Psmith in the City is the most overtly autobiographical of all the Wodehouse novels. Other, later books may tell us more about a specialized milieu, for instance professional musical comedy in Jill the Reckless, or the non-musical theatre in Barmy in Wonderland, or preparatory schools in The Little Nugget, but none tells us so much about Wodehouse himself. For this reason the book is doubly revelatory, for not only does it disclose a great deal about its author in that crepuscular interlude between his leaving Dulwich and entering Fleet Street, but it also demonstrates the extent to which, even at this early stage, he had mastered the subtle art of refining the humdrum material of ordinary life into pure moonshine. Although it was his fourteenth published novel, written long after the more pressing anxieties of the free-lance existence had been left behind for ever, in spirit it belongs to that uneasy moment when he had been obliged to go out into the world without enough money to protect himself from its more tiresome obligations.
It is therefore not surprising that Psmith in the City is based cheerfully on the irrefutable argument that most work is a distasteful necessity which nobody in his right mind would ever dream of performing unless he needed the money desperately. This elementary fact of life, which often appears to have been beyond the comprehension of politicians, economists, tycoons, headmasters, social historians, bishops and sundry other groups so genially flayed alive by Wodehouse, is well-enough known to the working class itself, most of whose members, being of sound mind, would much rather go to the races, or breed pigeons, or just loaf around, if they possibly could. For most people, there is always something better to do than go to work. The only exceptions being men like Wodehouse himself, whose first, abiding love proved also to be his hobby, his profession and his lifelong obsession. But for a brief moment, as the new century opened, there was a problem. Wodehouse, like a great many worthy young blades before him, found himself with his education completed a shade prematurely, before he had quite perfected the arrangements for following his profession. He knew perfectly well what he intended doing; it was simply a matter of persuading the rest of the world to encourage him to do it. Psmith in the City is a graphic account, comparatively speaking, of what happened to Wodehouse during his brief residence in limbo.
The problem facing Mike Jackson and his friend Psmith in Psmith in the City is simply—what to do? Having recently left Sedleigh School in precisely the same condition that their creator had once left Dulwich, over-educated and under-capitalized, the two of them are shoved into employment in the Lombard Street branch of a financial conspiracy called the New Asiatic Bank. Although the wages are a perfect disgrace and the duties tedious, the two young men are given to understand that they can consider themselves lucky to have been given this golden opportunity to improve themselves. It is apparently not just anybody who is worthy of employment at the New Asiatic, and it is only because of the fluke of Psmith’s father’s acquaintance with its manager that the arrangement has been possible. This manager, Mr John Bickersdyke, is a distinguished exhibit in that gallery of red-necked apoplectic pills who snort their way through the canon; he has taken on Mike as a grudging favour, but it is his motive for hiring Psmith which provides the fuel for comedy. While staying at the country house of the Psmiths, Bickersdyke is soon given to understand by the son and heir that he, Bickersdyke, only moves through this world at all because of some grievous breach in the arrangements pertaining to human evolution. Smarting from the dialectical indignities heaped upon him by a mere schoolboy, Bickersdyke decides to take advantage of the opportunity to employ Psmith, in order to persecute him as only a boss can persecute his underlings. The reader knows that this ambition of Bickersdyke is doomed to founder on the rock of Psmith’s considerable style. Psmith knows it. But Bickersdyke does not, and it is the account of his annihilation at his young enemy’s hands that provides the narrative spine on which Wodehouse is able to drape the details of his own private story.
The opening chapter is devoted almost entirely to the exposition of the theory that the modern banking executive is by definition a creature in whom the common courtesies of social intercourse have been ruthlessly expunged, a philistine whose sensibilities have been so blunted by long years at his nefarious trade that he no longer realizes quite how monstrous he must appear to others. To resort to the argot of the quadrangle, Bickersdyke is a tick. He has ‘hard thin lips’ and is a prey to ‘strong prejudices’. Psmith assumes that Bickersdyke’s fortune has been acquired dishonourably, while Mike regards him as ‘a blighter’, which is literally true in the sense that Bickersdyke is one of those men who casts a deadly blight on the lives of all his employees, a collection of unfortunate young public-school men and chalky old scriveners, who are obliged to sign on at Lombard Street every morning or forfeit their bonuses for punctuality. But this is the least of their troubles. There is something else about life in Lombard Street which has the interesting effect of making all its young men miserable no matter how optimistically inclined they might tend to be.
