Michael Patrick O’Leary, aka Padraig Colman, presenting an essay that did not make the top grade
To help me through these troubled times, this sordid age, I have been bingeing on the oeuvre of the Divine Plum, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
The Age of Aquarius has long departed. We are now living in the Age of Ukridge, a time of fact-free posturing. This is the Age of Systemic Deceit, the post-truth era. Once a lie finds a sympathetic ear, rebuttals, facts, will not persuade people that it is not true. To believe anything else would create a sense of cognitive dissonance. Memories of corrections fade rapidly, but the memory of the original lie remains. Goebbels had something to say on this subject. Media scholar Caroline Jack coined the phrase “unintentional amplification”, which in turn leads to another phenomenon which she identifies as “inadvertent legitimisation” – the act of giving credibility to “strategic lies” simply by repeating them. In Truth and Truthfulness, his last published book, philosopher Bernard Williams focused on what he identified as the “virtues” of truthfulness, Accuracy and Sincerity. We can’t get along without trust (human flourishing creates a “need for cooperation” (b) but trust requires truthfulness, and (c) truthfulness presupposes that there are (at least some) truths. For Williams, lies are pernicious for at least two reasons: (1) the liar betrays the trust of the dupe; and (2) the liar exerts power over the dupe, manipulating his or her beliefs and thus (potentially) his or her choices. Today, all citizens are taken for dupes and patsies, marks in the great political confidence trick.
Reading the works of PG Wodehouse usually provides an escape from the horrors of the contemporary world. As the great man himself wrote, “the object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles.” Wodehouse’s world is a fantasy-land populated with gormless, privileged youths with unlikely names like Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and Augustus Fink-Nottle and an army of formidable aunts. I am not usually keen on fantasy – as a cheerful pessimist I generally prefer a bracing cold hard dose of the facts. However, mankind cannot bear too much reality; sometimes one needs to escape from the sordid mire in which we live to recharge the batteries with a bit of frivolity.
I was not so enraptured by the Wodehouse book that I most recently read, which was Love among the Chickens featuring Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshawe) Ukridge. Ukridge was the longest-running of PG Wodehouse’s characters, with new stories appearing over 60 years, even as late as 1966 – more than Jeeves or Lord Emsworth. To this reader, Ukridge is very irritating (as, I am afraid, are Uncle Fred and Mr Mulliner) with his oft-repeated catchphrases “Old horse”, “Upon my Sam”, “Laddie” etc. “Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you to dinner, borrows money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman.”
Ukridge appears in one novel and nineteen short stories:
- Love Among the Chickens (1906), a novel about Ukridge, revised in 1921
- Ten stories in the omnibus Ukridge (1924) (also published as He Rather Enjoyed It)
- “Ukridge’s Dog College”
- “Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate”
- “The Debut of Battling Billson”
- “First Aid for Dora”
- “The Return of Battling Billson”
- “Ukridge Sees Her Through”
- “No Wedding Bells for Him”
- “The Long Arm of Looney Coote”
- “The Exit of Battling Billson”
- “Ukridge Rounds a Nasty Corner”
- “Ukridge and the Home from Home”, “The Come-back of Battling Billson”, and “The Level Business Head”, which all appear in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
- “A Bit of Luck for Mabel”, “Buttercup Day” and “Ukridge and the Old Stepper”, collected in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940)
- “Success Story” from the collection Nothing Serious (1950)
- “A Tithe for Charity” from A Few Quick Ones (1959)
- “Ukridge Starts a Bank Account” from Plum Pie (1966)
There were four episodes of a series called Ukridge on the BBC Home Service in 1940. There were six chapters in the life of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, adapted for radio by Helmar Fernback on the BBC Light Programme in 1956. One of those episodes “Ukridge Rounds a Nasty Corner” was adapted from a short story which first appeared in the United States in the January 1924 issue of Cosmopolitan, and in the United Kingdom in the February 1924 issue of Strand. Michael Shepley played Ukridge, Hubert Gregg was Corky Corcoran, Margot Lister was Aunt Julia, Martin Lewis was Bowles, Bryan Powley was Leonard the parrot, and Belle Chrystall was Millie, Ukridge’s unfortunate wife. The same story was also adapted for television as an episode in the series The World of Wodehouse, which aired in 1968. In all, there were seven episodes featuring Ukridge, who was played by Anton Rodgers. The same story was adapted again for radio by Julian Dutton as the sixth episode of the Ukridge series which aired on 25 January 1993, with Griff Rhys Jones as Ukridge, Robert Bathurst as Corky, Adam Godley as Tupper, Simon Godley as Beamish, Rebecca Front as Millie and Mabel, Dougal Lee as Mr Price, and Julian Dutton as Hank Philbrick.
Written when he was 25, Love Among the Chickens was Wodehouse’s sixth novel but launched his career as a novelist writing for adults and introduced Ukridge to the world. The novel was written in 1906 and revised in 1921. The narrator, Jeremy Garnet, a struggling novelist, meets his old schoolmate Ukridge for the first time in years, and allows himself to be talked into collaborating with Ukridge’s madcap scheme to run a chicken farm. Garnet falls in love with one of Ukridge’s neighbors, Phyllis. Ukridge is a deranged optimist firmly believing that his ignorance and inexperience and lack of a thought-out plan means that the project will not be burdened with old ideas. “You will bring to the work a mind unclouded by theories.” Do not let reality taint your optimism.
Sri Lankan novelist Michelle de Kretser wrote: “Narrative, an optimistic form, assumes that is worth turning the page. It is predicated on development and progression.” Like Ukridge, Boris Johnson lives in a narrative, not in reality. Even after being forced to resign, Boris Johnson still hung around like a bad smell, being optimistic about a comeback but not hanging around in the sense that he was governing. He went off on two holidays with crises erupting all around and with the war In Ukraine still raging. I wondered if President Zelenskyy might give Johnson a job as he is very popular in Ukraine, as was another comedian, Norman Wisdom, in Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Just as Ukridge gets going when the going gets tough, leaving his unfortunate friends to deal with the creditors, Johnson goes on holiday when a Cobra meeting is imminent. Johnson’s day-return to Kyiv to pose for photographs on February 1 set the taxpayer back £63,033. Ukridge would have been proud of him. In his final days in office (it would be more accurate to say “out of the office. Not working away from home.”)
Whatever disasters might occur, Ukridge is the eternal optimist. “In spite of these occurrences, however, his buoyant optimism never deserted Ukridge.” Optimism can be defined as expecting the best possible outcome from any given situation. Psychologists call this dispositional optimism. The good side of this is that it can foster resilience in the face of stress. However, it is not very helpful for politicians to delude themselves, in spite of all the evidence, that everything is going to work out fine, when it is the public who will have to bear the stress; optimism will not mean much to people unable to pay their fuel bills in a freezing winter.
Voltaire had fun with Leibniz’s ideas on optimism. Leibniz was optimistic about the capacity of human reason to further extend itself. He claimed that it was not in God’s power to create a perfect world, but among possible worlds, he created the best. In his satirical novel Candide, Voltaire gave Leibniz’s philosophy to Dr Pangloss who believed all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Boris Johnson has brought Panglossian boosterism to 21st century Britain.
Boris Johnson has often been described as being like a character from Wodehouse and most opt for comparing him to Bertie Wooster. To me he has none of the charm of Bertram; he is more like Ukridge – Boris Booster not Bertie Wooster. Before Johnson became prime minister, Matthew Parris described him as “a blustering, bantering hole in the air.” Johnson’s fantasy projects – an airport on an island in the Thames, an incredibly expensive garden bridge to please the Divine Joanna Lumley, a bridge to link Scotland and Ireland, levelling up – are reminiscent of Ukridge’s unshakeable certainty that he will get rich (without any financial outlay, or much effort, by his good self) by farming chickens, or whatever. In a talk delivered at the Philadelphia convention of The Wodehouse Society in October 2001, Elliot Milstein provided a masterly economic analysis of why the project was doomed to failure. Ukridge is unshakeable until he gets bored with the idea or decides that ducks are a better bet than chickens.
