Wodehouse with his wife Ethel in New York, 1968
Wodehouse with his wife Ethel in New York, 1968
In the hands of the legendary humorist PG Wodehouse, the game becomes quirkier and even more delightful
While PG Wodehouse was the greatest to write fiction about the game, his cricket writing is not the finest fiction devoted to the sport. Penned in his developmental years, before the artistry of his later masterworks, the best of Wodehouse's cricket fiction is the trilogy of novels published between 1909 and 1910: Mike at Wrykyn, Mike and Psmith, and Psmith in the City.
Mike at Wrykyn charts the ingress of its eponymous hero at boarding school. The saga of the wide-eyed upper-middle-class youth entering a strange world of elite education, boyish adventure and the moulding of character enjoys a voluminous canon. From Tom Brown's Schooldays onward, some of this is stern, manly stuff, others gentler bildungsroman. In what can be a dull genre, Mike at Wrykyn is a convivial romp of cricket and Edwardian adolescence. Its subject, Michael Jackson, is a superb batsman who has three first-class-cricketer brothers, trains at home with a professional sent from Surrey CCC, and undergoes a set of cricketing trials, among them his first net:
Mike grinned. The fact was that he had far too good an opinion of himself to be nervous. 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.
As the ball left Burgess' hand he began instinctively to shape for a forward stroke. Then suddenly he realized that the thing was going to be a yorker, and banged his bat down in the block just as the ball arrived. An unpleasant sensation as of having been struck by a thunderbolt was succeeded by a feeling of relief that he had kept the ball out of his wicket. There are easier things in the world than stopping a fast yorker.
Mike's great trial of character comes when, heady with hubris after an admirable performance with the Wrykyn XI, he plays in an intra-school match and is shockingly run out by the head prefect of his boarding house. Mike upbraids his senior - a young man of snide personality and a poor judge of a run - as a "grinning ape". Our hero is saved from a flogging by his older brother - who, displaced by Mike's ascendancy, has been dropped from the school side - and Mike proves the mettle of his nature by feigning injury and giving up his place in the XI to his brother.
Wodehouse loved the game and wrote engagingly with it. He did so not for love, though, but to appeal to a lucrative young male English audience
This reads better than it summates. For those who did not enjoy a privately funded education in the exclusive company of men and find such a thing unappealing - and for those who did and feel the same way - there's no need to withdraw. In Mike at Wrykyn one forgets that there is anything possibly innocuous in the topic of a teenager working his way through the ranks of school cricket. The novel chunters along in winning style and, as well as the game, it's the incidentals of this existence that Wodehouse portrays with joyous bonhomie:
'Don't you ever have feeds in the dorms after lights-out in the houses?'
'Used to when I was a kid. Too old now. Have to look after my digestion. I remember, three years ago, when Wain's won the rugger cup, we got up and fed at about two in the morning. All sorts of luxuries. Sardines on sugar-biscuits. I've got the taste in my mouth still. Do you remember Macpherson? Left a couple of years ago. His food ran out, so he spread brown-boot polish on bread, and ate that. Got through a slice, too. Wonderful chap!'
Duly, it is with cricket that the novel concludes as Mike brings the school home on a sticky wicket against a venomous left-arm unorthodox:
Mike would not have said that he felt more than ordinarily well that day. Indeed, he was rather painfully conscious of having bolted his food at lunch. But something seemed to whisper to him, as he settled himself to face the bowler, that he was at the top of his batting form…
The ball was too short to reach with comfort, and not short enough to take liberties with. It pitched slightly to leg, whipped in quickly. Mike had faced half-left, and stepped back. The increased speed of the ball after it had touched the ground beat him. The ball hit his right pad.
''S that?' shouted mid-on. Mid-on has a habit of appealing for l.b.w. in school matches.
Mike prepared himself for the next ball with a glow of confidence. He felt that he knew where he was now. Till then he had not thought the wicket was so fast.
The next ball was on the same length, but this time off the off-stump. Mike jumped out, and hit it before it had time to break. It flew along the ground through the gap between cover and extra-cover, a comfortable three.
Mike and Psmith, the sequel, is a further tale of school life with Mike, now captain of the Wrykyn XI, forced to change institutions by his father in an effort to improve his academic results.
The novel is an altogether less cricketing affair that barely sees Mike upon the field in the course of its narrative. Instead, after Mike befriends another boy, named Psmith, who is fastidious in dress and wears a monocle, attention is centred upon the comic effect of a dandy within a school. Psmith is precocious, domineering in personality, and eloquent and charming. His manner is as affected as the silent P at the beginning of his name and, being an advocate of socialism, he addresses all as Comrade. In the final chapter, the game flares to the foreground when Psmith reveals himself to be a canny left-arm spinner and a cavalier bat. Together with the batting genius of Mike and their spirited school friends, they win a tight match.
Should you not have the first idea who Wodehouse is, this expounding of the cricketing backwater of the author's oeuvre may be proving challenging.
Have you ever scanned a synopsis of Wagner's Ring Cycle? It's magnificent art that sounds like bilge in summary. Wodehouse's works, set in an Edwardian England of nutty comedy, or a similarly screwball America, and concerning themselves with the proceedings of nobility, vicars, chorus girls and butlers, don't always appeal on description to modern readers. Unhelpful, too, are Wodehouse's devotees, who delight in quirkiness and who, as Christopher Hitchens despaired, feel a fitting way to display their passion is to hold dinners where bread is thrown at one another.
Coming to Wodehouse may require, like forking out two weeks' salary for tickets to Wagner's Ring Cycle - or sitting damply through a rain delay, or turning up to the final day of a surely decided Test match - a gesture of faith. One has to believe in the possibility of ultimate worth to descend into the unlikely world. His writing winks with style. Between absurd situations, piquant allusion is made to Shakespeare, the classics and biblical scripture, and then interspersed with slang or an impossible simile.
George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, among others, declared these novels their favourite of Wodehouse's. They are a pleasing read to occupy you on the daily commute or on a sunny park bench, but they are unlikely to send you into rhapsodies. Their successor, Psmith in the City, might, though.
This book commences with Mike clean bowled when, on 98 at a critical juncture of a country-house match, an overweening bank manager walks in front of the sightscreen. This bank manager presently becomes Mike and Psmith's overseer as the pair, having graduated school, are compelled to enter London's workaday world of white-collared clerks, savaging the sober environment of a bank with a spirit of adolescent fun and wit.
With Wodehouse reaching his full powers as a novelist, Psmith's character as a beau is compelling, the quotidian world of circumscribed lower-rung office staff is achingly portrayed, and Mike and Psmith scramble through adventure while holding down their 10 to 5.
As the title suggests, Psmith's character predominates Psmith in the City, and it is his exploits as a banker, tastemaker and a bright young thing in London, rather than the batting exploits of the more stolid Mike, that make the novel such a joy.
In the pair's journey, the evolution of Psmith into a captivating personality draws Wodehouse, a competent park cricketer himself, from the most cricketing of his novels, Mike at Wrykyn, to the best of his books to feature the game - Psmith in the City. With neat symmetry, it is with cricket that this third volume concludes, as Mike, having thrown off the shackles of the bank, bats for his county at Lord's against Middlesex with his score on 98 not out:
Volumes might have been written on the cricket lunch and the influence that it has on the run of the game; how it undoes one man, and sends another back to the fray like a giant refreshed; how it turns the brilliant fast bowler into the sluggish medium. And the nervous bat into the masterful smiter.
On Mike its effect was magical…
It sometimes happens at cricket that when one feels particularly fit one gets snapped in the slips in the first over, or clean bowled by a full toss; but neither of these things happened to Mike. He stayed in, and began to score. Now there were no edgings through the slips and snicks to leg. He was meeting the ball in the centre of the bat, and meeting it vigorously. Two boundaries in successive balls off the fast bowler, hard, clean drives past extra-cover, put him at peace with all the world. He was on top. He had found himself…
Mike reached his century just as Psmith and his father took their seats. A square cut off the slow bowler was just too wide for point to get to. By the time third man had sprinted across and returned the ball the batsmen had run two.
That Wodehouse's cricket writing is not supernal is demonstrated by the anthology Wodehouse at the Wicket, where excerpts from these three novels are brought together with scenes from Wodehouse's other works of schoolboy life. Shorn of their settings in the flurry of public-school life, this collection of the author's cricket writing, compiled with loving care, is dull reading and best avoided.
Wodehouse's works, set in an Edwardian England of nutty comedy, or a similarly screwball America, and concerning themselves with the proceedings of nobility, vicars, chorus girls and butlers, don't always appeal on description to modern readers
Mike at Wrykyn, Mike and Psmith and Psmith in the City, together with Wodehouse's other early works, such as the cricketing A Prefect's Uncle, are read best in their entirety or not at all.
