Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Immortal World of P.G. Wodehouse

I have this recurring dream.

I'm about fourteen years old again, and I'm in a bookshop, browsing through its extensive collection of Wodehouse titles. And I find a title I haven't seen before, have never even heard of. It has, of course, an Ionicus cover. It's a moment of immense rapture and excitement.

I look at the title, and I know it's a brilliant title, even though when I try to concentrate on it and memorise it, it turns into a jumble of nonsense. Just as, when I open the book and I try to make sense of the opening words (which I know are superb) they also dissolve and become random letters.

I don't think that in my dream I ever manage to get the book to the payment counter.

That moment of finding a new Wodehouse or a new Ionicus cover, which I really did experience often at that stage in my life, in the early to mid-1980s, has remained with me as a pure and genuine peak of my existence. I suppose that's an indictment of my eventless life; but so it goes.

That's another reason why I started this blog. Having found the "Life At Blandings" box set, I wanted to share it.

More recently, I found and acquired another box set, apparently dating from about 1973 to judge from the printing date of the books inside. It's called "The Immortal World of P.G. Wodehouse", but really it's a Jeeves and Bertie Wooster set....
This is the front illustration: Bertie caught en dishabille prior to his morning tea, and not in the best of moods. The picture on the spine shows him washed and brushed and almost ready to sally forth:
.... while the one on the back of the box shows him setting out, Jeeves having done all he can to ensure he is spruce and immaculate:
As you can see, the box set has had a rough time of it in the past forty years or so, and has become faded and blotchy. But I think and hope we can forgive it.

As I've mentioned before, Jeeves and Bertie change appearance radically throughout the Ionicus series. Here, Jeeves in particular is something of a disappointment: too nondescript, seemingly your standard non-speaking-role manservant. Still, this series of pictures has a real charm, I think, and gives a valuable peep into Bertie's behind the scenes existence, between the books as it were.

Oh, and which books are in the set, you ask? These:

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Big Money

Wodehouse's novels are variable in quality. None fall below a fairly high bar; but it must be admitted not all achieve the intoxicating brilliance of Right Ho, Jeeves. I do find that some of them, though using every comic device he knew, leave me thinking, as Wodehouse himself did on rereading one of his books, "Fairly good, I think, but what does it prove?" In my mind, I classed Big Money (1931) as one of these "what does it prove?" titles - until I re-read it.

It's a non-series novel, featuring dud mine shares which turn out to be worth a fortune, financiers, conmen, and aristocrats on their uppers. The main situation is rather interesting: two old school pals, Berry Conway and Lord Biskerton ("the Biscuit"). Berry has no money and holds down a job as secretary to mogul T. Paterson Frisby to pay back a moral debt. The Biscuit is also penniless but is content to scrounge a living as best he can, getting a job being of course out of the question. Both characters are likeable and there is no disapproval expressed towards the Biscuit for his frankly amoral attitude. And both characters are equally willing to flog dud shares to a mug for profit, when the opportunity arises.

Money is seen as morally neutral. Anything can be done to gain it; its worth is entirely practical.

The book has a feel of being unusually close to reality. (Of course, in Wodehouse this is a very relative concept.) The London portrayed is not quite the usual fantasy land. It portrays not a Bertie Wooster effortlessly living on untold and unmentioned riches, but a noble family scraping a living by ignoble means in ways not very far from what must have been often the case at the time. The plot itself is nonsense, of course; but the journey is a lot of fun.

Here's the Ionicus cover:

The scene shows a country inn, where the Biscuit, in disguise to escape his creditors, has his false beard pulled off by the barmaid just as Berry walks in. The barmaid is described as "a robust lady in black satin with... a large brooch athwart her bosom with the word 'Baby' written across it in silver letters", but Ionicus has exercised artistic licence on this occasion, probably to get the colour balance right. As always, the décor is faultless. This is one of the covers that recall fond memories of reading Wodehouse in the 1980s; I would stare at a cover like this and drink the atmosphere intensely.

The text is in Linotype Times and it looks like this:
It is a low key beginning to a tale very much worth reading.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Mating Season

From the information on the reverse side of the title page, this seems to have been created by Ionicus in 1971. It's very unusual in his work from this time in being, not a depiction of events in carefully drafted settings, but character studies floating in space. The characters are well delineated (we are given Ionicus's only depiction of Gussie Fink-Nottle, and the only criticism I might make is that it is too much like Gussie Fink-Nottle to be entirely pleasant), and we have an excellent Bertie and Jeeves in the middle.

