Bill & Plum
William Townend was the author of over 40 books, I believe, mostly sea stories or romances, or sometimes combining both the Sea and the Fair Sex. I have encountered just one of these, South of Forty-Five, under the name of W Townend, published by Messrs Rich & Cowan. Quite small in size, with dark clothbound cover, and densely printed, it seemed to incorporate both of Bill's favourite themes abovementioned, but evidently a rattling good yarn! Listed on an inside page were his other published works under that imprint up to that date (unspecified but clearly about 1947):
The Pennelfords, Sabina's Brother, MacRann, Vain Pilgrimage, The Long Voyage, Fifth Column Family, Voyage Without End, The Ship In The Fanlight, We Sailors, The Tramp.
His personal and professional life was closely intertwined with that of P G Wodehouse; they had shared a study throughout their school career at Dulwich College, and remained on friendly terms for the rest of Townend's life. As already noted, Wodehouse was ever ready to support his old friend, whether financially or by advice and encouragement with Townend's plots and characterisations.
... Of twentieth-century writers, [P G Wodehouse] liked the work of Agatha Christie, Anthony Powell, and Waugh, all of whom he corresponded with. Perhaps more surprisingly, he enjoyed George Herriman's Krazy Kat strip, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (though he found it "filthy"), Lawrence Durrell, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. And, if we are to believe his letters to his lifelong friend William ("Bill") Townend, the works of William Townend.
Just as Wodehouse's most famous creation, Jeeves the omniscient valet, initially had the smallest of bit parts in an otherwise forgotten character's story, Townend (humorously dubbed "Villiam" or "V. T.") first appears fleetingly, in Wodehouse's impassioned letters to their fellow Dulwichian Eric George. Townend turned down a scholarship to Cambridge to become an artist. Wodehouse encouraged him to try his hand at writing, which he did with respectable productivity but to scant notice. "I often brood on your position as a writer as compared with what it ought to be," Wodehouse wrote in 1949. "I can't see, for instance, why Conrad is looked on as a sort of magician while you don't get reviewed. And I believe it's because you have never sought publicity in any form." Astonishingly, by this point in time, Townend had written "thirty-odd books."
Wodehouse disingenuously puts his friend's obscurity down to the fact that Townend has "never mixed with the literary gang." Today, the one Townend title that is known, if at all, is Performing Flea, a "Self-Portrait in Letters by P. G. Wodehouse, With an Introduction and Additional Notes by W. Townend" (1953). The book, they hoped, would present Wodehouse in a softer light after the divisive Berlin broadcasts, as well as boost Townend's literary stature. There is a vertiginous moment in A Life in Letters when we read Wodehouse discussing how to not simply edit but rewrite their correspondence for publication. "The great thing, as I see it, is not to feel ourselves confined to the actual letters. I mean, nobody knows what was actually in the letters, so we can fake it as much as we like." (Regarding a similar project involving his showbiz comrade Guy Bolton, Wodehouse wrote: "I think we shall have to let truth go to the wall if it interferes with entertainment... WE MUST BE FUNNY!!!!!!")
Townend lives on because Wodehouse lives on. Love Among the Chickens (1909), Wodehouse's seventh book, introduces his first great comic (anti)hero, Ukridge, who derives partly from stories that Townend related of an actual acquaintance, Carrington Craxton. Throughout A Life in Letters, Wodehouse asks Townend for help with plot and character. "For Heaven's sake rally to the old flag & lend a hand with the plot," he wrote in 1908, while composing a pseudonymous serial. Twenty-four years later, putting together a Jeeves and Wooster confection, he was still sending out the call: "Now, one other S.O.S., if you have time."
"I haven't developed mentally at all since my last year at school," Wodehouse confessed to Townend in 1933, at the age of fifty-two. "All my ideas and ideals are the same." When Wodehouse got his agent, Paul Reynolds, to take on a Townend story, he wrote, "He is an awfully good chap, and I would rather see him land in some big market than sell my next serial for forty thousand. We were at school together and have been friends since 1897. I feel sort of responsible for him, as I egged him on to be a writer. He used to be an artist before that."
Two of Wodehouse's novels have "Bill" in the title, and he might have had his pal in mind when suggesting to Leonora that she name his grandchild – if a boy – William instead of Edward: "Then we should have a good honest Bill, which would be great." Most affecting is the song "Bill," from 1918's Oh, Lady! Lady!! (and later Show Boat), in which Wodehouse's lyric extols the ordinariness of the titular man, with a beautiful pause in the penultimate line:
And I can't explain
It's surely not his brain
That makes me thrill
I love him because he's – I don't know –
Because he's just my Bill.
Townend's letters, like those of Wodehouse's other correspondents, do not appear in this book, but Bill emerges as one of its domineering presences – a secret sharer and a glimpse of what Wodehouse might have become had he met with failure instead of success. Whether the best-selling novelist actually needed his friend's advice, or even esteemed his novels (he characterized them as "gloomy studies" to Reynolds), is beside the point. Wodehouse regularly gave money to his less prosperous friend. In 1933 he wrote, "My idea is to guarantee an overdraft, so that you will feel safe. If you don't need it, then it's still there. But if you want to take six months off to write a novel, that will be at the back of you." He attached terse postscripts, knowing that his wife might read letters from Townend and disapprove of the financial support: "Well cheerio. Don't refer to any of this in your next letter."
