Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Rich Fantasy Life

Well, despite this morning's encounter with the homegrown American flavor of fascism (see below), it turned out to be the sort of winsome spring day that beguiles a man into thinking that things just might turn out all right after all. I'm sure this irrational optimism will meet the stark fist of reality soon enough, but for now let's warm our tummies in it, shall we?

I'm reconciling myself to the realization that the garden here at Sysiphus Acres will never be completely whipped into shape, but poco a poco bits and pieces of it succumb to my civilizing rod. Pulling weeds from dawn to dusk gives a fella lots of time to think, and quite a bit of today's inner debate took as its theme Resolved: The wrong man in the wrong time.

Later, soaking the humus off in the tub as dinner sent mouthwatering cumin-redolent wisps of joy through the house, I came across a passage in Wodehouse: A Life that sent me into a bit of a reverie. It's 1906, Plum is 23, and has just had his first unqualifiedly successful year as a coming talent in literary London: His first novel, Life Among the Chickens, (the first Ukridge) has been published to good reception, he's contributed lyrics to a hit musical, he has a regular column in The Globe and Strand, his freelance writing has earned him 500 pounds over the last year (a very heady sum for the time), and he's left behind forever the miserable banker's life he'd appeared to be fated for.
Every summer weekend during this opulent decade [1900 - 1910], young men from the City or the imperial civil service, or the newspaper and magazine world of Fleet Street and the Strand, would take the train to some nearby provincial town, Tunbridge Wells, perhaps, or Stevenage. There, they would throw their heavy cricket bags into the horse-drawn carriage awaiting them at the station, then rattle through leafy summer lanes to the ground, change into white flannels, play from midday to sundown.... [Wodehouse's] team, the Actors vs. Authors, included Arthur Conan Doyle.... He also played for the Punch XI, which included the young A. A. Milne, and J. M. Barrie's XI, the Allahakbarries...."
Yo, Mephistopheles! You there, buddy? OK, here's the deal, Sparky. I need me a time machine -- yes, I said a time machine -- and I'm willing to put up some serious scratch to get one. Serious scratch. Immortal Soul? No problem, Nick, no problem at all... Where do I sign?

Ring Ring!
"Ahoy, ahoy!"
"Plum! It's Arthur! Arthur Conan Doyle!"
"Hallo, Arthur! How positively ripping to hear from you! I read your last 'Brigadier Gerard' in The Strand, absolutely top hole!"
"Why, thank you very much, old cock! Your Life Among the Chickens is very promising stuff, I think that Ukridge fellow could take you places!"
"Thanks, old thing! Just trying to capture the gaslight-and-spats zeitgeist before the whole thing comes to a melancholy end on the reeking battlefield of Passchendaele, you know the thing!"
"Yes, yes, awful, that. Dulce et decorum est, what-what?"
"Yes, exactly, old bean. So -- to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Well it's about tomorrow's cricket match against the Punch XI at Stevenage: Rudyard Kipling's cried off, the swine, and we're a man short. Do you know anyone who might be able to fill in -- a long off or a short slip would be ideal -- at a moment's notice?
"Why, funny that you mention it, Arthur! Just last night down at the Twig and Berries I ran into an awfully nice chappie, a Yank named Jingo, Neddie Jingo, who positively bubbled over with the feudal spirit. Claims to have written a vast book about one day in the life of a Dublin advert canvasser, and is shopping it round to publishers here. He showed me the manuscript -- it looks a bit ahead of its time, actually. At any rate, he was absolutely gagging to play -- he claims to have played some baseball at school, and says the skills are transferable..."
"Well, a warm body, what?"
"Indeed, Arthur. A warm, as you say, body."
"Excellent. Well, toodle pip, then, Plum."
"Tinkerty-tonk, Arthur. See you tomorrow."
"Indeed, Plum. Unless some anarchist chap decides to hand the mitten to some crowned head of Europe. We'd be in the soup then, and no mistake!"
"Consommé absolutely splashing around the ankles, Arthur! Right -- off I go!"


Linkmeister said...

"The Man Who Would Play Cricket?"

Akatabi said...

See, if you haven't already, the chapter "A match and some lookers on" from E. R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison for a country cricket match ca. 1908.

Lance Mannion said...

Apparently Wodehouse did not like A.A. Milne, as a person. Does your biography get into why? Was Milne a liability on the pitch? Was he all stick and no bowl?

Neddie said...

> Was Milne a liability on the pitch?

You'll no doubt be aware of Plum's little indiscretion at the hands of those frightful blighters in the National Socialist Party, in which he consented to do a series of radio broadcasts from captivity in Berlin in July of 1941. It was, as McCrum is at great pains to point out, not so much a case of wilful collaboration as simply a dreadful example of naiveté on Plum's part. He was, it is plain from understanding the rest of his life, very nearly as blithe as his creation Bertie Wooster. Malcolm Muggeridge later wrote of him, Wodehouse was "ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict. He just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone... Such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen of the mid-twentieth century."

The outcry back home was vengeful. Milne, who McCrum characterizes as "consumed by envy of his old friend's literary success and frustrated in his own career," (although he doesn't substantiate this claim with any documentation) "accused Wodehouse of shirking all civic obligations, even the responsibilities of fatherhood -- a notably cruel jibe. '"He has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in "politics",' Milne wrote. 'Irresponsibility in what the papers call a "licensed humorist" can be carried too far; naiveté can be carried too far. Wodehouse has been given a good deal of license in the past, but I fancy that now his license will be withdrawn."

(That is the first time in this old copy-editor's memory that I've actually had to type a quote-within-a-quote-within-a-quote, and that, coupled with the upside-down British conventions of the original quoted text has produced a dull throbbing in the temples that (which? That. No, which. That!) that cries out for succour (succor -- no, succour succour ^h^h^h^h^h^h^h aspirin....)

So you can see why Plum might have harbored (harboured? No, harbored) a bit of coolness toward his former cricket pal in later life.

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