Something Beneath The Froth

Christopher Fowler
We've often talked, you and I, about the tragic fate of the humorous novel (this is how I think of us, snuggled in front of the fire with a glass and a pile of books, not hunched over a laptop alone with a blanket over my knees because London is so fracking cold), but I'm going to be contentious now, in this small weird book-and-film corner of the inter-thing, because I've had an epiphany - I've had a great many today, it's the medication. I was talking to my old pal Joanne Harris (she brought French pastries, hurrah) about writers and audiences. Here's the first thing. We outgrow our readerships. This is why our first success with a book/play/film/artwork is usually our most widely enjoyed. Buoyed on by success we grow, become richer, more complex - and shed those fans who liked the 'earlier, funnier' stuff. Neophyte writers pray that their first success will be the start of a great string of hits, but usually it works the other way around. Joanne is cursed with the word 'Chocolat' added to her name when she's still growing and writing a book a year. I branched out into other areas but they never sell as well because they venture into unknown territory. This is why brands exist. You created them for us. They give you some comfort, and now we're throwing them back at you. 'Glass Onion' has a poster that says 'A Knives Out Mystery' on it - genius, because we know what to expect and there's a Poirot-like character that can grow with the series, and that's what you want - and what I want when I come to think of it. More of the same, with a twist. Here's the second thing. The public invariably makes the wrong choice because the odds have been stacked against them by the publishers, who choose what to promote. While sorting some old books I came across a good example. I have all the key PG Wodehouse volumes - I'm not so struck on the Blandings novels - and have never met anyone apart from The Husband who does not like the Jeeves books. For years I've had some old green-backed EF Benson volumes on the shelf below (a pecking order, you see, even in my bedroom). I don't know anyone who's read them. While I loved the original TV series with Geraldine McEwan, Nigel Hawthorne and Prunella Scales, I had only peered in at the dense type inside Benson's six volumes and shaken my head. When Kindle offered all six novels plus two short stories for under two quid I began reading. Kindle allows you to be capricious. switching between short stories and novels as the mood takes you. Slow reading is the one skill that illness gives you back. Now I know what most of you probably already know. They books are exquisite, like Dresden shepherdesses holding cut-throat razors. The characters are not in themselves witty; wit comes from the perceptive authorial overview. 'Their Italian, though firm and perfect as far as it went, could not be considered as going far, and was useless for conversational purposes, unless they merely wanted to greet each other or to know the time'. Lucia gets caught out when Mapp introduces a real Italian dinner guest. 'You two must have so much to talk about,' she says, smiling through closed teeth. And so the smallest of skirmishes somehow turns into a series of great battles that cloak the villages of Risholme and Tilling. As their overseer, Benson is honest but merciless. These scurrying figures, forever dashing up and down the high street with petty gossip and revenges, are a certain kind of England in microcosm. The curse of the ever-benevolent Wodehouse was that he too frequently gave in to a good joke and handed his best moments of clarity to Jeeves. Benson has a better balance. He looks down with affection at his characters and recognises that they are all fantasists; they fervently believe that they are creative (they are not), that they are kind (they are not), that they are beneficent (they are certainly not). Beneath the frou-frou and froth is a bedrock of dissected hypocrisy as bleak as any surgery. So why is Benson not as beloved as Wodehouse? It may be that Benson (who was gay) is simply too precious a writer, and that there's no pursuit of 'nieces', however sexless, spicing up the plots. I love Wodehouse, but wax evangelical about Mapp, Lucia, Georgie, Quaint Irene and the rest.


Roger (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 11:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Perhaps Benson's characters and his descriptions are just a little too close to reality for dedicated escapists to enjoy his stories. The gay and merciless Saki, though, is popular still.
I'd have thought Joanne Harris was in the ideal position for writers since Chocolat: rich enough to write whatever she pleases and with publishers wanting her books in the hope of another triumph.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 11:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Benson’s characters may be a bit too close to home. We all know people like them, and perhaps recognise parts of ourselves we wish didn’t exist.
Joanne Harris is another favourite. I’ll keep reading her books for as long as she keeps writing them.

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 12:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pete has such excellent taste; I too don't like the Jeeves books specifically, and dislike Wodehouse in general. If the English realized what the Jeeves books convey, you'd pulp every copy.
I enjoy Benson's ghost stories; they read well. Mapp and Lucia--I really don't enjoy snarky misogyny in print or film.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 13:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"If the English realized what the Jeeves books convey, you’d pulp every copy."

