By Tony Deyal
Did you hear the story of the man who had the great honour of being crushed by a steamroller? He was flattered. In one sense, his problem was that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is because one proverb insists that “Flattery will get you nowhere”.
However, sexy “Mae” West, the actress, knew from experience that, “flattery will get you everywhere.” George Bernard Shaw, the Irish Playwright, saw it from the male viewpoint: “What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.” However, Napoleon Bonaparte, while exiled in St Helena, disagreed and said sadly, “He who knows how to flatter also knows how to slander.” My favourite author of all time, P.G. Wodehouse, spoke for a lot of us with, “flattery will get you nowhere, but don’t stop trying.”
I’m still not sure if I am nowhere or somewhere with my writing or, for that matter, with the ghost of Wodehouse. My first dialect poem, “Wake Tonight” (1967) included the line: “We all was broken-without a cent/ More broken even dan de Ten Commandment.” Last night, as I was reading a Wodehouse collection, I found a story about one of his best-known characters, Psmith, who said, “[I’m] as broke as the ten commandments.”
Even though my family was even more broke that the whole Psmith family put together, I was a bit like the young Wodehouse. He recalled, “I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.” In my case, I know I read the newspapers and ate a lot of what we call “hops” bread or loaves when I was five, but I’m not sure if I knew right from wrong in those days. Fortunately, I did not wait to be hit on the face with a book to know great writing when I saw it. From very early on I was captivated by the Wodehouse way with words like, “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”; “He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”
“The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun,” and, “An apple a day, if well aimed, keeps the doctor away.”
This is why I decided to build today on yesterday’s and tomorrow’s greatest humourist, P.G. Wodehouse who taught us all, “there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” Consider, “the voice of love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number” and “It was my Uncle George who discovered alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.” In my case, it was both my Uncle Jacket and my father, as well as my Aunty Moon and the rest of the family. The day my father fell off his bike into a pool of water at the side of the road and my mother said to him, as she often did, “Deyal, you drunk!”, I shut my ears to the angry back-and-forth and fled to Wodehouse who had written in Meet Mr Mulliner, “Intoxicated? The word did not express it by a mile.
He was oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sozzled, and blotto.” This is why my own work, even though it is short stories or novelties and not novels, is based on the core of the Wodehouse method, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”
There are many different areas that Wodehouse not just delved into but brought to the “fore”. Clearly, Golf is one. Sports is or are another. Food is a third and Crime did pay the piper and pipe tobacco (which he smoked). But his take on women (and men) is my choice of choices. In “Mostly Sally” Wodehouse wrote, “And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.” He added, “Chumps always make the best husbands. When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his head first, and if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from husbands having brains.
What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.” In “Uneasy Money” there is the truth and nothing but the truth, “At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve in the later seventies.” I will be seventy-eight next month and am nowhere close. One of the reasons is that many women are like the one Wodehouse described, “She looked away. Her attitude seemed to suggest that she had finished with him, and would be obliged if somebody would come and sweep him up.” On the male side, and from a woman’s viewpoint, “If men’s minds were like dominoes, surely his would be the double blank.”
Another was, “I attribute my whole success in life to a rigid observance of the fundamental rule- Never have yourself tattooed with a woman’s name, not even her initials.” And for the men who speak about women in terms like, “She had more curves than a scenic railway” or “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and forgotten to say ‘when’”, remember Wodehouse and “The Small Bachelor,” – “Marriage is not a process for prolonging the life of love, sir. It merely mummifies its corpse.”
Evelyn Waugh, the writer of Brideshead Revisited, argued that Wodehouse was capable of two or three striking metaphors per page and gave examples: “He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.”; “One young man was a great dancer, one who never let his left hip know what his right hip was doing,”; “She had just enough brains to make a jaybird fly crooked.”; “Her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver’s trousers.”; and “He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”
Fortunately for me and all the Wodehouse readers, including (hopefully) some of you who have read this article, copies of his 72 novels and short-story collections like laughing gas and hot water are still available. Even last night I had to laugh at his recollection of his first novel (and my own first book), “It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo.” But, despite this, like him, I believe and am committed to, “As we grow older and realize more clearly the limitations of human happiness, we come to see that the only real and abiding pleasure in life is to give pleasure to other people.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen trying a Wodehouse put-down. “You’re one of those guys who can make a party just by leaving it. It’s a great gift.”