In 1958, P. G. Wodehouse published Cocktail Time, one of his “Uncle Fred books.” Bertram Wilberforce Wooster does not appear in this book, nor does Jeeves, but Bertie’s friend “Pongo” Twistleton does, as well as a butler by the name of Albert Peasemarch. Pongo’s Uncle Fred is one Lord Ickenham, that is, Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton. No Yankee who knows his history can fail to notice the third element in this name. Lord Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown in 1781 did not seem to slow him down. He went on to become Governor of India and later of Ireland. So the Earl of Ickenham seems to have come by his famous feistiness naturally. The first time we see him in action in the novel is when he niftily aims a “catapult”—what we call a slingshot—at a target coming out of the Demosthenes Club across the street from the Drones Club. With a Brazil nut as ammo, he shoots off the top hat of Sir Raymond “Beefy” Bastable, Q.C. Needless to say, Sir Raymond is not pleased.
Uncle Fred is known in other Wodehouse novels for his rather rare but exuberant visits to London or, as here, to the Eton and Harrow match. His ensuing reputation has led his wife, Lady Ickenham, to keep him down in the counties or otherwise supervised, lest further troubles occur. Pongo has, “from earliest boyhood,” been aware of his uncle’s “loopiness.” In my view, the whole purchase price of the novel (which was actually given to me, but no matter) is repaid in full by running into this vivid word “loopiness” to describe a wayward uncle. As I have been an uncle several times over for years, on hearing it, I vowed to keep this striking word from my nephews, lest they also see its usefulness in relation to elderly family members.
But the fact is that Uncle Fred is by no means as “loopy” as we might think. His catapult shot at “Beefy’s” top hat is shrewdly designed to deflate that arrogant geezer so that he will become human again. Sir Raymond lives with his half-sister Phoebe Wisdom, and her somewhat-useless son, one Cosmo Wisdom. (Needless to say, one wonders if this latter name is not a reference to “the wisdom of this world,” much of which Cosmo seems to be lacking.) The plot turns out to cast Lord Ickenham in the role of matchmaker. By the end of the book, four or five different marriages, of ardent man to beloved woman, are arranged—none of which could ever have happened without Uncle Fred’s supposed “loopiness.”
Another familiar character in Wodehouse novels, one Sir Roderick Glossop, psychiatrist, also appears in Cocktail Time. Sir Roderick is said here to be a “loony” doctor. The fine point about the distinction between “loopy” and “loony” I leave to Roget’s Thesaurus, which useful tome in fact is cited three or four times in the novel. To wit, Sir Raymond’s manner was said “not to be blithe.” “Roget, asked to describe it, would have selected some term such as ‘resigned’ or ‘nonresisting’ or possibly ‘down on his narrowbones’ (slang).” Wodehouse no doubt intended to educate his unsuspecting readers by forcing them to go to Roget’s or the Oxford English Dictionary to figure out exactlywhat he was talking about.
The plot of this book revolves around the eponymous novel most unexpectedly written by Lord Ickenham’s friend, Sir Raymond “Beefy” Bastable Q.C., of top hat fame. Sir Raymond had made much money and reputation by grilling hapless citizens caught in various crimes against the king and humanity. In the process, however, he lost the winning ways of his youth. He became a rather despicable character that his old schoolmate, Lord Ickenham, was determined to reform. “Beefy” had also lost his only love, one Barbara Crowe, now a middle-aged, yet still handsome woman. Barbara turns out to be the literary agent for Howard Saxby, the elderly publisher of Beefy’s novel, Cocktail Time. The potential sales of this sensational novel are immensely increased when the local Anglican bishop, at the Church of St. Jude the Resilient, Eaton Square, denounces it from the pulpit as immoral.
As all Wodehouse novels are based on a most intricate plot, I shall speak no more of the events of Cocktail Time. It is not necessarily true that knowing a plot militates against reading it. In fact, the Greeks thought this enhanced it. But to explain a plot of Wodehouse is to rewrite it. What I do want to point out is that one needs to have a vast storehouse of information to catch the overtones and humor of any Wodehouse novel. The book of Ecclesiastes comes up several times, for instance, and the Book of Revelation is referred to.
