The fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheridan

1. 2. 3. 4.


SOME­TIMES, so they say, it’s the great­est dis­ap­point­ment to meet your lit­er­ary he­roes. I’ve never re­ally found that to be the case. If you meet a great writer and be­gin by telling them how much you like their books, you’re al­most guar­an­teed to have a happy con­ver­sa­tion. In­deed, hav­ing formed an early ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the shrewd and dis­cern­ing na­ture of your judg­ment, the writer in ques­tion will al­most in­evitably find some­thing to like about you, too.

But in Lon­don re­cently I was, in a sense, dis­ap­pointed by a lit­er­ary hero. I spent a month var­i­ously in Bri­tain, Ire­land, France and Bel­gium. I had two stints of sev­eral days in Lon­don, but be­tween in­ter­views, catch­ing up with friends, writ­ing col­umns and the like, I could re­ally de­vote only one night to the theatre. I should have gone to a Shake­speare or some other rea­son­ably high­brow play, of course, but you can get that at a very good qual­ity in Aus­tralia. In­stead I was tempted by three sep­a­rate Lon­don clas­sics. One was a re­vival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. It got fine re­views, and while Coward is splen­didly anachro­nis­tic po­lit­i­cally, he’s al­ways witty, en­ter­tain­ing, watch­able.

But there were se­duc­tive al­ter­na­tives. I have al­ways wanted to see Agatha Christie’s The Mouse­trap. I have watched seem­ingly end­less film and tele­vi­sion ver­sions of her mys­ter­ies — Poirot, Miss Marple and the rest — and I have read a num­ber of bi­ogra­phies of her. The Mouse­trap is a the­atri­cal leg­end. It has been run­ning in Lon­don seem­ingly for­ever.

Fi­nally, though, I opted for Jeeves and Wooster in Per­fect Non­sense, the first ever West End adap­ta­tion of PG Wode­house. Read­ers of this col­umn will know I am a hope­less Wode­house ad­dict. I own about a hun­dred of his nov­els. No one re­ally knows ex­actly how many he wrote as he of­ten pub­lished the same novel un­der dif­fer­ent names in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, some­times he would use the same plot for dif­fer­ent nov­els; as a young man he wrote a good deal anony­mously. But like Eve­lyn Waugh, he was ut­terly in­ca­pable of writ­ing a bad sen­tence. He was the fun­ni­est, clever­est and most in­spired comic ge­nius our lan­guage has pro­duced. He had an in­ex­haustible store of comic metaphor, a sublime abil­ity to con­script and yet el­e­vate cliche, in­fi­nite plot cre­ativ­ity and im­pec­ca­ble tech­ni­cal skills of all kinds.

All Wode­house devo­tees have their favourite phrases. Among mine are “the acrid stench of burnt po­etry”, or “the bril­liantined swamps” of his cor­ru­gated hair, or “if not ac­tu­ally dis­grun­tled, he was far from be­ing grun­tled”. I WAS born in 1929 and raised in cen­tral Lon­don in a tall nar­row house. My bed­room was on the sixth floor.

My mother be­lieved that abun­dant fresh air was es­sen­tial for a grow­ing boy. The daily walk in Hyde Park was in­ad­e­quate, so at an early age I was put in a wire cage that was sus­pended out­side my bed­room win­dow. This was my cubby house.

I was put in this cage and the win­dow closed. There I would re­main play­ing with my toys and pic­ture books un­til my nanny would open the es­cape hatch, wash my hands, and we would go down to join my par­ents and friends for af­ter­noon tea.

I owned this won­der­ful play­house. It was ex­clu­sively mine, I loved it. It had a ply­wood floor and a wire frame. The floor was cov­ered with a rug. From this lofty po­si­tion I had an un­hin­dered view of the backs of the sur­round­ing houses.

At two or three years old I was too young to ap­pre­ci­ate the dra­mas un­fold­ing around me, un­like the Al­fred Hitch­cock film Rear Win­dow. I never felt caged. Adolf Hitler died dur­ing which year? In the hu­man skele­ton, the tar­sus refers to which part of the body? Broad beans are also known by what other name, start­ing with F? Which Aus­tralian play­wright is best known as the au­thor of WindyGully? An­twerp is a ma­jor city and mu­nic­i­pal­ity of which coun­try?

Yet there is a mys­tery to Wode­house. He does not trans­late to any form other than his own. People en­joy his nov­els in for­eign lan­guages ap­par­ently for their comic plots, but the true ap­peal of Wode­house lies some­where in the mys­te­ri­ous prove­nance of the rhythm and cadence of lan­guage as you read it, and mostly as you read it to yourself.

It just doesn’t trans­late to any other medium. Wode­house made a lot of money as a scriptwriter in Hol­ly­wood but, ac­cord­ing to his au­to­bi­ogra­phies, Hol­ly­wood never used a word he wrote. And yet he was the most ac­com­plished writer of di­a­logue nov­els have ever known.

Per­fect Non­sense is an adap­ta­tion of what

When even­tu­ally I out­grew the cubby house and it was dis­carded, I still yearned for the free­dom of the out­doors.

By then I had learned to open the win­dow 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. many con­sider Wode­house’s finest novel, The Code of the Woost­ers. My favourite Wode­house is Leave it to Psmith. Per­fect Non­sense was quite funny but its hu­mour owed lit­tle to Wode­house. It pre­sented it­self as a play within a play, with Ber­tie Wooster de­cid­ing to present the play with the help of Jeeves, his valet, and Sep­pings, his aunt’s but­ler. Thus these three play the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. There are rapid cos­tume changes, cross-dress­ing, a clever se­quence where a char­ac­ter is half-dressed as a man and half as a woman All very clever, but it had al­most noth­ing to do with Wode­house.

The only Wode­house char­ac­ter who was in char­ac­ter for the whole play was Ber­tie, and even he was a car­i­ca­ture of the Ber­tie of the nov­els. The whole thing was hu­mor­ously and at times self-con­sciously camp, but there is noth­ing camp about the Wode­house nov­els.

See­ing Per­fect Non­sense was an act of homage on my part, but it was homage sadly mis­placed. and I would hang from my fin­ger­tips. Ter­ri­fied neigh­bours would view these an­tics and would yell: “Go back, go back.” I ig­nored them. They had no way of telling from which house I be­longed. They be­gan a door­knock­ing cam­paign.

Even­tu­ally they ar­rived at our house. My mother recog­nised that in all prob­a­bil­ity it was her son who was do­ing the chin-ups.

She thanked them and crept up­stairs into the bed­room. She would qui­etly say: “Tony, I have a bar of choco­late for you.” I would quickly haul my­self into the safety of my bed­room, and she did have the choco­late. There­after, how­ever, the win­dow was nailed shut.

A re­cent sur­vey listed this model of cubby house as the sev­enth worst in­ven­tion of the 20th century.

My friends of­ten re­mark they are sur­prised I grew up to be­come rel­a­tively nor­mal. Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 420 and 450 words. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­ Who won the 2013 AFL Cole­man Medal? Sully Prud­homme was the first re­cip­i­ent of a No­bel Prize in which cat­e­gory? What is the ti­tle of the al­bum re­leased by Kylie Minogue last month? The 1991 novel AVeryLongEn­gage­ment is set dur­ing which war? Ramón Mer­cader is best known for the as­sas­si­na­tion of which rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader?

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