There is however one point I'd like to raise in this connection. Ionicus, at his best, was an excellent depicter of character; but what he could not do, seemeingly, was consistently show a character over a series of images. I would ask the reader to glance again at the covers of Carry On, Jeeves, Jeeves in the Offing and Much Obliged, Jeeves. Each has its charm and its virtues, especially the first two, and each is a carefully considered depiction of Jeeves and Bertie. But the Bertie of Carry On, Jeeves has dark, mousy hair; in Much Obliged, Jeeves it is grey; and here in The Mating Season it is coppery brown. The Jeeves of Carry On, Jeeves is quite simply different from the Jeeves of Much Obliged, Jeeves, and both are different from the Jeeves of The Mating Season. They even have differently shaped heads. The same strictures could be made about Ionicus's depictions of Lord Emsworth, the Hon Galahad Threepwood, and some others. It did worry me slightly, in the way that matters that are of no importance whatsoever can worry a person. But now I know how to think about the matter, and I am at peace. What we have over these series is the characters of Jeeves, Bertie and the others, all excellently depicted, only by different actors.

The type is Monotype Bembo: a little different from most of the others, larger and easier to read:

I have very fond memories of my first encounter with this novel, at about the age of fourteen. I had devoured the "classic" Jeeveses: the short stories, plus Right Ho, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters (named by my father as the true classics, as of course they are); I had also read Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954), a later and inferior title in the series; but The Mating Season (1949), which I now consider the last of the first-rank Jeeves novels (not counting the sweet swan-song, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974)), was a quite new discovery to me, the title's existence becoming apparent at the same moment as the book itself manifested itself in the bookshop. It revisits some of the ideas from previous books (the Market Snodsbury Grammar School Prizegiving becomes the King's Deverill Village Concert; the Aberdeen terrier Bartholomew in The Code of the Woosters becomes the shaggy dog Sam Goldwyn; and so on), but it plays some excellent variations along the way. It also has a great, and unusual ending, with the promise of Bertie for once in his life facing up to the dread Aunt Agatha. (A very similar act of defiance occurs at the end of Uncle Dynamite (1948); was there a special importance for Wodehouse himself in this?) And Wodehouse also manages to wreak a petty but very satisfying revenge on A.A. Milne, who had heaped abuse on Wodehouse during the war years.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Psmith in the City

I've put Ionicus's cover right at the top of this entry for one very good reason: it's absolutely gorgeous. Those dark greens and browns (the Wodehouse logo just the right shade of green to match); the two main figures (foppish Psmith on the left; his friend the straight-down-the-line Mike Jackson on the right) in very characteristic attitudes; the as-ever perfectly captured décor so exactly right that one can almost smell the ink. The title first appeared in Penguin in 1970, so it appears to be one of Ionicus's very first Wodehouse designs.

Psmith (the P is silent, "cp. the name Zbysco, in which the Z is given a similar miss-in-baulk", as Psmith helpfully explains in Mike) really shouldn't work as a character. When I think of him in the abstract, he is a kind of exemplar of privilege: deliberately affected in speech and vocabulary, insouciant, condescending, perpetually treating the world as if it were some childish game put on for his personal entertainment. Dash it all, the man even went to Eton!

But in practice the character is, I find, irresistible. His manner has been cultivated to cause the maximum of irritation to those nominally above  him - when we first meet him in Mike (1909) that means schoolmasters; and here, in Mike's sequel Psmith in the City (1910) it means his employers in that renowned establishment the New Asiatic Bank. As Wodehouse himself had been employed as a clerk at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank from 1900 to 1902, we don't have to go far to see where he found his material for this funny and perceptive but in parts even slightly bitter novel. It feels, on the whole, like Wodehouse's revenge on his former employers, an account of his experiences, transmuted by the addition of the one character who could be counted on to give better than he got in any situation.

The novel's supposed hero is Mike Jackson, the real Wodehouse substitute, a brilliant cricketer but otherwise honourable, slightly slow-witted and even a little humourless. It is taken for granted that working in a bank is the last thing any self-respecting soul would want to do. Escape is the goal, and in Mike's case the alternative is cricket as a profession. Almost any means is permissible: tricking, cheating, lying, and generally running rings round the stolid respectable managers who stand in our heroes' way. In these days it all seems rather daringly subversive.

