Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Above Average at Games: Wodehouse on Sport

In stores this week is the second anthology of PG Wodehouse that I’ve had the tremendous fortune to edit for the Hutchinson imprint. The first, in 2016, was on booze; this one concerns sport. No-one can be expected to pursue happiness in moderation; and when a masterful writer such as Wodehouse turns his eye upon such life-enhancing pursuits as these, then the sum of human happiness grows.

Wodehouse was certainly a master - one can argue about the breadth of his range, but not about the perfection of his pitch, founded as it was on plot-building and sentence-making of surpassing elegance. Sports were among his true passions in life, and he wrote stories about them as well as anyone has, before or since. So, I'd concede, this new volume is for the sports fans above all, if not exclusively.

2019 has, of course, been a remarkably dramatic year in sport. Anyone watching the cricket and rugby World Cups, say, or Tiger Woods at the Masters, or Naomi Osaka versus Coco Gauff at the US Open, must surely have felt at times that sporting contests at the pinnacle of excellence contain their very own artistic perfection, which a storyteller can only envy and labour to imitate. Wodehouse, though, is one of those rare writers who makes sport on the page nearly as pleasing as sport on the pitch.

I’ve titled my anthology with a nod to Wodehouse’s biographer Frances Donaldson, who contended that ‘[n]o boy who is good at games ever has a bad time at school,’ and that Wodehouse felt it important to have been ‘above average at games,’ not simply because of the peer approval that followed but because, in his later writing life, he could convey both a participant’s pleasure in and a technical understanding of the game in question.

Above Average is, then, a selective tour through the sporting side of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, beginning with his early school sports journalism (where we find him limbering up and trying out his muscles as a humorist, working towards ‘the voice’ that will see him durably through a 70-year writing career.) It drives onward to extended extracts from certain novels, and noteworthy short stories in their entirety.

Prior to this delightful assignment I had a decently rounded sense of how good Wodehouse was on cricket and golf. I’d less of an appreciation for how well he’d done rugby, athletics, boxing. In the early school novel The Pothunters, for instance, there is a terrific account of a mile-race that puts the reader right in the thick of the tension and adrenalin of timing a kick to the finish against an adversary hard at one’s shoulder (‘Everything seemed black to him, a black, surging mist, and in its centre a thin white line, the tape…’)

As to the boxing: The White Feather – a portrait of an artist as a young and not wholly willing pugilist – is consummate storytelling wherein a boy goes to learn to fight for the good of his mettle and is surprised to discover the immense skill in the thing. (Wodehouse boxed for the school at Dulwich College though he later admitted to an interviewer that he was better on stamina than technique: ‘After three rounds I was always willing and anxious to go on and could never understand why the decision went against me, as I couldn’t remember the other fellow hitting me at all. This although I was streaming with blood…’)

Wodehouse’s principal cricket writing is the sequence of fictions from 1907 to 1910 starring the boy-batsman-prodigy Mike Jackson. Now, batting has always seemed to me a very high-order accomplishment, whatever number you come in at. It’s a lot to do with the demands on concentration, and the high odds that your day will end very prematurely and dismayingly due to a single misjudgement or twist of fortune. It would be annoying, then, if Wodehouse’s Mike were never prey to such anomalies.

Mike is seen to be exceptionally gifted but Wodehouse often shows his talents being first underrated. He was fully aware of the storytelling conventions here, too, as described in Mike and Psmith: ‘In stories of the ‘Not Really a Duffer’ type, where the nervous new boy, who has been found crying in the boot-room over the photograph of his sister, contrives to get an innings in a game, nobody suspects that he is really a prodigy till he hits the Bully's first ball out of the ground for six.’

That set-up is indeed as old as Metheuselah, but Wodehouse doesn’t play it like so: there’s nothing nervy about Mike, indeed he exudes self-assurance whenever he attains the crease. And in asserting the accuracy of this character-type Wodehouse hits the middle-stump: ‘An entirely modest person seldom makes a good batsman. Batting is one of those things which demand first and foremost a thorough belief in oneself. It need not be aggressive, but it must be there.’

Still, it’s fundamentally boring if the hero of a tale flies through every test. Just when the reader might think Mike never fails with the bat, Wodehouse has him out for a duck – because even Don Bradman had days like that. Wodehouse also suggests that the level of Mike’s investment in the game makes him at times a little one-note and sharp-tongued to anyone who interferes with his practice of the art: to that extent, he’s maybe too much of a sportsman, and it might be why Wodehouse began to favour Mike’s friend Psmith for more stories.

The obsessiveness that we bring to playing games has its comical side – the mono-browed pursuit of victory, of the personal best, approximate at times to the larger follies of humankind. The game of golf is especially suited to such comedy: is any sport more thoroughly afflicted by miniscule adjustments to complex rituals, by coaches and expensive quack-remedies? (Thus did Norman Mailer write of ‘monumentally boring golfers who work for years to improve their swing and never stop talking about it.')

Wodehouse, who loved the game, also knew this stuff was ripe for mockery. His golf stories have no giant bestriding the links, analogous to Mike – rather, they tend, as Wodehouse usually didn’t, toward men-and-women stuff, ‘love interest’, and situations of romantic embarrassment badly in need of a solution. John Updike, a big aficionado of these stories, wrote of ‘mock-epic Wodehousian matches, often played for the hand of a comely girl.’ In at least one story the girl wants no part of the outcome. But more commonly golf in Wodehouse proves to be a means for lovers to unite and tee off together forever.

Wodehouse remains top-drawer reading pleasure, even for those hold-outs historically put off by books about people who have butlers. I loved putting this anthology together and I hope readers, too, will get a big kick out of its sporting line-up - a programme near as packed as Grandstand or World of Sport back in their day...

No comments: