Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in - Evelyn Waugh
Most of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites and some of them plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral - George Orwell
Wodehouse is back on TV (BBC 1, Sundays), in the form of the Blandings stories about Lord Emsworth, his fearsome sister Constance, the ambitious secretary Baxter and Emsworth’s prize sow, The Empress.
Those of you not already aux fait with the Wodehouse oeuvre will have gathered just from the above, that this is pretty lightweight stuff, completely devoid of any pretensions to social commentary or psychological insight. It’s pure entertainment and – more to the point – pure escapism.
Wodehouse’s published writings began in the very early years of the last century and continued right up to his death in 1974, when he left an unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Sunset at Blandings. But (as Orwell pointed out) the world of Wodehouse was outdated even by the 1920′s: Emsworth was a throwback to a bygone Edwardian age and Bertie Wooster really died in the corner of some foreign field round about 1915.
Wodehouse’s reputaton has by now just about about recovered from his appalling misjudgement when, living in France in 1941 and having been interned by advancing German forces, he agreed to broadcast some lighthearted “chats” on Nazi radio. These were apolitical in tone and content, but naturally laid him open to the charge (made most forcefully by ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) that he’d been a willing tool of Goebbels’ and had agreed to broadcast in order to get himself released. George Orwell considered Wodehouse to have acted like a bloody idiot, but wrote an essay (In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, February 1945) that strongly defended him against charges of treachery. It turns out that the British authorities reached the same conclusion, but decided not to tell him, and Wodehouse spent the rest of his days brooding in self-imposed exile in America.
When considering what was undoubtably a dreadful error on Wodehouse’s part, it is worth remembering that he was the creator of Sir Roderick Spode, a thoroughly unpleasant bully and demagogue who turns up in several of the Wooster stories, described as “founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the Blackshorts.” Not conclusive proof perhaps, but pretty persuasive evidence that Wodehouse had no love of fascism.
But why on earth would any person of even vaguely leftist inclinations actually enjoy these farcical tales of dotty aristocrats, domineering aunts and over-privileged wastrels?
The sheer escapism has a lot to do with it: I know that I am very far from being the only leftie who’s found solace at Blandings Castle and/or the Drones Club when life’s become difficult one way or another. Then there’s the sheer craftsmanship of his plots, and -especially – his use of language.
When Bertie Wooster describes “Aunt calling aunt calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps” you know you’re in the hands of a writer of comic English to rank alongside Wilde and Dickens. Which, come to think of it, may be why BBC 1′s effort on Sunday was just slightly disappointing: the irreplacable descriptive and narrative voice of Wodehouse himself was missing.
“In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core: but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
“The artistocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverant laughter” – Marx and Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto.’
I’ve written about the Graun‘s tame public school Stalinist, Seumas “Posh Boy” Milne many times before and was inclined, at first, to ignore his latest pack of lies, half-truths, evasion and privileged westerner’s patronisation of, and generalisation about, people of other cultures, published in that paper yesterday. But it really is a loathsome, poisonous piece of writing, even by Milne’s distasteful ‘standards.’
Milne (ex- Winchester School and Balliol, Oxford) is far from the first scion of the upper class to become a radical and, in a sense, a class traitor. In principle, an admirable stance. George Orwell famously described himself as “lower-upper-middle class” and went to Eton. But Orwell’s socialism was libertarian and democratic to its core. Even in the 1930′s, when the full horrors of Stalinism had yet to be generally acnowledged and the Soviet Union was widely admired amongst British intellectuals, Orwell rejected it and dedicated his life to promoting what he saw as democratic socialism and fighting totalitarianism in both its fascist and Stalinist forms.
Milne could scarcely be further from that tradition. All his adult life has been devoted to glorifying Stalinism and dictatorship. He seems to have a psychological need for a strong leader-figure. He certainly holds democracy in any form, in complete disdain. On leaving Balliol he became business manager of Straight Left (the publication of an ultra-Stalinist faction within the British Communist Party), and since joining the Guardian (via a stint at the Economist) has frequently devoted columns to defending/excusing/downplaying the mass murder that took place under his hero.