If the Americans realized what we are really like, they'd be stockpiling weapons, Oh!......

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 14:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...(US) stockpiling weapons..." Indeed.

Paul c (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 17:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've been a fan of EFB since discovering his short horror stories which are in the top echelons of the genre.
I've never tried mapp and Lucia but will add them to my book tower. Thanks for yet another tip. Looks similar to Saki ?

Paul c (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 17:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry, Roger - You mentioned Saki already. D'oh....

Bob Low (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 18:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Benson is still venerated, if not beloved, by readers of ghost and horror fiction, who often aren't that interested in comic writing. It was my wife who introduced me to the Tilling Set, and the books are indeed exquisite but merciless in their characterisations.
Benson also wrote a lovely, fascinating book called "As We Were", subtitled "A Victorian Peepshow", a partly autobiographical exploration of Victorian society and attitudes. The chapter that deals with the trial of Oscar Wilde is, inevitably particularly interesting. Benson takes the original view that Wilde's great early success in London wasn't so much to do with the quality of his plays, but rather that, under his arrogance, he was a genuinely good-hearted and convivial soul. If you can find the book on Kindle, it's worth having a look at.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2022 - 21:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wilde was a social success because of his personality before he became a writer, let alone a good or successful one, Bob Low. Soon after he left Oxford he toured America as a sort of standup comic-cum-lecturer on art. He was very popular in the wild - well, comparatively wild - West. He came back to edit a woman's magazine and learned to write well and wittily - his early works are dreadful. It was only with The Importance of Being Earnest that he abandoned all pretence of portraying a world connected to reality in any way. The earlier plays are social melodramas with wit piled onto them.

What do the Jeeves books convey. Brooke? If anything, I'd have thought it was that it's that irresponsible wealthy idiots can only survive with the help of calculating characters from the lower classes.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 06:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I watched the whole of Mapp and Lucia and cringed in every episode. My husband would not be in the same room when it was on. The accent just cut through the brain.
There is a type of upper class person that was always easy to ridicule but fortunately there are fewer of them. It's too bad that some are still able to get elected. The financial crises we've had off and on reduced incomes, the taxes on estates did more and more and more are working in real jobs. The huge estates that still exist do so because the owners are financially wise and well advised and are imaginative about their property. Things are actually changing, you know, even if very slowly.
Oh, and I liked Jeeves and most of Wodehouse even if I had to turn off any social analysis I might have been tempted to apply.
TCM was doing James Mason movies tonight and I was able to watch The Last of Sheila. Eventually I'll get all the ins and outs straight (or not as the case may be). There is another sort of "upper class" even if their income has a sort of insecurity. Some film people become resident in that well off, easy living world where the ability to do as you like is taken for granted, an attitude that rather grates on those of us who can't.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 13:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...irresponsible wealthy idiots can only survive with the help of calculating characters from the lower classes." Indeed, Roger. One asks why the working class would cooperate in this arrangement, which harms working people. What epistemic environment sustains this? What’s the role of media including fiction like the Jeeves books in portraying the unequal bargain as humorous? In the US income and wealth inequality is increasing and we have started venerating wealthy technocrats and media stars as they intrude into politics, urging working people vote against their own best interests. If I repeated conversations I hear from this city's wealthy, you would recognize Bertie immediately.

Aren’t you sorry you asked…

snowy (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 14:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm slightly struck that anybody thought/thinks Wodehouse was ever representative of English life in any shape or form.

While the Inter-War English world was absolutely cluttered with titled non-entities, their every doing reported in the 'Court and Social' columns. They existed in another world entirely, [like the Z list celebrities of today].

The reality was that power had been shifting away from the historically titled to the new landowners, mine owners and mill-owners, [who then all then decided to get themselves titled by various means, this is where it can get a little confusing].

For the rest of the population, [a million and a half women worked as domestic servants and millions of men outside cities worked on agricultural estates as farm workers or down t'pit], you'd either work for one, pay rent to one* or face them in their role as a magistrate, [if you had been naughty], It was just how things were generally organised.

Things change, but slowly, even when their status was on the decline they still ran through everyday life like blue mould through Stilton. [The President of the local WI would be Lady Fionnula Mountjoy of Frothing at the Gusset and the Chairman of the Rotary Club would be Lord Vivienne Fortescue-Fortescue-Fortescue, a family thought worryingly 'close' even in the wilder parts of Norfolk].

