PG Wodehouse, the greatest humorist in English language, wrote quite a bit about cricket and was a useful cricketer himself. Arunabha Sengupta explores the cricketing connections of the great writer on his 131st birthday.
Now touching upon old PG “Plum” Wodehouse on his 131st birthday, not many may know that the chap who benevolently beams at you from so many old black and white pictures was a topping cricketer in the days of his sprightly youth.
Whispers used to go around the Dulwich circles of the nineties – young Plum Wodehouse, one of the very best. He may be solid concrete from neck upwards in algebra, and may look at the wall clock far too frequently for the spiritual wellbeing of his philosophy professor, but hand him a red leather ball with a seam thrown in and he can run in and hurl them down as well as the next man.
Some of you, used to curling up with the leather bound exploits of old Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, may raise doubtful eyebrows.
“Wodehouse,” you may say. “Excellent educational matter about puncturing hot water bottles in the bed, a great one for pinching helmets on boat race nights. And some capital stuff on mashie niblicks and other golfing gags with men in spats. But cricket? Sure, he wrote some in the ancient days when he still enjoyed inflicting his stuff on unsuspecting school-kids, preying on defenceless young minds. But, once he rolled up his sleeves, spat on his hands, turned over a new leaf, so to say, and started churning them out by the yard for folks with full time jobs and families to support, he laid off the stuff of willow and leather. Are you sure he was really ankle deep in full-length deliveries and half-volleys driven down the ground?”
Wodehouse at the wicket
The answer is, to use a favourite expression of Eve Halliday, ‘Yes’. It turns out that before he turned into the old stick-in-the-mud without a hair on his head, and jumped on the boat to write musical comedies in America, he was a nifty operator with both bat and ball. In the pubs around Dulwich College, old men wagged their beards and agreed that the best and brightest of futures awaited him as a bowler of vim and zip, although he could do well to work on his fielding. “Wodehouse, yes,” the old timers used to say with misty eyes. “Used to get through at a quick nip, but stopped too many balls with his stomach when not batting his eyelids and letting them slip through.” There generally followed a murmur of geriatric agreement with the accompaniment of nodding heads and calls for more rounds of pints.The poor old fogeys had no clue that the bungling on the field was because of his rather crummy vision, which made him squint then and would make him goggle from behind thick lenses in the years to come.
Before the strains of jolly wanderlust tickled the instincts inherited from old seafaring Wodehouses, forcing him to make a beeline for New York, Plum spent several years as a teacher at Emsworth House School, Emsworth, Hampshire. Yes, that lovable old cloth-headed peer, with the fat pig of his, is named after that village. Wrykin is that same school after being squeezed into typescript.
In the school his main duty, other than gruffly ordering hideous kids to wash snot from their pink noses, was to help with cricket matches. Cricket flits through many of his early stories, and revered names such as Gilbert Jessop and Jack Hobbs often tiptoe into the canon, typed by his furiously working fingers.
It was Psmith who one fine day got the idea to grow up. Clutching the dapper coat tail of this schoolboy character, Plum found himself hauled into the forbidding world of the adults. His suddenly grown up hero carried him all the way to the Blandings Castle, before leaving him in the caring company of Lord Emsworth and Beach.
Mike Jackson, that old crony of Psmith from his Wrykin days, was a cricketer of note, who even went to America on a tour. In fact, one could hardly throw a brick in the Jackson household without beaning some First-class cricketer squarely on the head. ‘Mike’ was a complete cricket novel where even Psmith suddenly sees the light of Grace and discovers hidden reserves of slow left arm bowling. Rang a little thin, one must say, but what with cricket being crammed down the throats of all the inmates of public schools, it made somewhat more sense than say, ‘Spedegue’s Dropper’.
Jumping back out of the pages and dogging the old Wodehousen steps in real life, we find him as one of the more useful members in the cricket teams made up of writers. In the early days of the twentieth century, the Archie MacLarens and Plum Warners sometimes graciously vacated the premises of Lord’s for author-publisher matches. A handful of seldom published authors could always be counted upon to run in industriously and hurl excellent long hops at important prospective publishers.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when he was not manufacturing new ways for Holmes to simultaneously vanquish the villain and humiliate Watson’s intelligence, could be a merciless hitter and a crafty lob bowler. Wodehouse himself was one of the few others who could pass for a decent cricketer without making WG Grace squirm behind his beard.
Years later, when Jeeves was busy shimmering into the shelves of readers who avoided the ghastly stream-of-consciousness stuff, Wodehouse, at the slightly less perky age of 60, was interned in a civilian camp by the Germans. There the good soul kept his spirits up by playing the game, pitching his leg-breaks with uncanny accuracy.
As so often happens with men who spend more time than the doctor ordered in the world of printed words, he didn’t have the foggiest idea about the watchdogs of political correctness. Those vigilant men with nothing better to do, whose malicious ears pricked up at every uttered word, eager to break out in a chorus of extended snarls, and nip at exposed noble ankles. Thus, old Plum made the bloomer of remembering the camp days with wistful fondness, and it did not really make the Who’s Who of politically conspicuous British citizenry clasp him to their bosoms and welcome him back to the fold with tears of joy.
The unplayable Jeeves
Jeeves himself walked into the stories and novels from the Cheltenham College Ground. According to Plum, Warwickshire was playing Gloucestershire in 1913 when the bowling of Percy Jeeves had his eyes popping out, moving him sufficiently to name the celebrated butler after him. “I suppose Jeeves’s bowling must have impressed me, for I remembered him in 1916 when I was in New York and starting the Jeeves and Bertie saga, and it was the name I wanted,” he wrote later in response to someone with too much time on his hands.
Cricket the game has the lousy penchant for producing some irritatingly intolerable sticklers for detail. This particular author happens to be one of the most incorrigible of that breed. So, even four wild horses could not quite keep me away from flicking through the Wisden and discovering that Percy Jeeves did indeed play against Gloucestershire in 1913, and finished with the rather commonplace figures of none for 43 in 17 overs.
Sounds rather dotty, really, when you come to think this analysis equated with the brilliant series of Jeeves and Wooster. Must have bowled without luck, or butter fingered slip fielders may have dropped sitter after sitter till our dear old Plum could stand it no more.
I can see him walking up and patting the unfortunate bowler on his shoulder, as the persevering soul returned to the dressing room for tea, on the verge of an apoplectic fit. I can hear him saying soothingly, “You are a good man, Percy Jeeves. Please put down the china – it’s expensive, and sharp. You may have a bunch of blundering boneheads in the slips who are good only for catching common cold or the Epstein Barr virus– and I ardently hope they do. But, I will make sure your name is known. Only, in my books, you will not run in clutching a ball, but shimmer up with a salver.”
It happens with the best of writers that they start out writing poetry, wait for ages till a flash of inspiration reveals the next rhyming line, and fill the interim time by churning out novels and short stories. There is not enough evidence to suggest that our dear Plum was one such, but in his early days he did throw in a few verses for good measure, aimed perhaps at men who had neatly sidestepped his fiction. Some of the poems were about the wonderful game, and we can see from the lines that follow that the horrible scars of fielding errors from his early Dulwich days had not quite healed. Perhaps Roderick Glossop would have been able to help.
The sun in the heavens was beaming,
The breeze bore an odour of hay,
My flannels were spotless and gleaming,
My heart was unclouded and gay;
The ladies all gaily apparelled,
Sat around looking on at the match,
In the tree-tops dickie-birds carolled,
All was peace – till I bungled the catch.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix