Winston Churchill’s most outstanding contribution during World War II, according to President John F. Kennedy, was that he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. But his compatriot, P.G. Wodehouse, went one better, in making the language an unsurpassed medium for some of the most inspired comic writing ever possibly seen in any tongue and creating a number of enduring and unforgettable characters from woolly-headed aristocrats, shrewd domestic staff, bossy and demanding aunts – and especially two irrepressible, irresistible raconteurs.
Most authors can count themselves lucky to create one character whose popularity withstands the test of time – but Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) managed it for most of his creations – be it vacuous but golden-hearted Betram Wilberforce ‘Bertie’ Wooster and his astute manservant Jeeves; the immaculate but verbose Psmith; the absent-minded Earl of Emsworth of Blandings Castle, who is unwillingly drawn into various family issues; the free-spirited Uncle Fred, whose London visits prove devastating for his nephew Pongo; the opportunistic but proverbially unlucky Ukridge; the colourful members of the Drones Club and others.
But the best are the loquacious storytellers of the Anglers’ Rest pub and the “19th hole” (or a bar/pub on or near the golf course) of an unnamed golf club, who have a tale for any occasion, much to the distress of their often unwilling audience.
With Mr. Mulliner and the Oldest Member, Wodehouse can be counted for his most outlandish and uproarious tales, featuring his customary tools of hyperbole, deliberate use of cliches, inspired imagery with his original and innovative metaphors, mixed metaphors and similes, transferred epithets (using adjectives meant for people for inanimate objects), creating new words by splitting compounds or removing prefixes/suffixes, sparkling wordplay, witty banter and, of course, an unquestioned mastery of English prose.
While Mr. Mulliner’s stories are based on trials and tribulations of his large number of cousins, nephews, and other relations in Britain as well as America, the Oldest Member, who is never shown playing golf but possesses an extensive knowledge about it, has an unending fund related to the game’s role in the love and work lives of his friends and acquaintances.
We’ll begin from the Angler’s Rest, where Mr. Mulliner is a regular. The stories begin with an unnamed first-person narrator introducing the ongoing discussion at the pub, followed by Mr. Mulliner intervening, being reminded of a story involving a relation, and then taking over the narration to describe the events. Initially, the narrator returns briefly to end the tale, but subsequently the story ends when Mr. Mulliner finishes.
Of the 41 stories, nine each can be found in “Meet Mr. Mulliner” (1927), “Mr. Mulliner Speaking” (1929) and “Mulliner Nights” (1933) and the remaining in six other short story collections – with “Blandings Castle and Elsewhere” (1935) and “Young Men in Spats”(1936) accounting for over half.
Among the best are about his brother, the famous chemist Wilfred and the complications in his love life, then how his Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo (a tonic to encourage “Indian Rajahs’ elephants face a tiger of the jungle with a jaunty sang-froid”) helps their nephew, shy curate Augustine and how another nephew, the stammering, crossword enthusiast George is cured (of the stammer that is). Then there is what happened when yet another nephew (detective Adrian) smiles, of uncle William’s adventure in California one night which led him to name his son John San Francisco Earthquake Mulliner (disputed by a Californian who claims it was only a fire), distant cousin Wilmot who is a “nodder” at Hollywood’s Perfecto-Zizzbaum studio and more. The list also contains nieces Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham, whose intended suitors have a torrid time, and Charlotte, a poet of ‘Pastels in Prose’ who suddenly starts writing on hunting gnus.
From the Oldest Member come 25 stories – nine each in “The Clicking of Cuthbert” (1922) and “The Heart of a Goof” (1926), five in “Nothing Serious” (1950), and one each in “Lord Emsworth and Others” (1937) and “A Few Quick Ones” (1959) – told most often to a young man who is desperately keen to be elsewhere.
There is Cuthbert Banks, who abandons golf for a literary society to impress his girl till a Russian author’s visit restores equilibrium, George Mackintosh who suddenly becomes uncontrollably voluble (even on the links) till his betrothed tries an unconventional shot, American tycoon Bradbury Fisher who plays for high stakes, Wallace Chesney whose game suddenly improves when he dons a hideously-coloured set of plus-fours, Chester Meredith, who seeks to restrain his language to impress a lady but loses control on the fairway behind the ‘Wrecking Crew’ foursome (The First Grave Digger, The Man with the Hoe, Old Father Time, and Consul, the Almost Human) and many others.
If you’ve read these stories, you will probably be unable to resist a chuckle. And if you haven’t, you’re luckier – a whole universe of fun awaits you!
(05.07.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)