For the New Asiatic is a sort of way-station on the Great Imperial Trunk Road, an embarkation point from which ‘men are always leaving for the East’. After three years’ training, in which conscripts enjoy a brief acquaintance with each department, starting with the infantile simplicity of Postage and graduating to the terrifying complexities of Fixed Deposits, the trainees are then shipped out to the Far East, where ‘you’re the dickens of a big pot straight away, with a big screw and dozens of native johnnies under you’. That this kind of autocratic life is not good for a man’s soul is borne out by the unfortunate example of the veteran Mr Gregory, whose inhumanity has achieved so advanced a stage of degeneration that he is able to preside over Fixed Deposits with no visible sign of cerebral distress. Gregory has already done his turn in the East, ‘where he had acquired a liver and a habit of addressing those under him in a way that suggested the mate of a tramp steamer’; Psmith feels that Gregory shouts all the time, ‘as if he were competing against a high wind’, and soon reaches the conclusion that if this is the condition to which a man is reduced by missionary work in the outposts of empire on behalf of the shareholders of the New Asiatic, then there is very little to be said for a career in banking unless you happen to own the bank.
But at least Psmith has no burning ambition which is being frustrated by his incarceration in Lombard Street. He is one of those fortunate men who, in the course of a dazzling Wodehousean career, will never be stalked by the incubus of restless ambition, and he rejects life at the bank simply because, of all the things he has ever experienced in his brief career, fooling around with ledgers and accounts is by far the most ridiculous. For his friend, however, the situation is very different. To Mike Jackson, plunged into the stultifying negation of the Post Room routine, nothing could seem more remote from green fields and boundary ropes. He has no sooner stepped across the threshold of Bickersdyke’s ignoble domain than shades of the prison house begin to loom. While Psmith exults in the defiance of an amused condescension, it is Mike who suffers the pangs of misery and frustration. Where has all the bright promise of the pavilion and the tea-tent fled? What has Bickersdyke, that contemptible blister on the face of existence, to do with life as a young man ought to be living it? Looking about him, Mike feels much compassion for the poor wretches frittering away a threadbare lifetime in the service of the bank, and very much more for himself, for although he is so simple and uncomplicated a soul that, before Psmith in the City is told, Wodehouse will have phased him out of the reckoning once and for all, Mike is no fool, and senses in his own modest way that he is some sort of sporting genius even less suited than the rest of them to a deskbound existence. And each time he is tempted to reconcile himself to his lot, finding some hint of a redeeming virtue in the life at Lombard Street, he is sustained in his bitterness by a cherished nebulosity called the public school spirit, which he defines as ‘pride in the school and its achievements’. On the other hand, ‘nobody can be proud of the achievements of a bank’. After all, think what a good public school may do to transmute the male animal from an odious midget to a truly civilized being. Mike decides that ‘a boy should not be exhibited publicly until he reached an age when he might be in the running for some sort of colours at a public school’. Indeed, it is only the presence of other athletes alongside him at the New Asiatic which makes life there bearable for him. Some of the other trainees are familiar to him as honoured adversaries on the Big Sides of his sporting past, a fact which stirs up in his mind a thought which he can never quite manage to articulate but which is to do with his dawning realization that sometimes life can be rather more earnest than it has any right to be. Somewhere along the stony road to Lombard Street, Mike begins to feel, there has been some terrible betrayal.
But he is ready to admit that there are moments when daily existence among this unwilling company of clerks and book-keepers takes on a kind of lugubrious charm of its own. Because none of them expect to be there for very long before being shipped out east, Bickersdyke’s young men succeed in smuggling across the frontier of life in Lombard Street a hint of that rugged insouciance nurtured in the more indulgent world of study fires and muddy changing rooms, a world which evidently constitutes the last refuge of English eccentricity […] Clearly life in the company of such engaging fellows cannot be miserable all the time, and as Mike gets to know his contemporaries at the bank, and as he comes to assert his primacy among them in the one field where he is completely at ease, the cricket field, running up a string of big scores in lesser club cricket, he comes to see that not even a City bank is completely lacking in charm […] The echoes of Thomas Gray in Wodehouse’s carefully orchestrated dying fall are perhaps misplaced in a passage which has been staged like the opening tableau in a musical comedy, but whatever the prevailing mood, poetic or terpsichorean, there is no question that, of the story’s twin heroes, it is Mike who senses the sadness of dispersal at the day’s end, an introspective device which Psmith would probably regard as a betrayal of his belief that those with only one life to live might as well try to enjoy as much of it as possible.
