Early evening, July 1968. I was set to propel my fifteen year old frame out the door and ankle over to Colley Road library, on Sheffield’s Parson Cross, when my steelworker dad called out to me. He often had his nose in a gardening, DIY or countryside tome but I’d never known him read fiction so paid more heed to his request than I did most of the garbage he came out with.
If you see a Jeeves book, will you get it out for me?
Walking home I began Right Ho, Jeeves. Fifty years on I’m still returning to it, along with all the others, and they still make me laugh out loud. Not only is Pelham Grenville Wodehouse the funniest writer I’ve ever read; you can see his mark on every comic author who came after.
There are just two plots in the entire Jeeves canon. Bertie Wooster – who once overheard his employee describe him as “an exceedingly pleasant and amiable young gentleman, but not intelligent. By no means intelligent. Mentally he is negligible; quite negligible” (see The Pride Of The Woosters Is Wounded) – looks to his brainy gentleman’s gentleman either to get a chum hitched on pain of having to marry the girl himself or to get back in Aunt Dahlia’s good books on pain of no more invites to Brinkley Court, hence no more of Anatole’s ambrosial cuisine.
Right Ho, Jeeves bridges both categories but starts with the first. Unworldly newt admirer, Gussie Fink-Nottle, has fallen head over heels for a Madeline Basset known to Bertie as:
… a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but [deeply flawed by] her whole mental attitude. I don’t want to wrong anybody, so I won’t go so far as to say she actually wrote poetry, but her conversation, to my mind, was of a nature calculated to excite the liveliest suspicions.
Having already visited in Bertie’s absence to confide in Jeeves, Gussie has come back – dressed as a scarlet Mephistopheles – for a second helping, after which he awaits his old friend’s return from the Drones Club. On said return, Bertie has the decency and good manners to pretend not to notice the sartorial horror show blighting hearth and home.
“How do you think I look, Bertie?”
Well, the answer to that, of course, was ’‘perfectly foul”. But we Woosters are men of tact and have a nice sense of the obligations of a host. We do not tell old friends beneath our roof-tree that they are an offence to the eyesight. I evaded the question.
“I hear you’re in London,” I said carelessly. I mixed myself a beaker, while Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.
It soon transpires that Gussie has met and been instantly smitten by the Basset’s charms while walking in Lincolnshire, where he extracted a thorn from the paw of her beloved hound: an advantage Fink-Nottle has, to Bertie’s perplexed dismay, been quite unable to drive home.
Well, I mean, it looked as though there was no more to be said. If a chap is such a rabbit that he can’t get action when he’s handed the thing on a plate, his case would appear to be pretty hopeless. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that this non-starter and I had been at school together. One must make an effort for an old school friend.
“Ah, well,” I said, ’‘we must see what can be done. Things may brighten. At any rate, you will be glad to learn that I am behind you in this enterprise. You have Bertram Wooster in your corner, Gussie.”
“Thanks, old man. And Jeeves, of course, which is the thing that really matters.”
I don’t mind admitting that I winced. He meant no harm, I suppose, but I’m bound to say that this tactless speech nettled me not a little. People are always nettling me like that. Giving me to understand, I mean to say, that in their opinion Bertram Wooster is a mere cipher and that the only member of the household with brains and resources is Jeeves.
It jars on me.
It especially jars on Bertie now, and for two reasons. First, Jeeves, famously conservative on all things vestiary, had that very evening pronounced on the unsuitability of a white mess jacket his employer had brought back from a French Riviera where “dress codes are notoriously lax, sir”. Second, Jeeves has instructed Fink-Nottle to attend a fancy dress ball, at which Madeline Basset will be present, in the bright red garb of Old Nick’s trusted servant.
Here was Jeeves making heavy weather about me wearing a perfectly ordinary white mess jacket, a garment not only tout ce qu’il y a de chic, but absolutely de rigueur, and in the same breath, as you might say, inciting Gussie Fink-Nottle to be a blot on the London scene in scarlet tights. Ironical, what? One looks askance at this sort of in-and-out running.
Bertie demands a reason for Jeeves’s counsel of departure from the time honoured tradition of attending such events in the get-up of pantomime’s stock character.
“What has he got against Pierrots?”
“I don’t think he objects to Pierrots as Pierrots. But in my case he thought a Pierrot wouldn’t be adequate.”
“I don’t follow that.”
“He said that the costume of Pierrot, while pleasing to the eye, lacked the authority of the Mephistopheles costume.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Well, it’s a matter of psychology, he said.”
There was a time when a remark like that would have had me snookered. But long association with Jeeves has developed the Wooster vocabulary considerably. Jeeves has always been a whale for the psychology of the individual, and I now follow him like a bloodhound when he snaps it out of the bag.
“Yes. Jeeves is a great believer in the moral effect of clothes. He thinks I might be emboldened in a striking costume like this. He said a Pirate Chief would be just as good. In fact, a Pirate Chief was his first suggestion, but I objected to the boots.”
I saw his point. There is enough sadness in life without having fellows like Gussie Fink-Nottle going about in sea boots.
“And are you emboldened?”
“Well, to be absolutely accurate, Bertie, old man, no.”
A gust of compassion shook me. After all, though we had lost touch a bit of recent years, this man and I had once thrown inked darts at each other.
“Gussie,” I said, ’‘take an old friend’s advice, and don’t go within a mile of this binge.”
“But it’s my last chance of seeing her. She’s off tomorrow to stay with some people in the country. Besides, you don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“That this idea of Jeeves’s won’t work. I feel a most frightful chump now, yes, but who can say whether that will not pass off when I get into a mob of other people in fancy dress. I had the same experience as a child, one year during the Christmas festivities. They dressed me up as a rabbit, and the shame was indescribable. Yet when I got to the party and found myself surrounded by scores of other children, many in costumes even ghastlier than my own, I perked up amazingly, joined freely in the revels, and was able to eat so hearty a supper that I was sick twice in the cab coming home. What I mean is, you can’t tell in cold.”
I weighed this. It was specious, of course.
“And you can’t get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves’s idea is sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”
“But you aren’t a male newt.”
“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.”
“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”
“She would, if she were a female newt.”
“But she isn’t a female newt.”
“No, but suppose she was.”
“Well, if she was, you wouldn’t be in love with her.”
“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”
A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.
Rigorous, methodologically impeccable surveys have shown that edge-of-seat plotting seldom plays a pivotal role in bringing Jeeves addicts the world over back for more, so normal rules on spoilers don’t apply. I can freely confide that, to soften what he sees as Gussie’s inevitable hard landing at the ball, Bertie gets his old Etonian chum drunk, with consequences predictable to all but Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. Blithely oblivious to the fact it’s his meddling that sabotaged Jeeves’s plan, he pulls rank on his valet.
“All you have done is to subject Mr. Fink-Nottle to the nameless horrors of a fancy-dress ball for nothing. And this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. To be quite candid, Jeeves, I have frequently noticed before now a tendency or disposition on your part to become–what’s the word?”
“I could not say, sir.”
“Eloquent? No, it’s not eloquent. Elusive? No, it’s not elusive. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Begins with an ‘e‘ and means being a jolly sight too clever.”
“That is the exact word I was after. Too elaborate, Jeeves – that is what you are frequently prone to become. Your methods are not simple, not straightforward. You cloud the issue with a lot of fancy stuff that is not of the essence.”
At which Bertie takes Jeeves off the case as he himself assumes full control of easing Augustus Fink-Nottle’s path to conjugal bliss with the droopy, blonde and saucer-eyed Madeline Basset.
What could possibly go wrong?
* * *