Unlike my pals at the UK Society, I did not discover Wodehouse at an early age. I watched and enjoyed the Jeeves and Wooster TV series in the early nineties with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, but if I am honest did not pursue his world further until later in life.
I therefore feel I am playing catch-up, devouring everything about the man and his extensive volume of work. Whilst my fascination and love for his work started much later in life than perhaps many, we have now hit it off like ham and eggs! Imagine if you will, a slow and steady batsman, concentrating on every delivery at the crease, getting a good look at the bowling and playing himself in, picking up singles here and there. Similarly, I am feeling my way through his life and work. To extend the trope a tad — I have my eye in now and am seeing and timing the ball well, but alas every shot is going straight to a fielder. Every cover drive is coming off the middle of the bat, but dash it, not finding any gaps in the field. I feel like I am on the verge of a great discovery and a hundred awaits!
Having been to my first Society meeting last week, I feel restless and excited about this amazing world of literature opening up before me. The only trouble is which story to read first. As a hobby writer I am in the early stages of writing my own novel and naturally fascinated with Plum’s technique, industry and output – he was the real Tabasco! But how can any man have written ninety-three novels and over forty musicals? He boasted in later life about having five shows in 1917 running on Broadway. None of this seems humanly possible. I am struggling at twenty-five thousand words with my own story, but encouragingly the story does feel like it is now opening up.
Following Plum’s advice, I always try and get to the dialogue as quickly as possible. As the great man once said: ‘Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.’
I am relieved to learn that one of the hardest things that Plum struggled with, was plotting. He would write over four hundred pages for a story, working out exactly what was going to happen. And then the actual story writing took care of itself. Plotting is also the part I struggle with. There always seems to be an incessant fog enveloping the story, one that is impossible to see through. Writing a novel is a bit like going on a long car journey at night. Whilst you can plan the route, you can only ever see as far ahead as the headlights will show and therefore have to drive one road at a time.
One of the books that I often turn to, for an insight into Plum’s world, is ‘A Life in Letters’, by Sophie Ratcliffe. This contains many of the letters that he wrote throughout his life and is a great insight to the man himself. One perfect example to sum up Plum’s endearing view on the world is when he recalled being run over by a car in the summer of 1923. After the event he wrote to his life-long friend William Townend:
‘Have you ever been knocked over by a car? If not, don’t. There’s nothing in it. I was strolling along yesterday evening to meet Nora who had gone down to the station in our Buick, and half way [sic] to the village she sighted me and pulled in to [sic] the pavement. The roads here are cement, with a sort of No-Man’s Land of dirt between pavement and road. I had just got onto this when I saw a Ford behind our car. Naturally I thought it would pull up when it saw that Nora had stopped, but it must have been going about forty miles an hour, for I suddenly observed with interest that it couldn’t stop and was swinging in straight for me on the wrong side of the road to avoid colliding with the Buick. I gave one gazelle-like spring sideways and the dam [sic] thing’s right wheel caught my left leg squarely and I thought the world had ended. I took the most awful toss and came down on the side of my face. Broke honble glasses and skinned my nose, my left leg, and right arm. Otherwise pretty sound. This morning all sort of unsuspected muscles and bones are aching, and I can hardly move my right arm. But, my gosh, doesn’t it just show that we are here today and gone tomorrow! If I had been a trifle less fit and active I should have got the entire car in the wishbone. Oh well, it’s all in a lifetime.’
One of the least recorded liaisons, or possibly friendships that Plum had while living in Long Island was with F.Scott Fitzgerald. Little is known of how well they got along and there are only snippets with which to speculate. Whilst living in Great Neck they were neighbours and would often bump into each other on the train, heading for New York.
On 14th November 1923, he writes to his darling Leonora about one such encounter:
‘Oh yes, I was forgetting. I have also met F. Scott Fitzgerald. [the novelist had become famous for ‘This Side of Paradise’ (1920) and ‘The Beautiful and Damned (1922)] In fact I met him again this morning. He was off to New York with Truex, who is doing his play The Vegetable. I believe those stories you hear about his drinking are exaggerated. He seems quite normal, and is a very nice chap indeed. You would like him. The only thing is, he goes into New York with a scrubby chin, looking perfectly foul. I suppose he gets a shave when he arrives, but it doesn’t show him at his best in Great Neck. I would like to see more of him.’
On first appearance, it would seem that few twentieth-century writers could be more quintessentially English than PG Wodehouse, but look closer, as I am endeavouring to do, and you will find that in his professional life, he was very much an American too. Now please excuse me, while I biff off and read some more!