Among works of cricket fiction, authors who have no particular love for the sport have used it as a narrative device. Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman is a wonderful instance of this. Aravind Adiga's Selection Day is a more laboured example.
Wodehouse loved the game and wrote engagingly with it. He did so not for love, though, but to appeal to a lucrative young male English audience. As he grew in success, his audience expanded to Germany, Scandinavia and the United States of America, where cricket's limited appeal precluded writing on the game. (This did not prevent Wodehouse from later, at the height of his success, serving as the inaugural Secretary of the Hollywood Cricket Club.)
With Mike and Psmith's next appearance, in a novel set in North America, Mike is dispatched out of the narrative on an MCC tour to Saskatchewan, leaving Psmith to instead battle with mobsters in New York.
Wodehouse still found sport conducive as a narrative device for comic fiction but turned to the more international game of golf - on which his writings ran to a nearly 500-page omnibus. It's doubtful that he found golf a more agreeable medium for fiction than cricket, though, for whatever the sport (with boxing, rugby, and track and field included among his early fiction) he tackled it in much the same buoyant manner. A writer's enduring skill is their craft, not the subject, and, like William Hazlitt, Wodehouse would probably have written a riveting 500-page anthology on fives or a similarly obscure pursuit had he found reason to do so.
If you enjoy Wodehouse, try this cricketing trilogy. Whatever qualms you may have about schoolboy literature will be assuaged by the charm and wit of the series. However, if you are a Wodehouse novitiate, with no great love of schoolboy literature - in the event that you read so far into this article - the story collection Carry on, Jeeves is a wonderful place to begin.
Wodehouse is the finest author to write fiction about cricket, yet the best cricket fiction is to be found elsewhere.
Extract: (from Psmith in the City)
'My boy,' he said, 'we rely on you. These others' - he indicated with a disparaging wave of the hand the rest of the team, who were visible through the window of the changing-room - 'are all very well. Decent club bats. Good for a few on a billiard-table. But you're our hope on a wicket like this. I have studied cricket all my life' - till that summer it is improbable that Mr Smith had ever handled a bat - 'and I know a first-class batsman when I see one. I've seen your brothers play. Pooh, you're better than any of them. That century of yours against the Green Jackets was a wonderful innings, wonderful. Now look here, my boy. I want you to be careful. We've a lot of runs to make, so we mustn't take any risks. Hit plenty of boundaries, of course, but be careful. Careful. Dash it, there's a youngster trying to climb up the elm. He'll break his neck. It's young Giles, my keeper's boy. Hi! Hi. There!'
He scudded out to avert the tragedy, leaving Mike to digest his expert advice on the art of batting on bad wickets.
Possibly it was the excellence of this advice which induced Mike to play what was, to date, the best innings of his life. There are moments when the batsman feels an almost superhuman fitness. This came to Mike now…
Number nine on the list, who was Bagley, the ground-man, went in with instructions to play for a draw, and minute advice from Mr Smith on how he was to do it. Mike had now begun to score rapidly, and it was not be expected that he could change the game; but Bagley, a dried-up little man of the type which bowls for five hours on a hot August day without exhibiting any symptoms of fatigue, put a much-bound bat stolidly in front of every ball he received; and the Hall's prospects of saving the game grew brighter.
At quarter to six the professional left, caught at very silly point for eight. The score was a hundred and fifteen, of which Mike had made eighty-five…
Mr Smith, who always went in last for his side, and who so far had not received a single ball during the week, was down the pavilion steps and half-way to the wicket before the retiring batsman had taken half a dozen steps.
'Last over,' said the wicket-keeper to Mike. 'Any idea how many you've got? You must be near your century, I should think.'
'Ninety-eight,' said Mike. He always counted his runs.
'By Jove, as near as that? This is something like a finish.'
Mike left the first ball alone, and the second. They were too wide of the off-stump to be hit at safely. Then he felt a thrill as the third ball left the bowler's hand. It was a long-hop. He faced square to pull it.'
And at that moment Mr John Bickersdyke walked into his life across the bowling-screen.
He crossed the bowler's arm just before the ball pitched. Mike lost sight of it for a fraction of a second, and hit wildly. The next moment his leg stump was askew; and the Hall had lost the match.
Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier
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