Category Archives: Books

Books Diversions

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.


Book Review: ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’, PG Wodehouse

I suppose it’s typical, for most people who read, to read in the evenings. For those of us with this habit, picking up a diverting volume or treatise on some subject is really quite the best way to relax at the end of a day.

"Blandings Castle and Elsewhere" by PG WodehouseWith PG Wodehouse it may be a bit different. Of course, an evening spent reading PGW is an evening spent well and I highly recommend it. It’s just that, speaking for myself, after twenty minutes or so reading let’s say, Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, I sometimes find myself grinning so widely that my smile might meet itself at the back of my head.

That is to say a chap can get to feeling so cheery that it seems a waste to simply turn out the lights and drift off to sleep after a few pages of this joy. Seems much more sense to start a day this way. If the world was filled with people heading to work, twenty minutes of Wodehouse already under their belts and the milk of human kindness sloshing about their insides, the world would be a much better place.

It’s not hard to imagine a conversation like this:

“What a lovely dashiki, Rev Wright.”
“Thank you. It was a gift from Sen.., um, a parishioner.”
“I’m familiar with the Yoruba designs that became symbol of the black power movement of the ’60s but that pattern looks to be Kikuyu. And the orange in the pattern brings out the beautiful deep brown of your eyes. Very flattering”
“Why thank you. I had no idea you knew anything about Africa. At least nobody ever gave you any credit for your obvious intelligence, Gov Palin.”
“Well, West Africa anyway. And, please, call me ‘Sarah’.”
“And I’d like you to call me ‘Jeremiah’.”

See what I mean? Good things could happen.

Take this ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’ I was just mentioning. Terrific book about a terrific place. If you’re not familiar with Blandings Castle, it is the country seat of Lord Emsworth, the amiably doddering peer who too often finds his peace broken by his aimless son, Freddie, or interfering sister, Lady Constance.

This volume is a loosely-related collection of stories around Blandings, is something Wodehouse called “the short snorts in between” and “a small dose” and is the perfect place for someone unfamiliar with Wodehouse to start. Apart from the these small doses, this volume includes a story about the cleverly mischievous Bobbi Wickham and some thoroughly funny send-ups of the motion picture business in Hollywood, drawn from his time as a screenwriter.

With Blandings Castle’s broad parklands, messuages, and, the gravel-free path through the yew alley (the importance of which you’ll understand if you read the story ‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend’) you’ll soon find that nothing could be nicer than to potter about the place” – if only in the mind’s eye – of a morning?


Book Review: A Random Walk Down Wall Street

One day, not too recently now, when the market was bouncing up and down, I was trying to grab shares of Citigroup (C) because I was thinking that it might have been oversold and was due for a major bounce.  At the end of trading Friday, though, I was still sitting on the sidelines, suspecting that there was still every reason to stay short C after all.

"A Random Walk Down Wall Street", Burton MalkielThen, on Monday, I watched it double from its Friday lows in pre-trade hours on news that the Fed had arranged a major bailout over the weekend, agreeing to purchase a huge chunk of C’s worst loans – the oft-discussed ‘toxic assets’.

It’s at times like these that I like to pull Malkiel’s “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”. Everyone has an opinion about what’s happening, where the market’s going and why, and what should be done in current conditions – whatever the current conditions are. As the market melts down, comes back, melts down again, and stocks trade so chaotically, it pays to be reminded that there’s a huge element of randomness, regardless of how confident the experts are in their opinions.

All these divergent opinions underpin Dr Malkiel’s essential thesis that the present value of future earnings will determine the value of a stock over time and that there are no other reliable predictors of where a stock price will go.

As a guide for staying grounded in market fundamentals, this is the gold standard.