say it felt faintly intimidating, even at my advanced age, for this son of a baby-boomer Queensland high school to go crunching along the gravel pathway to the Dulwich office under the clock tower and be introduced to Paul Fletcher, Head of Libraries and Archives for a one-on-one tour. I gathered that this was a privilege – not something they ordinarily did. The tour would be limited and quick.

Well, it was quick but essentially that was because the points of Wodehouse interest are grouped together – the Wodehouse Library, which houses the glassed-in memorial, and along the corridor, the Great Hall. The playing fields where Plum distinguished himself in cricket and rugby are all around. Paul actually took time to show me other souvenirs, such as Bailey’s England blazer, Shackleton’s Union Jack and the display featuring the Schools Class steam locomotive, Dulwich. He murmured interestedly when I told him one of my sons had actually played cricket at college on a tour with his Melbourne school in about 1990. He allowed me to take pictures.

The Great Hall (right) naturally reminded me of its equivalent at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, where Gussie presents the prizes in Right Ho, Jeeves:  “[It had] been built somewhere in the year 1416, and, as with so many of these ancient foundations, there still seemed to brood over its Great Hall . . . not a little of the fug of the centuries . . . though somebody had opened a tentative window or two, the atmosphere remained distinctive and individual . . . The air was sort of heavy and languorous . . . with the scent of Young England and boiled beef and carrots.”

On the honour boards lining the hall’s dark timbers lurked the name of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse for some minor sporting achievement but I couldn’t spot it. More prominent was P.G.’s brother, Armine, posted for academic brilliance. The stained glass windows were not as magnificent as they had once been, Paul explained, as a result of the influence of a wayward bomb during the late unpleasantness.

So under the motto “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature – P.G. Wodehouse”, we entered the library (with a picture of The Man on the wall behind reception) and its shrine (right) – a glassed-in corner of the establishment decked out like a study a writer might inhabit. It is lined with the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse. The desktop contains an old (and familiar to me) Remington Royal typewriter, pipes, photos, and a clutter of various other papers and knick-knacks.

On a side table are displayed a certificate of a prize awarded in 1894 to young Pelham for arithmetic and dictation, and next to it a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s first published novel, The Pothunters, one of many school stories in which the budding novelist developed his skill and style. First editions in good condition are highly prized by collectors, and can change hands for more than $10,000. The Pothunters is dedicated to young family friends Joan, Effie and Ernestine Bowes-Lyon, first cousins to the Queen Mother. The inscription reads: “To William Townend [his lifelong schoolfriend] These first fruits of a genius at which the world will (shortly) be amazed (you see if it won’t) from the author P.G. Wodehouse Sep 28 1902”.

The bottom left corner of the desk is occupied by the visitors’ book, and on the open page now resides the signature of yours truly. Paul unlocked the door and let me into the inner sanctum just so I could pollute the paper. Not many had been there before me, although the line immediately above had been scratched only a week earlier by one Martin Breit, a German chap who, I later found out, had been at the Gray’s Inn dinner. I was so overwhelmed by this event that I snapped a quick picture of that side of the desk and left. Paul locked the door behind me and that was it.

Moments later I was thanking Paul profusely, heading somewhat dazedly out the door, back down the gravel path, through the security gate into the busy street, past the house where Plum had boarded when he first came to the school, off to my train and the rest of my life. I had been at Dulwich College half an hour. I came-to as the traffic roared past – I had not taken a selfie. Aaagh! If my leg hadn’t been so sore I would have performed an amazing gymnastic trick and kicked myself. How could I have had the run of the place and not put myself in the picture? At least I have proof of my visit with a snap of my signature in the guest book.

I loved my little pilgrimage. It became, I suppose like all pilgrimages, a journey of contemplation – why am I doing this;  why have I been so moved by the work of a man who wrote for no greater reasons that he needed to make a living, he loved writing and he wanted to entertain his audience; what does the Abbey memorial mean in general, and to me in particular?

I have not reached any firm conclusions yet, and I don’t know that I ever shall.


[1] Gray’s Inn is one of the four Inns of Court in London. To practise as a barrister in England and Wales a person must belong to one of these Inns, which are both professional associations and providers of chambers Gray’s Inn is ruled by a governing council made up of the Masters of the Bench (or Benchers). The Inn is known for its gardens, which have existed since at least 1597.