Psmith’s superior worldly knowledge tells him that outside every dullard is a larky schoolboy trying to get in, and disposes his forces accordingly. In order to nullify the disapproval of one of the senior clerks, he investigates the possibilities of the said clerk’s secret passion, and, after raking the barren ground of philately, dried seaweed, Hall Caine, brass rubbings and the Near Eastern Question, discovers that the breach in the castle walls consists of an idolatrous allegiance to the fortunes of Manchester United. He then saturates himself so completely in the prosodic conventions indulged in by the sporting prints that he is able to murmur to Mike before retitrng for the night that ‘the Mancunians pushed the bulb into the meshes beyond the uprights no fewer than four times’, a feat which so impresses him that he adds with a wink of his monocle, ‘Bless the dear boys, what spirits they do enjoy’, an observation which illustrates Psmith’s true function in the story, which is to unleash the linguistic sprites forever bubbling underneath the surface of the narrative. Psmith is one of the great rococo lords of language, an embellisher of genius with an unlimited repertoire at his disposal; in asserting his willingness to work, he defines himself as ‘a bee, not a drone, a Lusitania, not a limpet’; subsequently in stating the identical case to a different witness, he discloses a new set of epithets: ‘I am a toiler, not a flatfish. A sizzler, not a squab.’ His adversaries, unable to follow his gist but uneasily aware that the echo of derisory laughter floats on the air, tend to retire deep in thought.
To Psmith, one style of pastiche is as beguiling a challenge as another, and so, having triumphantly deployed the terminology of rusting stanchions to extract the sting of one potential enemy, he turns to coterie politics to perform the same trick with another, and it is through his delighted immersion in the private fortunes of old Mr Waller that he and Mike get their first sight of the proletariat in full seditious cry. By the time Psmith arrives at the New Asiatic, the rampant palour socialism of his Sedleigh days has dwindled to little more than an instrument of conversational irony, if indeed it was ever very much more. He now snatches gleefully at the chance to embroil himself in the altogether more earnest brand of revolutionary fervor of Waller, an elderly fellow-clerk who, for all his political attitudes, possesses a geniality of disposition which draws from Wodehouse the lofty accolade of a comparison with the White Knight. Waller lives in a district of south-east London thinly disguised as ‘Kenningford’, where the local pastimes include ‘smashing shop windows and kicking policemen’. Waller’s socialism is very different from Psmith’s, having sprung from the roots of the old puritan conscience. He crusades for Temperance, attends church regularly, and presides over the family hymns every Sunday, none of which tenets is easily found in Psmith’s eccentric interpretation of Marxism. In order to keep the plot moving, Psmith attends a political meeting in a locale so unfamiliar to him as to present unexpected problems. Mr Waller lives at Clapham Common, which is not a district of which Psmith has much experience, although one would have thought that in view of its proximity to the Surrey county ground at the Oval, he need only have asked Mike. Where, speculates Psmith, might this mysterious place be? ‘One has heard of it, of course, but has its existence ever been proved? I think not. Having accomplished that, we must then try to find out how to get to it. I should say at a venture that it would necessitate a sea voyage.’
Unabashed by the paradox of arriving at a socialist meeting in that defiant symbol of the bourgeoisie, a taxi, Psmith learns that the revolution which all right-minded men so fervently desire is being impeded by the fact that of the two demagogic champions in Mr Waller’s life, one scatters aitches ‘as a fountain its sprays in a strong wind’, and the other is ‘handicapped to some extent by not having a palate’, a pair of impediments which both Psmith and Wodehouse seem to find a great deal more amusing than posterity does. It would be unwise, however, to interpret the joke as a statement of the case for conservatism. Waller’s politics have only been drawn into the story at all in order to expose the flank of his political opponents, and Bickersdyke in particular. For the very nastiest thing about Bickersdyke, worse by far than his bullying nature, his pomposity, his conceit, even his gross ignorance of cricket, is his ambition to win Kenningford in the Unionist interest. At his first campaign meeting he expresses hearty contempt for Free Trade, Alien Immigration and any attempt to victimize the Royal Navy with Budget cuts, although when he says with reference to this latter problem that ‘we must burn our boats’, Psmith, lurking at the back of the hall, enquires with lethal innocence how Bickersdyke proposes helping the Navy by burning boats.
