...by now he was so wide awake that he knew that sleep would be impossible until he had soothed himself by reading a pig book for awhile. He had at his bedside a new one which had arrived by the morning post and he had so far merely dipped into it. He took it up, and was soon engrossed.
It turned out to be one of those startling ultra-modern pig books, the work no doubt of some clever young fellow just down from his agricultural college, and it shocked him a good deal by its avant-grade views on such subjects as swill and bran mash, views which would never have done for orthodox thinkers like Whiffle and Wolff-Lehman.
from A Pelican at Blandings by P. G. Wodehouse
A Pelican at Blandings, (1969). No, not this kind of pelican...
...The Honourable Galahad Threepwood, younger brother of Lord Clarence Emsworth of Blandings Castle, suave, debonair man about town and quite a heckraiser in his younger days. But why the pelican? Why, that's because Gally is the last surviving member of the Pelican Club, a London gentleman's club which sounds even more raucous and lay about than Bertie Wooster's Drones, mostly because the fast living, rich food and extensive drink that were trademarks of the clubs members have killed off all the other surviving members. Fear not for Galahad, however, one of my favorite of all Wodehouse characters: he's in no imminent danger of shuffling off to Elysian fields, even though the admission that he's the last of his breed in this books spells a tolling bell for fellow Pelican Uncle Fred, Earl of Ickenham (quite possibly my favorite Wodehouse character), who appears in earlier Blandings novels (that I haven't reviewed yet).
One of the fun mental exercises in which I enjoy indulging myself while reading a Wodehouse book is casting a movie of that plot using contemporary actors. Ian Carmichael (Lord Peter Wimsey) has played Gally on BBC radio, and one of my favorite British actors of all time, Richard Briers (right), has played him in the seldom-seen 1995 BBC adaptation of Heavy Weather, alongside Peter O'Toole's Lord Emsworth. Briers is a brilliant choice and no stranger to Wodehousehe's played Bertie Wooster on the wonderful What Ho, Jeeves BBC radio series alongside Michael Hordern's Jeeves, and his work with Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean troupe, appearing in all his Shakespeare movies (including the recent As You Like It). And of course, he was married to the lovely and delightful Felicity Kendal, one of the subjects of my affection, in the cult classic comedy The Good Life. Pretty good casting after all. But for my money, let's try someone a little different, a little more debonair and sophisticated as Gally. In my little stuffed head, at least while reading A Pelican at Blandings, I kept picturing him as Roger Moore. Oh, no, not the young, mop-topped mod Roger Moore of The Saint or The Persuaders...
...nor the swingin' ever-lovin' secret agent James Bond-era Roger Moore...
...but the modern-day, contemporary, well-aged as fine port Roger Moore, still as stylish and dapper as ever, and now able to match wits with the Spice Girls as well as with Scaramanga:
Your mileage may vary, of course.
As for the book...well, does the plot really matter? Why, yes it does; of course it does, but there's elements you've seen before, plot devices and complications that are standard for a Wodehouse book in general and a Blandings novel in specific: lovers held apart by grumpy guardians, imposter guests at a country house, multiple theft attempts at a priceless painting, mysterious comings-and-goings in the dark of night, and of course, the prize pig The Empress of Blandings, who kicks off the whirlwind proceedings by going off her feed and refusing a particularly plump and juicy potato, sending the porcine-affectionate Lord Emsworth into a worried tizzy. Critics might call "foul" (or, "pig-hooey!") to such familiar plot spirals, but for a Wodehouse fan, it's the equivalent of comfort food: friendly, familiar, funny, and really, at the heart of it all, enough originality and uniqueness to make it stand out, not the grandest of Blandings, but a sparkling star among the eleven Blandings novels, of which this is the final completed novel.
That plot again? Well, the intimidating Lady Constance, Clarence's sister, has returned to Blandings (I picture her as played, with a lemony venom, by Dame Judi Dench) just in time to ruin the peaceful summer of pottering and potty Lord Emsworth (Jim Broadbent for Clarence would be a good choice). Also enter bright and sharp young lawyer Johnny Halliday (hmmm...how about Matthew Macfadyen?), who's head over wingtips in love with the young perky popsy Linda Gilpin (it's my internal movie, so I get to cast another subject of my affection, Keira Knightley, as Linda), but they're held apart by Linda's guardian, the walrus-like Duke of Dunstable (US Representative to the UN John R. Bolton), who plans to sell a nude painting to American millionaire Wilbur Trout (Darren McGavin), because it reminds him of his third ex-wife (not appearing in this film).