[2] Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978), Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Honorary Bencher of Gray’s Inn and inter alia Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The 1963 portrait hung at the Inn is one of several of him painted by the Australian artist Sir Ivor Hele.

[3] For non-Wodehouseans: Plum was interned in Nazi Germany in 1940, having failed to escape from France where he was living, and on release, under international law being aged nearly 60, notoriously made a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin. He was vilified in war-torn Britain and, although later cleared of everything but extraordinarily poor judgement, he lived the rest of his life in the United States and never even visited England again. The judicial reports on his conduct were kept secret for decades and it was not until weeks before his death in 1975 that he was knighted, apparently at the instigation and urging of the Queen Mother.

[4] Blandings Castle, which Wodehouse located in Shropshire, “came into existence towards the middle of the 15th century at a time when the landed gentry of England . . . believed in building their little nests solid. Huge, grey and majestic . . . The illustrated glossies often print articles about it, accompanied by photographs showing the park, the gardens, the yew alley and its other attractions”. The place boasts “ancient battlements, smooth green lawns, rolling parkland, majestic trees, well-bred-bees and gentlemanly birds”.



PS: Up the creek again

Out of the blue, a name from a previous post has bobbed up to my delight in The Traveller’s comments column:

Hi Noel – My name’s Marie Low – I’ve just read your piece about Almaden and my photo at the pub. It’s a beautiful blast from the past . . .

It certainly is. Marie was referring to Oh Savannah, don’t you cry for me – a piece from January 2017 about my ride across far north Queensland on the train called the Savannahlander and a yarn therein about a nicely framed racing photo on the wall of the Railway Hotel at Almaden, a fly speck on the map in mining country at the western edge of the Atherton Tableland. It’s a marvellous picture of a horse called, appropriately enough, Up the Creek, going flat chat and winning a race quite literally by the length of the straight. In fact, as matters turned out, it was, as you can see below, a one-horse race.


Marie took the picture and I took a picture of the picture, which was pretty well useless because of the reflections in the glass. But I threw it in my post after many fruitless hours combing the web for both Marie and the original photo, adding that I might give her a call if I could muster enough energy to track her down. Of course I never did. She found me instead.

Her note to me included her phone number, so this time it was no effort at all. What happened? My audience, while perfectly formed, is notoriously small. It was simple, really, she had gone looking on the web for her own picture and came up with the booby prize. The picture itself is still nowhere to be seen – and that was a surprise to her, too, because it has been sold all around the world. “Hundreds and hundreds of them,” she said. You’d think it would be around somewhere. It seems not.

Let’s backtrack a little. The picture on the pub wall (I assume it’s still there) is headed: “Almaden Race Club – Queensland 75th Anniversary – May 1996”. The caption underneath states: “Railway Hotel/Class 4 Handicap 1200 metres. Winner: Up the Creek. Jockey: Gary Morrisson. Photo: Marie Low”. Mine host gave me his version of the story. Three horses had actually gone to the barrier for the race. One broke down before the start and never came under starter’s orders. The other two jumped and headed off towards the turn into the straight – whereupon Up the Creek’s rival ran off the track, leaving G. Morrisson to pilot Up the Creek home alone.

Marie’s recall is slightly different: “The race attracted only two starters. The odds-on 4/9 favourite, Forever Ruling, dislodged jockey (Milo McDuff) at the start, leaving 2/1 outsider Up the Creek (Gary Morrissey) to continue unchallenged, urged on by the boisterous crowd. The surprised jockey encountered and caught the favourite coming back the other way and returned to scale with both starters.”

That’s a little par Marie sent me with a copy of her photo of the finish. She’s a good old country journo, so you can rely on the detail – except “Morrissey”, unless, of course, the caption on the framed pic is wrong. Neither makes an appearance on the web when you type his name into a famous search engine. That’s about the only unsurprising thing about this tale.

“The jockey went for his life and rode the horse right out,” Marie told me. “I actually missed the picture the first time I was laughing so hard.”

Pro Hart 4

Pro Hart country

The story of the race that wasn’t makes her snap a great picture but I reckon there’s more to it than that. She’s captured one of those images that creeps up on you the more you look at it. There’s something about it, apart from the obvious. It reminded me of all those Pro Hart paintings of country race meetings, and their evocation of an Australia that exists to a majority of Australians only in myth. Look at the people in Marie’s photo and their setting – the hats, the shirts, the galvanised iron judges’ box, the rough timber railings. It’s Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson country.

