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Funny How the Immune System Works

Even the most reclusive of us must be aware that there really is nothing funny about what is going on at large in the world at the moment. However medical authorities from The Mayo Clinic onwards recommend giggling, sniggering and laughing as a great tonic, so whether appropriate or not at this time of trouble, here goes…

Sir Thomas Beecham the conductor, is on record as saying, “If I was Prime Minister I would require every man, woman and child between the ages of eight and eighty to sit down and listen to Mozart for a quarter of an hour every day for five years.” Bearing in mind recent Prime Ministerial performance one can think of worse edicts.

For the literary equivalent I nominate the works of P G Wodehouse. To name him in full, Pelham Granville Wodehouse. He chose to be known to family and friends as Plum – and who can blame him?

The daily application of one chapter of P G Wodehouse read aloud has given great results so far in our household. And here’s a thing; being as the man was afflicted with as unrelenting a work ethic as any three or four twentieth century writers put together, there is for practical purposes a more or less unlimited supply of his work. He wrote some ninety novels, about two hundred short stories, as well as plays, musicals, and film scripts.

Right about the cusp of the last third of his lifetime, i.e. a few months before he was sixty, he was interned by the German army and spent almost a year in confinement in various locations ending up in what is now part of Poland with other men deemed to be of fighting age. Of the location he wrote, “If this is Upper Silesia, one dreads to think what Lower Silesia is like.”

And then he made a breathtaking mistake for which he paid dearly for the rest of his life. He agreed to make five radio broadcasts for the Germans. This was in 1941.

The content of these broadcasts was gently satirical, here’s a brief excerpt from the first:

Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”

The full text of the five broadcasts with a bullet point account of what happened to Plum during the war can be found here: https://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/wartime

Agreed to…? The evidence is that he was tricked into it. I also reference here a wikipedia article which gives a full and detailed account and a youtube video which has a brief excerpt from a sympathetic film featuring Tim Pigott-Smith and Zoe Wanamaker as the Wodehouses, with she confronting him. The full film, Wodehouse in Exile, used to be available on youtube, I hope it’s still around somewhere.

What did this sorry event cost him? Well, after decades of high earning success, Plum was instantly reviled in the war-time British press as a traitor, investigated by the British secret services, and driven into self-imposed exile in the USA never to return to his beloved England.

His work however, remained enduringly popular. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster appeared on television in the 60s personated by Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, later revived by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. There are adaptations and recordings of other parts of his oeuvre, although few of his other creations – among them, Psmith, Ukridge, Mr Mulliner, The Oldest Member, Lord Emsworth, Sally… achieved quite the prominence of the aforementioned double-act.

Plum was granted a final rehabilitation in British national opinion with a knighthood in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors List 1975 (just about six weeks before he died), but was at that time too frail to travel back to his native land to receive it.

Since the end of the Second World War, Wodehouse has been defended in print and on screen by such diverse apologists as George Orwell, Anthony Lane and Stephen Fry. Isaac Asimov in a foreword to a collection of Plum’s work admits to a forty year ambition – to dine at the Drones Club. The late Tim Pigott-Smith stoutly defends Plum as a harmless old duffer completely unaware of the consequences of what happened.

I agree with Tim Pigott-Smith. Apart from Plum’s peculiar innocence, it would be hard to find a more patriotic man at heart.

I have been laughing on the borderline of total loss of control at Wodehouse’s work since I discovered him just over fifty years ago, (I’m sixty-two as of this writing). Back then I had to stuff my mouth with a sheet so as not to wake the rest of the household when I was reading at night.

I once played this comic hero of mine in a play called Plum by Roy Smiles. This was in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2014.

All of this is a long way to get to why I’m posting this. As Plum might have put it, “The essayist with points to make or history to include, must get on with it or he will fail to grip and his audience will soon drift away to the bar for a second Gin and Tonic.”

A quick glance at the search engines says that laughter is generally acknowledged to be a great tonic with benefits to the immune system. These days I take a home-made folk-recipe anti-viral tonic: equal parts garlic, ginger, lemon and manuka honey. But I reckon a daily dose of Plum and his laugh-riot prose boosts my immune system just as much or more. As people who write references based on the resumes of job applicants, “I have no hesitation in recommending him to you.”

Evelyn Waugh puts it rather better, this quote of his was for many years on the back cover of all Penguin editions of Wodehouse: “Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from a tyranny more irksome than our own.” Isn’t that a sentiment that feels strangely apt just now?

If you’re new to Plum and his works, start with Bertie and Jeeves and go from there!

That’s me as Plum on the left.

That’s the real thing on the right

Oh, and should it amuse, there’s an astrological view on Plum and his wartime misadventures here.

Categories
Acting

Learning the Ropes

Broadway in New York City snakes through midtown like an uncoiled length tossed casually across a grid. It creates wedges: one at the Flatiron building on 23rd Street, and another at Times Square at 42nd Street the one-time-and-forever centre of the known entertainment universe.

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In these “interesting times” where we live, now and then I get an intuitive confirmation of the impressive prescience of certain twentieth century novelists; my latest was olfactory. Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World – he sure was right about genetic engineering – but do you remember the scene in the book where there is a public protest? The authorities rock up and instead of laying about the populus with strong arms as in cruder locales, they merely pump “soma”, the happy gas, into the vicinity. And while they are doing it they play a soothing voice-over.

“Friends… friends… friends” croons the voice in a tone at once loving and mildly, fraternally, disappointed by the disharmony. The public is soon quieted. Today in real-world Manhattan the¬†streets of midtown are filled with the sickly-sweet skunk-imitator scent of cannabis leaves burning quietly, and undoubtedly to some of us it brings a welcome oblivion.

Orwell was another one. He had it right too, the Big Brothers who presently rule territories East and West are watching you, and some are more equal than others, while the telescreen is the Colosseum, and the public mind marches toward total biddability as Fact, Ethics and Truth are lost in the oubliette of Opinion and the soothing-stimulating somatic-discourse that calls itself “News”.¬†Plato was right after all (when a society seeks the Good above the True – it’s over) and it’s only taken a couple of thousand years to prove it.

By the way, George Orwell wrote an at-close-quarters account of a hanging that happened in Burma (Myanmar) when he was a civil servant there. He was struck by how the condemned man side-stepped a puddle on the way to the gallows.

Along the side streets of midtown there are theatres. They cling to Broadway like barnacles on a submarine cable and claim its name. From them you may purchase entertainment.

Is there a difference between entertainment and art?

“Our job,” says a senior advertising executive to a colleague in the 1980s TV dramady Thirtysomething, “is to give people faith in their leaders, comfort in the purchase of consumer durables and security in the belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong.”

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Last week I joined the company of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. I stand by for Mark Addy, an actor of extraordinary calibre and absolutely outstanding in the role of Harry. The show previews Feb 28th, opens March 19th.

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And if you do see it, will it give you any somatic relief from the chafing-on-the-nerves challenge of being alive in these “interesting times”?

I doubt it.

The author, Martin McDonagh, is on record as saying he had no intention for a play-of-message as he wrote it. Even so, the show is confronting. It’s very funny. State-sanctioned murderous use of hempen weave – what could be funnier? But if you laugh, soon after you are likely to think “What kind of person laughs at this?!?

I’ll call that art.