Ionicus’s brilliant cover for Cocktail Time

When there is the temple town of Thiruvarur, why do you go searching for festivals in other places? You are the kind that does not know your mind. With lamp in hand you search for a flame – thus sings Pattinatthar. I have often felt the same about PG Wodehouse’s works. When those books are there, why go for anything else? I am glad to say I have rarely strayed.

Among the maestros various creations, three are my all time favourites – Psmith, Uncle Fred and Galahad Threepwood. Sorry Jeeves but you elicit more admiration than an enduring affection. Among the three, Uncle Fred to me is by far the best, closely followed by Psmith. Which is why it was a bit of a shock to me to find that the inscription on Wodehouse’s grave omits him (and Ukeridge) while it has Jeeves, Blandings, Mr Mulliner and Psmith.

Uncle Fred aka Frederick Altamont Cornwallis, the Fifth Earl of Ickenham literally bursts into the world of Wodehouse in Uncle Fred Flits By, that gem among short stories. In one afternoon he impersonates the man from the bird shop come to clip the parrots claws at the Roddis residence, Mr Roddis and Mr JG Bulstrode of the same neighbourhood. Given the chance as he says, he could have done the parrot too, on broad artistic lines.

Thereafter, Uncle Fred only gets better. He spreads sweetness and light in Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939) and its sequel Service with a Smile (1961), in both of which Wodehouse merges one series of his with another, for Uncle Fred is visiting Blandings Castle , in the first as Sir Roderick Glossop, the loony doctor and in the second as himself, which he considers somewhat of a letdown for he thinks it is not good form to visit a country house under your own name. Uncle Dynamite (1948) has him impersonating Major Brabazon Plank and there is one passage on the Major who is a minor and his brother the major who is a Miner which is worth all the money on the book.

That brings me to Cocktail Time (1958), which in my view is Wodehouse’s finest book. Uncle Fred is on the prowl once more, this time untrammelled by the presence of his nephew Pongo who is invariably the fall guy in most of the previous works. He is faced with the formidable task of uniting Nannie Bruce with PC Sidney McMurdo, Jonathan Pearce with Belinda Farringdon, Sir Raymond Bastable with Barbara Crowe and Phoebe Wisdom with Albert Peacemarch. Add to this the centrepiece of the book, which is a bestseller by name of Cocktail Time over which many people are claiming ownership rights and you have a rich mix. If that was not enough you have the crooks Oily and Gertie Carlisle, who are definitely Soapy and Dolly Molloy in another name and form. There is also old Mr Howard Saxby who is perfectly senile (or is he just posing), a swan that is nesting and above all, a hideous imitation walnut cabinet that nobody wants but which suddenly becomes most sought after, thanks to Uncle Fred of course.

Last week I completed what would probably be my 50th read of Cocktail Time and let me assure you I found fresh passages to chuckle over. God bless Wodehouse.

This article is part of an occasional series on books that I like. The earlier ones can be read here

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