P.G. Wodehouse Poetry and Songs – part of Words on Monday

– reviewed by Lettie McKie


Monday 14 April, King’s Place

A real jewel of an evening…

Words on Monday at King’s Place is that rare thing to find under the gargantuan weight of London’s cultural treasures, a genuine hidden gem. Totally unpretentious but intellectually rigorous and fun these literary evenings are a treat for any bookworm.

At this relaxed and informative installment on Monday 14th April, hosted by Poet in the City, P.G. Wodehouse was celebrated as a literary polymath who, in addition to being the most popular comic novelist of the 20th Century was also ‘the leading lyricist of his generation’ and ‘a prolific poet’.

Chaired by a panel of Wodehouse specialists the event was a mixture of illustrated talks, poetry and song performances. Co-organised by the P.G. Wodehouse Society the panel included founding member Tony Ring and Sophie Ratcliffe (editor of P.G. Wodehouse, A Life in Letters), actor Simon Brett, and singers Hal Cazalet and Lucy Treager. Hal, a relative of Wodehouse, was joined on stage by his sister Lara and brother David who both performed selected pieces.

Wodehouse’s words; sharp and bright as diamonds…

During the course of this delightful evening the audience were treated to a rare insight into a side of Wodehouse’s oeuvre they are unlikely to have experienced much before, his poetry. In his recently edited collection of Wodehouse’s verse What Goes Around Comes Around, Ring describes the light observational comedy to be found within its pages:

commentaries on the trials and tribulations of contemporary life. The surprise is that these verses were written more than a hundred years ago – yet remain fresh and relevant today

Simon, Lara and David performed poems from the volume that reveal Wodehouse as a connoisseur of the rhyming couplet, his verse light as a soufflé and filled with the same observational comedy that he honed to perfection in his novels and short stories. The poems aren’t quite satire but they do poke good clean fun at a whole host of ordinary topics from the political affairs of the day ‘We are a happy cabinet, we are, we are, we are’, to celebrity narcissism in ‘Phyllis Dare’ and the problem of overdone theatrical revivals in ‘Too much Hamlet’.

In an afterword to the volume Ring explains;

P.G. Wodehouse had an instinctive feel for writing prose and verse but always wrote with a view to the entertainment of his readers…Most of the verses included in this volume are unashamedly amateur, inspired by off-beat news items, and written against the clock

As much comedy depends on surprise, it is perhaps to be expected that on further reading even the funniest of Wodehouse’s poems quickly become stale. Even the best of them aren’t as good when you know the punchline. Wodehouse has never been regarded as a great poet but on occasion he manipulates rhyming form to hilarious effect. The poem that got the most laughs on the night was ‘Printer’s Error‘, excellently performed by David Cazalet, and is a perfect example of this.

As O’er my latest book I pored
Enjoying it immensely
I suddenly exclaimed ‘Good Lord’
And gripped the volume tensely.
‘Golly’ I cried. I writhed in pain
‘They’ve done it on me once again

Wodehouse delights in poking fun at all sorts of life’s well-known stereotypes and the poet by no means escapes his clutches. ‘Streets‘ is ‘written’ by a character Hamish Beamish in the novel The Small Bachelor and sends up the ‘vers libre style’, scathingly pointing out ‘it seems to make poetry quite easy’.

Grim, relentless, sordid streets!
Miles of poignant streets,
East, West, North,
And stretching starkly South;
Sad, hopeless, dismal, cheerless, chilling

And the glittering gold of Wodehouse’s lyrics…

Although his most famous legacy is his 70 or so novels it could be argued that during his lifetime Wodehouse was more well-known for his success as a lyricist, co-writing some of the famous musical theatre numbers of the 20th Century including Anything Goes. Ratcliffe explained that during the height of his success he had no fewer than 5 smash hit musicals playing on Broadway at the same time. This golden age may have long passed away but Cazalet and Treager dusted off some old hits, charming the audience with their understated performances. Songs like ‘At the Opera’ and ‘Think How Sad a Carrot would be’ revealed how Wodehouse combined comic timing, witty one liners and an ear for poetic form to create finely honed vignettes which were greeted by appreciative titters from the cheerful audience.

Lara Cazalet’s encore performance of My Bill was a highlight of the evening, telling the story of a woman who, to her surprise, finds happiness not with the sort of Hercules or Adonis she’s always read about but with an ordinary man who she nevertheless loves passionately. Wodehouse is a master of these sorts of light-hearted, uplifting stories that are total fantasies grown from a mustard grain of truthful human experience.

A treasure of an experience…

The audience left with the same happy glow on their faces that is the inevitable consequence of picking up a Wodehouse novel and the whole evening was a testament to the truth of Waugh’s iconic quote:

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.

Catch the next Words on Monday on Monday 12th May at 7pm when Val McDermid and Sue Einhorn explore the world of crime writing.