Sunday, 16 December 2012

Penguin no. 2205: Ukridge
by P.G. Wodehouse

Given private means sufficiently large to pad them against the moulding buffets of Life, it is extraordinary how little men change in after years from the boys they once were. There was a youth in my house at school named Coote... And he was popularly known as Looney on account of the vain and foolish superstitions which seemed to rule his every action. Boys are hard-headed, practical persons, and they have small tolerance for the view-point of one who declines to join in a quiet smoke behind the gymnasium not through any moral scruples - which, to do him justice, he would have scorned - but purely on the ground that he had seen a magpie that morning. This was what J.G. Coote did, and it was the first occasion on which I remember him being addressed as Looney.

Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge likes to think of himself as a man of vision. Whenever a problem presents he tackles it by concentrated thinking, confident that an inspired scheme will soon occur to him to save him from any pending disaster. He approaches life this way as well, eschewing work, and gambling his financial security on one inventive scheme after another. His bright ideas are unconstrained by any scruple, and he is quite willing to contemplate defrauding insurance companies, benefiting from fixed sporting contests, and selling what he does not own if there is a chance it will bring him some monetary gain.

He is undone, however, by a tendency to be overly optimistic in his assessments, so by the end of the book he is barely more solvent than he is at the beginning. Completely undaunted by his many setbacks, he continues in the belief that one clever idea will deliver his financial salvation, and in his enthusiasm tends not to examine these grand schemes for any practical flaws. It means they often fail in amusing though quite predictable ways, and when they do succeed, the benefit often flows to someone else.

Ukridge is a collection of ten short stories telling of Ukridge's farcical adventures as observed by his friend James Corcoran, known to him as Corky, but more frequently addressed as 'laddie' or 'old horse'. Each story is episodic and self-contained, but they link together to tell a chronological tale of Ukridge's attempts to make his fortune while evading his creditors, his odd attempt at altruism, and eventually - despite no prior apparent interest in women - his attempt to find love.

Ukbridge and Corky's friendship dates from their school days at Wrykin, and although it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that they share an understanding that this experience imposes upon them some sort of code requiring lifelong loyalty to a friend, irrespective of the cost. It is the only explanation of Corky's ongoing tolerance of the burden that friendship with Ukridge brings. He is a random presence in Corky's life, sometimes present and sometimes absent, but his reappearance can be taken as a reliable indicator that some absurd or unpleasant favour is soon to be required.

And these favours are often required without warning. Irrespective of any plans of his own, Corky  is liable to find his rooms occupied when he gets home, perhaps by hungry pekingese dogs, a hefty stranger asleep on his couch, or an unknown woman and child expecting to be escorted around London, for Ukridge thinks nothing of making commitments others will be required to honour. Even more daunting for Corky are the times he is called on to face Ukridge's Aunt Julia, for like many of P.G. Wodehouse's young men, Ukridge appears to be without parents, but there is a formidable, wealthy and disapproving aunt in the background. She is someone he is very careful to avoid, although as she is a successful writer of popular if lightweight novels, he is quite happy to mention the connection when it can advance one of his schemes. She is not as tolerant as Corky, however, and not bound by any schoolboy code, and she disowns Ukridge when he proves to be a disappointment.

Despite his evident and abundant flaws, Ukridge is a delightful and charming character. Though he is entirely self-concerned and completely lacking in consideration, in his odd way he is also generous, complimentary, and positive. His problems are simply his primary concern, and everything else must be sacrificed to them, although the sacrificing tends to be done by others. He borrows money he has no intention of ever repaying, and helps himself to the possessions of his friends, particularly their socks and shirts. Ever looking on the bright side, he is blind to the burden he imposes, and yet acutely sensitive to the faintest rebuke.

Corky's tales of Ukridge were such a pleasure to read that I can only wish I had discovered him sooner.

Also by P.G. Wodehouse:
Penguin no. 994: Quick Service
Penguin no. 1273: Uneasy Money

14 comments:

  1. I just discovered Ukridge myself this year and enjoyed him so much. I read somewhere that he was one of PGW's favorite characters.

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    1. Hi Lisa,

      I can understand why, because he is just delightful. I found a discussion in a book which suggested that the character was drawn from an actual person - not someone that P.G. Wodehouse knew, but someone known and described by his friend Bill Townend, which I think makes the character even more enjoyable.

      I chose the book purely by chance - it was on my desk because I was photographing Penguin covers drawn by Geoffrey Salter that week - and the whole time I was reading it I wondered how it was that I had never heard of him before. I'm glad you have had the pleasure of discovering him as well.

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  2. This sounds delightful. I tried PGW many years ago, and didn't get along with him at all, but keep meaning to give him another go.

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    1. Hi Christine,

      I haven't enjoyed every P.G. Wodehouse book I have read, and far prefer the earlier ones to those written later. But this has definitely been my favourite, and it would be a good one to try if you were planning to give him another go.

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  3. Sounds wonderful! I've only ever read Jeeves and Wooster Wodehouses but it sounds like I should spread my wings a bit!

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    1. Hi Karen,

      Yes - I encourage you to seek this one out; if you enjoy Jeeves and Wooster, I'm sure you'll enjoy this as well. As I said in the post, I really wish I had found out about Ukridge sooner. Now I need to track down the novel he first appears in, Love Among the Chickens.

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  4. Ever on the lookout for a quick buck, a solid gold fortune, or at least a plausible little scrounge, the irrepressible Ukridge gives con men a bad name.

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  5. Great review, Karyn, makes me want to read it right away. I love these old upper-class English names and their weird pronunciations, like Ukridge's middle name Featherstonehaugh is pronounced Fanshaw...do you have anything odd like that Down Under ?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. I expect Australian pronunciations of place names, for example, may seem quite idiosyncratic to an outsider, though they seem entirely reasonable to us. I'm not sure you can identify anyone's class here by their name (or its pronunciation); the country is probably too young for such things to have much meaning. I think Clive James articulated it exactly when he wrote "In Australia, class divisions, though widely believed not to exist, are certainly present to the extent that there are people who feel superior. Very few people, however, feel inferior: a pretty good measure of the prevailing egalitarianism."

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  6. This is hands down my favorite Wodehouse. I tend to like con artists characters in fiction. The ingenuity of schemers of this type in real life fascinates me and in ficiton they tend to be more like supermen. Ukridge is one of the best of the con artists in fiction, I think.

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  7. we ADORE Peregrine!

    how splendid.

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  8. I have read this... but I don't remember it. Odd. But I have never read a PGW I didn't like, even if some are better than others. I have to admit, selfishness is a trait I struggle to find funny, even in broad-brushstroke comedy, but presumably I coped when I read this!

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  9. I just read this for the second time. I'm a huge Wodehouse fan and have always wished he would've written more Ukridge stories. Not only was he a great character but the stories were a nice change of pace from Wodehouse's usual romance theme.

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  10. : ) not one I have ever heard of. I must get reading some Wodehouse soon, have only ever read a few.

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