But there are more serious weaknesses in Bickersdyke’s moral position than a few mixed metaphors, and the course of his political career is worth close examination for the light it sheds on Wodehouse’s view of conventional politics. When Bickersdyke opens the Kenningford campaign, we are told that he awaits his first public meeting ‘with mixed feelings’ [because the last time he ran, it was for a different party] […] Naturally a man is permitted to change his mind, but the process, Wodehouse reminds us, does tend to make him painfully vulnerable later on. It may be that Bickersdyke, as he marches into Kenningford, has seen the error of his ways and sincerely believes that the cause he is espousing is the only one that can save his country. He may even be right to do so, just as Mr Waller and his comrades also believe that theirs is the true way. But Bickersdyke is not just a Tory, not just a Tory apostate, but something much nastier, a Tory apostate who has arrived at his position through worldly advancement. As the theme of the election is developed, the air becomes aromatic with the delicate scent of humbug, and Psmith’s deadly weapon in his running battle with the forces of reaction is the Minute Book of an ancient institution called the Tulse Hill Parliament, whose long-demolished walls once rang with the seditious indiscretions of the same Bickersdyke who now offers himself as a pillar of patriotic rectitude calling for more guns and less foreigners to turn them on. It is through Waller that Psmith learns about the Tulse Hill Parliament, and is able, at a delicate stage in his war against entrenched authority, to read aloud to Bickersdyke a few choice extracts from its Minutes […]
All men, it seems cut their political cloth to suit their pockets, and perhaps the only reason that Waller has remained true to his youthful ideals while Bickersdyke has become a manager and Waller has not. Even Psmith the schoolboy Marxist cares so little for the Class War that he does not bother to break Bickersdyke. The only practical use to which he is willing to put the Tulse Hill time bomb is to threaten his boss with exposure on the eve of the poll unless Mike Jackson is reprieved from dismissal. A few half-formulated suspicions continue to linger. If Psmith can so easily destroy Bickersdyke’s pretensions by waving the evidence of Tulse Hill before him, why has Waller, who has been holding the same evidence all those years, never deployed them to the same end? One of the most astute of all Wodehouse commentators has suggested that what Wodehouse is implying is that the opportunist political scoundrels of this world will always take cynical advantage of the inability of its idealists to play what the Little Nugget would have defined as dirty pool. The very impulses of altruism and fundamental decency which have led Waller along the stony road to utopian Socialism are those which prevent him from pushing home his case forcefully enough to win the war. The argument goes that within a single paragraph Wodehouse is defining his own political detachment by dismissing both the placeman Bickersdyke for having no morality, and the idealist Waller for having too much of it. It is just possible, however, that Waller has withheld the Tulse Hill Minutes not through excessive scrupulosity but because it was a good idea which had simply never occurred to him.
