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Wodehouse and the Statues

At the time of writing, the Guardian is reporting that Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak “will say” today: “What’s the point in stopping the bulldozers in the green belt if we allow leftwing agitators to take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values?”, going on to refer to “pulling down statues of historic figures” as an example of this.

By the time you read this, it is very likely that the tense will have changed and that he will actually have said the words which the Guardian has mysteriously been able to predict will emerge from his mouth.

They are of course an oblique reference to the watery end of the statue of Bristol’s statue of the eighteenth-century “philanthropist” and slave-trader Edward Colston, which was uprooted and dropped into Bristol Harbour in 2020.

Edward Colston dives into the drink. BBC

The statue of Churchill which stands outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster has also been the target of periodic attack, as when he memorably acquired a green Mohican hairdo and various blood-red splashes.

Punk Churchill. Time Out.

A statue of Margaret Thatcher has been splashed with paint and pelted with eggs. A sculpture made by horrible paedophile Eric Gill which lurks above the main entrance of BBC Broadcasting House has been attacked and seriously damaged.

A certain kind of pundit finds in all this meat for much outrage. For instance, Boris Johnson, erstwhile writer of opinion pieces and part-time Prime Minister, said in 2020: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… To tear [these statues] down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

Of course, an admirer of the works of P.G. Wodehouse such as Johnson will also have found in these events nothing new. Wodehouse’s works are full of attacks on statues. Off the top of my head, I can think of the short story “The Bishop’s Move” collected in Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), in which a Bishop and a Headmaster, invigorated by the energy tonic Buck-U-Uppo, decide to paint a statue pink; the novel Laughing Gas (1937), in which Hollywood child star Joey Cooley paints the nose on a statue of movie mogul T.P. Brinkmeyer red; and the novel Something Fishy (1957), in which Lord Uffenham takes revenge on a sculpture which he dislikes by painting a beard on it. There are probably many others.

But the earliest example in Wodehouse that I know of is also the most pointed and even political. In his school story The Gold Bat (1904), an Irish pupil at Wrykyn named O’Hara becomes incensed at the anti-Irish rhetoric of local mayor Sir Eustace Briggs.

“After breakfast Moriarty came to me with a paper, and showed me what they had been saying about the Irish. There was a letter from the man Briggs on the subject. ‘A very sensible and temperate letter from Sir Eustace Briggs’, they called it, but bedad! if that was a temperate letter, I should like to know what an intemperate one is. Well, we read it through, and Moriarty said to me, ‘Can we let this stay as it is?’ And I said, ‘No. We can’t.’ ‘Well,’ said Moriarty to me, ‘what are we to do about it? I should like to tar and feather the man,’ he said. ‘We can’t do that,’ I said, ‘but why not tar and feather his statue?’ “

The cover of a 1920s edition of Wodehouse’s The Gold Bat

In the event, they can’t find feathers, so they use leaves instead. A report in the Wrykyn Patriot a few days later calls the event a “hooligan outrage” and a “dastardly act”. But the narrator refuses to condemn the outrage, and the end of it all is that the culprits get away with it, with Wodehouse’s evident approval.

Which leads us to a rather interesting paradox. Those who would protect our statues do so in order to protect our culture and heritage. And yet, who symbolises English culture and heritage more than P.G. Wodehouse?


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  1. Of course you and Plum are right about the statue thing. Ramses obliterated the images and statues of his predecessor, and so on through the ages. I don’t think anyone cried (except in ecstasy) when the massive figure of Saddam Hussein was toppled from its perch. However, Boris Johnson is right, too. Somewhere lies a balance. I remember Alice Roberts interviewing a black luminary (might have been the mayor) of Edinburgh who defended the statue of a slaver for the same reason as Boris’s. He did want a plaque attached attesting to the truth, though, as the good folk did at Bristol harbour some years before the vandals went on their rampage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Serendipity, or fate or something rules. The following is from today’s The Australian newspaper — note the name of the victim: “Hobart is poised to tear down the statue of a former premier, while flagging a broader purge, after a report found the city had too many monuments to “Caucasian males”. The city council has been considering the removal of the large Franklin Square sculpture of William Crowther, a naturalist, surgeon and premier who, in 1869, was accused of severing and stealing the skull from an Aboriginal corpse. A new council report, to be voted on this week, recommends spending $20,000 to remove the statute to storage, pending finding it another home, and $50,000 on “interpretive elements onsite”. The report complains there are too many white men memorialised across the city and recommends a new policy be adopted to guide further statue “additions and removals”.


  3. I can sort of see what you’re saying in defending the statue attackers. Yet I wonder if you’ve how long Wodehouse himself will survive once the close readers get around to him.


  4. (That is to say, I wonder if you’ve “considered” how long Wodehouse himself will survive…)


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