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Friday, 10 December 2010

An innocent abroad: the non-trial of P G Wodehouse

This article has been published in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly,Vol. 174, 18 December 2010, p 791

Having recounted two famous cases of wartime treason last month, a few words might be appropriate about a famous case of non-treason from the last war.  It involved one of England’s greatest ever authors and is a lesson in overreaction, though ultimately a correct case of legal inaction.

In early 1940, as Panzer divisions smashed through the low countries and into France, it need hardly be said that most of Britain would have followed the news with close attention, anxiety and horror.  Not so, it would appear, a 58 year old Englishman living in the south of France, where he had resided for tax reasons since 1934.  PG Wodehouse paid such little heed to world events that not even news of the atrocious events unfolding a few hundred miles away in the same country prompted him to flee before occupying German troops arrived.  Shortly after the Vichy regime was formed, Wodehouse found himself interned along with all other British nationals in France. 

In 1941, realising how naive and harmless he was, the Nazis let him go shortly before he was due to be released in any event (upon reaching the age of 60), but at the same time co-opted his naivety for some light hearted radio broadcasts to America, which was still a neutral party at the time. Wodehouse accepted because he wanted to show some gratitude for the correspondence he had received from American fans during his internment. 

To a modern audience, the broadcasts come across as politically irrelevant as they were irreverent; no more than light hearted Wodehousian banter about barren towns, inept guards and the probable need to take a letter of introduction if he finally got to see his wife again. To a wartime audience in Britain, however, they were nothing of the sort. Instead they were sufficiently offensive to have Wodehouse debated as a possible traitor in the House of Commons, and to have him specifically likened to Lord Haw Haw. 

A number of public figures and institutions joined the attack, including the author AA Milne.  Others came to Wodehouse’s defence, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.  Thus arose perhaps the most surreal literary showdown in English history: the genial and unworldly Winnie the Pooh taking shots at the equally genial and unworldly Bertie Wooster, with Lord Sebastian Flyte and Winston Smith appearing for the defence. 

One supposes Bertie Wooster might have gone pheasant shooting with Flyte in the Hundred Acre Wood, though Smith would have been denied any comparable pleasures in 1984. 

In the event, no charges were ever brought and a consensus emerged that Wodehouse was wholly innocent.  The affair had a terrible irony, however, given that just about the only overt political reference in any of Wodehouse’s pre-war works was the character Roderick Spode, a direct satire of Oswald Mosley.  It left a sad legacy too: Wodehouse never returned to England. 

The story is a salutary reminder that one can go too far in the most worthy of causes.  Obviously it was right that people did not want to give Nazi Germany a crumb of comfort in 1941.  But, properly understood, Wodehouse’s broadcasts gave no such crumb, or even a speck.  Nor does that conclusion require hindsight, still less any Orwellian rewrite of history.  Anyone familiar with Wodehouse’s works – as most educated Englishmen were at the time – and the man himself, would have seen the innocent naivety for what it was. 

One finds some mild parallels today, without drawing too long a bow.  One recalls Paul Chambers’ tweet in frustration at thwarted weekend plans that he would blow up an airport. It seems absurd that anyone would think his post a serious statement of terrorist intent.  And yet Chambers found himself fined under the Communications Act 2003.  It is telling that there were much more severe crimes with which Chambers could and should have been charged (but wasn’t) had anyone actually taken him seriously. 

A second recent incident concerned Councillor Gareth Compton, who was incensed by the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s statement that Western politicians had no moral right to object to the stoning of a woman in Iran.  Mr Compton tweeted that he wished someone would stone Alibhai-Brown to death instead.  He was promptly arrested for his trouble.   

Compton was released without charge, but it beggars belief that anyone would think he was actually advocating the act rather than making an attempt at sardonic humour.

Neither tweeter was particularly funny, still less Wodehousean.  But nor should they have attracted the attention of the police, any more than Wodehouse should have been pillared in public. Combating terrorism and maintaining community harmony requires acute judgement on the authorities’ part, and the ability to recognise real threats.  Equally it requires the ability to recognise blatant non-threats.  Retaining a sense of humour wouldn’t hurt in that regard. 

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