But Mine has had a major problem since 1989: the masses of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rejected totalitarianism, and the working class of the ’West’ (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world) finally discarded whatever residual illusions they may have had in Stalinism as any kind of progressive force. History’s verdict on the Milnes’ of this world was decisive and damning. Since that blow (shared by his friend and co-thinker George Galloway), he’s had no postive vision of socialism to put forward. Like many other Stalinists, he doesn’t even use the word very often. He prefers to talk about “imperialism,” which for him means little more than “bad” and – especially – American and Israeli “bad.”
Apart from hoping that Chinese capitalism (the rise of which even he has described as “problematic”) will soon eclipse the US version, and that populist demagogues like Hugo Chavez will develop some form of home-grown “socialism” in Latin America, poor Seumas doesn’t really know what he’s actually in favour of. But he knows what he’s against. Hence his support for anyone – but anyone – who’s against the US and/or ‘the West’ as a whole and/or Israel. Hence his support for the Iranian clerical fascists, for the antisemites of Hamas and Hezbullah, the so-called “resistance” that murdered trade unionists and democrats in Iraq and for the so-called “resistance” (aka the Taliban) in Afghanistan (if you don’t believe me on this, take a look at the video below). Naturally, he now rejoices at the reactionary anti-American protests recently stirred up by clerical fascists in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, which he gloatingly celebrates as “blowback” from “US and western attempts to commandeer the Arab uprisings” (he thought the Libyans should have submitted to the tender mercies of Gaddafi, just as he now supports Assad). Clearly, for Milne (as for Galloway, Pilger, Tariq Ali and people like the degenerate ex-SWP’ers of ’Counterfire’) Islamism now plays the “progressive” role in the world that Stalinism and various nationalist movements once did. He conveniently ignores the fact that all the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of Libyans (and no doubt Egyptians and others) rejected the latest manufactured Islamist ‘outrage.’ Here’a telling passage from his latest Graun effort:
“The fact that the attack on the US consulate, along with often violent protests that have spread across 20 countries, was apparently triggered by an obscure online video trailer concocted by US-based Christian fundamentalists and émigré Copts – even one portraying the prophet Muhammad as a fraud and paedophile – seems bafflingly disproportionate to outsiders.
“But in the wake of the Rushdie affair and Danish cartoons controversy, it should be clear that insults to Muhammad are widely seen by Muslims as an attack on their collective identity and, as the Berkeley-based anthropologist Saba Mahmoud argues, a particular form of religiosity that elevates him as an ideal exemplar.
“Those feelings can obviously be exploited, as they have been in recent days in a battle for political influence between fundamentalist Salafists, mainstream Islamists and the Shia Hezbollah. But it would be absurd not to recognise that the scale of the response isn’t just about a repulsive video, or even reverence for the prophet. As is obvious from the slogans and targets, what set these protests alight is the fact that the injury to Muslims is seen once again to come from an arrogant hyperpower that has invaded, subjugated and humiliated the Arab and Muslim world for decades.”
Condensed version: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Seumas, like many such self-important political illiterates, is highly sensitive to criticism, and at Comment is Free (where readers are supposed to be able to comment on Graun articles) he is protected by vigilant “moderators” who regularly delete critical comments and put those who dare attack, mock or just disagree with Seumas into a limbo called “pre-moderation.” However, one or two critical voices occasionally get through: someone calling themselves ‘sullenandhostile’ (on page 3, 19 Sept, 1.15 pm below the article) takes poor Seumas apart good and proper. I doubt that s/he’ll be allowed to return.
You might just ask, in view of his hatred of America and his support for all who attack the “West” by whatever means, why he doesn’t go the whole hog and express at least some sympathy with Al-Qaeda ; well, he has done. Here. Note the date.
As a general rule, I subscribe to Orwell’s somewhat negative view of sport.
I have not voluntarily watched any Olympic event on telly (as opposed to being in a pub while the 100 meters final was beamed onto a big screen to the obvious carnal delight of most females present).
And I still hold to the view that the Olympics are, to a substantial degree, an execise in bread and circuses for the masses while the Tories and their Lib Dem collaborators continue with their “austerity” fraud. The ruthless “branding” by such inappropriate sponsors as Coca-Cola and McDonalds was simply shameful. Even the much-praised volunteers, whose enthusiasm and commitment is not in doubt, were in a sense, undermining the minimum wage.
And yet, and yet…
The event does seem to have brought out the best in us Brits. From Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to Mo Farah’s double gold, it was a games that, perhaps more by luck that judgement, became a celebration of social solidarity and inclusion, happily devoid of jingoism. I’m told that the crowd cheered the heroic back-markers and the good-sport no-hopers almost as loudly as they cheered the winners.
I began to waver in my anti-Olympic resolve when I read about some jerk of a Tory MP denouncing the opening ceremony as “Leftie multiculturalist crap.” Left-wing critics and some local residents in Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, even when making fair points, were stuck with a particularly ludicrous figure as their self-appointed leader and their campaign was not helped by attempts to link it with the increasingly desperate and bankrupt Stop The War Coalition.
Crucially, it was the emergence of such heroes as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis (such a contrast to the manufactured “stars” and “celebrities” usually touted by the media) that convinced me. This was their Olympics – theirs and the people rooting for them . Of course not everyone who celebrated the success of the ex-refugee and the mixed-race woman will have been converted into a convinced anti-racist overnight. But it has to be A Good Thing, hasn’t it? Something we should be celebrating, not sneering at.
Most important of all, the Tory hypocrites who, on taking power with their Lib-Dem junior partners, immediately scrapped the School Sports Partnership (OK, there’s been a partial U-turn since), must not be allowed to pose as the friends of grass-roots sport in Britain, or to gain any political capital from the success of British sportsmen and women.
So if even this arch-curmudgeon can change his mind, so can I…
[NB: the Olympics have been widely described as a celebration of "multi-culturalism." My understanding of the term, used in that context, is straightforward anti-racism, not the cultural relativism that the term all too often denotes].
Here is the single most famous image in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier:
“At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to watch her eye. She had a pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when say that ‘it isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”
“George Orwell’s elegiac Road to Wigan Pier celebrated the heroic, martyred men who dug our coal. He chided the middle class for not noticing these heroes who brought heat into their homes. Orwell’s chauvinism rendered invisible the women who were still working at the pits around Wigan, and who lay and lit the fires that warmed not only the homes of the middle classes but also the miners themselves.”
Of course, Campbell learned to hate Orwell while in the “old” British Communist Party. The CP had form when it came to spreading lies about him.
How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor and break his spectacles — or, anyway, dream about doing these things. Along the lines you can always feel yourself original. After all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime…
…One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other – George Orwell Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvadore Dali - 1944.
I think art is the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art are equal things and I think its a great thing to invest in. I love art and you can put it on your wall and enjoy it as well — Damien Hirst, in The Independent 03/04/12.
Mannequin Rotting in a Taxi-Cab (Dali), and…
shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of
what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall
in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration
camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book
or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’
Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the
implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human
Since Tribune is in the news, here’s an extract from one of George Orwell’s As I Please columns, which are proto blog posts. This particular column goes to prove that Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton are not new phenomena. Their cloud and vapour blowing at crude rationalists who coarsely ask them if the tenets of the religion they defend are true or not were around in 1944.
It . . . appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed. ‘The figure of Christ (myth, or man, or god, it does not matter) so transcends all the rest that I only wish that everyone would look, before rejecting that version of life.’ Christ, therefore, may be a myth, or he may have been merely a human being, or the account given of him in the Creeds may be true. So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumerable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.
……what my correspondent says would be echoed by many Catholic intellectuals. If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand. Immortality of the soul doesn’t ‘mean’ that you, John Smith, will remain conscious after you are dead. Resurrection of the body doesn’t mean that John Smith’s body will actually be resurrected – and so on and so on. Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables. Substantially his claim is that though he himself doesn’t believe in any very definite way in life after death, there has been no change in Christian belief, since our ancestors didn’t really believe in it either.
the Catholic intellectuals who cling to the letter of the Creeds while reading into them meanings they were never meant to have, and who snigger at anyone simple enough to suppose that the Fathers of the Church meant what they said, are simply raising smoke-screens to conceal their own disbelief from themselves.
Tribune, 3 March 1944