The hubris of Sebastian Faulks: trying to imitate the inimitable PG Wodehouse

The fizzy, fascinating style of P G Wodehouse cannot be imitated - Sebastian Faulks is a fool to try, says Michael Moran.

 

P G Wodehouse, perhaps more than any other writer, created the myth of the English gentleman. His characters, well-educated goofs all, became ambassadors around the world for the tweedy, well-bred, public school educated sort of chap who used to run our empire.

In fact the real chaps who ran our empire were entirely tougher, more uncompromising than any Wodehouse creation but it suited us to be thought of as effete, tea-drinking fops.

Lord Emsworth, Mr Mulliner and Wodehouse’s best-known creation Bertie Wooster were in essence avatars for Wodehouse himself – an agreeable, eager-to please character entirely in thrall to the women in his life. He was overseen as a young man by a regiment of aunts who were later immortalised in his books and as an adult abdicated all responsibility to his beloved wife Ethel. And he was happy that way.

Somewhat ineffectual in real life he revealed his power in his prose. Wodehouse’s gift was not necessarily as a crafter of great plots – few would contest that his stories are somewhat repetitive in nature – but in his mastery of language. His words dance off the page and into the brain where they fizz around like the bubbles in fine champagne.

One need not have had the benefit of Plum’s classical education to enjoy the giddy cocktail of allusion and reference that pervades his work. Indeed, by stealth, he inculcated into readers without the remotest chance of enjoying his academic wealth enough knowledge of Cicero, Shakespeare and Spinoza to get them through the most demanding cocktail party.

But you couldn’t teach someone to be Wodehouse. He is more poet than humourist. Although one might draw parallels with Waugh or Thurber PG Wodehouse is closer, I’d suggest, to TS Eliot. Only funny. He’s a poet, not a plotter. And imitating him is frankly a fool’s errand.

And Sebastian Faulks is no fool. Many writers, myself included, were mildly surprised that Faulks opted to write a James Bond novel in 2008. But equally many writers, myself included, will write more or less anything to pay the mortgage so having raised a collective eyebrow we allowed it as an aberration and got on with our quotidian business of harassing editors and railing at accountants. 

Faulks displayed admirable technique in writing as Ian Fleming. He evinced a keen awareness of Fleming’s stylistic tropes and crafted a neat pastiche of which a creative writing student might justifiably be proud. From a fêted novelist it was an odd move, but impressively done.

The announcement that Faulks is now to pour his inarguable gift into a new Jeeves novel –  Jeeves And The Wedding Bells , to be published in November – is a fish of altogether different odour. I don’t describe Wodehouse as inimitable because I like his stuff. I describe Wodehouse as inimitable because he cannot be imitated. One might imagine Craig Brown or Hugo Rifkind making a decent fist of a Wodehouse knockoff for a page or so but a whole novel? This is hubris. We already have in the 11 Jeeves novels and 35 short stories an ample supply of Wodehouse's wit. We have no need of ersatz Plum.

The Wodehouse canon cannot, should not, must not be material for a literary version of Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes. Faulks is quoted as saying ‘Wodehouse is inimitable but I will do the very best I can’. I will never be the writer that Faulks is, but as an editor I can tell you that that sentence is precisely nine words too long. 

At the end of every episode of his long-running impressions show Mike Yarwood would say “…and this is me” and sing a few bars of a song in his own voice. Sebastian, as an admirer I would say – lay off the impressions. Let’s have a bit more “…and this is me.”

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write"

 

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster. Photograph: Carnival Films

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge