California Literary Review

The Persecution of P.G. Wodehouse

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March 12th, 2006 at 8:49 am

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[Was P.G.Wodehouse, the legendary master of farce, party to Nazi propaganda during World War II? This question recurs decades after his death, even as the author remains popular as ever. And the quest for an answer remains relevant today.]

Wodehouse – Delayed Knighthood

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1883-1975), P.G.Wodehouse; or merely Plum (to the initiated!), remains one of the most widely read and enduringly liked authors of the English reading peoples. As the Wodehouse cognoscenti world over marked the centennial of his first published book, Plum’s knighthood or rather the delay in its conferral have been in the news. Britain’s Public Record Office has even released documents, hitherto classified, that seek to justify or extenuate why the delay was such.

The issue having the British spewing intelligent releases still, and his fans fire; was one which assailed Plum over the last three and half decades of his life, as recurrent as Bertie Wooster’s “morning-afters”. Even now, more than a quarter century since he died, there are creatures around, who “remember having read some Wodehouse at school” and wonder “wasn’t he party to some Nazi propaganda during World War II”?

The German Broadcasts

The fount of the fracas was a series of talks Plum gave to the German Radio on June 28, July 9, July 23, July 30 and August 6,1941. They were meant for his American readership, or thus Plum understood. But the talks were also broadcast over German wavelengths to Britain.

But before, as Bertie says, a little background.

Plum was living with his wife Ethel in the villa Low Woods at Le Tocquet, France when the Nazis ran over and occupied it. On July 21, 1940 at the age of fifty eight, Plum was committed to German internment as British Civilian Prisoner Number 796 along with twelve other male aliens of Le Tocquet. He was carted along with fellow prisoners between the Loos prison, a barrack at Liege in Belgium, The Citadel at Huys and a “loony bin” at Tost in Upper Silesia, often in cattle trains, subsisting for days on blocks of bread and watery soup, and having frequent tête-? -tête with the SS of subsequent holocaust fame. But Hitler’s henchmen were still releasing British prisoners when they turned sixty. Plum was freed on June 28, 1941. He was few months short of that magic age.

Within a week of freedom, Plum was on air, describing his life as an internee, full of frothy frolic. Apparently he was regaling his American public, thus assuring them of his well being, many of whom had written to him during captivity.

It was gathering autumn of 1941, with Second World War precariously poised. America yet not in the fray, France collapsed, London under a relentless blitzkrieg, Goebbels bellowing Britain was to be “reduced to degradation and poverty”. And the British waking up to an ineluctable enemy. The broadcasts came very late in the evening for Britain and very few actually heard them. But that mattered little. A nation’s frustration, fury and fear were looking for scapegoats; Plum fitted the bill, almost perfectly.

The Backlash

Within a month of Plum’s talks, out went a broadcast on prime-time British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). One William Connor (“Cassandra” of the Daily Mirror) lampooned Plum, his patriotism and morals. The British public were not given a hint of what Plum had actually said; the very fact that he had gone on German air was adduced to establish – “a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale – that of his country” and a “playboy” pawning his honor to the Nazis for the “price of soft bed”. Aptly, the talk ended with the Biblical allusion to “thirty pieces of silver”. And a description of the Nazi bombing of Dulwich, Plum’s beloved alma mater.

Cassandra’s tirade looked to whip up hate in the British media and public. It did. BBC banned Plum’s lyrics, many libraries withdrew his books from circulation, there were demands in the British parliament for his trial as a traitor.

It was revealed much later BBC had initially refused to carry Cassandra’s talk but had to succumb to political pressure from a higher honcho of government.

Plum came to know of the uproar in Britain only around Christmas that year and was aghast and helpless. He remained in Germany, where Ethel joined him; until September 1943 and they were then sent to Paris. After the heady liberation of Paris, in the autumn of 1944 Plum and Ethel were arrested and taken to the Palais de Justice. They were required to sit for seventeen hours on wooden benches and then interrogated. Then Plum, though in perfect health, was incarcerated in a French hospital by the authorities.

After the war, Plum and Ethel made the United States of America their home, never returning to Britain again. And they remained apprehensive about the public mood there. His books however continued to sizzle on both shores of the Atlantic. Plum lived and wrote in Long Island, NY. His honeymoon with America continued life-long; the last part of his memoirs is titled, “America, I Like You”.

As hostilities ceased, peace and sanity returned with tentative steps. Some of the intelligentsia became more audible in their demands for exonerating Plum. George Orwell in his celebrated essay, “In Defense of P.G.Wodehouse” analyzed all that had brought about Plum’s plight. He concluded, “I have striven to show how the wretched Wodehouse — just because success and expatriation had allowed him to remain mentally in the Edwardian age – became the corpus vile in a propaganda experiment, and I suggest it is now time to regard the incident as closed.” Notable among others in Plum’s support were Malcolm Muggeridge, who extricated Plum from the French hospital. Guy Bolton, Plum’s friend and collaborator from their Broadway musical days, had led a signature campaign in America during the internment, petitioning for his release. BBC offered reparation through airing a tribute by Evelyn Waugh on Plum’s eightieth birthday.