Parris noted that his character analysis of Johnson was not welcomed by all: “Others opined that as a charming pragmatist he might steer Brexiteers away from the wilder shores of xenophobia. It became the conventional wisdom that, aware of his limitations, Johnson’s great talent had always been to pick a good, strong and sensible team to carry his leadership forward. There might be (it was felt by some wise heads) so much more to this man than surface charm, froth and bubble.” Those people were wrong; Ukridge prevailed. Some people just have hidden shallows rather than hidden depths.
Johnson had a classical education but he seems to have learnt nothing from Aristotle or Socrates, still less from Seneca or any of the other Stoics. His guiding lack of principle is “cakeism” – being “pro having cake and pro eating it”. This philosophy has been picked up by his acolytes and successors who want tax cuts and increased public spending without borrowing or budget deficits. They tell us we can have further deregulation and still enjoy responsive customer service; we can enjoy the benefits of Brexit at the same time as having easy access to the rest of Europe when we want a holiday; there can be enough houses to suit everybody’s needs but they will not be built near my house. Cake all round with jam today, tomorrow and evermore.
Privatisation and outsourcing are truly Ukridgean scams, worthy of the Great Ponzi himself. Johnson’s successors continue to pursue the fantasy that further outsourcing and deregulation will solve the horrendous problems that previous outsourcing and deregulation wrought. Providing services through outsourcing ensures a fragmentation which means no one can be blamed for anything. I recently had a horrendous journey from Paddington to Bath Spa. I had the foresight to reserve seats in advance but had not reckoned with GWR cutting the train from nine coaches to five without any prior announcement and cancelling all seat reservations. It was bad enough standing in a cramped corridor with unmasked strangers breathing viruses in one’s face, one also had to endure repeated whingeing apologies from the “train manager” who assured us that we could seek recompense. Pull the other one! GWR’s response was that they had no responsibility because I had bought my ticket online from Trainline. I was expecting that. It was not Trainline who had cut the train to five carriages. This is typical of the Ukridgean scheme of public provision.
“Ukridge’s breezy way of expressing himself is apt to electrify the stranger.” Ukridge “had a persuasive way with him, and the tradesmen seemed to treat him like a favourite son. The things began to pour in from all sides, —groceries, whisky, a piano, a gramophone, pictures. Also cigars in great profusion. He was not one of those men who want but little here below.” Gold-plated wallpaper paid for by someone else, free holidays in exotic places, often travelling at the taxpayers’ expense. As Mandrake in the New European put it, “Travelling in a grand style at other people’s expense became a habit of Johnson during his Daily Telegraph and Spectator days where he regarded the travel editors of both publications as his personal travel agents.”
Cleo Watson, Johnson’s former deputy chief of staff, has described how Downing Street staff had to barricade the prime minister into his office with a “puppy gate” when he was isolating during the pandemic. Her role amounted to being Johnson’s “nanny”. She said he was “like a great unruly golden retriever, howling for attention.” She continued: “he couldn’t resist stepping over the threshold into our adjoining room to peer over shoulders at what people were working on (invariably in a pair of someone else’s reading glasses he’d found lying around).” Watson was sacked by the prime minister shortly after Dominic Cummings left the chicken farm in “an exchange that I am sure may have been familiar to many of his girlfriends”, she writes, reporting Johnson as saying: “I can’t look at you anymore because it reminds me of Dom. It’s like a marriage has ended, we’ve divided up our things and I’ve kept an ugly old lamp. You’re that lamp.’” It is everyone’s fault but Johnson/Ukridge’s. Johnson described the mass resignations from his government that forced him to announce his own resignation as “the greatest stitch-up since the Bayeux Tapestry”.
