Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: I own this.

A trip to the beach. (Okay, a trip to the beach to run the world’s greatest 10 kilometer footrace...blame my wife for getting me into running again, and into this race in particular.) Anyway, a trip to the beach requires a propper beach read. And yes, I know I am probably not the sort of person to ask for recommendations - after all, I once tackled Camus on a beach trip - but I do think that it is difficult to do better than Pelham Grenville Wodehouse for the occasion.

I am a big fan of P. G., and have been ever since my high school violin teacher’s husband gave my brother and I some of his old books. (We were his favorites, I think, because we were always happy to discuss Dickens and other Victorian authors with him. I also credit him with introducing me to Anthony Trollope.)

I have read quite a few of Wodehouse’s books over the years. Even though I am not a golfer, his golf stories are most hilarious, and one can usually count on his books to be entertaining, witty, and utterly ludicrous. In any event, here are the books I have reviewed on this blog, along with an introduction to the author himself:


Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the fifth Earl of Ickenham - known to Wodehouse fans more jovially as “Uncle Fred” - is one of Wodehouse’s most delightful creations. An older man, usually tied down by his far more sensible wife, he is a force of nature, a “chaos muppet” of the first water (to use a favorite Wodehouse expression), and a good example of what Psmith might have become given enough age. Wherever Uncle Fred goes, expect the unexpected, the crazy, the bizarre - and the hilarious, of course.

I first experienced Uncle Fred in Uncle Fred in the Springtime, which I read a few years back. He combines the intellect of Jeeves (and the ability to, well, fix things) with the exuberance of Psmith. And perhaps the aversion to battleaxe females of Bertie Wooster. In any event, he is a lot of fun. I understand that David Niven once played him. This sounds promising...

In this book, it is Uncle Fred who starts a whole cascade of crazy events, with a simple amusement. While out at the legendary Drones Club with his nephew Pongo Twistleton, he hears of a marvelous idea: shooting hats off using a slingshot and a Brazil nut. He immediately borrows one, and shoots off the hat of Sir Raymond Bastable, a rising barrister and possible future member of Parliament. “Beefy” Bastable and Uncle Fred also are old acquaintances. Bastable has no idea who did the dirty deed, but suspects the “young people” he sees laughing at him. Burning for revenge, he is given an idea by Uncle Fred, who suggest that someone with actual writing talent would write a scathing novel. Bastable takes this as a challenge, and writes “Cocktail Time,” a novel filled with sex, scandal, and a vociferous denouncement of the younger generation. He submits it under a pseudonym, and, after many rejections, it is published.

It remains mostly unknown, until, by chance, the daughter of a bishop is caught reading it, he denounces it from the pulpit, and the rest is history.

Except for a big problem. It isn’t the sort of novel that an aspiring member of parliament wishes to be known for writing. Enter Uncle Fred again. For a small fee, Bastable’s doofus nephew, Cosmo Wisdom, agrees to accept “credit” for the novel. But Wisdom owes a gambling debt to an American con man and his intimidating wife - and they quickly realize there is a deeper pocket they can plumb. Things get, um, complicated really fast.

Before things are wrapped up (with no fewer than four marriages), we meet a potty old literary agent - given to knitting and forgetfulness, a battleaxe housekeeper, Bastable’s sister - who resembles a white rabbit, a letter everyone wants for different reasons, yet another butler (of course), and a novelist who can never quite make ends meet. For someone of Uncle Fred’s resourcefulness, this is, of course, just an epic challenge. Between his imagination, his ability to impersonate, and his epically cool demeanor, everything comes right in the end, to great hilarity. (Well, except for the con man and his wife. After all, the “goodness and light” that Uncle Fred has to spread around has its limits, and someone is bound to be left out.)

Wodehouse is so epically quotable. I literally wanted to just reproduce a few chapters. But I did select a few of the best quotes to share.

The whole Britishism affect is hilarious. Not that any of the Brits I know really talk like this. But one can certainly imagine the denizens of the Drones Club doing it. How about this opening exchange?

“Yo ho,” said the Egg.
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Pongo. “You know my uncle, Lord Ickenham, don’t you?”
“Oh, rather,” said the Egg. “Yo ho, Lord Ickenham.”
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Lord Ickenham. “In fact, I will go further. Yo frightfully ho,” and it was plain to both Bean and Egg that they were in the presence of one who was sitting on top of the world and who, had he been wearing a hat, would have worn it on the side of his head. He looked, they considered, about as bumps-a-daisy as billy-o.

And, soon thereafter, the topic of the Brazil nut catapult comes up.

Lord Ickenham was intrigued. He always welcomed these opportunities to broaden his mind and bring himself abreast of modern thought. The great advantage of lunching at the Drones, he often said, was that you met such interesting people.
“Shoots Brazil nuts, does he? You stir me strangely. In my time I have shot many things - grouse, pheasants, partridges, tigers, gnus, and once, when a boy, an aunt by marriage in the seat of her sensible tweed dress with an airgun - but I have never shot a Brazil nut. The fact that, if I understand you aright, this stripling makes a practice of this form of marksmanship shows once again that it takes all sorts to do the world’s work. Not sitting Brazil nuts, I trust?”

