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 email@example.com 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?