In his bright yellow raincoat, Ukridge conjures up an image of Paddington Bear or a glob of Colman’s mustard on legs. Ukridge is something of a cad and a bounder who tries the patience of his friends but they show remarkable fortitude in putting up with him. “I knew what manner of man Ukridge was when he relaxed and became chummy. Friendships of years’ standing had failed to survive the test.” The one who suffers the most is the narrator of the short stories, Corky Corcoran, who lives in a modest apartment in Ebury Street. Corky’s home is vulnerable because his landlord, Bowles, a retired butler, for some unaccountable reason, admires Ukridge. He allows Ukridge to enter the apartment at will and he rarely leaves empty-handed. Usually, the plunder is small – socks or cigars- but sometimes he takes something important such as the dress suit Corky was planning to wear that evening. Bowles lends Corky his old dress suit which has been languishing moth-balled in a trunk for decades. Corky and Ukridge attend the same function, the latter looking suave and elegant, the former repelling all because of his mouldy, smelly suit. “You know I never borrow money. It’s against my principles. But I must have a couple of bob. Can you, my dear good fellow, oblige me with a couple of bob till next Tuesday?”
The things Ukridge leaves in the apartment cause more trouble than what he takes away. On one occasion it is a flock of Pekingese dogs. “I’m going to train dogs. Dog acts, you know. Pots of money in it…” As one might say, “I am going to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda.” This is an early indication of Ukridge’s willingness to lie, cheat and steal from those who help him. He has been enjoying the hospitality of his Aunt Julia in her luxurious house beside Wimbledon Common but repays her kindness by stealing her dogs in order to make money.
Incidentally, I used to live in that area and know the house where Robert Graves was born. He firmly believed that Wodehouse based Ukridge on his brother, Perceval Graves. Wodehouse himself, in a letter to Perceval, denies basing Ukridge on him; he says that Ukridge was based on a man named Craxton whom William Townend, Wodehouse’s friend of school days, had described to Wodehouse, and, on another man Wodehouse knew, named Westbrook. According to biographer Robert McCrum, Ukridge was inspired partly by Townend’s stories about his friend Carrington Craxton, and partly by Herbert Westbrook. Graham Greene’s brother Herbert sounds a bit of an Ukridge. According to biographer Richard Greene, Herbert “was always finding new and curious ways to fail in life,’’ including tobacco farming in Rhodesia.
On another occasion, Corky finds a huge man with a cauliflower ear sleeping on his sofa – Battling Bilson, a former seaman whom Ukridge plans to transform unto a successful boxer. “He’ll be a prize fighter. Enormous lad. I’ll be pulling in hundreds a week…Nothing can stop me from making a colossal fortune. There’s no limit…”. Sometimes Ukridge’s hare-brained schemes threaten the health of his friends as well as their bank accounts. “Accident insurance. All a fellow’s got to do is break a limb and the newspaper hands over a fiver…”.
Unfortunately, for Ukridge’s friends, especially the ever-generous George Tupper, (who, as Johnson once did, works at the Foreign Office) no good deed goes unpunished. Ukridge will try anything to get rich apart from working. “For Ukridge the spectacle of somebody else working always had an irresistible fascination, and, gripping my arm, he steered me up to assist him in giving the toiler moral support. About two minutes after he had started to breathe earnestly on the man’s neck, the latter, seeming to become aware that what was tickling his back hair was not some wandering June zephyr, looked up with a certain petulance.”
Wodehouse normally affords me a blissful escape from reality. Reading the Ukridge stories I got an uncomfortable feeling that these fantasies were too close to today’s reality. Ukridge has been described as a charismatic opportunist who will do anything to increase his capital—except work. Ukridge’s totally irrational optimism about his grandiose schemes reminds me of the wilder shores of the Brexiteers’ empty promises. The UK was led by Ukridge/Johnson who removed all competent Conservative practitioners from the House of Commons. Boris Johnson initially occupied 10 Downing Street thanks to the votes of an infinitesimal proportion of the British electorate as will his successors. In a world too crazy to have been imagined by Wodehouse, a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU but the Conservatives were kept in power by the DUP, the only party in Northern Ireland to support Brexit. Will the Northern Ireland Protocol ever be sorted out? In another example of cakeism, Johnson and his acolytes want to drastically reduce the civil service at the same time as taking on the regulatory burden and the subsidies to farmers and others once shouldered by the EU. As events unfold, the project fear dystopia is coming to pass and Brexit will have the direst consequences for the British economy and the health and welfare of its people.