The bashing of Aristos/The Rich/Authority is such a recurring thread in English comedy that it goes back centuries before Harold spectacularly failed to realise that "Duck" wasn't a question about what he fancied for his dinner.

It's just some jokes don't travel.


[*As a very small child I had to tag along when Mother made the monthly journey to the Estate Office to pay the rent to his Lordship.

He wasn't even a real Lord, he'd bought the title off Lloyd George in return for a substantial bung].

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 14:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brooke, I think the humour was based on giving working people a way of pointing out that their ‘betters’ can be stupid and unable to look after themselves, which wasn’t available to them in real life.
It continued with a succession of Hugh Laurie’s characters in Blackadder.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that the existence of unearned privilege is fair or acceptable.
Shouldn’t pointing out the deficiencies of the privileged make people less likely to listen to them, and less supportive of that privilege?
( I agree that it often doesn’t seem to.)

Stevenage Dave (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 16:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As a voracious reader of and seeker-after horror, I learned to trust Benson's writing enough to give Mapp and Lucia a bash. That led to an awkward confrontation in a local pub. I was sat quietly by the window when I became aware of somebody watching me; a grimy chap wearing grubby hi-viz was contorting himself to see my book. I cheerfully turned it in his direction (I seem to remember the book was largely pink, with a woman's face on the cover). "Queen Loo-Seeyer" he deciphered . "You borrow it?", "No, why?" "Looks like somefing my Gran would read" Feeling awkward now I swigged the last of my beer, saying. "It was written by a bloke; I think his brother wrote the lyrics to "Land of Hope and Glory". He grunted, appeased.
Thereafter I always gave my book covers the "Pub Test". Soho Black and Spanky were challenging...

keith page (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Mapp and Lucia stories in no way represent anyone I've ever known but then you can say the same about virtually
any piece of fiction.They are obviously out of fashion in the present rather unpleasant world .So are the works of
Captain W E Johns but so what? I like them all and I'm not at all interested in any modern 'agendas'.
And I thought the later Mark Gatiss adaptations were well cast and brilliant.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 18:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

... and the mill owners (who at least made something) were replaced by financiers, influencers, and professional celebrities. Still we worship them all, no matter how useless.

I also enjoyed the 2014 BBC Mapp and Lucia, though I'd enjoy anything with Anna Chancellor. However, they certainly do resemble people that I've met.

A Holme (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 19:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I always thought the beauty of Wodehouse is the way he uses exactly the right words to arrive at the joke. He could be writing about a knitting circle or horny handed sons of the soil, it doesn't really matter. Perfect jokes that you don't spot until the final word. Surprise! It's why he still makes me laugh out loud.

SteveB (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 21:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love EF Benson! And the first Mapp and Lucia TV series was perfect. The Mark Gatiss adaptations I give full credit, but you can’t beat perfection.
I wasn’t aware of ‘As we were’ will definitely be getting that.
Admin always rang the changes from time to time inside the Bryant and May ‘brand’. That’s what kept me coming I think.

A Holme (not verified) Fri, 18/11/2022 - 23:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

His follow up volume 'As We Are' is also lovely. E F's schoolboy stories featuring David Blaize are worth a read as well.

Bob Low (not verified) Sat, 19/11/2022 - 08:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you A Holme for that recommendation - I'll look out for 'As We are'.

Jo W (not verified) Sat, 19/11/2022 - 08:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A sweet mental picture there of the lickle you going to the Estate Office with your mother, to pay the rent. Did you have to doff your cap and tug your forelock? How lovely. ;-)

Chris, I’m feeling a bit chilly so I’ll draw up my chair to your imaginary hearth, if there’s room? X

snowy (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 16:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would have chaffed at the prospect, [though that was probably because I'd have been in reins].

['Reins' for those unaware were a once popular piece of child humiliating equipment, that looked like something from in the bondage aisle of an Austrian sex shop, mine were white leather with bunny rabbits across the front].

snowy (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 18:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Having finally remembered my original point.......

Mapp and Lucia, the first TV adaptation, [the only one I've seen admittedly], was a dreadful piece of.... well words fail me, [at least the clean ones do].

The two main characters were unutterably vile, petty, spiteful, pretentious, while that may have been the point - they were never funny! And Nigel Hawthorne was just toe-curlingly embarrassing.