The text is set in Intertype Times. Less flamboyant than, say, Monotype Garamond, its restraint somehow seems to fit with the repressive atmosphere of the book's locale:

Ionicus's covers for the Psmith novels are consistently good: atmospheric, elegant, and with a real care for artistic effect unfortunately lacking in a handful of other covers. I have the impression that Ionicus had an especial liking for Psmith; it's a great pity that he never did Mike and Psmith (the second half of Mike) which appeared in Penguin a few years later with a truly dreadful cover by another artist.

As I also have a later (1984) reprint of Psmith in the City, still with the Ionicus picture but using the revised cover design, I include this below. I very strongly hold that the later design is inferior: not as well balanced in the placement of author and title, clunky in typography, and with the picture placed just a little bit too high. Well, never mind. I can see that this title is one of the rare ones that has escaped the ghastly designs of the Millennium Penguin editions and the current Arrow versions. Let us be grateful therefore for small mercies.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Meet Mr Mulliner / Mulliner Nights

Wodehouse wrote to his friend William Townend on 30 June 1945: "God may have forgiven Herbert Jenkins for the jacket to Meet Mr Mulliner, but I never shall." (quoted in Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: a Life [Penguin, 2005], page 352)

This is the first edition cover of Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), the image that fired his wrath (image stolen from the Internet):

Well, there's one obvious feature which might easily have made him wince: the arrow pointing directly at Mr Mulliner's groin shows, at the very least, a lack of concern in detail. But I'd also argue that the general principle of portraying Mr Mulliner as a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met sort of a geezer with a revoltingly jovial manner was off the mark.

This is the start of the first Mulliner story, in which the narrator of these tall tales is introduced (and let me mention in passing, in case I forget later on, that the type in this Penguin edition is Monotype Garamond):
I will frankly admit there is nothing in this description which directly contradicts the picture of the ghastly outsider portrayed on the Jenkins cover; but all the same, and especially bearing in mind the general impression of a man with a quiet but compelling manner which comes out through the stories, I picture Mr Mulliner in very different terms. Even the passage above contrasts his manner with that of the stereotypical boastful fisherman.

It may, of course, be that Ionicus's cover has coloured my view. It is, in my opinion, one of his very best. It appears to date from 1976. Here it is.
Here he is, then, a mild man of middle-age, dully respectable, just the man to tell the tallest tales in the world. The man seated on the right is just correct for the "I" who passes through the Angler's Rest to absorb the latest doings of the Mulliner clan. Ionicus, always at his best with furniture and other interior trappings, is in his element, and the mounted fish on the wall are an excellent touch. The colours are carefully chosen; the atmosphere of woody and rather fuggy cosiness can almost be smelt.

I've written previously about the importance of a good cover, and I don't want to labour the point. Wodehouse was one of the greats, and he deserved to be treated well. That is all.

There are three dedicated collections of Mulliner stories, but the second, Mr Mulliner Speaking, has never appeared in Penguin at all and so was never illustrated by Ionicus. Here, however, is the third, Mulliner Nights (1933), with a cover probably created in 1971;

As those familiar with the stories in this volume will realise, the scene portrayed is that of Adrian Mulliner, the detective, attempting to smile pleasantly at a Baronet, and only succeeding in creating an impression of sardonic superiority which prods the Bart's tender conscience, with startling consequences. The image is not as beautiful as that of Meet Mr Mulliner, but it has its points. Ionicus, it will be noticed by those comparing the different covers, varied the techniques used, and here he employs an unusual means to suggest the background figures at a wedding reception: a sort of sketchy watercolour method without his usual cartoon outlining, which keeps the figures out of focus so as to keep the viewer's attention on the foreground drama.

The Mulliner stories are not my absolute favourites from the Wodehouse oeuvre, but they have their charm.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Man With Two Left Feet / Carry On, Jeeves

There are at least three beginnings to the Jeeves & Bertie saga.

The first beginning occurred with a short story called "Extricating Young Gussie", first published in the Saturday Evening Post on 18 September 1915, and reprinted in the collection The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories in 1917. The narrator is certainly called Bertie, and he has a man called Jeeves and an aunt called Agatha. But Bertie's surname appears to be Mannering-Phipps, and Jeeves does absolutely nothing to save the young master from the soup, confining himself to announcing people and bringing in the tea. So the elements are there, but not mixed properly as yet.

Here's the cover of the Penguin edition of the book:
I would not say this was one of Ionicus's most inspired covers; but it does the job, and is especially good at suggesting an unpleasantly crowded dance floor. (A much more joyous and attractive depiction of a night club occurs on the cover of Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin. But that's a discussion for another time.) The publishing history suggests this cover dated from 1978. The typography comes into its own with such a long title, and I find the arrangement of the words strangely pleasing.

As with Tales of St Austin's, the font is not specified. But this is what it looked like:

The next beginning of the Saga, which is really the true beginning because it includes the revelation of Jeeves's braininess, was a short story called "Leave It to Jeeves", published in the Saturday Evening Post on 5 February 1916. It appeared in volume form in My Man Jeeves (1917). Strictly speaking, this volume is irrelevant to our muttons, as Ionicus never illustrated the cover; but no matter. I have an early Penguin edition, printed in September 1936 (and it is startling to reflect that The Code of the Woosters did not even exist at that time). Here is the cover (a flimsy paper jacket which covered the similar card cover):

And this is the start of "Leave It to Jeeves" in that volume (font unknown):

While I'm on the subject, and for no especial reason except that I think it's interesting, I might as well include this, the blurb from the back of the paper cover which includes a nice pic of PGW in a rather fetching jumper:

So, moving on. My Man Jeeves includes four Jeeves stories, the remainder of the volume being filled with four stories narrated by a silly ass called Reggie Pepper. Later, Wodehouse clearly felt he had missed a trick, and when he brought out Carry On, Jeeves in 1925 he reissued the Jeeves stories ("Leave It to Jeeves" being reworked as "The Artistic Career of Corky"), rewrote some of the Reggie Pepper stories as Jeeves and Bertie, and added a couple of new ones.

Here's the Ionicus cover. I have two copies of this, so I am taking the opportunity to show you both spines: one still in pristine orange condition and one faded in the sun of thirty or so summers:

 Now, the cover of this is excellent, showing off Ionicus's skill in depicting interior décor and also effectively illustrating one of the iconic moments in comic literature: Jeeves introduces himself to Bertie. This is the third beginning of the saga, and probably the most important in the reader's mind. The story "Jeeves Takes Charge" is an origin tale, written after Wodehouse had realised what he had got himself into.

The book is set in Garamond:

Before we finish, I'd like to take a moment to show how, when Ionicus was at his best, he was capable of getting everything right. This is Wodehouse's description of the moment depicted:
Bertie is struggling with Types of Ethical Theory, as who wouldn't? The book is in his hand. Jeeves is "darkish" (and, by the way, I have sometimes wondered if Wodehouse was deliberately using one of the many early 20th century code words to show Jeeves was perhaps Jewish?)... and Bertie is in his usual attitude of startlement (but does not appear absolutely imbecile as in some depictions). Jeeves's pristine appearance contrasts nicely with Bertie's civilised dishevellation. The rack of canes, umbrellas and golf-clubs is a beautiful touch. As I have mentioned before, the situation is comic but the treatment should be, and is, serious: it's a solemn moment for all those concerned.

And all this was only the beginning.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Heart of a Goof

The Heart of a Goof (1926) was Wodehouse's second collection of golf stories; the first, and in my opinion superior, collection was The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922), but unfortunately Ionicus did not do a cover for that one, despite the fact that this title was in Penguin's back-catalogue during the Ionicus era. If you are interested, I would say that Cuthbert has more verve and enthusiasm. However, the Goof stories are all thoroughly professional and funny, and there is no real reason to be disappointed by them.

My copy of The Heart of a Goof is, alas, slightly damaged: a small patch under the G and W of the Wodehouse logo has been lifted off by a super-adhesive label, a flaw which the ebay seller from whom I got this copy did not mention in her listing. Well, never mind; it's still a reasonable copy, and as the ancient Romans said: e-buyer beware.

Ionicus has chosen to depict the retired businessmen who infest the Oldest Member's course and who are known to the initiated as the Wrecking Crew, consisting of the First Grave-Digger, the Man with the Hoe, Old Father Time, and Consul, the Almost Human. In the illustration, they are not quite as I imagined them; the First Grave-Digger is described by the Oldest Member as an ex-hammer-thrower whose chest had slipped down to the mezzanine floor, but still muscle-bound; it would be difficult to identify him in the picture. Never mind. The point is still made, especially in the unhappy faces of the golfing ladies to the right as they await the disastrous drive of the gentleman who I will for the sake of convenience here call Old Father Time. As I have mentioned before, Ionicus seemed to match his covers with the publication date, and I would not be surprised to find the fashions suit 1926 exactly. The details are beautiful in their way: the ghastly tattered mac of the First Grave-Digger, the unfortunate plus-fours of the music-hall gentleman to centre left; the sensible cardigan of Old Father Time, the shades of the grass, the hint of the club-house. The Wodehouse logo is just the right shade of green to match it.