Never mind, said Johnson and his acolytes. Everything will turn out fine. Optimism and blind faith are all they have to offer. Those who do not agree are called whingeing Remoaners. The dire state of the country is blamed on the Labour Party which has not been in power for the last 12 years. Ukridge is quick to blame his friends for his failures. Remainers are blamed for the consequences of the lies and illegal activities of the Leavers. Ukridge gets really angry when his friend refuses to physically injure himself for what Ukridge describes as the common good. Ukridge usually sees himself as the victim when his plans inevitably imploded and blames fate or his friends – “It’s a bit hard…!” is a phrase that recurs often.
Ukridge treats everyone badly, but, somehow, we are expected to find him charming. Unlike Johnson, Ukridge does not seem to be interested in women as sexual beings. He has a wife, Millie, in Love Among the Chickens and she seems unaccountably devoted to him (but then, Wodehouse never could create realistic young women). “I was conscious of feeling a benevolent pity for her. If I had been a girl, I would have preferred to marry a volcano. A little of Ukridge, as his former head master had once said in a moody, reflective voice, went a very long way.” That reminds me of what one of Johnson’s teachers at Eton said about him. Classics master Martin Hammond wrote to Stanley Johnson in 1982, criticising the 17-year-old saying, “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Elliott Milstein could have been writing about Boris Johnson when he wrote: “It profiteth a man nothing to gain Ukridge as a friend if he thereby loseth his shoes, socks, shirts, and dress-clothes.” Ukridge is only interested in exploiting friends to further his madcap schemes. He gets engaged to one innocent girl mainly because her family give him lavish meals. Like Johnson, Ukridge is thoroughly amoral and without conscience (Johnson once said his only conviction was one for speeding). Johnson was once pro-EU but he saw Brexit as a means of achieving his ambition to be prime minister. Johnson has long played the buffoon and has often been mistaken for a Wodehousian silly ass. His fake buffoonery will cause real distress to millions of real people. One source said Johnson made fun of his recent misfortunes by telling guests: “There are many opportunities, which lead to disasters, and disasters can lead to new opportunities, including to opportunities for fresh disasters.” A former friend of Johnson told William Keegan of The Observer: “No other prime minister has done so much damage in such a short time.”
Johnson was a leader for the alternative truth times because his party wanted the fairy tale. Intoning the mantra, “I got Brexit done” trumped the queues of lorries at Dover. It matters not what you have done but what you believe. Questioning is treason. Ukridgean faith is the key.
The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was post-truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Does Ukridge’s deranged optimism qualify as lying or is this just what Kellyanne Conway called “alternative truth?” MPs such as Ian Blackford and Dawn Butler can be ejected from the House of Commons for calling Johnson a liar but Johnson’s blatant lies at the dispatch box went unpunished. A blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” Intelligence is “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty”. Many people caught in an untruth bleat: “My remarks were taken out of context”. We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretences,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about pre-war intelligence”. Liz Truss does a rapid U-turn when unsurprisingly there is an unfavorable reaction to her plans to cut the pay of public servants in the north. She does not say “Whoops! I made a blunder.” She asserts that she was misrepresented. It does not matter that she was misrepresented by herself.
Like Johnson, Ukridge has difficulty in maintaining close personal friendships: “A stout fellow in both the physical and moral sense of the words, he was a trifle too jumpy for a man of my
cloistered and intellectual life.” Garnet muses upon his long relationship with Ukridge: “But, I reflected, I ought not to be surprised. His whole career, as long as I had known him, had been dotted with little eccentricities of a type which an unfeeling world generally stigmatises as shady.” Ukridge is fiction. Johnson is ugly fact who has plunged us further into the age of systemic deceit. If EJ Hobsbawm were still with us he might produce a volume entitled the Age of Systemic Deceit. Johnson has tainted political life and contributed to a trend towards ephemeral flashiness and exploitation of the loss of the collective attention span and a passive willingness to wallow in distorted nostalgia and unverified optimism. Ukridge’s successors, and, indeed, his opponents, fantasise about “unleashing”, “unshackling” and “unchaining” the economy as if some magic lever can make everything good again. We are trapped in what Hannah Arendt called “a defactualised world”. Evan Davis has published Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball weighs in with Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona contributes Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.