[Had the leads been played by George Logan and Patrick Fyffe, <b>then</b> you would have had a show!]

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 20:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, is the picture at the top of the column the version to which you refer? That's the only one I've seen.
After my husband fought the computer into submission yesterday I watched "Clue: the Movie" I have never seen such over the top over reacting, mass exiting, chorus responding, and... well, a few other things but I just laughed all the way although I'm still wondering about Miss Scarlet's car battery.

Christopher Fowler Sun, 20/11/2022 - 20:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh Snowy, Snowy...that was entirely the point! Those petty skirmishes echo the ones unfolding today in every English village.

Des Burkinshaw (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 12:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

An interesting thread, but I can't take it all in because Chris saying he wasn't "so struck by Blandings".
What the heck? Much as I love Jeeves and EFB and CF, I've always felt, after many re-reads, that Blandings was the pinnacle of English comic writing.

Jan (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 11:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snows -Sorry not been about much on Chris's blog but yes you are entirely right here.

WW1 effectively ends a whole way of life that had largely survived the industrial revolution. With the massive numbers of men who joined the army during WW1 either not returning from the trenches or returning incapacitated and unable to work many large country estates with everything from hayfields, kitchen gardens, hothouses, large mansions and the like simply became unviable.

With many particularly southern cities and towns expanding rapidly there was a massive 'land grab' going on and these estates were soon swallowed up in urban development.

It's against this background that PG Wodehous creates his comic novels.

Brooke I do think you miss the point here.

In a way P G celebrates in comedy the wealthy upper class idiots - it's not about supporting a decaying system it's about some of the best most delicious comic writing I've ever read. That's all it is. Snows is right once more perhaps it's simply a case of jokes not travelling well.

A Holme is spot on with the comment here you sort of sense the jokes approaching you sense its coming and then find you didn't really see what PG had in mind at all he comes up with something better - the punchline is lighter, better and more comical than you could have ever predicted its wonderful stuff.

There's one story in which Bertie gets a replacement for Jeeves. Mr. Wooster decides his new employee is a somewhat violent and radical gentleman's gentleman. Bertie anticipates this new butler has decided the best way to deal with his new employer and his immediate relatives is to hang them from the many lamp posts in the Mall together with more members of the upper echelons of society. I haven't got the book to hand to directly quote from it but the humour is written beautifully. It's not for judging as social commentary + it doesn't for me contain social commentary ( Even though. Jeeves must eat a lot of fish to maintain his genius and Bertie is mentally negligible!)but it's a wonderful comedy confection.

Blandings is also excellent - especially the Empress! Sorry to witter on.... Hello to everyone.

Granny (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 14:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Snowy, I remember the taste of my reins! I used to chew them, possibly as an escape bid, then I was fitted out with new ones and they were horrid, backed with fluff instead of just leather.
@admin, I think we do grow out of books we used to love. I loved Jeeves when I was a young teen: aunt"who bit heads of rats" if I remember correctly, but now find them unreadable, the tolerance towards the aristocracy is more than I can bear, when the reality of them was venal, and especially nowadays with this awful ex-Eton, ex-Oxford reverse Robin Hood lot in power

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 19:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Granny, they're mostly like that in any country. If there isn't an aristocracy then there is some form of monetary class or some other form of privilege that eases a person's way into positions of power. Here in North America it's money and it is harder and harder to find politicians without money but who found support to get them noticed.

Gabi Coatsworth (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 20:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Surely we don’t real Wodehouse for the plots, or even the characters, really, but for the writing..

Glasgow1975 (not verified) Wed, 23/11/2022 - 01:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh that reminds me, I never got round to the final volume . I downloading it after reading the first few when the more recent TV version aired...

snowy (not verified) Wed, 23/11/2022 - 12:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Those petty skirmishes echo the ones unfolding today in every English village."

Not while we 'as access to a ready supply of wicker they don't.


[There is probably a very fine sub-text in the M&amp;L stories that I'm not picking up on, might be 'too close to home'.]


Jan, <del>a little light</del> some heavy looking up says: Brinkley is the valet with suspected Bolshevik tendencies from 'Thank you, Jeeves', in a later story he comes into money and becomes a not quite Spode-like but towards that end.

Jan (not verified) Thu, 24/11/2022 - 14:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That's right Brinkley the Bolshie! I don't remember that 2nd story when he came into funds though. Perhaps it's time to look into the stories again.

