P G Wodehouse
Literary and Cultural References
compiled by Ian West with additions and corrections from: Mark Hodson.
Nothing Serious was published in the UK on July 21, 1951, and in the US on May 24, 1951. This is a collection of 10 short stories, including five Oldest Member golf stories, one Blandings story, and one Ukridge story. Three of the stories had not previously appeared in print and the only one to have previously appeared in the UK was "Bramley is So Bracing", which was Wodehouse's last contribution to Strand magazine.
The Shadow Passes
Bramley is So Bracing (1939)
Up from the Depths
Feet of Clay (1950)
Rodney has a Relapse (1949)
Tangled Hearts (1913)
Birth of a Salesman (1950)
How's That, Umpire?
Success Story (1948)
page numbers refer to UK first edition
The Shadow Passes
“Bucko Mate” (p11)
a bucko’mate was the mate of a sailing ship who drove his crew by the power of his fists (Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea)
a belaying pin (p11)
a wooden or metal pin used to secure ropes on a sailing ship
a Roman Emperor noted for his gluttony
Shakespeare’s Othello was known for his jealousy
Ally Pally (p16)
Ally Pally is Alexander Palace, in North London, the grounds of which once contained a racecourse. (The building itself was the first home of BBC television)
“up the spout” (p19)
These days this slang term is more usually used to describe someone who is pregnant but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) gives the meaning: ” At the pawn-broker’s. In allusion to the “spout” up which brokers send the articles ticketed. When redeemed they return down the spout—i.e. from the store-room to the shop.”
Ouled Nail Stomach Dance (p20)
The Ouled Nail (pronounced “ooled nile”) were a Berber tribe. The young girls of the tribe earned money for their dowries by performing a distinctive dance in bars and cafes, the dance featuring rolling stomach movements and twisting of the hips.
absence without leave
Murphy believes this to be based on the Trocadero in Shaftesbury Avenue, London
“rift within the lute” (p27)
from Tennyson’s Merlin and Vivien
a scribe, one who drafts documents
Bramley is so Bracing
Bramley - Murphy suggests, on little evidence, that this is Bexhill-on-Sea, in Kent. The phrase “..is so bracing” was originally used by a railway company (I think the LNER) on its posters to advertise trains to the east coast resort of Skegness and the town adopted the phrase “Skegness is so bracing” (and the jolly fisherman depicted on the railway poster) for its own publicity purposes.
The Rev Aubrey Upjohn
The Rev Aubrey Upjohn has apparently been responsible for the education of Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little and appears in The Code of the Woosters, The Mating Season and Jeeves in the Offing (by which time he has retired). Curiously, in these other books he is described as the Headmaster of Malvern House, also in Bramley on Sea, rather than St Asaph’s. Plum attended a naval preparatory school called Malvern House, which was also in Kent.
a dealer in drugs, dyes, gums, oils, pickles, tinned meats etc. (OED)
Simon Legree (p48)
a cruel slave dealer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Captain Bligh was the notoriously cruel captain of the Bounty, whose crew famously mutinied
old malacca (p49)
malacca is a relatively rigid variety of cane with pronounced joints and hence not generally considered suitable for punishing schoolboys. Rattan was the normal variety used for school canes.
Overture to Zampa (p50)
Zampa is an opera by the French composer Ferdinand Herold (1791 - 1883)
bucko mate (p53)
see page 11
Up From the Depths
an early Jewish Christian sect who espoused poverty - the name comes from the Hebrew word for “poor” or “humble”
to rotate the forearm so that the palms of the hands are downward and backward (Harcourt’s Dictionary of Science and Technology)
another place name, this time a town in Gloucestershire
weight loss occurring in people with a serious illness
a parasang was a Persian measure of distance, equivalent to about 3.5 miles
Feet of Clay
Plum is noted for using place names for his characters but this one, in Antarctica, is surely one of his most obscure!
Singer’s Troupe of Midgets (p80)
Leo Singer’s midget troupe started in Europe in 1914 and toured extensively in the US and performed on Broadway in the 1920s and 30s. Many of them appeared as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.
East Bampton (p80)
clearly this resort is in the US, from the references to boardwalks and hot-dogs. The name is reminiscent of Long Island but, as we learn later (p87), it is a four hour train journey from the City (presumably New York) which suggests somewhere further afield.
there is no village of that name but it does appear in Surrey’s archives as the name of a farm near Woking.
Lady Astor (p85)
Lady Astor (1879 - 1964) US-born socialite who was the first woman to take a seat in the UK’s House of Commons
Lord Beaverbrook (p85)
Lord Beaverbrook (also 1879 - 1964) Canadian-born politician in Britain. Both the Astors and the Beaverbrooks were prominent newspaper-owning families
Bobby Jones (p85)
probably the greatest golfer of his age. Born 1902, won 4 U.S. Opens, 5 U.S. Amateurs, 3 British Opens, and played in 6 Walker Cups; Died 1971.
Mervyn Leroy (p86)
(I think this should be “Le Roy”) prolific Hollywood producer and director, whose career stretched from the 30s to the 60s.
Brothers Schubert (p86)
Composer Franz Schubert had three brothers (Ignaz, Karl, and Ferdinand) who were accomplished musicians but this seems an obscure reference so Plum may have meant the Brothers Shubert (Lee, Sam and Jacob) who were famous New York theatre managers and producers of operettas and musicals from the early days of the 20th century right up until the 1950s.
a Greek God of the sea, son of Poseidon
a drug in the market (p91)
I’d always thought the correct expression was “drag in the market” but not according to Brewer, which states that this is derived from the French “drogue” which means rubbish - something no-one will buy.
I believe there is still a chain of bookstores of this name in the US, now part of the Border’s empire.
Egypt, Illinois (p93)
this sounds so authentic that it ought to exist but doesn’t.
Emily Post (p97)
American writer and authority on etiquette
Harry Hopkins (p100)
close advisor to President Roosevelt, who held many US government posts in the 1930s and 1940s
refractory (pupils) (p100)
stubborn (I'd not come across this meaning before)
Deputy Master of the Royal Buckhounds (p106)
such a post probably existed. The Royal Buckhounds were founded near the Royal palace of Windsor in the 14th century. The Master was originally a hereditary post held by a succession of aristocrats. It is one of the titles which W S Gilbert ascribes to Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. The Royal Buckhounds appear to have been disbanded early in the 20th century.
Bluemantle Pursuivant at Arms (p106)
one of the 13 Officers of Arms which make up the Royal College of Arms. The post is believed to have been instituted by Henry V for the service of the Order of the Garter, from whose blue mantle the title is derived. The post is apparently vacant at present!
Lord Slythe and Sale (p106)
this peerage does not exist but the name is reminiscent of a real title, Lord Saye and Sele (the Fiennes family)
Lord Knubble of Knobb (p106)
another fictitious title. I know of no place called Knobb (but there is a place called Knubble in Maine!)
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (p106)
a title which dates back to the 13th century. These days, the post is given to a member of the British Cabinet who isn’t considered worthy of a real job!
Gold Stick in Waiting (p106)
a royal bodyguard, dating back to the 17th century, this is now an honorary post held in rotation by the colonels in chief of the Guards regiments. The current post holder is the Princess Royal. Both Gold Stick and Bluemantle Pursuivant take part in the Queen’s opening of Parliament.
Excelsior - as explained on p112, the title comes from Longfellow’s poem of that name.
a golfing term, signifying that one's opponent’s ball was between yours and the hole, which has come into general use to mean obstructed.
Piccadilly Weepers (p120)
spillikins (or spillikens) (p121)
an indoor children’s game in which matchsticks have to be balanced on the top of a bottle
Ouled Nail (p121)
see p 20
“He prayeth best, who loveth best all things both great and small” (p125)
from Longfellow’s “The Ancient Mariner” part VII
Bobby Jones (p127)
see p 85
Rodney Has a Relapse
a golfing term which is specifically applied to high handicap players who have a reputation for playing much better than their handicap suggests in important matches
London “society” magazine, founded in 1709, which makes it perhaps the oldest magazine anywhere.
The full quotation from Longfellow’s Excelsior is “The shades of night were falling fast. As through an Alpine Village passed A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice A banner with a strange device, Excelsior!”
Wormwood Scrubs (p147)
a large prison in West London
Rabinadrath Tagore (p147)
a great Indian poet and novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 and presumably vegetarian.
