Meet the Wodehouseans

If you happened to be relaxing in the lobby of Saint Paul Hotel on a June weekend last summer, you may have seen a collection of bowler-hatted gentlemen clustered in the bar chatting about the horse races, or seen a procession of fellows in white flannel trousers bearing cricket bats heading for the field at Harriet Island. You might have witnessed a diminutive woman in a flapper gown giving precise instructions to the bartender for making a proper martini – viz, using orange bitters, a bottle of which she discreetly produced from her handbag with a delicate flourish – or overheard a genteel-but-vigorous debate as to whether that chap’s memoirs were – not to put too fine a point on it – merely a manuscript rather than a book.

If so, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Edwardian London instead of mingling, unwittingly, with the throng of attendees of the convention of The Wodehouse Society. TWS, as it’s known, is an organization of admirers of the author PG Wodehouse, the British humorist, with chapters and members throughout the world and who travel great distances to descend on some unsuspecting US city to engage in their biennial literary revels.

I suppose you’re saying to yourself that it sounds as though this would be a fairly tame bunch, and you’d be right, as a rule. Peopled with leaders of academia, commerce, and the military, members of TWS are a thoroughly respectable collection of citizens. They are the backbone of society – staunch and upright. But they do somewhat resemble that chap in the book “Cocktail Time”, who leads a blameless life in the country but can’t be trusted to stay out of trouble during his annual trip to London. There was that time, for instance, that a bread roll-throwing mêlée broke out during dinner.

The honors for this year’s event (or disgrace, depending on your perspective) fell on St Paul and, the city appearing to consider it an honor, welcomed the group with open arms. You may not have heard the town crier wandering about the square announcing the glad tidings of the event to one and all, but the weather was cooperatively sunny and warm and Mayor Chris Coleman went so far as to declare Friday, June 12, 2009 “PG Wodehouse Day”.

Describing the convention as a literary event may be a bit misleading. Considering that Wodehouse wrote a goodish number of books – 95 or so – there is much in a literary vein to discuss. He was, however, also just as successful as a Broadway and West End lyricist, collaborating on a number musicals with the likes of Jerome Kern.

Friday’s events featured an afternoon of pick-up Cricket, if you can imagine such a thing. Dozens of players, variously suited in white-ish outfits chasing or avoiding cricket balls, according to their preference, about sums up the level of competition.

The vigorous afternoon of sport was followed by an evening dinner and a terrific selection of songs with Wodehouse lyrics sung ably by Maria Jette. Maria, who is well-known for her appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion” (but who is less well known for carrying around a bottle of orange bitters in her purse and lecturing experienced bartenders on the art of mixing a proper martini) has a magnificent voice and a mesmerizingly-entertaining stage presence.

Other events included an entertaining series of lectures (known affectionately by the attendees as the ‘Riveting Talks”) on topics with a more-or-less-Wodehousean connection.

In harmony with the theme and Wodehouse’s timeless, vaguely-Edwardian era, the group continued their revels with a fancy dress/costume ball aboard a riverboat enjoying dinner and cocktails, with the more brave attendees dancing to the strains of a banjo band.

Capping off the weekend was a Sunday afternoon watching the races at Canterbury Park. The Society sponsored the Goodwode, an inside joke related to the pronunciation of Wodehouse’s name and a famous horse race, a variety of which figure throughout the Wodehouse stories.

So a literary event it was, of course, but add in these other things along with the general reveling and it becomes much more – a bit like The Chap Olympics. With books. If you missed it all, you may want to pay closer attention to what’s going on around you next time you’re hanging around the lobby of the Saint Paul Hotel.

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