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 . . .
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, 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 – www.mariajette.com and www.danchouinard.com.
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.
The 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.
“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.