For a novelist, writing letters is writing that is not writing: "What a lot there is about Pekes and football!" Wodehouse bemoaned to Townend while prepping their correspondence for publication. But a collection of letters is the unconscious narrative the author generates over the years. The complexity of Wodehouse's long relationship with Townend is more poignant than anything in his fiction – a mix of loyalty, guilt, and generosity that is most moving when it approaches the invisible: "Don't mention the enclosure when you write." In this way, P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters is like nothing Wodehouse published in his lifetime, though the sentences are all his, as are the spaces between the lines.
Author of the definitive biographyA of Wodehouse (which includes a brief account of Townend's early career), Robert McCrum has also written a fascinating introduction to the Penguin editionB of Love Among the Chickens, an early Wodehouse which had its original (1906) genesis in a 16-page foolscap manuscript sent by Townend, describing the adventures of a friend of his on a Devonshire chicken farm. Wodehouse made good use of the story, rebranded the protagonist as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, and successfully published it, complete with dedication and acknowledgement to Townend.
In due course, Wodehouse decided that many of the story's incidental details (including the price of eggs!) had become outdated, completely rewrote it, and republished it in 1921, with a revised dedication to Townend:
The following episode recalls to mind, firstly, the reference to the Giant Rat of Sumatra in Sherlock Holmes' case of the Sussex Vampire ...
Well, fancy bumping into you, Adolf ... Crazy coincidences from history
By Craig Brown for the Daily Mail
10 November 2011
Every now and then, that great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse would have an idea for a story that was horribly grim and frightening, and so totally unsuited to his own particular style. He would accordingly pass the idea on to an old school friend, the less successful author Bill Townend, on the off-chance that he might find a use for it.
'I say, listen, old horse. Is this a crazy idea?' Wodehouse wrote to Townend in 1924, in a letter printed in a lovely new book, P. G. Wodehouse: A Life In Letters. 'I suddenly thought the other day, there are always rats on board ship, so why shouldn't one rat, starting by being a bit bigger than the others, gradually grow and grow, feeding on his little playmates, till he became about the size of an Airedale terrier.
'Then there begin to be mysterious happenings on the ship. Men are found dead etc. End with big scene where your hero discovers and is attacked by Hon'ble Rat in the dark of the hold or somewhere. Big fight and so on.'
Wodehouse was the first to recognise that he could never be trusted with a horror story, even if it was his own. 'Is this any good to you? It certainly isn't to me. I should put the rat in an eyeglass and have the hero trip over a tub of potatoes.'
It so happened that Townend wrote the tale of the ever-growing rat as a short story and sold it to a magazine, forgetting, as authors so often do, that he had someone else to thank for it.
Nearly 30 years later, on January 31, 1953, Wodehouse wrote to Townend with another idea. 'Here's a short story for you. I was reading a book of J. C. Squire's and he mentions that years ago at the British Museum reading room he used to see a seedy man hanging around, and he found later it was Lenin.
'Couldn't you do a story about a doctor who is called in to attend a poor derelict in Bloomsbury and after much sweat saves his life, and it is Lenin and he goes on to upset the world entirely owing to the young doctor? I believe there's a good story in that.
'Or, if you preferred, you could have your doctor travelling in Germany in about 1890 and he meets an agitated woman – my little boy is dying and I can't get hold of a doctor; I am a doctor ma'am; then come at once, hurry – and so on. 'Doctor saves child. "What is the little fellow's name?" "Adolf, sir." "Well, goodbye, Frau Hitler . . . the little chap will be all right now and will grow up to be a credit to you." ' Townend didn't use this story, though oddly enough, Roald Dahl seems to have had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time, finally publishing it as a short story in Playboy magazine in 1959. Odder still is the fact that, unknown to either Wodehouse or Dahl, an event with very similar consequences had actually happened in real life, back in 1931.
I heard of this true story when I was researching my new book, One On One, which consists of a daisy-chain of 101 unexpected meetings. My friend, the late Hugh Massingberd, told me of a bizarre incident that had happened to an English youth in Munich in 1931.
Aged 18, a young Old Etonian called John Scott-Ellis – later to become Lord Howard de Walden – was driving around in Munich for the very first time in his brand new car, a red Fiat. Next to him was his landlord, who had agreed to guide him around Munich, and to keep him alert to the traffic regulations.
All was going well, with young John finding his new red Fiat a breeze to drive, when he took a sudden right turn into Briennerstrasse and hit a pedestrian who had failed to look left. 'Although I was going very slowly, a man walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car,' he recalled in old age. There was a sudden crunch. The pedestrian – a man in his early 40s, with a small square moustache – went down on one knee.
John was alarmed, as anyone in his position would have been, but luckily the man recovered, heaving himself to his feet, brushing himself down, and, after John had expressed his apologies, shaking hands with him and his landlord, who both wished him well.
'I don't suppose you know who that was?' said John's landlord as the two of them drove away.
'Of course I don't. Who is he?'
'Well he is a politician with a new party and he talks a lot. His name is Adolf Hitler.'
Over the years, John often told the tale of his unexpected brush with Hitler. He knew full well that, had he only been going a little faster, one life might have been lost, but many millions more could have been saved.
'For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands. He was only shaken up, but had I killed him, it would have changed the history of the world.
... and secondly the tale1, 2 (which Hitler himself certainly believed) that one Henry Tand(e)y VC, the most decorated British private soldier of the Great War, spared the life of a youthful German infantryman on 28 Sep 1918, towards the end of that conflict, thereby unwittingly sowing the seed for the outbreak of the next one.
|A||Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life; Viking, 2004|
|B||P G Wodehouse, Love Among the Chickens, Penguin Books, 2002.|