The Pall Mall Magazine, May 1914
PHYSICAL culture is in the air just now. Where, a few years ago, the average man sprang from bed to bath, and from bath to breakfast-table, he now postpones the onslaught on the boiled egg for a matter of fifteen minutes. These fifteen minutes he devotes to a series of bendings and stretchings which in the course of time are guaranteed to turn him into a demi-god. The advertisement pages of the magazines are congested with portraits of stern-looking, semi-nude gentlemen with bulging muscles and fifty-six-inch chests, who urge the reader to write to them for illustrated booklet. Weedy persons, hitherto incapable of anything more violent than winding up a watch, are developing all sort of unsuspected thews, and moderately muscular citizens are prevented by their biceps from getting into their overcoats.
To the superficial observer this is all to the good. The vapid and irreflective thinker looks with approval on the growing band of Village Blacksmiths in our midst. But you and I, reader, shake our heads. We are uneasy. We go deeper into the matter, and we are not happy in our minds. We realise that all this physical improvement must have its effect on the soul.
Once upon a time I was the most delightful person you ever met. I would totter in to breakfast with dull eyes, and sink wearily into my chair. There I would remain silent and inoffensive, the model breakfaster. No lively conversation from me. No quips. No jests. Nothing but a soggy, infinitely soothing silence. If I wanted anything, I pointed. If spoken to, I grunted. But never a word escaped me. You had to look at me to be sure I was there.
Then one day it was suggested to me that I should start those exercises which you see advertised everywhere. I weakly consented, and since then I have been a different man. Little by little I have become just like that young man you see in the advertisements of patent medicines of the give-you-new-life kind—the young man who stands by the bedside of his sleepy friend and says, “What! Still in bed, Jack, old man! Why, I have been out with the hounds a good two hours. Nothing tires me since I tried Buckmeup.” At breakfast I am hearty and talkative. Throughout the day I breeze about with my chest expanded, a nuisance to all whom I encounter.
Naturally, this has lost me a great many friends. My invitation-list has practically ceased to exist. But far worse has been the effect on my moral fibre. Before, I was modest. Now, I despise practically everyone except professional pugilists. I meet some great philosopher, and, instead of looking with reverence at his nobbly forehead, I merely feel that, if he tried to touch his toes thirty times without bending his knees, he would break in half. The eminent divine to whom I am introduced is simply a man who would find it a physical impossibility to lie on his back with his hands behind his head and wave his legs fifteen times in the air without stopping. My whole standard of values has become revolutionised. I look forward to a future spent entirely in the society of Zbysco, Hackenschmidt and Jack Johnson.
There is another danger. There was once a man to whom Nature, in her blind way, had given a wonderful right-hand punch. He was the gentlest soul in the world, but, whenever he got into an argument, he could not help feeling that there this punch was, and it was a pity to waste it: with the result that his vast fortune was dissipated in fines for assault and battery. Am I to become like this man? Already, after doing these exercises for a few weeks, I am confident that I could fell an ox with a blow. How long shall I be able to restrain myself when I am the blend of steel and indiarubber which I cannot but become in a year or so? Human life will not be safe in my vicinity. Already my waist-line is of the consistency of fairly stale bread. If I go on doing that exercise where you put your feet under the chest of drawers and sit up suddenly, it will infallibly become like iron. Add to this the fact that there is a hard lump about the size of an orange growing under my right shoulder-blade, and it will readily be seen that I am a menace. I ought not to be allowed at large. Constables should dog me.
Brooding tensely over this state of things, I have, I think, hit on a remedy. For every bane Nature supplies an antidote; and in the case of physical exercises, with all their attendant deleterious consequences, what is required is a system of spiritual exercise. As the muscles and the self-esteem grow, the patient must methodically develop his soul to keep pace with them.
I can best explain what I mean by giving a simple example. Let us say that the first of the physical exercises is the one where you twist the right leg round the neck, and in that position bend backwards till the back of your head touches the floor, the whole to be repeated twelve times or till something gives. Well, under my new system you repeat to yourself in a clear voice as you perform the exercise: “This is making my deltoid thorax muscles, or whatever they call them, more like a ship’s cable than anything else, but I must not forget that I have not yet repaid Jones the fiver I borrowed from him last week and promised to let him have the day before yesterday.” You will find that this induces a humble frame of mind admirably calculated to counterbalance the sinful pride engendered by the physical exercise.