The text is set in Linotype Granjon:
Solid, reassuring.

Now, here I am going to take the risk of being very beastly. Round about the Millennium, Penguin completely re-set and re-issued the main Wodehouse titles. The result was, I contend, hideous. I happen to have the 1999 edition of The Heart of a Goof. Here is the front cover:
Note the wacky typeface for title and author, a sort of Comic Sans Plus affair; the cartoon figures with exaggerated period features such as big moustaches, monocle, and billowing plus-fours above stick-legs. We must be kind; we must remember this was the early computer era, where the art of drawing on a screen was still in its infancy or at the most its adolescence. But all the same, this title, like all the titles in this edition, shows absolutely no respect for Wodehouse as being a nonpareil of English humorous prose, looked up to by Evelyn Waugh, among many others, as the Master with a capital M.
And as for the typeface.....
Well, it's clear; I will say that. I can see nothing actively wrong with it - except, of course, the foul and contemptible decision not to fully-justify the text but to leave it with a ragged right hand side. The typeface is like this throughout the entire book - indeed, all the books in this series. Incidentally, the font is called 9/11pt Monotype Trump, which is somehow unsurprising.

Penguin's Millennium Wodehouse has disappeared from print, thank God. But I can't say that Arrow's in-print editions are any better, at least in terms of cover design. Look at this (an image snaffled from the Internet):

Yes, look at it and weep. I am no expert, and perhaps I will be told I am showing embarrassing ignorance in these matters; but I cannot believe that in terms of composition, grace of line, and overall artistry either of the more recent covers can begin to hold a candle to that of Ionicus.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Little Nugget / Piccadilly Jim

It's many years since I last read The Little Nugget, and I wondered if my memories of being rather disappointed with it were unfair. Unfortunately, I can confirm they were not. The idea behind it is great: Ogden Ford, the horrible son of a millionaire, is the target of rival gangsters out to kidnap him. Some years ago, I also read the original serial version of the story, called "The Eighteen-Carat Kid", and it was much better. The reason is easy to see: the serial is all about the kidnapping, and is taut and to the point, while the novel expands the situation to include the hero's rather lugubrious romance, and is frankly flabby.

Well, it was first published in 1913 and is one of Wodehouse's earlier adult novels. He was still feeling his way; and just two years later he would write the magnificent Something Fresh; so I can forgive this momentary unsureness of touch. And, in spite of the major flaws, there is much to enjoy.

The Penguin edition was first published in 1959, and was set in Intertype Times. I'm a bit surprised to find the book title is given on the first page of the text:

One thing I notice of Ionicus's covers is that he generally takes care to suit his figures in the style of the original publication date. Hence the rounded celluloid collars of the men, the Nugget's Eton collar, and so on. I don't know if Audrey's dress is accurate, but it does seem somehow right: simple and pre-flapper. Our hero and heroine - good-looking, serious, rather dull - are well done. There is only one matter upon which I would take issue with Ionicus. White, the butler who (spoiler alert) turns out to be the gangster Smooth Sam Fisher in disguise, is here depicted as slim and even gaunt. In the novel he is "portly" and respectable-looking to a degree; the typical Wodehouse butler. Ionicus does not usually make such mistakes.

I would guess the cover dates from the 1974 reprint.

While I'm at it, I might as well include in this post a few remarks on Piccadilly Jim (1917), which is a sort of sequel, featuring Ogden Ford once more. I read that this novel was one of Wodehouse's biggest successes at the time. I find this rather surprising, as I consider it to be rather obviously inferior to Something Fresh, for instance.