Not many there, it seems. But if you could go behind the stand where Marie was perched, you’d find lads and lassies from far and wide in their party finery having a day out. A few tough, well seasoned nags would be half asleep in their galvanised iron stalls. The country bookies who’ve travelled many a dusty mile to be there would be up on their stands calling the odds for $2 bettors. Nobody makes much money at the bush tracks (except maybe the publican) but that’s not the point. The community event is what it’s all about, and somehow Marie has captured it in her picture of the one-horse race.

The thing is Marie wasn’t even the official photographer for the day. Her husband, John Snape (known naturally as Snapper), was – that’s him working down on the fence next to the judges’ box – and she was, this time, just along for the ride. She worked for the Cairns Post and usually had to cover the races in town while John went bush. “We had so much fun at the bush races in North Queensland,” she said. “John was a race photographer for many years.”

The Almaden publican told me Marie had won an award for the photo. I assumed that meant a Walkley, the major award in Australian journalism, and that’s where I went wrong. I couldn’t find her name in the winners’ lists for either 1996 or 1997, so I said in my original piece she hadn’t won anything. Not so – the picture was a finalist for a Walkley, missed out but, deservedly, won Australian Racing Photo of the Year, sponsored then by Foster’s Brewing.

Marie was originally a Brisbane girl whose first job in journalism was on the Queensland Times in Ipswich. Yours truly grew up in Ipswich and did his cadetship at The Courier-Mail in Brisbane. She now lives in Gunnedah where she had a stint as editor of the Namoi Valley Independent and now plies her trade part-time looking after journos on Fairfax Media newspapers all over the New England Tableland region.

I’m out of the picture.


A gutsy encounter


Now that I’m old and infirm I seem to be having some luck with girls. Isn’t that always the way? As my long-suffering wretch of a wife will attest, I’m like the dog who chased the bus – if he caught one he wouldn’t know what to do with it. Nevertheless there’s still enough life left in this old dog to preen a little when girls fall at his feet (see Bristol) and when not one but two approach him giggling mightily.

Sir John aloneIt happened at St Pancras International station, the London terminus of Eurostar. I had gone there to commune with Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate and railway fan who is credited with saving St Pancras from the wrecker’s ball. His slightly larger-than-life-size bronze statue by Martin Jennings, stands on the old train platform level (now above the main station area), gazing up at the classic Victorian train-shed roof. The disc surrounding his feet has inscribed on it: “And in the shadowless unclouded glare/Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where/A misty sea-line meets the wash of air” – a verse from his poem, Cornish Cliffs.

Sir John and meI was taking selfies, one train man with another, when these two giggling girls came up to me. They were of Japanese appearance (as the jargon goes these days) and one of the young ladies apologised to me in perfect English that, sorry, she couldn’t help taking pictures of me and my antics, and showed me three snaps. Giggle. I’m afraid she caught me perfectly, especially in the one here (pity about the random dude photobombing in the background). I insisted she send them to me and in the way of today’s miracle technology she did so, on the spot.

St Pancras also boasts a Sir John Betjeman pub, which of course I favoured with my patronage, and a giant statue of a man and woman embracing under the clock – very suggestive to old Melburnians for whom meeting under the clocks at Flinders Street Station was an ancient custom. This big bronze is set on a plinth which depicts around its circumference scenes from the life of the station, including this section (below) . Oh dear. It seems the artist, Paul Day, has a somewhat cynical view of modern girls.St Pancras statue

I like the modern, recycled St Pancras. Like most termini (and airports) these days it is, of course, a shopping centre with platforms attached but it is still demonstrably a station. On the Betjeman level, you can sit in the Betjeman pub and watch the several different models of Eurostar glide to a stop and passengers rush off down the escalators behind the glass barriers. Most of the hustle happens below on the departure level, which is as you might expect almost exactly like an airport.

St PancrasSomehow, for me St Pancras retains the quiet and composed manner it had when I travelled out from there to my job at Luton for a short while in 1972. With its spires, gothic brick construction and dark stained wood interior, under the single span roof, it was more like a cathedral than a station. I didn’t know it then but it was already in decline from its pomp serving the Midlands, and it was quiet because it wasn’t as busy as it should have been – unlike the neighbouring King’s Cross.

Kings CrossKing’s Cross has always been a big, bustling station. As the London terminus of the east coast mainline to Edinburgh and home of the Flying Scot, it was, and is, a monster, crowded with people charging in and out or, now, in fine weather, lolling about on a forecourt opened up by the removal of service buildings. The renovations have exposed the station’s original, rather brutal, façade and enabled the construction of a new ticket office, shops and cafes off to one side. But no longer can you bowl in off the Tube and watch the trains come and go or, indeed, wander down the platforms at one side. I’m told that, if you walk halfway down the station outside, towards the Grand Union Canal, there’s a footbridge across the tracks from which you can still see trains. Otherwise, no trains can be seen from the pedestrian areas at the new Kings Cross. HP shop(You can visit Platform 9¾ though . . . if you get in the queue. Dammit. Harry Potter is all over the place these days. The new musical is on in the West End. Souvenir shops have all sorts of Harry Potter junk piled in with their usual rubbish. Even in the depths of the Roman baths at Bath, the souvenir shop is half given over to some spurious HP sauce.)

Not that it matters much about watching trains these days. Most of them are fairly boring – diesel or electric multiple units enlivened only by the garish colour schemes of some of the franchise companies. The longer distance trains, like Eurostar and Great Western’s to Bristol and beyond, still look like trains, with the possibility of locomotives at the front. I say “possibility” because, of course, they don’t have locomotives. At best they have “power units” at each end. The newer trains coming on line (ha, ha) are dual-powered – electric from overhead wires or third rail and diesel to enable them to go where the electricity ain’t. This configuration is the source of huge debate in the industry and among railfans. National electrification has proved very expensive and residents in much of England’s green and pleasant land don’t like the gantries and wires marching across the landscape. So the program has stalled. Most passengers are not interested – they just want to get where they’re going as fast as possible.

MaryleboneHowever, my inner trainspotter had pencilled in on my unspoken agenda before I left home a program of visiting as many of the London termini as possible. I managed St Pancras and King’s Cross, as I say, Paddington (to go to Bristol), Marylebone (to go to Oxford), Waterloo (to visit a friend in the southern suburbs) and Victoria (to visit Dulwich College, of which more later). I also took in Liverpool Street, for no other reason that I saw a bus going there and hopped on. Out of all those, apart from St Pancras, the only one that has any of the old character left is Marylebone pictured, left). It is a smallish secondary station, its walls are still festooned with “British Rail” signs although BR ceased to exist after 1997, and it has not yet been turned into a shopping mall.

The Paddington renovations, which I noted when there three years ago, have been completed and I can’t say I noticed much of an improvement. I imagined then I could still feel what P.G. Wodehouse called its “note of refined calm”. I must have been deluded. Waterloo, he thought, by contrast, was all hustle and bustle and “society tends to be mixed”. Still is. Ditto for Victoria. The Boat Train has long since ceased to start from there (or anywhere) but you can catch the bright-red painted Gatwick Express if you are flying from London’s second airport.

The great London stations of legend – Paddington, King’s Cross, Euston, Waterloo, Victoria – all carried some kind of romance about them because they were used by people going somewhere distant and exotic, like the Highlands or the Continent or the far west. They still do, of course, but their most important functions these days are to serve the suburbs and commuting towns around the capital’s periphery – what the Metropolitan Railway dubbed Metroland, as the suburbs at the end of its line north and north-west of London started to be built after the First World War.

Evelyn Waugh adapted the name for the fatally charming Margot, Lady Metroland, but it was the saviour of St Pancras who turned a marketing name into a rueful, somewhat regretful evocation of the success of the suburbs. In his autobiographical Summoned by Bells, Betjeman recalled that “Metroland/Beckoned us out to lanes in beechy Bucks”. The Times described him as the “hymnologist of Metroland”. A plaque at Marylebone hails Sir John as “poet and friend of the railways”.

Which brings me back to St Pancras. Within sight of the statue of the Oxford-educated Betjeman, two middle-aged men were discussing, over a cup of tea, the state of academia today, or something similar. My ears perked up properly on hearing “studies in Marxism” and I wondered where the conversation was going. One man sighed: “Given existing power structures in universities, getting a degree in Marxism is almost an oxymoron.”

The two went off to their train, leaving me with Sir John and my giggling girls.

Unmitigated tosh


A pretty girl threw herself at my feet. “Ah,” I smirked, all Errol Flynn. Ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa, ta-pock . . . I had to pull myself up short. She was crying out for help. This was no ordinary damsel – this was one in distress.

In an instant Robin Hood morphed into Sir Walter Raleigh. I swirled my cape of concern. Ta-pocketa.

“What ails thee, little one?”

“I’ve got a wet bum.”

Dr McKinley rose to the surface, anxious to examine the patient. Another one for his casebook. Ta-pocketa. If only I’d had my little back bag with me . . .

“Stepper!” the voice rang through my cranium. “Stepper [as some people know me] what do you think you’re doing?”

And then I was just me, a day-dreaming old granddad. Truth is, though, a pretty girl did fall over right at my feet. Alas, the key words are “fall over”. She had been negotiating passage over some wet cobblestones, she looked up to step past me who was coming in the other direction, her pink-sneakered foot slipped as if on ice . . . and down she went, smack on her derriere.

I actually came over all Baden-Powell. All that first aid drill half a century ago kicked in.

“Sit for a moment . . . there, now let me help you up,” said I, none too steady myself. I did a quick Dr Snoddy – in the name of proper medicine you understand – and she looked all right to me, slender and compact in her tight black ta-pock . . . “Stepper!”

Oh all right. “What you need is a hot drink with sugar. You’ve had a bit of a shock.” Ministering angel, me.

Then I knew she was fine. “I’ve got a wet bum,” she said gazing at a young fellow who’d just turned up. He looked a bit like George Clooney. I suppose he offered her a Nespresso.

I passed on, all aglow with my good-turn-for-the-day. This had never happened to me before . . . a desperate girl at my feet, a bona fide first-aid case. Just call me House. “You didn’t really fall over – you were struck down by a rare South American parasite that is particularly attracted to shapely females in pink sneakers. Oh, I know you love me . . .” Ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa.

The world-weary surgeon/physician trudged through the cobbled streets of the Bristol tourist area on a soaking wet Monday. My decision to persevere with a walk instead of a ride to the SS Great Britain and Brunel museum, despite the rain, was paying off. There were hardly any other tourists around and I didn’t have to fight for space on the path. I could . . .

And down I went. Hubert Opperman, pressing for victory, had his wheels taken out from under him on the treacherous pave of Paris-Roubaix. Undaunted, Australia’s greatest cyclist sprang back on his trusty Malvern Star and pedalled into the gloom. Ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa.

What your grossly overweight, aging fantasist actually did was haul himself slowly and painfully to his feet, while a kindly soul – dry and comfortable in a car – asked him if he was all right. As it happens, I was, apart from wet trousers and a sore, but not damaged, left knee. I was lucky. I could resume my march to the Pole.

With the blizzard raging about him, and instinct nagging him that something was not quite as it should be, Robert Falconer Scott stopped to assess his position. Dammit, instinct was right – he was heading north, instead of south. Wearily, he turned around. This could take some time. Ta-pock . . .

Over the bridge on the river . . . get thee behind me, Alec Guinness . . . and down the railway track on the waterfront . . . you, too, Marlon. Finally, I made it . . . Isambard Kingdom Brunel, I presume, and one of his finest creations, if not the finest: the SS Great Britain, the huge iron steamship that transformed ocean voyages forever.

This was what I had come to Bristol to see. And I had travelled over Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to get there. It was a fulfilment of sorts, for I have long been a Brunel fan.

The man in the stovepipe hat stood proudly on the deck of his sea monster, the giant steam pistons throbbing slowly beneath him. “She’ll do it in 60 days . . . Liverpool to Melbourne . . . you’ll see . . .” He waved a confident cigar in the doubting faces. “You’ll see.” Ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa.

But you know what? This was no fantasy. The Great Britain consistently did the run to Melbourne in only a couple of months. That’s another story – check back later.


  • All those who didn’t recognise Walter Mitty ta-pocketing with his machine gun go to the back of the class. Furthermore, do you know how hard it is to avoid double entendre?
  • The Stepper, or the Old Stepper, is, I think, P.G. Wodehouse’s only Australian character. It seemed obvious I should assume the name for the purposes of an e-forum run by The Wodehouse Society in the United States.

Fit of the blues at tuxedo junction

I say, what? Still here old chums . . . mmmm, must have dozed off for a month or two. No, I haven’t been pinin’ for the fjords like the Norwegian Blue, nor have I fallen off the perch. My feet remain unnailed to it. I have not ceased to be, expired and gone to meet my maker . . . not a stiff, bereft of life. Calm and composed yes but I am not restin’ in peace. My metabolic processes are not ’istory. I am not, I assure you, off the twig. I have not kicked the bucket, shuffled off my mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Most definitely not an ex-anything.

