Wodehouse to the rescue

Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the 5th Earl of Ickenham, found Paddington Station something of a relief. “To one like myself,” he said, “who living in Hampshire, gets out of the metropolis, when he is fortunate enough to get into it, via Waterloo, there is something very soothing in the note of refined calm which Paddington strikes. At Waterloo, all is hustle and bustle, and the society tends to be mixed. Here a leisured peace prevails, and you get only the best people – cultured men accustomed to mingling with basset hounds and women in tailored suits who look like horses.”

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse gave those words to Lord Ickenham in 1939. Thirty years later, Geoffrey Jaggard, the author of the Blandings the Blest and Wooster’s World concordances, observed: “Two world wars and a social revolution have not, even yet, quite robbed Paddington of that quality. It is still there and detectable – the shadow of a shade. There are certain times of day, on certain days of the week, when those women and those men embark at a certain platform for a certain destination – the last, tenuous pocket of privilege left in England, and long may it reign.”

Nearly half a century further on again, I wonder what the two would make of Paddington today. I’d like to say they’d be content with it, despite the transformation it has undergone, and continues to endure.

The original four-arched train shed still exists; so does the grand hotel in front of the station and a passenger area is named The Lawn, as it was 150 years ago. And although The Lawn, never much of a greensward even in Wodehouse’s day and now a roofed, glassed-in, hard tiled anteroom to the concourse and the shopping mall, represents an outstanding example of English irony, I cannot be sanguine these two literary gentlemen of leisure would find peace there.

Of course, even in 1939, Paddington would not have been as Wodehouse had Uncle Fred describe it. His memory dated from his schooldays before the turn of the 20th century, when he was boarding at Dulwich College and he used to catch the train at Paddington to go to his parents’ home in Shropshire, and then for 10 or so years after that when he was working in London.

Wodehouse's Paddington . . . an Edwardian impression by Alan Fearnley

Wodehouse’s Paddington . . . an Edwardian impression by Alan Fearnley

What Plum had in his mind was probably closer to the kind of scene the great railway artist Alan Fearnley imagined when he painted his view of Edwardian Paddington, coincidentally around the time Jaggard was penning his paean for Paddington.

Paddington station comp

Brunel still there

Although the much-loved Great Western Railway and the last steam train had long departed for the great roundhouse in the sky, perhaps there was some wraith of the glory days lingering underneath the arches. No doubt that’s what the main train company operating out of Paddington these days is seeking to capture in its recent rebadging of itself as Great Western Railway.

But I fear the rushing crowds of commuters and other commoners have laid the old spirit to rest permanently. Of the many pockets of privilege that most assuredly still exist in England, Paddington station is not one of them. Paddington Bear, memorialised in bronze at the foot of the escalator to the shopping mall, is more likely to be the station’s public identity than its builder, the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose statue sits to the right of the concourse. There, anxiety, rather than leisured peace, prevails.

Not that this is peculiar to Paddington. All the major London rail terminuses (vale Latin plurals) are the same, as are their Paris counterparts. A melee of travellers stares at destination boards worriedly waiting for them to indicate the platform from which their train is to depart. No longer are passengers afforded time to stroll down the platform, find their seats and make their farewells to friends and family who’ve come to see them off. Now you must wait until the board tells you your train is ready (announcements are made but lost in the echoing spaces).

This is the product of high-speed trains, high-population demand and high-pressure train management. The trains look like aircraft, they are configured like aircraft and they are operated like aircraft: such is the size of today’s transport task, the success of the technology and the capital cost of it, assets must always be at work. The trains fly into the platform from wherever they started; they are given a quick brush-up and then they take off again. As at airports, travellers are not allowed near until the manager gives the green light (literally). Then a couple of hundred people, wheeling their household goods before them, charge en masse to the ticket barriers at the head of the platform where confusion reigns: not everybody has electronic tickets; not everybody understands how these new-fangled devices work. Staff – sorry, customer service officers – lack the poise of flight attendants in dealing with harassed souls who have only a few minutes to cram themselves and their bags through the gates, race down the platform to their carriages, fight their fellow travellers for space on the train and finally, exhausted, get settled in their seats.

So it was that my long-suffering wife and I set off from Paddington en route to Penzance, five hours away and about as far to the south-west of London as you can go without getting your feet wet. We followed the route made famous in the golden days of rail by the Cornish Riviera Express.

Old Plum used this train frequently in his writings as a symbol of power and speed. I always liked his similes of an unsuspecting victim receiving a blow “like getting the Cornish Riviera Express in the small of the back”. Somehow this was worse than having, say, the Flying Scotsman collide with one’s anatomy. I suppose the impact of the image has a lot to do with the fact that Cornwall trains out of Paddington serve holiday towns on the Channel seafront – and famously at Dawlish actually run along the top of the beach – so that notionally you could be in relaxed holiday mode, just tootling along, enjoying a stroll on the beach in the bracing sea air, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you get a ticklish sensation in your rear end and, lo, it’s the Cornish Riviera Express making its presence felt.

A train under that name still departs Paddington for Penzance every morning at 10.06 but, for reasons of cost, we preferred the Royal Duchy, departing at 12.06. There seems no discernible difference between them, bar the price and the time. It’s a picturesque ride, once you hit the coast, and by the time you reach Penzance you’re ready for chaps in pantaloons and bandanas greeting you with “ahoy, matey” and offering you a welcoming tot of rum. In retrospect I’m glad this didn’t happen because, despite the considerable delights of Cornwall, even in holiday season, it would have been fitting context for the black spot called Land’s End, or as I now call it the Living End.


Land’s End . . . to get to this . . .

The nation that built the greatest empire the world has ever seen has come to this: the so-called Land’s End Village, a walled clump of circus sideshows, a candidate for the title of world’s tackiest souvenir shop and a few purveyors of indigestible foodstuffs – all blocking access to one of the most symbolic geographic features in the world. Here at the point of Cornwall, the island of Great Britain is submerged, rock by rugged rock, in a gale-swept boiling sea. When the fishermen, the traders, the explorers and, yes, the pirates of old put this perilous landscape behind them they  did not come away with images of Shaun the Sheep.


. . . you have to go through this . . . the Living End

Let the perpetrators of this travesty condemn themselves. From the Land’s End Village website, summer 2015: “Set against the beautiful coastal backdrop of Land’s End, our landmark attractions and seasonal events are designed to keep the young and the young at heart entertained throughout the summer months. Begin by exploring our brand new Shaun the Sheep Experience, a Ewe-nique and Baaa-rilliant attraction for the young and the young at heart, before venturing into our state-of-the-art 4D cinema and immersing yourself in a cutting edge showing of ‘The Lost World’, an adventure forty million years in the making. Fierce Raptors, flying Pterodactyls and the mighty T-Rex all roam this hostile world. After regaining your composure, throw yourself into Arthur’s Quest, an interactive world of discovery, accept Merlin’s terrifying challenge and discover plenty of spine-chilling surprises as you seek the terrible lair of the Dragon.”

Enough! Does this place need to be revved up with such stuff? Do the tourist hordes really want this? Are children and their parents so bored that that a wild natural experience is not satisfying?

The road to Land’s End raises expectations – nine miles from Penzance via impossibly narrow winding country lanes, through interesting villages and well tended farmland. It’s best done from the top of an open double-decker bus, so you can see over the high hedgerows. The day we went, the weather was cold and windy – perfect for going to the end of the world. What we got was a massive asphalt carpark, the Village and sideshow-barking by young fellows in ill-fitting, el cheapo Superheroes costumes (that day being Superhero day for “the young and the young at heart”).

The good news is that, once you fight your way past all that, the scenery is truly spectacular. I can’t begin to fathom why the English don’t let Land’s End be the attraction, as the Irish do at the Cliffs of Moher where we trekked a week or so later. Thousands visit the cliffs every day. Of course, they have carparks too, and shops and a visitors’ centre. The difference is: these things are kept discreet, the carparks are away from the cliffs and the other facilities are underground. Indeed you can bypass the tourist traps completely and just enjoy the sights.

I’m no starry-eyed, inner city greenie. I understand the tourist trade has to be catered for, the crowds have to be managed, fed and watered and the maintenance of natural wonders in the face of tourist pressure carries a cost. Entrance fees and commercial enterprises are essential to keeping such sites open to the public, as they should be. But why create a Land’s End Village? Why boast about it? Why distribute pictures of it as if it’s some kind of wonder in itself?

Depressingly, after the best part of a fortnight roaming around London and England, previous time spent there over 40-odd years and constant exposure to English TV, I’ve concluded that Land’s End Village exists the way it is because that’s what the broad mass of Poms want. It’s not been built for the Germans or the Dutch or the Spanish or even the Australians, it’s been built for holidaying English families – the same people who’ve given the world Essex girls, ladettes and the Inbetweeners.

In Australia this is what has become known as bogan culture – lowest common denominator behaviour based on tattooes, loud crassness, excess booze, party drugs and casual sex. It’s exemplified by the splotches of vomit you have to step around while walking along the street in cities and suburbs. It’s where cheap doesn’t necessarily mean inexpensive.

Are these the complaints of an ageing bourgeois looking down his nose at the working class? I don’t think so – boganism seems to have crossed class divides: simply everyone has a tattoo these days. Has this old man forgotten what he and his contemporaries did when they were young? No, cringingly. Have they never been boisterous or crass? Guilty as charged.

Has the culture I describe, in fact, always been the case (rather than the exception)? I don’t like to think so. What I hope is that today’s trains out of Paddington are not always filled with Neighbours-watching, Pommy bogans heading for Land’s End Village. I’d like to think that, all evidence to the contrary, the rising tide of boganism has not yet swamped the Land of Hope and Glory.

P.G. Wodehouse died 40 years ago and, in the face of all this, I’m grateful the world he created lives on – a genteel, comforting sanctuary traversed by slow trains and peopled by the likes of “cultured men accustomed to mingling with basset hounds and women in tailored suits who look like horses”.


9 thoughts on “Wodehouse to the rescue

  1. What a wonderful piece, that speaks to the heart of my love for Wodehouse and the sentiment behind my blog, Plumtopia — looking for snippets of Wodehouse in a modern world. I know the feeling you describe so well.
    I spent a few months commuting to London from Henley in Oxfordshire, and didn’t get the sense of being part of a pocket of refined calm. Apart from the indignity of having to dash for the train, as you describe, there is the added unpleasantness of the journey, so often spent standing nose to armpit with other travellers.
    As for boisterous seaside attractions, I’m not a fan either. Being Australian, and lucky to have spent most of my life going to beaches that are just beaches rather than ‘attractions’ I feel it would be impolite to sneer at this particularly English phenomenon. I expect it arises from families needing something to do at the seaside when the weather is grim — without being too expensive. It makes sense. Possibly the attractions were once modest, affordable and tasteful. Perhaps more importantly, the behaviour of holiday makers has certainly changed too.
    I’ve visited several English seaside towns now. On more than one occasion (Hastings was the first, but sadly not the last example) we drove along the seafront, jaws drooping in astonishment, before deciding not to stop after all. On that occasion we went to Bexhill-on-Sea instead (another Wodehouse location). A vast improvement –with an interesting beach front and well behaved holiday makers, appropriately dressed and not strewing across the road with reckless abandon.
    My favourite spot in the south (of those visited) is Eastbourne. I’ve visited out of season, as well as in the height of summer, and it strikes me as maintaining a measure of dignified calm that was not present elsewhere. Long may it remain so. The weather was terrible on our out of season visit, but we didn’t feel the need for attractions to keep us occupied. Bad weather on holiday is, for me, an excuse to ‘do nothing’. Excuses like that don’t come along often in modern life, and I’m happy grab them.
    This summer we visited Illfracombe in Devon. It’s a breath-taking setting and offers a variety of things to see and do for people of all tastes and budgets. There was the usual throng of holiday goers removing their clothing at the merest hint of sunshine, but they otherwise conducted themselves decently. Even the most boisterous strip of seaside was pleasant to stroll down. The town also has a local population and character of its own — it’s not just a place for holiday makers. It gave me, for the first time, a sense of how the English seaside might have been in Wodehouse’s day. And I quite liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great commentary on our times. Things change and not always for the good. It is nice to have a contemporary feel of places covered by Plum in his works. As to characters, perhaps Claude and Eustace happen to have become dominant role models in our times?


  3. Pingback: Wodehouse to the rescue again « Plumtopia

  4. Pingback: My Dear Clarence | The Traveller

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