“That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalising, unreachable ideal.” – Gene Weingarten, double Pulitzer winner, on being a writer.
If you’ve ever attempted to write anything, you will feel Weingarten’s words in your bones. If you have given in to the foolhardy impulse of writing about an author who was “sunlit perfection” itself – Stephen Fry’s words, not mine – the sentences above will resonate with a peculiar intensity.
How deliciously paradoxical then, to think of the limitless ways to fill a page when trying to capture the man whose words reached closest to that “tantalising, unreachable ideal” of writing. I wrote of PG Wodehouse in these pages once before. It’s taken a double Pulitzer winner’s words, the centenary of the Great War, and a Wisden anthology to revisit the connection between the literary genius and the game he loved first.
The whisper flies around the clubs – Wodehouse on cricket is an inexhaustible topic.
It begins with Jeeves, one of literature’s finest, and most treasured, characters. Butler supreme to the lovably bumbling Bertie Wooster, and a character who owed his name to Wodehouse being impressed with the smooth fluidity of a particular cricketer he watched.
Percy Jeeves played for Warwickshire from 1912 to 1914. As the man whose name he inspired might have put it, “Percy’s career was inconvenienced by the outbreak of the First World War, and he couldn’t resume playing after the war ended owing to the fact that he was killed in the line of duty in 1916. Most tragic.”
Indeed, the fictional Jeeves might have even been so moved as to raise his right eyebrow half an inch.
The First World War was referred to as the Great War then – humanity believing in a burst of sunny optimism that no ‘First’ would be needed as a moniker. Last month marked a hundred years since the start of the Great War. On the occasion of the centenary, Andrew Renshaw put together a book chronicling the contribution of each cricketer who fell on the battlefield, titled ‘Wisden on the Great War: The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen, 1914-1918’.
Percy Jeeves, of course, finds mention in the exhaustive volume as one of the many cricketers – old, young, amateur, professional, promising, established – whose lives were tragically cut short.
Wodehouse’s association with cricket, however, predates the creation of everybody’s favourite gentleman’s gentleman.
The young Wodehouse often turned out for the school team at Dulwich as a fast bowler who batted at No. 11 for the most part, cobbling together 48 runs in ten innings according to the 1901 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. I suspect his disposition must have been a mite more cheerful than Glenn McGrath’s.
As a batsman, his particular proficiency seemed to lay in scoring nought not out. Imagine my elation when I discovered that. As a writer, he might have been several levels removed from me. As a batsman, he was only a step better.
As a viewer, he was a step behind, agonisingly missing out on seeing among the greatest innings a countryman would play in his watching lifetime. Thanks to television, I got to watch large parts of VVS Laxman’s 281 in 2001, and I didn’t miss a ball of the final session and Australian collapse – helped by the guiding principle that attending school was flexible on such momentous occasions. But a century earlier, in 1902, Wodehouse was working with the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the acronym HSBC still a long way off. He went to watch the final day of England’s Test match against Australia at The Oval, and saw the start of Gilbert Jessop’s century, but left soon after.
Jessop had come in to bat with England 48 for 5 chasing a target of 263. Of the 139 runs scored when he was at the crease, he hit 104, reaching his hundred in 77 minutes. England won by one wicket, the first time a Test was won by that margin. When lunch was taken, Jessop had made only 39, and lunch at the ground was the signal for the young Wodehouse to trudge his way back and bung his doubtlessly unwilling self into his seat at the bank.
When Wisden ranked the top 100 Test innings of all time in 2001, Jessop’s effort came in at 36 – and a man whose calling was clearly not balancing ledgers had to miss most of the knock to perform that ritual. It’s as neat an argument as any to outlaw banks. The redeeming denouement was that Wodehouse soon told the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank that it must manage its affairs and get on with life without the services of one of its employees. Wodehouse saw Jessop bat on August 13. He resigned from the bank on September 9. There is no direct evidence to show one led to the other, but it makes for a romantic cricketing and literary tale – one that shouldn’t be spoiled by too much mucking about with facts.
The salutary lesson is that when a shifty-eyed chap who claims to work at the local branch of the latest multinational bank comes calling and starts whispering words like overdrafts, credit limits and compound interest – commend your soul to God and escape while you can. Reading between the lines – and why wouldn’t you when dealing with an author nonpareil – Wodehouse’s life held a warning against cold-calling telephone operatives even before the job existed.
Wodehouse would get a measure of literary revenge – having Mike Jackson, the most accomplished cricketer in the Wodehouse oeuvre, rush to Lord’s to take part in a match while chucking his job at the New Asiatic Bank.
Wodehouse’s early writings are full of cricket, making it all but certain that the pang of missing that Jessop knock was felt keenly. Mike makes his main appearance in his early works, fading away later on. But though raw and lacking perhaps the finesse of his later works, Wodehouse is on record as having said that Mike is his best book – and having George Orwell agree emphatically with that, as noted by Murray Hedgcock in his anthology of Wodehouse’s writings, dealings and feelings on cricket titled ‘Wodehouse at the Wicket’.
That cricket remained in Wodehouse’s thoughts, even if receding to the background somewhat when he moved to America, is evident to anyone who has the time for a perusal with a Jeeves-like lens. As late as in September 1947, he was telling William Townend, his Dulwich roommate and later regular correspondent, “I was very interested in the clipping about (Trevor) Bailey. He seems to be the coming man. A good fast bowler who is also a fine bat ought to walk into any English side …”
This was the same Trevor Bailey of whom, when he played at Dulwich a few years earlier, Wodehouse wrote, “Bailey woke from an apparent coma to strike a four”, much to the cricketer’s chagrin. Bailey could later laugh about the line, as did anyone who got a taste of that sunlit perfection on paper. Wodehouse succeeded in giving uniform satisfaction.
The opening passage of Reginald’s Record Knock, a short story, is a case in point. “Reginald Humby was one of those men who go in just above the byes, and are to tired bowlers what the dew is to parched earth at the close of an August afternoon. When a boy at school, he once made nine not out in a house match, but after that he went all to pieces. His adult cricket career was on the one-match one-ball principle. Whether it was that his bat deviated from the dotted line which joined the two points A and B in the illustrated plate of the man making the forward stroke in the Hints on Cricket book, or whether it was that each ball swerved both ways at once and broke a yard and a quarter, I do not know. Reginald rather favoured the last theory.”
Leaving British shores for American, and exchanging wooden bats for golf clubs, meant that when the sparkling wit was addressed to sport, it was golf that Wodehouse turned to. But that was a function of location, not letting go of a deep-rooted passion. He’s probably still got an eye on the modern game, even if from an astral nineteenth hole.
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. They tell me he died on February 14, 1975. Codswallop. Pick up any story by the Master, open a random page, and I defy you to tell me he doesn’t feel alive.