Poet in the City volunteer Janey Goulding has a chat with the PG Wodehouse Society’s Tony Ring ahead of our celebration of the lesser-known songs and poems of the great English humorist.
When fans speak of PG Wodehouse, the phrase “national treasure” inevitably gets uttered in the same breath. To quote another beloved national treasure, Stephen Fry, “Wodehouse was capable of doing things with language that few others have managed.” He was venerated as an institution, a sublime genius and the greatest writer of the 20th century; such plaudits would hopefully have left the English humorist feeling quite close to gruntled, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster.
Yet while lovers of Wodehouse (or Plum, as he was known to his friends) pore over his gooseberry-eyed butlers, male codfish and chinless wonders with great affection, instigating many a heated debate as to whether his Jeeves or Blandings stories should be considered his greatest triumph, relatively little is known of his poetry and song writing. Poet in the City is delighted to be celebrating a selection of Wodehouse’s poems and songs on 14th April and, as a little taster, I asked Wodehouse aficionado Tony Ring about the remarkable lyrical output of a writer whose wit and whimsy continue to tickle our mental accelerators and make our old lemons throb, to paraphrase Bertie again.
“The bulk of Wodehouse’s poetry – which he referred to as ‘light verse’ – was written during his apprentice years as a writer,” explained Tony. “Many of the verses, written in minutes in response to news snippets, have had a remarkable longevity, as the subject matter returns to the public awareness time after time.” The notion of resonating themes and observations echoing a century later is reflected in a forthcoming anthology of Wodehouse’s verse, edited by Tony, entitled ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’. Certainly, a modern-day reader cannot fail to remark on the topical nature of ‘Thoughts on a Recent Wooing’, with its lofty reflections on the lack of ethics amongst the paparazzi, or ‘Ubique’, which predicts the rise of celebrity culture, while ‘Maud’ explores the world of an exotic dancer who dallies with high-profile figures.
As a songwriter, Wodehouse was prolific and successful. As Tony pointed out, although the 1910s was notable for the first appearances of Jeeves, Wooster and Lord Emsworth (of Blandings), it also signalled his emerging significance as a lyricist in musical comedy. “In 1917 alone, he had seven shows opening,” remarked Tony. “Five played simultaneously on Broadway for two weeks towards the end of the year.” Wodehouse, who worked with Cole Porter on the musical ‘Anything Goes’, wrote lyrics for ‘Bill’ in ‘Show Boat’ and the Gershwin-Romberg musical ‘Rosalie’, and collaborated on a musical version of ‘The Three Muskateers’, is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Two of Tony’s favourite songs, both of which will feature at our event, are ‘If I Ever Lost You’ and the original version of ‘Bill’, which became a massive hit in 1927′s ‘Showboat’ but which began life as a song in Kern’s ‘O Lady! Lady!’ a decade earlier. As Tony put it, these lyrics demonstrate Wodehouse’s fancy for “unexpected humour emerging from seemingly sentimental love songs. In later years, he would describe his fiction as musical comedy without the music.”
The Poet in the City event, in which we are hoping to showcase the original London stage version of ‘Anything Goes’, will see Tony Ring joined by Sophie Ratcliffe, an editor of Wodehouse’s letters, writer Simon Brett, singer-actress Lucy Tregear and tenor Hal Cazalet, Wodehouse’s great grandson, who has recorded an album of his songs entitled ‘The Land Where Good Songs Go’. Musical accompaniment comes from pianist Stephen Higgins.
It promises to be a spectacular evening and a fitting tribute to a humorist with a lot to say and a very special way of saying it. “Much of his verse shows that whatever the modern generation may think, you can learn from the past,” Tony affirmed. “Much of life recurs, and although the circumstances are slightly different, and the questions asked vary accordingly, the considerations and the answers are not that different.” That said, Tony was keen to point out that Wodehouse’s philosophy was best reflected in the character of Uncle Fred, whose object in life was to spread “sweetness and light”.
As Wodehouse once asked, “What’s the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don’t yield to them?” So come with us, take a trip to Plumtopia, and prepare to have your old lemon squeezed until it tingles!
Credit: Janey Goulding would like to thank Tony Ring for discussing his thoughts on Wodehouse ahead of what promises to be a fantastic event.
The PG Wodehouse event starts at 7pm prompt on Monday 14th April in Hall One at King’s Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG. Doors open at 6.30pm.
Tickets cost £9.50 from the Kings Place Website
Otherwise tickets cost £11.50 at the box office.