Restin’, I’ll admit to. Fit of the blues, perhaps, but nothing remotely Norwegian parrotty. Indeed I am about to fly off . . . to London, actually, for the biennial dinner of the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK). This mob needs the brackets, you may recall from earlier chronicles, because the Americans purloined the somewhat simpler Wodehouse Society moniker. I hied off to Washington DC this time last year for their biennial beano, and enjoyed it so much I thought I’d line up for a second dose.

Anyway, as I say, every two years, the UK Wodehouseans have a formal dinner, and this year it is again at Gray’s Inn. A hundred or so chaps and chapesses – most of them Poms, of course, with the odd visitor from across the ditch and elsewhere – dress up in their finest and sup together while various Wodehouse-loving players from the vast English repertory company entertain them with Wodehouse songs and pastiche plays of some of his best prose. The formidable Tony Ring, the repository of an overwhelming amount of Wodehousean knowledge and wisdom, has compiled into a book detailed accounts of the 10 previous dinners, complete with scripts. I am looking forward to the 11th immensely.

Ring dinner bookThe program each biennium is kept as a surprise but Mr Ring’s faithful work reveals that fun times can be expected. The browsing and sluicing will be of high standard, with the ghost of Anatole, the peerless disher-upper of Brinkley Court, hovering over the tables. In 2016, the guests feasted on the likes of “thyme and garlic crusted lamb rump, crispy kidney croquette, fondant potato and winter greens and natural gravy”, washed down with “Marterey Chardonnay 2015, Pays d’Oc, France, and Tronido Rioja Reserve 2010, Spain”. It remains to be seen whether this year’s fare reaches the heights of Anatole’s Rognans de Montagnes or Selles d’Agneau laitues à la Grecque, for which Bertie has been prepared to sell his soul over many years. And I must say, with due respect to the vignerons d’Oc and the enólogos de Rioja whom I hold in the highest regard, the wine lists of previous years do not look up to the standard of Lord Emsworth’s cellar. Maybe Beach, however, would approve of Churchill’s Reserve Port to finish the evening.

All to the good. But what I would like you, my small but perfectly formed audience, to do is go back a par and focus on “dress up in their finest”, which is where the story really begins.

jeeves5For eggs and beans, “finest” is defined as black tie, not in these rather slack days the full soup and fish but the garb masons wear to lodge meetings (or cocktail barmen to their dispensaries). And no matter what the Prince of Wales might be contemplating, a white mess jacket with brass buttons is unacceptable. A cream tux with a pink carnation would have Jeeves come over all faint. So here’s the problem: your poor old galah – which is a pinkish Australian parrot, closely related to a drongo – has not in all his years infesting the planet owned a black tie outfit. What to do?

On the infrequent occasions when such dress has been required, I have repaired to one of the many retailers around dear old Melbourne town that do such things and hired a suit a couple of days before the event. I therefore assumed, complacently as I discovered, I could do the same in London. I daresay Jeeves would not approve of hiring any part of a gentleman’s wardrobe. His hidebound view is that the quality and their formal evening apparel have a special relationship. One can’t just ankle along to Covent Garden, where Isidore, Irving and Lou hold court, and expect that their rented, used outer raiment will fit properly, especially if one is rather less lissom these days than if one were a decade or three younger. It is permitted for one to lease costumes from the Bros for fancy dress frolics – as Bertie Wooster did with Sindbad the Sailor and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright with the Borstal Rovers – or for golf or big game hunting but not, sir, for formal dinners.

Nevertheless that’s what I decided to do. Some weeks ago I inquired of the Cohen Bros website what might be the procedure. It all looked a bit too complicated for me, so I fired off an email to them, via their contact form on the website, outlining my requirements, and waited. No response. Nothing. The Norwegian Blue was rowdier.

But with my departure date looming, I tried again last Friday: “I am arriving in London from Australia on Monday, 8 October, for a formal dinner on the evening of 11 October and need to hire a black tie outfit. I am staying in Bloomsbury. Please advise the best way to proceed.” This time I got an answer. I wanted to see words to the effect “no worries, London is a big town, just front up to the store nearest you and she’ll be right, mate”. What I got was a computer-generated generic response: “Thank you . . . We will endeavour to respond to your enquiry within 72 hours. Please bear with us during busy times as sometimes it can take a little while to look into specifics.” What specifics? Three days to answer an email?

Allowing for the weekend and the time difference, it was only a little over the 72 hours, in the late evening of the following Wednesday, when I received my advice: “Dear Noel,” wrote Mark (must be a nephew), “thank you for your email. I would recommend that you go on our website and submit your measurements. However, we cannot guarantee your size will be available. Under normal circumstances we would request that measurements are given 60 days before the event. We would also require you to book an appointment 2 days beforehand to try to ensure the suit is to the correct specifications. If you have any further questions regarding this, please do not hesitate to contact our customer service team.” And, thoughtfully, he provided the phone number that was on the website.

I hesitated like billy-oh. Sixty days . . . you have to be kidding; we’re not talking Savile Row here. An appointment . . . for a suit hire in one of the major cities of the world, from a company boasting a chain of outlets. Must be thousands of blokes at any given time looking for suits at short notice, and tens maybe of other establishments willing to accommodate them. Sixty days! Why not just breeze in on Monday morning – Qantas is scheduled to land me at Heathrow at 5.05 am – and put it squarely to Mark, or to his cousin, that such is Cohen Bros’ reputation I am fully confident that by the next Thursday, three and a bit days, they could pour this mass of misshapen flesh into a reasonably fitting tuxedo, as they prefer to call it?

But on Wednesday evening at home I was far from confident. My faith in the Brothers Cohen was shaken, to the core as any cliché-literate hack would say, and I decided I would sleep on it (two in a row). Their fitting form was like all such online devices – not amenable to variations from what some backroom nerd had decided was the norm. What if I got things wrong – not an impossibility – and what if they got it wrong? I could be left up the Kingsway without a proper set of threads. I didn’t go looking for their rivals – I figured they were all probably the same.

On the Thursday morning then, I did what I should have done in the first place. I rang up one of my previous suppliers in Melbourne, got an immediate hello from a female, actual human being and put the proposition to her. Could you supply me with a suit for the next day (that is, Friday, because I was leaving on Sunday)? Yes sir, of course sir. Thank you but here’s the thing: I want to take your suit to London and I won’t be back for two weeks. Mmmm. That would mean, said she pleasantly, a double hire because we let things out for only a week at a time. London, apparently, was not a problem. She enumerated the cost of a two-week hire. I hesitated once more. She never missed a beat: you might be better off buying a suit. I ummed and erred even more intensely. Hear me out, she said, and uttered a figure less than the cost of the fortnight. All I had to do was get to her before 2.30pm. It was at that stage 9.40am. I had a previous engagement at 10.30 – an hour maybe. You’re on, said I.

Of course things are never as simple, nor as cheap, as they sound. I greeted the sales lady at about noon, without an appointment, and got fitted out. She was terrific. But the trousers required shortening and, worse, so did the sleeves on the jacket. Could this be done in 24 hours? Oh yes, the alterations people could do pants in an hour. But jacket sleeves? Probably, we’ll just ask them. Oh and you’ll need a shirt.

So I trotted downstairs to a nice seamstress, a classical nonna of decent vintage who absolutely knew what she was doing, and by 1pm or so I was out of the shop and heading for lunch with the promise that by 5pm the next day I would have my suitably altered outfit ready to go. In the event, there was a slight glitch and I didn’t get my suit until 6pm. One hour plus change to get the job started, 29 to get it done. Sixty days? An appointment?

The downside was that, what with the shirt and the alterations, the cost of my dinner suit had blown out to more than the two-week hire. Furthermore, for one night, I had committed to cart the thing halfway across the world and back again. On the other hand, for the first time in my life, I was up one black tie rig – not an ex-hire cast-off but a new fine wool suit – and really, I have to get only a couple more wears out of it and I am ahead of the game. If I do a Norwegian Blue trick prematurely, the blighters can bury me in it. And that will be considerably quicker than 60 days, without an appointment.


I suppose I have to explain the Norwegian Blue thing for all those who’ve been hibernating these past 50 years or, indeed, are comparatively recent arrivals in this world. These are words shamelessly pinched from the Monty Python Flying Circus dead parrot sketch, which you can easily read or view by typing those words into a famous search engine. The other references which may baffle are to Wodehouse characters and situations, including “Cohen Bros” which is a cover-up for the real culprits. And please don’t be tiresome about stereotyping. It’s a joke, a common garden-variety comedy turn, and an ancient one at that.

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.