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.

Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.

What Is The Origin Of (126)?…

disgruntled

Disgruntled

One of the deficiencies in the way English is taught – even in my far distant schooldays – is the absence of any formal study of grammar and the noble art of parsing. We were taught to analyse, decline and parse Greek and Latin words until the cows came home but it never crossed our paedogogues’ minds – or ours, for that matter – to apply the same analytical techniques to our native language. A shame really as we missed out on the joys of intensifiers and the frequentative.

To rectify this lamentable situation we will look at the word disgruntle where both grammatical terms can be found alive and well. The meaning of the word, invariably used in its past participle adjectival form, is plain enough. Someone so described is angry or dissatisfied. I started pondering the word the other day when I was rereading P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938. There he uses a wonderful play on words in the sentence, “he spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”.

Was gruntled just a Wodehousian neologism, devised to make an amusing pun, I wondered? Well, not really. John Bunyan used the word in 1680 in his The Life and Death of Mr Badman; “..he could speak no more than a Swine or Bear. Therefore, like one of them, he would gruntle and make an ugly noise..”  So to gruntle was to make an inhuman, animal-like noise – not exactly the antonym of disgruntle. Its origins, though, are even earlier. It was used in the early 15th century in the sense of making a little or low grunt and by around the 1580s it was used to convey discontent or complaint. It was in this sense that it was used by Emerson Hough in his 1922 novel, The Covered Wagon, “they dismounted…they gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules”.

The le in the word is what grammarians call the frequentative and gives the sense of repetition as in sparkle which is a repeated form of spark. Dis as a prefix is normally used to transform the root word into a negative. Add dis to the word appear and instead of having something revealing itself in front of you it vanishes. But the prefix in our word acts as an intensifier. It means that we are more than gruntled – muttering and complaining to ourselves – we are pissed.  So Wodehouse is guilty of a little grammatical inexactitude but I think he can be forgiven because of the quality of his pun.

One of my favourite words is discombobulate. It is used to convey the sense of someone being confused or discomfited, first appearing on the other side of the pond in the New York Sun in 1834; “maybe some of you don’t get discombobulated”. Five years later it turned up in a New York sporting rag, The Spirit of the Times; “finally, Richmond was obliged to trundle him, neck and heels, to the earth, to the utter discombobulation of his wig”.  Journalists aren’t so florid in their prose these days.

The question arises as to whether the prefix dis is used as a negative or an intensifier. The problem, however, is that combobulate or bobulate does not exist as a word. It was probably a piece of nonsense used to accentuate the state of confusion in the subject. In that case, then, the prefix would be an intensifier as it is in disgruntled.

It is all very discombobulating but fun, nevertheless.

What Is The Origin Of (22)…?

bullet

 

Bite The Bullet

This phrase is used to indicate that some unpleasant consequences are going to have to be borne with stoic fortitude.

In days of yore, you really did take your life in your hands when you submitted yourself to the ministrations of the surgeon who was not for nothing known as sawbones. Anaesthetics were unheard of and so it was commonly thought that the poor victim (sorry, patient) to steel their nerve had a slug of spirits and then chewed on a bullet to prevent them from crying out. Whilst this explanation seems highly plausible and before I started thinking about this post I thought it was the origin of the phrase, there is no evidence either in print or elsewhere that a bullet was bitten during a medical procedure.

Painters such as Rembrandt and Hieronymus Bosch have painted scenes involving surgical procedures. The patients are not portrayed as biting into anything, although they probably had been plied with liberal quantities of hooch. In the mid-nineteenth century ether and chloroform started to be introduced as an effective form of anaesthetic and certainly ether was issued to US army surgeons from 1849. Photographs of emergency operations performed on the battlefields of the American Civil War show cloths being applied to the mouth and nose area of the patient, doubtless laced with ether. There is no documentary evidence of operations being carried out without anaesthetics at that time.

Biting the bullet is attested as far back as 1796 as Thomas Grose’s “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” makes clear. Grose defines nightingale as follows, Nightingale. A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet”. Rather than being specific to medical procedures, the habit of biting the bullet seems to be associated with situations where some general fortitude is required. It is almost the equivalent of the good old-fashioned virtue of a stiff upper lip.

It is in this context that Kipling uses the phrase in his 1891 novel, The Light That Failed , thus, “‘Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.‘ However, by the time that the twentieth century had arrived it was used in a metaphorical sense, as is shown in P G Wodehouse’s use of the phrase in The Inimitable Jeeves of 1923, “Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you”.

So it seems this phrase has a rather prosaic origin but at least we now know!