It's an entertaining but improbable farce of mistaken identity. Well, I know what you're going to say. "That's a description of every single Wodehouse plot." Yes; that's a very perceptive remark you have made, and I agree. But this one goes too far, I think. There's a rich New York financier called Peter Pett and his ghastly wife Nesta. That's fine. Then there's Nesta's ghastly sister Eugenia who has married an American actor called Bingley Crocker and gone to live in London. Bingley Crocker's son is a society playboy called by the papers Piccadilly Jim and he has been raising Cain in London. Crocker's wife wants him to become a British Peer. With me so far? But... how can he become a Peer when he's American? Why are they in London? Why is Piccadilly Jim American? It all feels slightly off; if Crocker were a Britisher with an American wife, it would all suddenly make a lot more sense. There's a subplot about Crocker hankering for baseball, but that's really not an essential. It's pretty clear that Crocker must have been made American rather late in the plotting process to solve a glitch. The joins are visible.

I hope you understand that, if I criticise, it is because I love Wodehouse. He set an impossibly high standard in his best works. It's no surprise that he could not always meet that standard, especially in these, his earlier novels, where he was still testing what works.

The Penguin edition was first published in 1969, and perhaps the Ionicus cover was made at that time; or possibly for the 1972 reprint. The font is Intertype Times again:

I love the Ionicus cover. The colours, the yellows and browns and pale greens, have an autumnal feel; the Wodehouse logo colour is very carefully chosen to suit. Jim's clothes are ostentatiously American; Ann Chester to the right is the perfect Wodehouse heroine; Bayliss the butler is ideally butlerine; and the bustle of Paddington Station before the Boat Train (that essential scene in many a Wodehouse plot) is skilfully evoked.

I'm sorry not to be more positive about the books themselves. There's a shadow over them, and as I think it over perhaps I can state what the shadow is. It is Ogden Ford himself, a truly horrible child, spoilt perhaps beyond redemption and portrayed as being without a single redeeming feature. Wodehouse's characters usually have something about them, some remnant of a soul; Ogden has nothing.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Tales of St Austin's

One of the (many) reasons why I am revisiting Wodehouse at the moment is that I am trying to find an answer to the ridiculous question: "How did he do it?" There are other writers whose style is more precise and fastidious. Wodehouse wrote in echoes of other writing: in quotations, old jokes, set phrases, and mangled clichés.  There are lots of writers about the place who do just that, and they're rotten. The difference (one of the differences) is that Wodehouse did it deliberately and with relish for the language. Even when he is romping through the most ridiculous slang phrases of 1920 vintage, he makes of them a sequence of precious gems.

He makes it look utterly easy. But, when you try it yourself, you find it really isn't.

I want to write a comic novel. But I always fizzle out after a few thousand words when I realise that what I have written is as funny as something that is not at all funny. So now I have reduced my ambitions. I'm trying to write a funny short story. It doesn't matter how short. If it has a beginning, middle and end, and fits in a few genuinely humorous cracks, I'll be well satisfied.

Wodehouse was a master of the funny short story. Some of them are as near perfection as you're likely to find. I read his short story collection Ukridge (1924) a few months ago and... well, if you take just the first page of the first story in the collection ("Ukridge's Dog College"), and you read it with the eye of a writer trying to work out how to do it, the sheer technique is flabbergasting. In a few short lines of dialogue we know just what kind of character Ukridge is, his relationship with the narrator, and why the narrator is telling the story, as well as some of the high points of Ukridge's speaking style and his sartorial shortcomings, not to mention throwing in, at my reckoning, five excellent laughs along the way. And it all looks as easy and relaxed as an idle conversation after dinner. It's enough to make a budding writer throw in the towel and turn his face to the wall.

(I mention all this here because I don't think I will include the Ionicus cover for Ukridge in this series: it is one of his failures.)

So let us instead turn back the clock and look at Wodehouse's first collection of short stories: Tales of St Austin's (1903). It was his third published volume, after the public-school novels The Pothunters (1902) and A Prefect's Uncle (1903); but all the short stories, bar one, had been originally published in magazine form, and they include the earliest pieces that Wodehouse selected to publish in book form. It also happens to be the earliest Wodehouse book that Ionicus did a cover for.

It's an excellent example of Ionicus's "group photo" style of cover: a nicely grouped selection of characters, in characteristic poses. We know immediately what kind of characters these characters are, from the keen cricketer and equally keen rugger player to the priggish schoolmaster and the more jolly and humorous one in the middle distance. The frank and cheerful expression of the boy looking directly out at us is just right. The view of St Austin's School itself, complete with flourishing trees and the inevitable cricket score board, is attractive enough almost to make one hanker for the dear old days when one went through the unadulterated hell of school oneself.

