Wednesday, December 31, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
For those whose knowledge of P.G. Wodehouse is limited to Bertie Wooster and Jeeves – and perhaps to Lord Emsworth and the Blandings Castle crowd – it’s time to further expand your acquaintance by getting to know Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the subject of some 19 short stories and one novel. Ukridge made his first appearance in the novel Love Among the Chickens; I have not read that book yet, but from what I know of it, Ukridge’s character appears in a somewhat different light than in the short stories (plus, in the novel, he is married, whereas in the short stories he is a bachelor with a roving eye). So, be mindful of the fact that it is the short stories of which I now write, and it is in them that we truly come to grips with the genuine Ukridge – schemer, would-be entrepreneur, big-idea man (if nothing else, it should be apparent why he would appeal to the founder of Paco Enterprises).
The stories are narrated by Ukridge’s friend, Jimmy Corcoran, who plays a sort of bemused Boswell to the towering, ambitious schemer, who is usually seen wearing an old yellow MacIntosh, his pince-nez held together with wire from a bottle of ginger beer. Allow him to introduce himself, from the first short story in the series, “Ukridge’s Dog College”:
- “Laddie,” said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, that much-enduring man, helping himself to my tobacco and slipping the pouch absently into his pocket, “Listen to me, you son of Belial.”
“What?” I said, retrieving the pouch.
“Do you want to make an enormous fortune?”
“Then write my biography. Bung it down on paper, and we’ll split the proceeds. I’ve been making a pretty close study of your stuff lately, old horse, and it’s all wrong. The trouble with you is that you don’t plumb the well-springs of human nature and all that. You just think up some rotten yarn about some-dam-thing-or-other and shove it down. Now, if you tackled my life, you’d have something worth writing about. Pots of money in it, my boy – English serial rights and American serial rights and book rights, and dramatic rights and movie rights – well, you can take it from me that, at a conservative estimate, we should clean up at least fifty thousand pounds apiece.”
“As much as that?”
“Fully that. And listen, laddie, I’ll tell you what. You’re a good chap and we’ve been pals for years, so I’ll let you have my share of the English serial rights for a hundred pounds down.”
“What makes you think I’ve got a hundred pounds?”
“Well, then, I’ll make it my share of the English and American serial rights for fifty.”
“Your collar’s come off its stud.”
“How about my complete share of the whole dashed outfit for twenty-five?”
“Not for me, thanks.”
“Then I’ll tell you what, old horse,” said Ukridge, inspired. “Just lend me half a crown to be going on with.” -
Ukridge proceeds from one fantastic scheme to another, from founding a dog college to promoting a taciturn pugilist, billed as Battling Billson, whose utterances are primarily limited to ‘R!’ Three of the stories pertain to the career of Battling Billson, and there is a scene in the first of these (“The Debut of Battling Billson”) that never fails to make me laugh ‘til I cry. Middle-weight champion Tod Bingham is going around the east-end halls and theaters offering two hundred quid to anyone who can go four rounds with him. Ukridge plans to spring Billson on him. The night of Billson’s debut – in the Shoreditch Empire, a rough-and-tumble music hall that has attracted a noisy throng of tough customers eager to see a fight – Bingham fails to show because he’s been in an automobile accident. The emcee is forced to substitute, in place of the blood-letting entertainment the mob was expecting, something distinctly less impressive:
- “I beg to announce that ‘is place will be taken by Professor Devine, who will render ‘is marvelous imitations of various birds and familiar animals. Ladies and gentlemen,” concluded the ambassador, steeping nimbly off the stage, “I thank you one and all.”
The curtain rose and a dapper individual with a waxed moustache skipped on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my first imitation will be of that well-known songster, the common thrush – better known to some of you per’aps as the throstle. And in connection with my performance I wish to state that I ‘ave nothing whatsoever in my mouth. The effects which I produce –“
I withdrew, and two-thirds of the audience did the same. From behind us, dying away as the doors closed, came the plaintive note of the common thrush feebly competing with that other and sterner bird which haunts those places of entertainment where audiences are critical and swift to take offense. –
It was, of course, one of Wodehouse’s inspirations to constantly juxtapose wildly different people in improbable situations – in this case, for example, a crowd of disappointed East-end rowdies and a professional bird imitator – thus enabling him to create the most enduring farces in the English language. If you haven’t dipped into the Ukridge stories before now, treat yourself without further delay!