Shropshire Star

PG Wodehouse: A traitor or a ‘silly so-and-so’?

Just 10 miles from busy Wolverhampton lies what was certainly Pelham Grenville Wodehouse’s playground, writes Mike Lockley.

British novelist P.G.Wodehouse puffs on his pipe during an interview at his Long Island home in Remsenburg, New York

Scanning the richly coloured, early morning patchwork of open fields, their dew and cobwebs glistening in spring sunshine, walking past the imposing, gated properties, it’s easy to understand why this unspoilt, unruffled and unhurried slice of England became PG Wodehouse’s muse.

The rich pastures and timbered homes that stud the landscape of this idyll on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border are the perfect playground for the author’s most famous character, bumbling toff Bertie Wooster, and his chums.

Close your eyes, drift away, and you can almost hear them excitedly hatching plots, their clipped tones near masked by the slow rumble of agricultural machinery. You can almost see butler Jeeves waiting on the sweeping driveway of a gated property, a pitcher of iced lemonade resting on the silver platter in his hand.

This land, a mere 10 miles from the rumble of Wolverhampton, was certainly Pelham Grenville Wodehouse’s playground. The childhood memories stayed with him and inspired his tales of upper crust buffoons, bounders, cads and rotters.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster

These are Wodehouse’s acres of port and patriotism. This is where the idle rich hunted fur and feather, and the writer’s passion for it never waned.

He would later describe Shropshire as “the nearest earthly place to paradise, miles of smiling countryside”.

Yet there is no blue plaque to mark the residence in the hamlet of Stableford that lay the foundations for Wodehouse’s literary success.

There may be a reason for that. The war years badly stained Wodehouse’s reputation and he emerged from the conflict branded, like other aristocrats, a Nazi sympathiser. Known as “Plum” to friends and family, he was mentioned in the same breath as William Joyce, dubbed Lord Haw Haw by those who sniggered at the anti-British bile he broadcast.

Wodehouse was captured by the Third Reich at his French home in Le Touquet, northern France, wife Ethel spotting the approaching storm troopers and announcing with typically English understatement: “Oh God, don’t look now, but the Germans are coming!”

They spent the rest of the conflict under a sort of house arrest.

The couple had been offered a flight back to Britain by the RAF, but declined because it would’ve meant leaving their dachshund Jed behind.

It was not an internment of barbed wire and machine gun nests. Wodehouse spent the first months “incarcerated” at Berlin’s five star luxury Hotel Adlon.

He was seen as an important tool by a regime deluded enough to believe our country’s blue bloods – Britain’s then powerhouse – supported their hateful agenda.

And PG did play a part in Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, making five broadcasts for the Third Reich. He was, at the very least, compliant. MI5 believed he was much more than that.

Those speeches enraged a British public who were being blitzed in a bid to wring submission. The Daily Mirror dubbed Wodehouse gutless, its columnist Cassandra launched a tirade against the man on the BBC, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden criticised his actions, libraries removed his books and a very senior member of the secret service recommended PG be prosecuted on his return to Blighty.

He never did. Wodehouse died in his adopted home of Southampton village, New York, on February 14, 1975, aged 93.

The debate over his alleged treachery still rages. Was a secluded corner of the West Midlands home to a high-profile supporter of Hitler and his twisted ideology?

The broadcasts do not merit the anger they stirred, in this writer’s opinion. Wodehouse – aimed by the Reich at an American audience – emerges as a rather dotty, self-obsessed snob, lamenting his own lot and oblivious to the greater hardships of others.

Listening to the rambling speeches, you expect him to bemoan the difficulties in purchasing a decent stilton.

He was woefully out of touch with the war effort at home and, more importantly, the common man.

Worse, at times he came close to satirising the death and destruction in Bertie Wooster style. He’s within touching distance of proclaiming: “Say what you will about the SS, but their boots are spotless – and that’s the first thing anyone of breeding looks for when on a hunt.”

The title for the radio lectures, chosen by Wodehouse, speaks volumes about his approach to the task given him by the Nazis: “How to be an internee without previous training.” It is near whimsical.

One broadcast simply oozes self pity at a time when genocide was being carried out by Wodehouse’s captors.

He attempts to illicit sympathy by telling his audience: “I have just emerged into the outer world after 49 weeks of civil internment and the effects have not entirely worn off.