The Penguin edition of this book was originally published in 1978 by Puffin, the children's arm of that publisher; but this is the full Penguin from 1983. Surprisingly, the book does not state the name of the font used. However, here's what it looks like:

As we can see, there is a trace in the style of what Wodehouse would achieve in later years; but as we can also see, he's struggling. Why does he give three words and then say there is no other word for it? If it's a joke, it fizzles out. Well, never mind; Wodehouse was only 22 when the book came out. (Yes: twenty-two.)

The stories are simple, not a patch on the brilliant little firework displays later achieved. They are anecdotes, sometimes leading up to a nice little punchline that the mature writer would have disdained; sometimes shaggy dog stories like "The Manoeuvres of Charteris." There are sub-Punch essays like the one called "Work". But they all have a lovely freshness about them, as of a craftsman trying out his new tools. The mischievous amorality of the Wodehouse work is here: school, in his world, is not for doing work or getting ahead, but for games, for breaking bounds, for annoying your teachers and getting one up on the folk in authority. He would never have said it, but the Wodehouse world is completely anarchistic. I am almost certain that his school stories would never be reprinted today for a children's audience; they are not moral enough.

And, I may add, I would be proud to be able to write a short story as good as "How Pillingshot Scored."

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Jeeves in the Offing / Much Obliged, Jeeves

This, dear reader, will be a little different from previous posts: firstly, because it will treat of two separate Wodehouse titles (see above); and secondly because it will focus more on Wodehouse than on Ionicus. Well, well, that was inevitable, because I don't really have the vocabulary to comment on the visual arts to any degree of detail, whereas I can blather on about writing till the cows home or the crack of doom, whichever comes first.

However, I did want to show this Ionicus cover in any case, as it is one of the best:

It's a very striking image, full of excitement and promise.... to be truthful, much more so than the book Jeeves in the Offing (1960) itself. Bertie has been without his Jeeves for much of the novel, while the omniscient valet goes on holiday to Herne Bay for the shrimping; but, the imbroglio having got too hot for comfort by page 96, Bertie fetches him back in his sports model in order to fix everything good. It will be noted that the sports model is very post-war; in fact, about 1960, like the novel. Bertie and Jeeves, invented in 1915, have aged about five or six years in the intervening decades, but that's fine; Wodehouse did tend to include in his books the occasional nod to the passing years in terms of cultural references, without making any awkward calculations about the age of the cast. Bertie is very much at home behind the wheel, and the personalised number plate looks about right. Jeeves, of course, is as imperturbable as ever, though looking after his hat with calm care. This detail, and Bertie's flapping tie, add to the sense of movement and action which (to be truthful) is not always apparent in Ionicus. The yellow of the car is nicely reflected in the yellow of the Wodehouse logo.

I've been rereading some of these late Wodehouses recently, and I was very pleasantly surprised by them. When I went through my first Wodehouse phase in my teens and twenties, I came to the conclusion that the man went off very badly, stylistically speaking, in his last years, from about 1950 to the 1970s... though I always made an exception for that late return to form, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974), his last completed novel. He started to repeat himself too much - I don't mean just plots, though I do mean that partly, but also jokes and turns of phrase. I always set down Jeeves in the Offing and Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971) as two of the worst offenders. Jeeves in the Offing had the additional major fault of being completely inconsistent with previous episodes. As far back as Thank You, Jeeves in 1934 Bertie had told the affecting tale of his reconciliation with the prominent nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop; but here, in 1960, it is as if that reconciliation had never occurred, and events have to be manufactured to make it happen all over again. Most irritating.

But on rereading today, I find there is much, after all, to admire in these autumnal works - most of all, the sheer balance of the prose. So much that is written is badly written. It clunks; it is badly paced, telling too much that is irrelevant and boring where it should excite. A Wodehouse sentence always has a certain heft about it. What do I mean? Here is a random example, taken literally from the first page I opened (page 98):

"It was with... well, not quite an uplifted heart... call it a heart lifted about half-way... that I started out for Brinkley the following afternoon."

Nothing special, you might say; and certainly it's not one for the anthologies exactly. But at the same time, thought has gone into that sentence, so that, while it uses a little cliché, care has been taken to examine it and dismantle it in part, and to write in this partial dismantlement in such a way as to make it sound natural, almost spoken, and with a cadence, a rise and a fall.

I could give you a dozen counter-examples from a flabby, lazy thriller written by a very big name and published only last year; but the problem about lazy writing is that it doesn't look so bad in isolated sentences. A little flat, maybe, but not actively bad. It's only in aggregate that the dead prose, the unexamined clichés, and so on and so forth, start to irritate....

