Last week Salman Rushdie was heckled for giving several low star scores to well known and accepted classics on an internet reading site. So I am going to join him. I have tried, oh Lord have I tried, but I heartily despise and dislike all the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I would never have conferred the knighthood, and were I God Emperor of the Universe (I’m working on it) I would revoke it.
At school after reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and heartily roaring (amongst other scenes) at the cheese story, I looked around for another humorous writer. The school library did not stock, not unsurprisingly, Tom Sharpe so I was pointed Wodehouseward. I did not understand it. So far removed from my experience was his ethereal world of aunts and japes that I was nonplussed, and it was only after reaching my majority with greater experience and knowledge under my hat that I tried again.
Nope. Still couldn’t stomach him. I felt no empathy whatsoever with his characters, nor did his much praised humorous prose tickle me. The lack of empathy was a barrier and I forgot about him. Then a good few years later when Robert McCrum’s highly praised biography came out I tried again.
The biography was read on the radio and it was jolly interesting, old bean, what what. As a professional writer he was to be admired despite the dodginess with the Germans. And so armed with even more knowledge and a grudging respect for his professionalism I hied me to Foyles and bought a paperback.
This book nearly went out of a train window. I was about fifty pages into it when the nausea overcame me. The train was hot. We had stopped inexplicably by the Arsenal stadium and with sweat pouring down my forehead I nearly threw it out of the open window onto the track. It was only the imagined consequences, of Wiltean dimensions, that forced me to stuff it in my bag.
Why do I hate him? It is the lack of empathy: while he is writing about these silly bloody idiots of no perceivable income, the spoilt layabouts of the upper classes, my immediate ancestors, fathers and grandfathers, were sweating themselves to death in the coal mines of the North, to fuel the economy, the empire, and no doubt fill the coal scuttles of those social pariahs, the Berties, the Gussies and all those rebarbative aunts.
What really annoys me is that the image of England in his books ripples across the globe as an extant representation of England, one that is further fanned by the works of Georgette Hayer, Barbara Cartland etc: a narrow clichéd view of England that takes no account of its variety.
And what annoys me even more is that there are some in England who want this vision to return; but what is truly terrifying is that there are those who are actively working for it.
written on a plane to Nice
and don’t forget, for all your reading needs: Lights Over Sheel – it’s not a humorous book