Bickersdyke in the meantime wins the seat, but only by a slender majority, and only because of one utterly irrelevant but deadly factor. Psmith, who knows Eatanswell and his Tankerville, reports that the electors ‘seemed to be in just that state of happy intoxication which might make them vote for Bickersdyke by mistake’. But the vital factor [that Bickersdyke’s opponent was educated in Germany and so condemned as a ‘German Spy’] is of a rather different nature […] By the time he published Psmith in the City, Wodehouse was already established as the leader of a one-man conspiracy to explode the myth of an imminent German invasion threat […]
Psmith in the City appeared only eighteen months after The Swoop, and clearly, when Wodehouse addressed himself to the not altogether unpleasant task of flinging mud at Bickersdyke, the recollection of those who contrived to cash in on the anti-German scare was still vivid. Having shown the man to be a liar, a bully, a turncoat, a fool, and a coward, Wodehouse also makes him one of those counterfeit patriots who cry wolf in order to create a diversion while they steal a sheep. The fact is that if he had managed to think of any plausible way of making Bickersdyke also a rapist, a child molester, a body-snatcher or a dramatic critic, he would have done so. The satire in the book is gentle, perhaps even genteel, but it is none the less implacable, and the reader is surprised to realize that for all its air of good-natured persiflage, the book’s effect has all the severity of a polemic, in the sense that no young man exposed to its contents could ever take seriously again the suggestion that he become a bank employee. All the young recruits at the New Asiatic wish passionately they were somewhere else, and all its old stagers are either embittered, bullying or half-dead. Waller is a cipher, Gregory a ranting noodle, Rossiter a ghost whose real life is lived out vicariously on the terraces at Old Trafford and in the gossip columns of The Athletic News. There is not one occupant of that bank who feels the faintest affinity with its destinies, a spark of affection for its personality. The bank is a moloch swallowing up young men like Bannister at one end of the process, and disgorging them ruined and unrecognizable at the other. And the more obnoxious a man is, the better he may expect to flourish within the bank’s limits. Its manager is therefore by definition its most odious employee of all, a philistine and a poseur who cannot even win an election without resorting to the contemptible device of a xenophobia which is not only crudely conceived but also quite insincere.
Psmith in the City is in effect a terrible warning against the perils which lie in wait for a young man, threatening to place him at the mercy of the Gradgrinds of the Post Room and the Bounderbys of Fixed Deposits. One of Wodehouse’s most famous predecessors in the cavalcade of the English comic novel had made one of his heroes an employee in just such a bank as Mike Jackson and Psmith came to know. But evidently Jerome K. Jerome had no strong opinions regarding the Financial questions which bedevils Psmith in the City, saying only that the banjo-strumming George ‘goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, excepts Saturday, when they wake him up and put him outside at two’. Nevertheless, Jerome provides Psmith with a deadly weapon in his guerilla war against Bickersdyke. When the prospective Unionist member for Kenningfor attempts to lull the audience at a political meeting by passing off as his own the famous Jerome joke about the plaster-of-Paris trout in the glass case, Psmith seizes the chance to reduce the assembly to chaos by exposing this dreadful man as someone so felonious by nature that he cannot even discuss politics without stealing someone else’s laughs. It is this xenophobe, this purloiner, this braggart, this man who struts in front of the bowling screen, on whom fortune has smiled at the New Asiatic, and who is now at the heart of the demoniac conspiracy to crush the hope out of the young men who fall into his orbit. Wodehouse shows him to be without a shred of decency, until at last the reader is tempted to wonder at the source of all this hatred. What have the real-life Bickersdykes of this world ever done to Wodehouse that so mild-mannered and benign a man should exact such terrible revenge?
Benny Green, P. G. Wodehouse: A Literary Biography
“People with antisocial personality disorder exhibit a lack of conscience, even towards friends and family members. Their destructive behavior surfaces in childhood adolescence, beginning in excessive lying, fighting, stealing, violence, or manipulation.
They basically don’t care about any negative consequences of their actions, and because they lack the capacity for empathy, they don’t give a dang about you, or anyone else.” (x)
Jason Dill’s ripping all week on the #VansProSkateTour has us wanting to #FBF to Dill’s tricks in AVE’s SOTY part in #VansPropeller. If you were lucky enough to catch Dill at the NJ Skateshop’s demo yesterday than you witnessed his last demo performance of his 30s. Looks like he won’t make it to Orchard Skate Shop in Boston tomorrow. But AVE, Gilbert, Chima, Dan Lu and flow bros Justin Henry, Tyson Peterson and Shredmaster Keith will all be there. Come meet up with us at the 438 Commercial Street shop at 11am.
What few people, apart from musicians, have never seemed to grasp is that he is not simply the best popular singer of his generation…but the culminating point in an evolutionary process which has refined the art of interpreting words set to music. Nor is there even the remotest possibility he will have a successor. Sinatra was the result of a fusing of a set of historical circumstances which can never be repeated.
Russell Malone, Christian McBride & Benny Green - Jingles
This is a remarkable performance, the percussion-less trio stay amazingly tight. The ability of the bassist really stands out here I think, he doesn’t miss a beat and does a solo that comfortably matches the also excellent work of Russell and Benny. Definitely worth a listen!