"Paula grinned like a birthday child."
"Paula gave him a sideways look."
"He liked that people still had the power to surprise him in a good way."
"Paula rolled her eyes."
"Abruptly, Tony slapped his forehead."

(All taken from a single dialogue scene over the space of three pages. That "Tony slapped his forehead" is especially awful: does anyone, ever, actually do that, outside a bad TV drama?)

But behold, the matter is too painful. I will simply say that to read Wodehouse after a few swathes of that sort of thing is like swimming through from a muddy current into a clear and crystalline stream.

The Penguin edition of Jeeves in the Offing was first published in 1963, and it's set in Intertype Garamond, a clear and simple type:

You can see, even from that little snippet, that Wodehouse is back using some of his old jokes (eggs and b.) and familiar rhythms. Maybe the nostalgia factor does enter into the equation here: in times of uncertainty, what can be nicer than to hear once again the reassuring rise and fall of a loved narrative voice?

Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971) is of similar calibre, though the prose is a little more discursive. The Ionicus cover, I confess, is one of his worst:

It's an imperfect copy, unfortunately, with some damage to Jeeves's jacket caused by an over-adhesive label, but the essence is there. The foreground table, I like. Aunt Dahlia, seated, is good. Bertie, standing and adjusting his tie, not too dusty. But Jeeves on the right and L.P. Runkle (especially) in the middle: awful. L.P.R. is out of proportion and apparently a cardboard cutout. Jeeves is making a startling revelation (this is the key scene at the end of the book) but he might as well be announcing dinner. Where is the drama? It could almost be a different illustrator to the Ionicus who drew the best examples in the series. Ah, well; such is life.

Here are the first few lines - and it will be noted that the mise-en-scene is remarkably similar to that at the start of Jeeves in the Offing:

First published by Penguin in 1981, and the font is Linotype Baskerville. I'm not keen on the left-justified chapter heading; it's just a bit too matter-of-fact. Still, it's all perfectly serviceable.

It's possible that one of the reasons I had a prejudice against Much Obliged, Jeeves was the cover. Reading it again, I was surprised to see haw much I enjoyed it. Set during a tightly-fought by-election at Market Snodsbury (the same one that Aubrey Upjohn had been trying to be selected for in Jeeves in the Offing?), it has some nice gags about politicians and even a gag about world over-population:

"If steps aren't taken through the proper channels, half the world will soon be standing on the other half's shoulders."
"All right if you're one of the top layer."
"Yes, there's that, of course." (page 49)

There aren't any rip-roaring set pieces, but there's much to enjoy, and it's worth pointing out (if the reader did not know) that Wodehouse was 90 years old when this was published, and even then was writing much better than I ever will.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Life at Blandings

I may not say much in this post. The point will be the pictures, not my blatherings.

I have long loved the old Penguin editions of Wodehouse, and for some time have even contemplated starting a blog along the present lines; but what finally provoked me actually to set it up was the acquisition from ebay of a box set called "Life at Blandings". I feel that now is the time to post about it.

Judging from the printing dates of the novels included, it must have been produced about 1981. The box has three Ionicus illustrations on it which I haven't seen elsewhere, either in real life or online.

Here's the first:

Well, well. What can I say? Lord Emsworth and the Hon Galahad Threepwood: definitive. Lady Constance and another sister: effective. Angus McAllister? I'm not convinced; not dour enough, not... I beg your pardon, but in the context of early 20th century English humour the word cannot be avoided... not Scotch enough. But that's just my opinion.

Number two:

Wonderful to see Lord Emsworth uncomfortably enduring his full evening dress, the pince-nez inevitably askew and probably a paperclip doing service for a lost collar-stud. Who's the bore on the left? The Duke of Dunstable? McAllister reappears on the right (oddly enough, given his importance in the Saga, he is not depicted on any of the standard Ionicus covers), and the jug-eared young ass centre left can only be the Hon Freddie Threepwood. The young woman in the middle caught in the act of taking no nonsense is indeterminate, but there are many such heroines to choose from in the saga.

Finally, below, we have what may be the central relationship of all: Lord Emsworth and the faithful, immortal butler Beach. You will note the selection of titles that appeared in the box set, which is somewhat eccentric. What, no Something Fresh, no Summer Lightning? Well, the ways of publishers are inscrutable.