The Propaganda Ploy

Plum and his defenders found it difficult to explain why he had indeed been freed few months shy of sixty years. It is unlikely bad arithmetic of his captors led to the release. The timing of his release and the broadcasts soon thereafter fomented speculations of a deal between him and the Nazis; whereby his freedom was secured against the promise and subsequent delivery of pro-German propaganda on radio. The best repartee to such insinuations are the broadcasts themselves.

At the time of outrage the talks were more heard about than actually heard. And such are situations when Goebbelic policies thrive. Anybody who has read them can not help realize how absolutely Wodehousean they are, poking gentle but stirring fun at all and everything around, his own ordeal included. The Nazi jailers are revealed as bungling nitwits, goofing every step; his co-internees painted in funny and sympathetic light. The broadcasts are now freely available on the Internet and I desist from quoting. My readers may read them themselves, unabridged and unalloyed. And then judge how much Nazi propaganda went out.

Plum’s captors — maybe not the blighter who handcuffed him, but surely the brains behind – knew of his celebrity status. They were also aware in a vague sort of way, how the popularity of Plum’s oeuvre hinged on his hilarious treatment of the British aristocracy. And they assumed he was anti-British; as anyone might, who has not read Plum in the original and seen how his humor is neither buffoonery nor satire but subtler than both. Added to it, the Nazis had a strong strategic motive of keeping America out of war as long as possible. Having Plum broadcast on German radio was a masterstroke of diplomacy; it reveals how much modern warfare is about minds as it is about munitions.

The broadcasts were meant to affect the Americans and the Britons in two different ways, both equally expedient to the Nazis. The Americans were to be assured their beloved author was hale and hearty; and a gesture of goodwill extended from Nazi Germany in letting Plum address America. And a beleaguered Britain, sought to be slighted further through Plum’s blithe reflections on German captivity, voiced over German radio. Plum indeed was rather naïve, not to have seen through this game.

The Plum Pie

But that was the way he was. Plum was much an inhabitant of the world he had written to create. All through the prelude to the Second World War, he remained engrossed in his writing, oblivious of the tension in the air. As late as April 1939, he has written to a friend about feeling that “the world has never been further from war than at it is at present”. Before the Berlin broadcasts went on air, Plum gave an interview to one Henry Flannery, representing Columbia Broadcasting Corporation at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin (were he was lodged by the German authorities after release). Unsobered by the recent privations, he went on record saying, “I was never interested in politics. I am quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I’m about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of a chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.” It is reported that while he was being led away to captivity, Plum remarked, “Perhaps after this I shall write a serious book.” And around September 1945, while commenting on the furor in a letter to Guy Bolton, he writes, “Isn’t it the damnedest thing how Fate lurks to sock you with the stuffed eelskin.” This precisely was Plum in his elements.

Another gaffe Plum was involved in, nearly a decade before the Berlin brouhaha shows similar insensibility about the public pulse. He was employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood as a writer of lyrics and screenplays for its productions, on princely salary and pittance work. In June 1931, Plum gave an interview that appeared in the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune and other newspapers all over America. He made such observations as, “It dazes me. They paid $2000 a week and I can not see what they engaged me for. They were extremely nice to me, but I feel as if I have cheated them…, apparently they had the greatest difficulty in finding anything for me to do.” These remarks rather shook up the film industry’s sponsors and cost cutting came into immediate effect. Plum was surprised he had started something. He wrote in a letter, “I can’t quite understand why, seeing that I only said what everybody has been saying for years, but apparently the fact that I gave figures and mentioned a definite studio in print has caused a sensation all over the world. One of the bosses at Paramount said I had done as much damage a if a hundred picture houses had been closed.”

The greatest damage Plum ever did through this ingenuous world-view of his, was to himself. But each time he emerged unscarred and unscared, and uproariously funny.

Sunset at Blandings

The happy endings which pop up Plum’s stories, also visited the twilight of his life. His knighthood was announced in early 1975 and he died on St.Valentine’s Day, February the 14th of the same year, aged ninety two. The unfinished novel left on his bedside was later published with copious notes by Richard Usborne. Plum did not live to attend a formal investiture of the OBE. But he lived to die fulfilled with the British establishment finally and formally exculpating him. The British public had, long before.

Plum often wrote to his friends about a memoir of his internment, even sending a draft version to Guy Bolton. But The Camp Book never saw the light of day, and very strangely, no manuscript was discovered after Plum’s death. Wodehouseans of all ages shall live in the hope The Camp Book turns up some day.

The German broadcasts and their retreating shadow on Plum’s life are more than a juicy literary anecdote, or an aside in the War’s saga of intrigue and incendiary. They have a deep and enduring relevance in today’s world, where it has become fashionable in pubs and palaces to talk about ‘clash of civilizations’ and its inevitability.

On the personal plane, Plum was at peace with the vilest of his detractors. He struck a chord of camaraderie with Cassandra, and even pleaded with Evelyn Waugh prior to Waugh’s broadcast on BBC to refrain from a personal affront, saying, “he and I have been great friends.” And on a plane where the mindlessness of a few imperil mankind, voices such as Plum’s sing hallelujahs of hope.

After the war, when he was urged to declare he hated the Nazis, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse replied, “I don’t hate in the plural.”

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