How England's great wit almost wound up in a noose
Published 29/08/2014 | 02:30
I had a friend, a Christian Brother called Patrick Dineen, who had secured an advanced degree in old Irish from University College Galway. He was also a kinsman of Father Dineen, of the Irish dictionary fame. Aside from his Irish - and indeed classical - scholarship, Brother Dineen was a devoted fan of PG Wodehouse and always referred to him reverently as the Master.
So who was PG Wodehouse? Born in 1881, he died in 1975. Best known for his Jeeves and Wooster characters, he wrote up to 100 books. Some credit him with creating the Broadway musical: he collaborated with Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, among others. He was the greatest comic writer of the 20th century.
Stephen Fry, who played Jeeves in the TV adaptation of Wodehouse's stories, noted: "The word 'reputation' (as a comic writer) does not begin to describe the adoration, admiration, addiction and deep, deep affection in which the works, and therefore the man, have been held by so many around the world." As his biographer Robert McCrum wrote: "his fans range from the idolatrous to the merely obsessed". They transcended all national and political boundaries.
This is because, as Evelyn Waugh observed, his books take place in a long-lost Garden of Eden, "a world as timeless as that of a Midsummer's Night Dream and Alice in Wonderland".
In contrast, the war years and what ensued represented a very bleak period in his life.
In 1940, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were living in France when it was overrun by the Germans. He was interned in Upper Silesia, now in Poland. There he continued his writing.
He gave an interview to an American newsman and said he had not been badly treated. This aroused the interest of the German Foreign Office - not that of the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. It was thought if Wodehouse made some broadcasts to the effect that the Germans were not such bad sorts, then it might help to keep America out of the war.
Wodehouse was released and brought to the posh Adlon Hotel in Berlin. In 1941 he made a total of five broadcasts. They did not contain any propaganda to advance the Nazi cause; he simply set out that he had not been ill-treated. He said that there was a good deal to be said for internment. "It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you a chance to catch up on your reading," he said.
The light-hearted tone - at a time when the British were being pummelled by the Germans - was ill-conceived, to say the least.
A firestorm was unleashed in Britain, led by William Connor - Cassandra - of the Daily Mirror. The BBC was persuaded by the British Minister of Information to allow him broadcast a most vitriolic denunciation of poor Wodehouse.
"I have come to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale - that of his own country. It is a sombre story of honour pawned to the Nazis for the price of a soft bed in a luxury hotel. It is the record of PG Wodehouse ending 40 years of money-making fun with the worst joke he ever made in his life," Connor told BBC listeners.
Wodehouse quickly realised his grave mistake and deeply regretted it. By the time of the liberation of France, he and Ethel were back in Paris. Wodehouse decided he should give himself up. He was fortunate with the men he encountered from MI5: Malcolm Muggeridge and Major Edward Cussen. It was explained to him that he was in line to be charged with treachery.
Major Cussen, afterwards a prosecutor and judge at the Old Bailey, London was a just and compassionate man. He judged that while Wodehouse had been naive and foolish he should not be charged. Nevertheless his report was not revealed until after Wodehouse's death - so the stigma hung over him for the rest of his life. He never returned to England and spent the rest of his life working away at his writing in Long Island, New York.
Wodehouse was fortunate not to be charged with treachery. In an English dock on a treason charge is not a comfortable place to be. After the Second World War William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) was tried for treason. Joyce had been born in the US, but he had got a British passport with the false pretence that he was British by birth.
The highest court threw out his appeal, the judges saying they would give their reasons at a later date. This was done after he was executed. There was a dissenting opinion and the prosecuting Attorney General, Hartley Shawcross, later conceded in his memoirs that the dissenting opinion was correct. William Joyce, though his broadcasts were clearly enemy propaganda, should not have been executed.