Sir Bastable is decidedly NOT amused by the incident, of course. And he, like many a codger, would prefer that all those annoying young people stay off his lawn.

What had occurred, it was evident, had been one more exhibition of the brainless hooliganism of the modern young man which all decent people so deplored. Sir Raymond had never been fond of the modern young man, considering him idiotic, sloppy, disrespectful, inefficient and, generally speaking, a blot on the London scene, and this Brazil nut sequence put, if one may so express it, the lid on his distaste. It solidified the view he had always held that steps ought to be taken about the modern young man and taken promptly. What steps, he could not at the moment suggest, but if, say, something on the order of the Black Death were shortly to start setting about these young pests and giving them what was coming to them, it would have his full approval. He would hold its coat and cheer it on.

It occurs to me that Wodehouse was a solid 50 or 60 years ahead of our modern era, when the older folks seem to make dissing the Millennials (and whatever the heck my children will be called as an epithet…) But Wodehouse is indeed timeless for many reasons. Here is another. I remember as a kid the clergy of that time getting their panties in a complete knot over The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie which was mediocre at best, and would have died an obscure death had they not rescued it from oblivion by their vehement protestations. In this case, the Bishop of Stortford sees his daughter reading the book - at a particularly racy spot - and then, well, Wodehouse describes it thus:

At twelve-fifteen on the following Sunday he was in the pulpit of the church of St. Jude the Resilient, Eaton Square, delivering a sermon on the text “He that touches pitch shall be defiled” (Ecclesiasticus 13:1) which had the fashionable congregation rolling in the aisles and tearing up the pews. The burden of his address was a denunciation of the novel Cocktail Time, in the course of which he described it as obscene, immoral, shocking, impure, corrupt, shameless, graceless and depraved, and all over the sacred edifice you could see eager young men jotting the name down on their shirt cuffs, scarcely able to wait to add it to their library list.

This success, naturally, leads to the press wanting to know the real identity of the obviously pseudonymous author. And thus is set in motion the rest of the plot.

 I also have to quote Uncle Fred in a passage involving Albert Peasemarch. Said fellow is an old friend of Uncle Fred from the war. He is wealthy enough, but bored with idleness, so he takes a job as butler for Sir Bastable. He plays the part well, but this irritates Uncle Fred.

“Now listen, Bert. This ‘m’lord’ stuff. I've been meaning to speak to you about it. I’m a lord, yes, no argument about that, but you don’t have to keep rubbing it in all the time. It’s no good kidding ourselves. We know what lords are. Anachronistic parasites on the body of the state is the kindest thing you can say of them. Well, a sensitive man doesn’t like to be reminded every half second that he is one of the untouchables, liable at any moment to be strung up on a lamppost or to have his blood flowing in streams down Park Lane. Couldn’t you substitute something matier and less wounding to my feelings?”

It is this sort of thing that keeps me returning to Wodehouse every year. How about another? The senior (in many ways) literary agent of the publisher that takes on Cocktail Time is Mr. Saxby senior. He has taken up knitting - in a very serious way. As in, he rambles about turning the corner on a sock, and is constantly involved in making sweaters for his grandchildren.

Old Mr. Howard Saxby was seated at his desk in his room at the Edgar Saxby Literary Agency when Cosmo arrived there. He was knitting a sock. He knitted a good deal, he would would tell you if he asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.

My wife is seriously into knitting as well - she’s really good at it. So I have to tease her with this one. The knitting keeps coming up throughout the book, usually in hilarious fashion.

Another thread is Lewis Carroll’s most famous book. Several characters are compared to those from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from Bill the Salamander, to the White Rabbit - who is the pattern for Sir Bastable’s widowed sister Phoebe.

One final line, which is so Wodehousian, fans will recognize it anywhere. Sir Bastable is about to reconcile with his old flame, Barbara Crowe (who is the real power at Edgar Saxby.) He discusses this with Uncle Fred, who has done his best to orchestrate the reconciliation.

“And what steps do you propose to take?”
“I’m going to tell her I’ve been a fool?”
“Doesn’t she know?”

I definitely laughed at that one. Actually, I laughed at a lot of this book. It is classic Wodehouse, with a twisted plot, goofy and memorable characters, and a witty and razor-sharp, yet good natured sense of humor. I recommend books to people all the time. Wodehouse is one of my most regular recommendations. Don’t expect profundity. But humor is indeed the hardest genre to write, and beneath the hilarity often lurks the germ of the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. If you haven’t discovered P. G. Wodehouse, by all means give him a try. If you have, well, he was prolific, so grab another of his books as a summer read.

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