George Duncan (p159)
a legendary Scottish golfer who played in the first three decades of the 20th century and helped found the Ryder Cup. He was noted for his speed of play - “If you are going to miss them, miss them quick,” he is reported to have said. His autobiography was entitled “Golf at the Gallop”.
Plum often took his inspiration for characters’ names from places but the town of this name in Alabama is fairly obscure (I only know of it because I’ve stayed there!) so I assume he took the name (as did the town) from Sir Henry Bessemer, famous for inventing a steel-making process.
an American slang term for a prank or horseplay. Plum has used this in other books but I've not come across it in the work of any other British authors
hollow square (p174)
a military formation that dates back at least to Roman times
Edna St Vincent Millay (p174)
Prominent American poet, born in Maine in 1892.
Bugs Baer (p174)
Arthur “Bugs” Baer (1886–1969) New York columnist and baseball writer
W H Auden (p175)
(1907-1973) one of the great English poets of the 20th century. He and Plum must have known each other, not least since Auden spent many years after World War II in New York. Auden was one of the signatories of the “Publisher’s Salute” which Simon and Schuster had printed in the New York Times in October 1960 (in the mistaken belief that it was Plum’s 80th birthday) which read, in part “Wodehouse is an inimitable international institution and master humorist. We the undersigned salute him with thanks and affection.”
handicap of 48 (p176)
nowadays, the maximum golf handicap is 24 but, in the distant past, a handicap of 48 was possible
Alex Morrison (p178)
writer of “A New Way to Better Golf”, first published in 1932 and other instructional books on the game.
Birth of a Salesman
(a tilt at the title of Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, first produced in 1949)
Tipton Plimsoll (p188)
Tipton is a town in the area of England known as the Black Country. Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) was an English merchant and MP who campaigned for maritime safety and introduced the marks on the sides of ships to show whether they were safely laden. From 1945 until the 1970s, exchange controls restricted the amount of foreign currency that people leaving Britain could take out with them
Though every prospect pleases (p189)
The full quotation from a hymn by Bishop Hever is “What though the spicy breezes Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle, Though every prospect pleases And every man is vile”
Follansbee is a town in West Viginia
someone who earns his living by his wits rather than by effort. Partridge suggests that this originates from “spiffing fellow” but by the time of World War II, this term had become much more pejorative, being applied to black marketeers and other shady characters.
ballyragging (more commonly bullyragging) (p192)
intimidating or scolding (Partridge Dictionary of English Slang and OED)
Oh, for the Wings of a Dove (p201)
this is one of the most popular pieces from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, but this passage has its origins in words written earlier by the great English hymn writer, William Cowper “Oh, had I the wings of a dove How soon would I taste you again”.
How’s That, Umpire?
presumably refers to the American wartime bomber
a town in Sussex, southern England, famous for its racecourse
depression or unhappiness
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (p215)
another town in southern England, this time on the Isle of Wight. Arthur “The Pitcher” Binstead was a founder and chronicler of London’s Pelican Club in the 1880s. Murhpy identifies this as a likely model for the Drones Club and suggests that Plum and Binstead would have known each other when the former worked on The Globe and the latter on The Pink’Un in the first decade of the 20th century.
Bottleton East (p227)
this place name crops a few times in Plum’s writings as a rough area which I assume is notionally in the East End of London
a 19th century American term for formal white tie evening clothes. The phrase was originally used to describe a lavish dinner
Shemmy shoes (p231)
in the game of chemin de fer, the nine decks of cards are kept in a shoe-like container (known as a “sabot” in French)
Bethnal Green (p233)
unlike Bottleton East, this is a real area in the East End of London
literally means pulled in tight (from the Spanish name for a girth strap)
someone who chides or disciplines (Partridge)
au pied de la lettre (p240)
according to the strict letter of the text (Brewer)
Hendon Police College (p245)
these days, all London’s police are trained at this college
Ponders End (p245)
a suburb on the northern fringe of London (I lived there for a while)
Colney Hatch (p251)
in this part of the North London suburb of Friern Barnet, a lunatic asylum (as they were called in those politically incorrect days) was built in 1851. I lived not far from there 25 years ago and the expression “he should be in Colney Hatch” to denote someone considered mad was still widely used.