Thursday, 6 September 2012

P. G. Wodehouse and Fascism

The great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet when he was captured in the German offensive in 1940. His significance was realised by Doctor Goebbels's propaganda department and, very foolishly, he agreed to make some radio broadcasts for the Nazis. Although the actual content of these was perfectly innocuous, there was a massive popular outcry in Britain, some institutions banned his books, and there were demands that he should be prosecuted as a traitor. In the summer of 1945 George Orwell felt obliged to write an essay, “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse”, arguing that Wodehouse was no more than a complete innocent in political understanding. Some people, said Orwell, had detected “Fascist tendencies” in Wodehouse’s stories; whereas in fact there were no post-1914 tendencies at all! Eventually the fuss died down, but Wodehouse moved to the United States and took up American citizenship. Near the end of his life he was given a knighthood, showing that all was now forgiven.

However, I do not think Orwell was right. In “The Code of the Woosters”, which is surely the best of the “Jeeves and Wooster” novels (and which, for some reason, Orwell fails to mention at all in his essay), Wodehouse does introduce an actual Fascist character, by name of Roderick Spode. It is instructive to see how he is treated.
Bertie Wooster describes his first impression on seeing Spode:-
“It was as if nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment …… I don’t know if you have ever seen those pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of”.
The exquisite bathos of “skittle alley” sets the tone for how Wodehouse will proceed to demolish Spode throughout the book.

Spode does have ambitions of becoming a dictator. As Bertie’s friend Gussie explains:-
“Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea is to make himself a Dictator.”
Bertie interposes: “By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, surely?”
“No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts”.
“Footer bags, you mean?”
“How perfectly foul.”

Once again, the perfect note of bathos in “footer bags” ("Footer" being the Etonian slang for football). And there is more to come. Spode bullies and intimidates Bertie and Gussie, and at one point is about to beat Bertie up, but Bertie is able to turn the tables and blackmail Spode into submission. Jeeves had discovered Spode’s guilty secret: that he has another career as a talented and successful designer of ladies’ knickers!
“Good Lord, Jeeves! No wonder he didn’t want a thing like that to come out.”
“No, sir. It would unquestionably jeopardise his authority over his followers.”
“You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing. One thing or the other. Not both.”
“Precisely, sir.”

With this weapon to hand, Bertie is able to tell Spode in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him:-
“It is about time that some public-spirited person came along and told you where you got off. The trouble with you, Spode, is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?””

How could anyone who read these words ever imagine that their author was pro-Fascist? There could hardly be a more ruthless, and perceptive, hatchet-job. One can only wish that all would-be dictators could be addressed in this manner!

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