Book Corner – March 2019 (3)

Joy in the Morning – P G Wodehouse

I find Wodehouse, and particularly his tales of Wooster and Jeeves, to be the literary equivalent of my comfort blanket. No matter how many times I read them, I find I discover something new. It’s a delight to be whisked away from your daily grind to a world of dense toffs and clever, perceptive servants. Of course, this world barely ever existed and is an anachronism by modern standards but it is worth just suspending belief to enjoy the wonders of Wodehouse at his best.

And I concur with many of Wodehouse’s critics that this is perhaps his finest work, certainly his best Jeeves and Wooster story. It had a difficult birth, Wodehouse working on it in Le Touquet when he was rudely interned by the occupying Nazis. His wife, Ethel, had the foresight to pack up the fledgling manuscript when she left France to join him in Berlin and was completed up in the Harz mountains in Degenershausen.

Joy in the Morning, which takes its title from a line in the thirtieth Psalm, was initially published in New York in August 1946. As Wodehouse was under a bit of a cloud in Blighty and paper was in short supply, the book didn’t reach his British audience until June 1947. The scarce paper was not wasted in bringing this wonderful novel to the reading public. Some American editions are entitled Jeeves in the Morning, missing the point entirely in that lovably infuriating Yankee way.

Those familiar with Wodehouse will know what to expect. It is a classic comedy of errors, using shovel loads of coincidence to keep a frenzied plot going. Bertie Wooster is persuaded to visit Steeple Bumpleigh, home of his formidable and tyrannical aunt, Agatha and her hubby, Lord Worplesdon. Worse too, Wooster’s former fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, is in attendance. Will Bertie get himself hooked again?

The book is a frenzied tour de force, love triangles, envious suitors, vengeful suitors, a house fire, a fancy-dress ball, a country cottage burnt to the ground, a miscreant boy, a policeman, a friend of Bertie’s, who is out to get him, a prospective merger of two shipping companies and much, much more. There is even a gag that runs through the book about a fretful porpentine which manifests itself when Bertie finds a hedgehog in his bed, as you do. The countryside is a dangerous place.

The momentum of the book is such that it is very difficult to put down as you are drawn to see what happens next. You are quickly absorbed by the beauty and vibrancy of the writing and the inventiveness of the Wodehousian simile. To give you a taste; “she came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room” and he span round “with a sort of guilty bound like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk.

Through all of this mayhem, Wodehouse can take a step and poke fun at himself and his dodgy war record. Talking to Boko Fittleworth, yes, the names of Wodehouse’s characters are eccentrically bizarre, Wooster says, “I doubt if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself.

It’s a glorious romp, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you forget about the modern world. What is there not to like?

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The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Two

Half Moon Street, W1

Running from Curzon Street in the north to Piccadilly in the south, Half Moon Street is a thoroughfare associated with London’s literary life and has more than a little whiff of scandal about it.

Built from around 1730, the street took its name from the pub which stood on the corner with Piccadilly and one can easily imagine, given its location, that it was a lively and thriving place, the Gazetteer recording on September 6th 1758 the death on the previous Friday of “Mrs Winter, who many years kept the Half Moon Ale-house, in Piccadilly, in which it is Said she acquired near 8,000:, which she has left to her poorest relations.

The Public Advertiser for March 11th 1768 announced that “yesterday, James Boswell Esq, arrived from Scotland at his lodgings in Half Moon Street,” where he entertained, amongst others, his old mucker, Samuel Johnson. One of the capital’s great actors at the turn of the 19th century, Mr Pope, lived at No 5, which is where his first wife and actress, the former Miss Young, died at the age of 26. The celebrated physician, Samuel Merriman, was to be found at No 26 from 1813 to 1825, arriving rather too late to help the unfortunate Mrs Pope.

Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on the street, and according to a description of him by his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in his biography of the poet, published in 1858, he cut a dash sitting by a window “book in hand, with lively gestures and bright eyes; so that Mrs N said he wanted only a pan  of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark hanging outside for air and song.

Much of the street was taken up by private houses and what were termed in the 19th century as bachelor’s chambers where young single male tenants, who had come to the metropolis to seek their fame and fortune, could obtain accommodation. Among the many illuminati who found accommodation in these establishments over the years were the dress designer, Raoul de Veulle, the novelist Hugh Walpole, Aubrey Beardsley, Osbert Sitwell and the poet, Wilfred Owen.

A rather larger than life resident in the 1840s was Lola Montez. Irish born, although she claimed to be Spanish, she was a dancer whose lack of technique was more than made up by enthusiasm. Her piece de resistance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothing. Lola was arrested at the street in 1849 on a charge of bigamy and had a string of lovers, including Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria.

But the street is particularly associated with Oscar Wilde and in its day it was the acknowledged epicentre of London’s bohemian and theatrical quarter. Wilde places one of the principal characters of The Importance of being Ernest, Algernon Moncrieff, in bachelors’ chambers with “luxurious furnishings.” in the street. Wilde’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment saw the arty set move further east to Soho.

And who can forget that PG Wodehouse’s wonderful creations, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, lived in Half Moon Street? Another fictional figure, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, lived at 60a.

But back to reality. The street is home to Fleming Hotel, founded by the eponymous Robert Fleming, former valet to the First Marquis of Anglesey, in 1851. The hotel’s founding is commemorated in a rather splendid stained-glass window depicting the Great Exhibition of that year.

The street, now a run of expensive hotels and even more expensive properties, has a fascinating history.