Proceeding through the movements in their regular rotation, we come next to the one where you have to extend the right leg at right angles to the body along dotted line AB and massage the calf of the left leg briskly with the fingers of the right hand. As you do this, say to yourself, “If I survive this, I shall be able to play diabolo with the piano. On the other hand, I know perfectly well that I can’t travel a mile on a steamer without being sea-sick.”
Space forbids a complete list of these spiritual exercises, but I am preparing a small illustrated booklet on the new system of physical-spiritual culture, particulars of which will be found in due course in the advertisement pages. The advertisement may seem at first sight just like any other physical-culture advertisement, for it will show me in an almost complete state of nudity, looking up into the air with my hands behind my back and the muscles standing out all over me like lumps in a hotel bed: but there will be a difference, which you will discover when you look at my face. I shall not be wearing that offensively preoccupied expression which has hitherto marked inventors of physical-culture systems. You will notice a kindly twinkle in the eyes, a soft and engaging suggestion of humility about the mouth. That will be due to the spiritual-culture part of my new system.
P. G. Wodehouse.
Compare this with the similar piece of the same title in the U.S. Vanity Fair of the same month. A number of passages were revised or replaced compared to this version. End notes to the U.S. version give more detail on references appearing there only.
Physical culture: Bernarr Macfadden, an early popularizer of bodybuilding, founded Physical Culture magazine in 1899, giving that phrase its popularity along with other publications such as McFadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Culture (1911–12). Many of his theories on nutrition and health seem faddish today, but his exercise and strength regimens were the predecessor of other popular bodybuilding routines advocated by writers such as Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne. One of the first in this series was the “daily dozen” exercises developed during the First World War by football coach Walter Camp for American servicemen and later introduced to the public, to which Wodehouse often refers in his later writings.
thews: See The Code of the Woosters.
vapid and irreflective: See the last end note to The Head of Kay’s, episode 5 for the literary background of this phrase.
Village Blacksmith: See A Damsel in Distress.
Buckmeup: A foreshadowing of “Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo” in the 1926 story of that title and its sequels; see Ukridge for more early examples of similar advertising phrases. [Thanks to DS]
nobbly: The OED calls this an obsolete term for knotty and gives no citation since the fourteenth century; the US version of this story substitutes nobby, having to do with people of wealth, fashion, or social distinction. Wodehouse’s intent is somewhat obscure here, since he tends to use the word with regard to athletic physique elsewhere. DS reminds us of Wodehouse’s similar usage of “knobbly” for bulging, as in “knobbly foreheads” (Pigs Have Wings, ch. 2, 1952).
Zbysco: Stanislaus Zbyszko (1879–1967), Polish professional wrestler.
Hackenschmidt: George Hackenschmidt (1877–1968): Estonian-born strongman and professional wrestler, active in Europe, Britain, America; rival of Frank Gotch, mentioned in this place in the US version of this article.
Jack Johnson: American boxer (1878–1946), the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908 to 1915 (thus current champion at the time of writing this article).
steel and indiarubber: Wodehouse was fond of this combination description of a well-trained athlete; see Kid Brady, Oscar Swenson, and Battling Billson.
For every bane Nature supplies an antidote: “The old idea that Nature supplies the antidote to every bane, provided we know what it is and where to look for it, is being confirmed by modern knowledge of science.” (Westminster Gazette, July 3, 1907). This seems as if it must be a classical concept variously translated into English, as it appears often in similar phrasing with poison, remedy, and other synonyms. DS finds an English example as early as 1836, and another PGW usage in Summer Lightning, ch. 13.3, “It has been well said that for every evil in this world Nature supplies an antidote.”
diabolo: A juggling pastime using an hourglass-shaped spindle manipulated by a string stretched between the tips of two sticks held one in each hand; a brief craze in 1905–07, a fad comparable to the yo-yo of the middle twentieth century. See Wodehouse’s article “Diabolo” for more, including our end notes.
advertisement…will show me…: As in this photograph of Bernarr Macfadden, circa 1905 (opens in new tab or window).
—Notes by Neil Midkiff, with contributions from Diego Seguí [DS]