Shakespeare is often cited; even the question of whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare comes up. In the course of the novel, Sir Raymond is on an island in a lake looking for a letter presumably buried there. But it turns out that his return boat disappears, leaving him stranded on the island. Thus, fully clothed, he has to swim back to the mainland. People who observe this rather odd nautical event are puzzled that anyone would swim with his clothes on. His half-sister had lately thought that Sir Raymond had “lost his marbles.” But Lord Ickenham, to save the dignity of Sir Raymond, points out that “according to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar used to swim with his clothes on.” What is all right for Julius Caesar is all right for Beefy Bastable. I have, in fact, seen one reference to Caesar swimming while holding a letter in the air and another of his swimming across the harbor at Alexandria during his dalliance with Cleopatra. There is a whole commercial line of clothing that Caesar swam in. So perhaps it is not so loony after all.
We find reference also to other historical events in English history, like Drake’s Drum. This was apparently a snare drum. On his death, Sir Francis Drake is reported to have said that if England ever needs him in its hour of need, he will be there with his drum. An astonishing number of crucial incidents in British history have been handed down in which people heard the drum—such as at Dunkirk or at the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow. Evidently, “Drake’s Drum” is set to music and sung in a most vigorous manner by men who have had a bit too much to drink of the soothing brew at the local pub, “The Beetle and Wedge.” “There’s only one thing you have to watch out for with Albert Peasemarch, the Drake’s Drum side of him. Be careful that he doesn’t sing it during the wedding ceremonies”—such was the advice that Lord Ickenham gives to Phoebe Wisdom when she marries the former butler, who, as it turns out, is a man of property who had served in the Home Guards with Lord Ickenham.
This novel is full of that amusement, the delight of language. Albert is thanking Lord Ickenham for his part in arranging his wedding with Phoebe Wisdom. The honorable but slightly loopy nobleman replies: “There is nothing like getting married. It’s the only life, as Brigham Young and King Solomon would tell you, if they were still with us.” Since between the two of them these two famous gentlemen were married more than eighty times, they should know, if anyone does. The irony is most amusing. The difference between getting married once and getting married some forty times is probably infinite, as Wodehouse no doubt intended the reader to understand.
I want to conclude with several—what? Not exactly aphorisms, but certainly insights into our human condition that we ought not to pass over lightly. The first remark concerns the press and media: 1) “If there is one thing the popular press of today is, it’s nosey. It tracks down; it ferrets out.” Next concerns the English weather: 2) “It was one of those perfect days which come from three to five times in an English summer.” We are warned about retiring too early. After a military career, Albert Beasemarch decided to become a butler. 3) “‘And why did he want to buttle?’” “Ennui, my dear boy, the ennui that always attacks those fellows who retire in their prime.” And finally, we are reminded that some things take time. 4) There is “a suggestion of that Ancient Mariner, of whom the poet Coleridge wrote. Like him, he knew he had a good story to relate, and he did not intend to hurry it.”
Sir Raymond “Beefy” Bastable Q. C. had at one point wanted to enter politics, but his authorship of the lurid novel Cocktail Time would have not served him well with England’s more prudish set. Lord Ickenham, loopy or not, strives to dissuade Sir Raymond from this rash act. “Well, why do you want a political career?” Lord Ickenham wants to know. “Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a good square look at the inmates? As weird a gaggle of freaks and subhumans as was ever collected in one spot. I wouldn’t mix with them for any money you could offer me.” We can assume today that the House of Commons has probably passed a “hate-speech” law that would prevent even the most “nosey” press from using such descriptive words of politicians. It makes one realize, I think, how difficult it is these days to tell just who is and who is not “loopy” or “loony,” however Roget might suggest their more accurate usage.
Father Schall reflects on the Wodehouse novel Cocktail Time and the surprising utility of the word “loopy.”