Recently, I just finished reading my first P.G. Wodehouse book. I’ve lived in Britain for a dozen years as an American expat, so I was well aware of the esteem with which Mr Wodehouse’s comedic novels were held, but until now I had never picked one up before. I had always assumed his books would be rather weak tea – filled with bland humour about dim nibs fussing over themselves at formal dinners, occasionally gasping in revulsion when some vulgar guest used the wrong spoon to sup his consommé.
I was wrong. Right Ho, Jeeves – my first taste of Wodehouse – is actually a rather savage satire, capturing and puncturing the foibles and insecurities of the British psyche with wit and humour. If you look at it in a certain light, it’s also surprisingly au courant, despite having been written 83 years ago.
In the book, protagonist Bertram Wooster endeavours to help out old chum Gussie Fink-Nottle, who hasn’t got the bottle to propose marriage to Madeline Bassett, a woman he has admired from afar. Wooster concocts a plan to warm up Miss Bassett, by taking her out to the garden and talking to her of the glories of love at first sight, hoping to set the stage for Fink-Nottle to emerge from his hiding place in the bushes and ask for her hand.
Of course it all goes wrong. The young Miss Bassett believes that Wooster is the one doing the proposing and she pauses to consider his offer just as old Bertie realises his dreadful mistake. During that brief respite, Bertram weighs his options and decides on the most British course of action he could possibly have come up with: He will push on, just to avoid any embarrassment.
“My whole fate hung upon a woman’s word. I mean to say, I couldn’t back out. If a girl thinks a man is proposing to her, and on that understanding books him up, he can’t explain to her that she has got hold of entirely the wrong end of the stick and that he hadn’t the smallest intention of suggesting anything of the kind. He must simply let it ride.”
Reading this, I finally understood and appreciated Britain, or more specifically Brexit for what it really is. It’s not tragedy, but farce, and this is a nation of Bertie Woosters; a country that would rather sink its own economy, lose decades of progress and abandon much of its political leverage and prestige, rather than admit a mistake and own up to a bit of shame-facedness.
Well, good show I say.
I can now appreciate the whole thing as prime Wodehousian farce. Can you even imagine Theresa May rocking up to Brussels and laying her cards face up on the table?
“So sorry chaps about this Brexit thing. I never did believe in it myself, and it’s ruddy well clear that we’ve not given enough thought to the ins and outs. I’m terribly sorry about all this, but what say we drop the matter and I go back to my patch and advocate for a new referendum once we’ve got the details sussed out. No harm done – what say you?”
What fun would that be? No, this would clearly never do. Instead of the eminently sensible, but unacceptably contrite approach outlined above, Britain carries on without betraying even a glimpse of regret. And for that, each day we get treated to the comedic spectacle of an entire Wooster nation stubbornly refusing to stop circling the drain.
“Dash it all – a vote has been held! No matter that none of the promised ingredients were included in the actual recipe, and that most of what we were told was fresh lamb was actually dodgy mutton, we must still eat our Brexit without daring to question the chefs, even should we be poisoned by it. That is the only way- the British way.”
Mrs May is my favourite character in this charade – by far. A true Wodehousian gem. Oh what great pleasure awaits me every day, when I scan the broadsheets as I consume my morning crumpet and I have the opportunity to read about her latest escapades. It’s jolly good fun witnessing her attempt to bail out the sinking ship, with nary a bucket in sight.
It’s been more than once that, with a hearty laugh, I’ve spit out my breakfast oolong as I read about this poor shambles of a lady attempting to extract concessions from the Europeans without a jot of leverage to her back. And who could ever forget the hilarity as topsy-turvy Theresa called a snap election to shore up her Brexit bonafides, only to find herself in possession of fewer seats than when she had started. Now that’s properly droll!
There’s just one thing missing from the Brexit buffoonery. No Jeeves.
What keeps Wodehouse’s stories from turning too far into tiresome absurdity is the omnipresence of Wooster’s reliable butler Jeeves, who usually attempts to steer Bertie away from the more irrational of his schemes. It’s Jeeves who is also the one to put things right in the end.
With no Jeeves, this Brexit business veers precipitously too close to the apocalyptic for my comfort. Despite all the laughs we’ve had so far, I’m a bit worried that it may be too late to cast this necessary role. Maybe Mr Corbyn shall reveal himself to be the perfect thespian for the post, maybe not.
Or perhaps I’m Jeeves. Hold with me for a moment as I puzzle this out. Could it be that all of us poorly done-by bounders who were part of the 48% who objected to this lunacy from its inception must now rise to the sound of the servants bell, doff our dinner jackets and hold forth our objections in the strongest possible terms?
Could it be that, with enough vim and vigour to our arguments, we can set straight the whole fiasco before it’s too late and find a way to get a country of Bertram Woosters to lay off all the madcappery?
“Nah. We’re screwed mate. Just sit back and enjoy the farce. Right ho indeed.”