I always remember on the back of the Jeeves paperbacks there was a bit written about how this perfect world would never stale and always provide a perfect escape. I used to sit on those carriers full of shields, flameproofs (and blokes arguing over card games) and escape into that beautiful little construct for hours...

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sun, 27/11/2022 - 19:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

With Benson I still favour his horror stories, Caterpillars is a gem. I've also read a crime novel by him which I enjoyed even if it isn't earth shattering. With Mapp and Lucia I always think of them akin to Keeping Up Appearances and Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet, and who longs to be at their level), petty intrigues and such can be diverting fun. In a way this is Benson's problem in that he never stuck to one genre and was prolific, never a good thing in the critics eye.

Snowy - reigns are still used, it's either that or keep them strapped in a buggy/stroller/pram/pushchair.... A two year old in busy city is a struggle, if you hold their hand they can easily break your grip, in the same way they can open child-proof bottles easier than any adult. An innovation is the backpack with reign, but make sure it locks behind them, the catch on the front is as much a test as a child-proof bottle.

Wodehouse is just funny I find, and he shows our betters are no better and at times worse. It's like laughing at politicians. Some of my family were in service at the higher end (see Upstairs and Downstairs for the Downstairs hierarchy) and although I never met them I'm told they were terrible snobs, usually worse than the upstairs. The snobs upstairs were usually looked down upon by their peers. Plus the middle classes were invented to keep them away from the lower classes. ;)


Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 29/11/2022 - 22:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wayne, I know toddlers can seem to rule the house but I think the walking controls are reins, not reigns. They are a good thing in that they encourage the child to walk and build up strength. It's a first tiny taste of independence, too. The only problem, well a problem, is dealing with the whining.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 01/12/2022 - 01:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Granny, I'm a bit worried that if your BP matches your outrage, the endpoint is your head going off like something from 'Scanners'.

*Rubs hands.....*

a) I hold ALL politicians in low regard, they are ALL in it for their own ends.

The ones on the Right, want to get as many gongs as they can, [and line their pockets]. The ones on the Left, want to be regarded as secular saints, [and line their pockets].

b) Finance/Accounting is as difficult as it is DULL, Journos really can't be bothered to carry out their own investigation. So any numbers reported in the popular press are in general ropier than 'Bondage Night' at the annual Scoutmasters Conference.

*Rolls up sleeves......*

"Us taxpayers are paying £1.7m a week to store all this useless PPE"

Context: The NHS burns through 3 Billion a week, 1.7M is only 0.05%.

Not ideal admittedly, but not a big number. [If you divide 1.7M/UK Population it's 2.5p each per week].

"Pestfix (initially had listed net assets of only £18,000) a pest control business, which has signed 11 PPE contracts £342m, Facemasks unusable, gowns unusable"

Data has to be dug for quite hard, the 342M was an over estimate, later revised down to 108M apparently, of which the Gov. is expected to recover 71M.

"initially had listed net assets of only £18,000"

Net assets are not really relevant, unless you buying the company.

That number is only included in that sentence for a very particular reason....

While I think of an explanation, here is a list:


The 2022 list of most requested pet animals by Children aged 5-11

1) Gerbil
2) Hamster
3) Mouse
4) Guinea pig
5) Chinchilla
6) Elephant


If I've done it right your brain will have had a very tiny flip when it hit the pachyderm.

The technique is called 'priming', [it that example it was small, small, small, small, small, MASSIVE!!], it's about setting an expectation and then breaking it, Films use it, Authors use it, Magicians use it, just watch out for it in any article that quotes numbers.


The BIG Question, is why did a bunch of Oxbridge chancers decide to mess about with purchasing stuff, [historically the only things MPs are expert at 'procuring' usually ends up with them doing time in the Nonce-wing of the local prison].

The NHS has the largest Purchasing dept. in the country, their supplier database is absolutely huge, all of whom have been quality vetted. The individual suppliers each have their own raft of approved manufacturers, also quality verified, to expand capacity.

And if capacity was still.....


Err..... I'm going to stop there, I can feel this strange tingling in the space between my ears.......

Wayne Mook (not verified) Thu, 01/12/2022 - 09:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry Helen, should be more careful with the spell check, being in Manchester I'm surprised I didn't get rains. The other problem with reins is when the child leans forward so you are basically holding them up and one slip and they either faceplant or escape.

Snowy the procurement info you gave was NICE, sorry I'll get my face mask.