“I have not yet quite recovered the mental balance for which, in the past, I was so admired by one and all.

“It’s coming back, mind you. Look me up in a couple of weeks from now and you’ll be surprised. But just at the moment, I feel slightly screwy and inclined to pause at intervals in order to cut out paper dolls and stick straws in my hair - or such of my hair as I still have.”

By his fourth stint on Nazi radio, even Wodehouse realised the British public, a public that once clamoured for his thoroughly British books, hated him.

He lamely attempted to win them over by stating: “Before beginning my talk tonight – the fourth of a series of five dealing with the five phases of my internment – I should like to say another few words on another subject.

“The press and public of England seem to have jumped to the conclusion that I have been in some way bribed or intimidated into making these broadcasts.

This is not the case. I did not ‘make a bargain’,’ as they put it, and buy my release by agreeing to speak over the radio. I was released because I am 60 years old, or shall be in October.”

Wodehouse was vilified because he didn’t understand one concrete hard fact.

Some things are beyond satire. A war, where the bombs are being dropped on you, the bullets aimed at you, is one of them.

That was lost on Wodehouse and he paid the price. He appeared the last to realise there was no belly laugh material in the Second World War.

Wodehouse’s crime was – to use his language – being a “ruddy silly arse”. He later admitted as much, stating: “I’ve been a bit of a loon.”

How the humourist, in exile, must have missed the Shropshire of his childhood, the landmarks that surfaced time and again in his books.

He and his family moved to The Old House – a cramped, 360-year-old cottage found at the bottom of a narrow pathway shouldering Stableford Farm House – in 1896 when Plum was 15. He stayed until 1902.

A 1901 census recorded the occupants of The Old House as: Henry Ernest Wodehouse, aged 55, ex-official of the colonial civil service; his wife Eleanor Wodehouse, aged 48; Ernest Armine Wodehouse, aged 21, Oxford University scholar; Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, aged 19, bank assistant; Mary Parton, aged 24, cook; Mary Mason, aged 22, housemaid.

By all accounts, mum Eleanor hated the small, cottage. Plum loved the freedom offered by the sheltered community and its landmarks.

That lasting love affair surfaced time and again in his short stories and books.

Apley Hall is a frontrunner in the ‘is it or isn’t it Blandings?’ stakes.

Blandings Castle, the fictional country seat of feather-brained Lord Emsworth, is believed to be Apley Hall, near Bridgnorth.

Stableford’s neighbouring parish of Badger becomes Badgwick in Money for Nothing (1928), while close-by parishes Ryton and Chesterton appear under their own name.

Bridgnorth also receives a name check in “Do Butlers Burgle Banks?”

In the semi-autobiographical “Bring On The Girls”, published in 1954, Wodehouse wrote: “My happiest days as a boy were spent near Bridgnorth. The only thing I didn’t like in my formative or Stableford period was the social stuff. Owners of big estates round about would keep inviting me for the weekend.

“Picture to yourself a Trappist monk with large feet and a tendency to upset tables with priceless china on them, and you will have the young Wodehouse.

“The solution to the mystery of my mixing with the County is that my brother Armine was very popular. He played the piano like a Gershwin and could converse pleasantly on any subject.”

An aerial view over Bridgnorth

The PG Wodehouse Society believes Plum was used as an unwitting puppet by the Third Reich.

It states: “The German Foreign Office had the idea of gaining favour with the USA, whom they wanted to stay neutral, by releasing Wodehouse a few months early and arranging for him to broadcast to his fans in neutral America.

“There was no ‘deal’ for him to broadcast in return for freedom. The success of the plan, of which Wodehouse remained completely ignorant, depended on him NOT being viewed as a sympathiser. The broadcasts have been accepted by all who read them as wholly innocuous in nature and make highly humorous reading.

“Following the acquisition by the Government of a number of files from the German Embassy in Paris, a very determined attempt was made in 1946/47 to find evidence of payments which might have been made to him for services rendered to the German government, presumably to support any prosecution that might take place in the future.

“Despite thorough research, no such evidence was found, and all the British Government officials involved concurred in the conclusion that he had done nothing treacherous.”

PG Wodehouse, a traitor?

Definitely not. But he certainly made himself a “dashed silly so-and-so”.