Of course, the painting's this novel's Silver Cow Creamer, and as such it's macguffinly stolen and swapped in the dead of night by the clever Galahad, but with a typical Wodehouse twist: the real painting is substituted for a fake after it's discovered that the art gallery accidentally sold Dunstable a copy and to preserve their good name, need to swap out the original. That leads, of course, to Clarence (visiting Empress of Blandings in the middle of the night) being locked out of the house, climbing in through Dunstable's bedroom window, with suitable hoopla and hurrahs for the chaos and calamitous comedy that continues. And of course, nobody is quite who they seem to be. Galahad implants Johnny in the household posing as a psychiatrist (associate of Bertie Wooster's nemesis Roderick Glossop) sent to examine the perhaps-delusional Clarence, and American millionairess Vanessa Polk (you know, I can see Bea Arthur in her role) ain't quite who everyone thinks she isalthough she is a true Polk, she's not the one they've taken her for. Or, as Galahad muses:
'It turns out that she's an imposter. It's an odd thing about Blandings Castle, it seems to attract imposters as catnip does cats. They make a bee line for the place. When two or three imposters are gathered together, it's only a question of time before they're saying "Let's all go round to Blandings", and along they come. It shakes one. I've sometimes asked myself if Connie is really Connie. How can we be certain that she's not an international spy cunningly made up as Connie? The only one of the local fauna I feel really sure about is Beach. He seems to be genuine.'(Oh yes. Beach the butler. Hmmm. It really is too bad Sebastian Cabot is dead, isn't it? Well, p'raps Beach could be created by CGI or perhaps other Hollywood wizardry.)
A Pelican at Blandings is one of Wodehouse's later novels (only five more books and the unfinished work-in-progress Sunset at Blandings would come after) so his writing is sharp and precise and pitch-perfect, every player and every word in place, and if the plot is a wee bit familiar to long-time fans, the joy and excitement more than forgives it. For those who are new to the Blandings saga with this book, there's a wonderful bit in the beginning where Wodehouse cleverly uses Clarence's absent-mindedness to have Connie sum up the situation so far, bringing us quickly up to speed while at the same time peppering the text with delightful Emsworthisms:
'Not that we don't have some remarkable names over here. I was reading my Debrett the other day, and I came on a chap called Lord Orrery and Cork. I wondered how you would address him if you met. One's natural impulse would be to say "How do you do, Lord Orrery?", but if you did, wouldn't he draw himself up rather stiffly and say "And Cork"? You'd have to apologise.'Connie's scolding does no good, because Clarence immediately digresses into a long paragraph about potato chips (incidentally showing how long Wodehouse had been in America by this point that he didn't type 'crisps') and how extraordinary it is that some companies claim you can't eat just one. It's something remarkable about nothing, predating Seinfeld by decades with a pleasantly hazy British peer of the realm instead of a Jewish stand-up comedian.
All's well etc. etc. in the final chapter thanks to the power of true love...and, oh yes, a handy piece of blackmail by Galahad, and peace reigns once more on Blandings with the departure of the passel of annoying guests, imposters, and most important, the leave-taking of Lady Constance, leaving Clarence and Galahad alone to have a lovely summer dinner in the sanctuary of Blandings's library. Earlier I mentioned the "final" Blandings novel, Sunset at Blandings which I shall be reviewing in the final week, a year and a half or so from now, of "A Wodehouse a Week". Sunset is unfinished and was published as a work in progress, so A Pelican at Blandings is our true final glimpse of Blandings, also at sunset but gloriously if peacefully celebratory. Our last glimpses of Gally and Clarence are as typical as ever, as Galahad muses over dinner:
'...But all that's over now. It makes me feel as if I were sitting in at the end of a play, one of those charming delicate things the French do so well. You know the sort of thing I meanlightly sentimental, the smile following the tear. I am having my dinner. The storm is over, there is sunlight in my heart. I have a glass of wine and sit thinking of what has passed. And now we want something to bring down the curtain. A toast is indicated. Let us drink to the Pelican Club, under whose gentle tuition I learned to keep cool, stiffen the upper lip and always think a shade quicker than the next man. To the Pelican Club,' said Gally, raising his glass.
'To the Pelican Club," said Lord Emsworth, raising his. 'What is the Pelican Club, Galahad?'
'God bless you, Clarence,' said Gally. 'Have some more roly-poly pudding.'
I have two editions of A Pelican at Blandings: a Penguin UK paperback (cast of characters colorfully calligraphed on the cover by the inimitable Ionicus, looking very little like the players in my movie imagination but pitch-perfect none-the-less), and (above, right) a Simon & Schuster US hardcover (first edition, but damaged by ex-library markings that make it none the less dear to me) under its American title No Nudes is Good Nudes, one of my least favorite US retitlings of Wodehouse and sporting a curiously late-sixties mod cover illustration by Barry Zaid (designer of the Celestial Seasonings tea boxes). It's not exactly what you think of when you imagine a Wodehouse book design. It's oddly reminiscent of Peter MaxDunstable certainly looks like a walrus but also not unlike Sgt. Pepper, and the nude lady in the painting bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Miss Piggy. Nevermind. You can pick up a paperback copy of A Pelican at Blandings with its original UK title intact and a lovely cover illustration from the recent Penguin redesign of the series, by clicking in the Amazon box to the right. Don't be afeared of the prospect of this book being banned; the nude painting is cleverly disguised behind large heads of the lovers Johnny and Linda, not unlike Bart Simpson behind a fence. Tell 'em Bully sent you, even though he's not allowed to look at nudie things.