Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Literature, Poetry, and Books

Letter from London

April 29, 2009

As promised on arrival, I have been stimulating the Global Economy like no tomorrow. This is easy to do in a place where your hotel breakfast sets you back forty bucks, if you skip the orange juice. If I understand the approved G-20 recovery program, the principle is spend, spend, spend. Especially spend what you haven't got. This puts you in debt, and debt is the key. Once everyone gets comfortable being in debt up to their eyebrows again, there will be confidence. Then people will lend, lend, lend, and Bob's your uncle. Useless spending, if I've grasped the essential idea, is best. People will keep buying useful things despite the crisis--they have no choice. It's the buying of useless things at exorbitant prices with money you haven't got that really falls off in a crisis like this. Government's role is to assist you in not having the money you must spend, by raising your taxes.

The second prong of the travel campaign is juicing up the Special Relationship, and a pleasant trip to Oxford the other day provides a great opportunity for some juicing up. P.G. Wodehouse, of course, was not able to go to Oxford because, though "Plum" was a cracker-jack student of Greek and Latin, his father couldn't afford to support him in university. Unlike Shakespeare, however, who despite earning the title of America's Greatest Poet also did not attend Oxford, Wodehouse actually became an American. Put it on your patriotic calendar: he made it official on 16 December, 1955, if I've got my facts straight. On the joyous occasion, with his usual keen syntactical sense, he wrote a friend: "Thank God for being an American (I don't mean God is, I mean I am)." Anyone who knows Wodehouse knows what an effusion of strong passion is expressed in the title of his memoir of gratitude to his adopted country: America, I Like You.

Plum's biographers say that as a lad he could write Greek and Latin sentences as rapidly as he could write sentences in English, and Wodehouse acknowledges that his boyhood study of Greek and Latin shaped his writing. This is a good advertisement for the classical languages, because Wodehouse's English sentences are wonderful works of art. Sometimes they entertain just by making you keenly interested in seeing how they are going to turn out. No matter what roof he throws them off of, they always land on their feet. Before winning fame for his Jeeves and Bertie stories, he was a great lyricist for American musical comedies in their golden age. You might be interested to learn, if you hadn't heard it in some bar already, that Wodehouse once said that Harry Leon Wilson's Ruggles of Red Gap "made a great impression on me and ... may have been the motivating force behind the creation of Jeeves." No small contribution to Western Civilization!

But we were in Oxford. ... (Maybe some of the stuff above, and certainly some of the stuff below comes from the recent Robert McCrum biography and David Jasen's 1974 portrait, and I apologize for muddling the quotations--I don't have a Kindle so I can't carry all my books with me.) Wodehouse was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature (D.Litt) by Oxford University on 21 June, 1939. The annual ceremony for these awards was called an Encaenia. The university's Public Orator (PO) customarily delivered a Latin salute to the honorands on these occasions. The PO, Cyril Bailey, had never read Wodehouse, and was given some of his writings to prepare him for the salute. According to Wodehouse's recollections of the ceremony, his fellow honorands received "tepid applause" while he "had to stand for quite three minutes while thousands cheered." (McCrum)

The Public Orator saluted Wodehouse with

a brilliant and witty celebration of Wodehouse's gifts composed in faultless Latin hexameters after Horace. Having made ingenious reference to Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Mr. Mulliner, Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings, Psmith and Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bailey concluded in prose that Wodehouse was 'our Petronius, or should I say, our Terence?' (Petroniumne dicam an Terentium nostrum?) a tribute that provoked more wild applause. (McCrum)

Terentium nostrum, indeed! Vice-Chancellor of the University, George Stuart Gordon, presented the degree to Wodehouse with these words:

Vir lepidissime, facetissime, venustissime, iocosissime, ribidundissime te cum turba tua Leporum, Facetinarum, Venustatum, Iocorum, Risuum, ego auctoritate mea et totius Universitatis admitto ad gradum Doctoris in Litteris honoris causa.

Which meant more or less:

Wittiest of men, most humorous, most charming, most amusing, full of laughter, by the authority vested in me and the entire university, I hereby admit you and your whole crowd of witty, humorous, charming, amusing, uproarious creations to the degree of honorary Doctor of Letters.

(Jasen, McCrum, and a bit of Flannery)

Now there is an honorary degree worth having! At formal dinner for four hundred at Christ Church afterwards, the undergraduates began "to bang the tables, chanting 'We want Wode-house ... we want Wode-house.'" Amen.

But isn't it most wonderful to think of those thousands of undergrads bursting into wild applause at the Latin jokes?

As a beginning young writer in London at the turn of the 20th century, Wodehouse dreamed of sailing to America, to the New World. His dream came true in 1904, when he was just 22. As Robert McCrum says, he "fell in love with Manhattan at first sight." Wodehouse:

To say that New York came up to its advance billing would be the baldest of understatements. Being there was like being in heaven, without going to all the bother and expense of dying.

When he returned to London several weeks later, he found that he was regarded as an expert on America (a very different kind of Tocqueville, no!?), and his writing on the subject of America was in great demand: "After that trip to New York, I was a man who counted. ... My income rose like a rocketing pheasant." So, it's not just that his American readers love his idyllic England; his English readers are charmed by his mythical America! (McCrum) What could be better for the Special Relationship?

Wodehouse lived the last 30 years or so of his life in America--Long Island--and died on Valentine's Day 1975. The names of Psmith, Lord Emsworth, Mr. Mulliner, Bertie Wooster, and Jeeves are inscribed on his tombstone, the way Jefferson had inscribed on his tombstone his greatest accomplishments. I gather tourists can have a rough time finding Wodehouse's grave, but it is behind the Remsenburg Community Church in Long Island.

Oh yes, Oxford. It takes you only 50 minutes to get there from Paddington Station in London on a perfectly pleasant train. And if you haven't packed your four course lunch as half the veteran passengers seem to do, and you're especially peckish when you arrive, stop by the Brasserie Gerard 5 minutes into the 10 minute walk into town from the train station. Try the croque madame or the quiche Lorraine. It's not Anatole's best, but you won't regret it.



Discussions - 10 Comments

What exactly is the point of this "letters" series anyway, other than being deathly boring?

How sad, and how revealing, that Andrew has to ask that question. Come back to it in about 10 years . . . or when you can begin to draw a sketch of your small universe with even a tenth as fine an ink as that poured out by Senor Flannery with such unmerited generosity. Then you may learn something, Andrew. If not, tinkerty-tonk. It does not diminish the delight for me--nor my gratitude.

A fine and amusing letter. I have to go back to Wodehouse again! Thank you.

Do the million plus black cameras up everywhere make you fell safe?

I think he is bloody genius. I get something out of each letter that I doubt was the intended meaning of the author himself. After the second letter I had decided I knew the true identity of this bloke. I am still not certain about the a rocketing pheasant?

I can't pretend to not be in some sense of a mind with Andrew, except for the fact that some of the most interesting economists knew the Bard, which is just as sad and as revealing...While certainly the intro on questions of economics doesn't aim high and echoes some of the wit of a Bastiat, I don't doubt the author could do better.

In the old days when Samuel Bailey as opposed to Samuel Clemens, gave opinions on Shakespeare and the chronological orders of these days literary criticism combined itself with some of the best critiques of Ricardo...back in these days a guy like Samuel Bailey said "Value denotes strictly speaking, an effect produced on the mind."

So Syril Bailey leads me back to Samuel Bailey(?), who leads me back to a time when Political Economist knew a wider variety of serious things.

It is probably the ultimate irony to write serious economics which by its own laws produces no Value...

andrew, no one is making you read these letters, are they? Go be disgruntled somewhere else. These are a thoroughly gruntling set of letters.

Wodehouse is a master of words. If his character, Anatole's, cooking melted in the mouth, Wodehouse's writing melts in the brain. Since most of you fatheads have never read him, you don't know that we in the know are referring to books that are delicious, delightful confections, books like souffles and timbales that offer more pleasure than whole seasons of America"s comedic television shows or the works of hundreds of authors who might amuse, but lack the deft hand. I "go back" to Wodehouse whenever possible, especially when things like politics or life weigh the soul. Well, not whenever, as I would rarely get around to reading anything else if that were strictly true.

However, to discuss Wodehouse is one thing; to read him is to find wisdom:

Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them.

Marriage isn't a process of prolonging the life of love, but of mummifying the corpse.

I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.

The best descriptions:

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say "when."

He was white and shaken, like a dry martini.

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver's trousers.

The voice of Love seemed to call me, but it was a wrong number.

Never mind, he is just the best:

He was the old buster who, a few years later, came down to breakfast one morning. Lifted the first cover he saw, said 'Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!' in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family. This, mind you, being a bit of luck for the bosom of the family, for old Worplesdon had the worst temper in the county.

He wept with delight when she gave him a smile and trembled with fear at her frown.

A rich, deep, soft, soothing voice slid into the heated scene like the Holy Grail sliding athwart a sunbeam.

All perfectly true, no doubt; but not the sort of thing to spring on a lad with a morning head.

Those are just bits I copied from the Internet and really just nothing to the riches, the treasures of word-play, the most serious writing about nothing you ever read. Try this from Code of the Woosters, a charmer of a book, although I confess The Mating Season is my favorite. Yet, I love, love, the character, Uncle Fred, who McCrum describes as an "irrepressible bounder of sixty-something" of the type especially difficult to resist in the springtime.

I apologize for going on at such length, but this strikes me in a weak spot. We have most of Wodehouse, kept on the bookcase in the bedroom, so he is close at hand, because I love him. I have this weekend before student papers come a-flooding and was wondering how to rest up before the storm. Wodehouse will set me up nicely, fortifying me against the worst my last set of darlings can do to the language. Thank you for reminding me.

Tinkerty tonk, Julie! I've read Wodehouse, and I like him. Quite a bit, actually. I'd just rather hear about who the Senor talked to and what he gained from his experience while he was at Oxford. I can read old books and make my own conclusions. I like your idea about sketching out my "small little world" over the next ten years. But can I start early? Shall I visit hallowed institutions while I'm in Paris, Brussels and Helsinki this summer and write boring e-mails to NLT, as well?

If you compose as you transcribe, Andrew, I don't know that your observations (however generous) will merit the attention you seek. "[S]mall little world"--redundant as it is--is all your creation and not mine. It is possible to see big things and have small (or no) reflections about them and, as a result, it is possible to keep your universe constricted even as you move in lofty places. But you are a good egg and I expect you will grow into the big world you mean to inhabit. And, anyway, I like impertinence most of the time. Good observation may even begin in impertinence. I think you (indeed, I think everyone) should try the exercise of this type of observation and reflection. These letters are, to my mind anyway, a perfect model for it. And I would love to be proven wrong and find your big thoughts on big things even more delightful than those offered above. But I will require persuasion . . .

My apologies, "small universe."

The world is alive and composed of many small things and small people, I just personally feel those and they individually tell much more about life than looking at old buildings and books and thinking about "thousands of undergrads bursting into wild applause at the Latin jokes." But hey, if impertinence is what you're into, than by all means, have at it. All I'm saying is I'd rather hear more about those things than Wodehouse and the Globe theater.

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