Ukridge, P.G. Wodehouse
I've had this book on the TBR shelves for a couple of years, and I did try it once or twice, but I always put it back to try again later. As hard as it is to find Wodehouse in the libraries and bookstores around here, I don't give up on one easily. It was only when I read Lord Emsworth and Others, which includes some Ukridge stories, that I finally fell under his spell.
The stories are narrated by James Corcoran, Corky to his friends, who first met Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge at school. Both attended Wrykyn, as did Mike Jackson of the Psmith stories, who was removed by his father after failing most of his subjects. Ukridge was expelled, for sneaking out at night to the local village's fair, disguised in scarlet whiskers and a false nose, but unfortunately still wearing his school cap. While Corky continued on to Cambridge and a career as a free-lance journalist, Ukridge gave up on education, "flitting about the world like a snipe." They meet again several years later in London. Ukridge is living on his wits, constantly in debt but always at work on the next scheme to make his fortune, like a school to train performing dogs for theatrical work. In the first story, he sets off with six Pekingese for a cottage in Kent. A few days later, Corky receives a telegram, begging him to come to Kent: "Life and death matter, old horse. Desperate situation. Don't fail me."
This sets the pattern for the stories that follow, as Corky is called again and again to the rescue. Sometimes he finds himself in the middle of Ukridge's schemes before he knows it. He arrives home to find his friend ensconced in his flat, drinking his whiskey, wearing his shirts and socks, and frequently hitting him up for a loan. Through it all he stands by Ukridge, who can generally talk him into anything. That's not to say that Corky can't be pushed too far, and he will occasionally balk, particularly in any situation involving Ukridge's Aunt Julia, a successful novelist and one of Wodehouse's most formidable aunts.
Several of the stories follow Ukridge's attempts to turn Wilberforce Billson, a ship's trimmer whom he met on his travels, into "Battling Billson," a professional boxer. Billson's physique and skills, honed in bar-room fights around the world, are impressive, and Ukridge jumps enthusiastically into the role of manager. Boxing, like golf, seems to have been one of P.G. Wodehouse's favorite sports, and boxers turn up regularly at least in his early books. Since I don't share the enthusiasm, I sometimes find that those books drag a bit. Not here, though, where the focus is on Ukridge's plots and plans. There is also a wonderful section on one of Billson's bouts at the Universal Sporting Club, which Corky describes at length as taking place in almost a religious atmosphere:
When we arrived, two acolytes in the bantam class were going devoutly through the ritual under the eye of the presiding minister, while a large congregation looked on in hushed silence. As we took our seats, this portion of the service came to an end and the priest announced that Nippy Coggs was the winner. A reverent murmur arose for an instant from the worshippers. Nippy Coggs disappeared into the vestry, and after a pause of a few minutes I perceived the familiar form of Battling Billson coming up the aisle.
This book was published in 1924, but the stories seem to take place even earlier. Automobiles feature in some of them, but no telephones. Corky and Ukridge exchange letters and telegrams, but just as frequently they have to track each other down to share vital information. Ukridge plans to train his dogs for the music-hall stage, with no mention of films, nor of radio. Of course Wodehouse's stories are generally timeless, his characters untouched by the later 20th century, Blandings standing unchanged in the golden light of a perfect summer afternoon. I'm certainly not complaining.