I look around me and see what Ukridgean Boosterism and unjustified optimism has brought to this once green and pleasant land. This septic isle has its beaches lapped by raw sewage. The amount of raw sewage that water companies are pumping into the seas and rivers has increased by no less than 2,553 per cent over the past five years.
In the sunny uplands of Brexit-land, food rots in the fields and pigs are sent to Portugal to be slaughtered. Those who want power blame the party that has been out of power for twelve years for the crumbling hospitals and ambulances that do not come and boast about 40 non-existent new hospitals. Even Ukridge would have had more shame. Ukridge lives on in myth and legend. Johnson is now the king over the water, the lost leader brought down by back-stabbers (they smile in your face). The great man got Brexit done, rolled out the vaccines and won Ukrainian hearts. Even those who sang “how can we miss you when you won’t go away” are getting sentimental about the old rogue and wishing he could come back.
Unfortunately, as was observed by a former chief of the US army, “Hope is not a method”.
Rowan Williams: “And there is our tolerance of public rhetoric – not only online – in which aggressive performativity substitutes for truthfulness, analysis and negotiation. It’s as if we have lost not only a sense of positive continuity with the past but any kind of thoughtful capacity to imagine the future, and everything collapses into the hectic theatre of the present moment and the hunger to be made to feel better instantly.”
Matthew Syed: “Over the course of the early modern period, people on these islands exhibited a subtle but growing tendency to make sacrifices today to build a better tomorrow, to delay gratification, to save for a rainy day. It is often summarised under the rubric of the Protestant work ethic, a cultural trait almost universally acknowledged by historical anthropologists to have been at play.”
These trends have been accelerated by social media, reputations won and lost in the time it takes for an allegation to go viral, but so has the cultural poison of reality television, where the concept of instant success has become part of the viewing entertainment of millions. The idea of achieving something through long-term sacrifice has become almost passé. And as time has sped up, our capacity to think about the long term has been dangerously compromised. The future is now a faraway place, inhabited by strangers. The tragedy, of course, is that the strangers are us.
Now, the chickens are coming home to roost. The devil has arrived for his portion of the Faustian bargain we made with our future. I already feel a sense of foreboding that the Truss government will push the problem down the road yet again, seeking to borrow its way out of the crisis in order to fund tax cuts. This would merely load the problem on to the next generation, a ticking time bomb sitting under our way of life. Government debt is set to exceed GDP in the UK, as it does in the United States, France, Canada, Spain and Italy, while the interest to service this debt exceeds defence expenditure in most western nations, a classic indicator of an empire in decline. If a society cannot afford to spend as much on defending itself as it does on servicing its credit card, decadence has turned to decay.
Glib parochialism is part of Boris Johnson’s legacy, to his party and the country. His deficiencies were understood better by the general public than by Tory grassroots members, and in a ballot of the latter there was no incentive to repudiate the outgoing leader or even acknowledge the reasons why he had to go.
Johnson endorsed Truss, via loyal proxies, partly to be avenged on Sunak, whose resignation had precipitated his downfall, and partly because he knew she was incapable of doing the job. He hoped his own dismal tenure would look brighter in hindsight, lit by the glow of his successor going down in flames.
It worked, at least in the arena of Conservative grassroots opinion, where polls show some appetite for a Johnson restoration.
Less so in the country at large. In truth, Truss’s spectacular implosion is not a vindication of her predecessor but a measure of his monstrous, self-serving vanity, wanting Britain to have the worst ever prime minister to avoid the indignity of keeping the title for himself.
Padaig O’Leary was born on 24 October 1946 … and now resides in Sri Lanka with his Sri Lankan wife –a delightful lady known as ‘Tiny”