Uncle Dynamite, or Uncle Fred, is one of the finest comic creations of PG Wodehouse. Despite his age, he is a delirious whirlwind of untamed chaos.
Uncle Dynamite – a stroke of luck
Wandering the streets of Amsterdam, I was delighted to find a gem on a second-hand book stall. It was the relatively little-known PG Wodehouse book Uncle Dynamite.
Here is a brief review of the book, and a treasure trove of quotations.
The uncle in question is, of course, Uncle Fred, also known as Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham.
I have written before about Uncle Fred. He takes a starring role in “Uncle Fred in the Springtime” (my review, and quotes, are at the link). He also stars in Service with a Smile. Uncle Fred is an exquisite, hilarious creation.
Uncle Dynamite: the humour
Much humour stems from contrasting the reckless antics of Uncle Fred with the terror this engenders in younger men. Pongo Twistleton and Bill Oakshott know what mayhem he may produce.
Watching that mayhem is pure pleasure. Uncle Fred, or Uncle Dynamite, deals with repeated setbacks while remaining utterly calm in the most desperate situations. He is a role model for us all.
The book has several tremendous comic leitmotifs. Bill Oakshott loves Hermione Bostock. But he finds her engaged to Pongo Twistleton. He then repeatedly finds Pongo apparently in flagrante with the housemaid, Elsie Bean, causing his blood to boil. The book abounds in comic set-pieces. Uncle Fred persuading Sir Aylmer Bostock to retract an unjust 30-day prison sentence for Pongo and Sally is one.
Another is the scene where Uncle Fred dishes imaginary dirt on Pongo to Hermione Bostock. His goal is that Hermione will break off her engagement to Pongo and instead marry Bill Oakshott. This will free Pongo to marry Sally Painter. This all takes place against a wonderful background of fake identities and a “bonny-baby-judging competition”.
How to Read Uncle Dynamite
Like many great books, I recommend you read Uncle Dynamite quickly – perhaps even in a single sitting. This will amplify its comic impact – including the splendid conclusion.
Uncle Dynamite: the Quotations
I’m sorry. I enjoyed the book so much that I noted down too many quotations. Here are my favourites, divided into categories.
Uncle Fred (aka Uncle Dynamite)
- [Uncle Fred explains his philosophy:] ‘It all comes under the heading of spreading sweetness and light, which is my constant aim.’
- ‘You ask me,’ a thoughtful Crumpet had once said in the smoking-room of the Drones Club, ‘why it is that at the mention of his Uncle Fred’s name Pongo Twistleton blanches to the core and calls for a couple of quick ones. It is because this uncle is pure dynamite.’
- [Uncle Fred:] ‘One of the hardest things in life is to realise that people grow up. Nothing, for instance, can convince me that I am not a sprightly young fellow of twenty-five…’
- The time has come,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘to discuss strategy and tactics.’ He spoke with the gay lilt in his voice which had so often in the past struck a chill into the heart of his nephew.
- [Uncle Fred, greeting Lord Bostock, an old school chum:] ‘Mugsy,’ he said with kindly reproach, ‘I believe you’ve forgotten me.’ Sir Aylmer said he had. He contrived to convey in his manner the suggestion that he would willingly do so again.
- The burned child fears the fire, and bitter experience had taught Pongo Twistleton to view with concern the presence in his midst of Ickenham’s fifth earl.
- Ever since his meeting that afternoon with Lord Ickenham, Bill Oakshott’s emotions had been rather similar to those which he would have experienced, had he in the course of a country walk discovered that his coat tails had become attached to the rear end of the Scotch express en route from London to Edinburgh.
- [Uncle Fred under pressure:] As always at moments when lesser men would have been plucking at their ties and shaking in every limb, this excellent old man preserved the suave imperturbability of a fish on a cake of ice.
- In Bill Oakshott’s demeanour, as he approached, there was the suggestion of a somnambulist who, in addition to having blisters on both feet, is wrestling with an unpleasant nightmare.
- [Bill, dreading Uncle Fred’s next move:] In response to Lord Ickenham’s whoop of welcome he stared dully, like a dying halibut.
- [Bill, seeing Hermione] Her father might look like a walrus and her mother like something starting at a hundred to eight in the two-thirty race at Catterick Bridge, but Hermione herself, tall and dark, with large eyes, a perfect profile and an equally perfect figure, was an Oriental potentate’s dream of what the harem needed.
- [Bill and Sir Aylmer having both been provoked:] To say that William Oakshott and Sir Aylmer Bostock were human powder magazines which it needed but a spark to explode is not only clever, but true.
- [On hearing of a housemaid’s love for Constable Potter:] A pang of pity shot through Pongo. Nothing that he had seen of Constable Potter had tended to build up in his mind the picture of a sort of demon lover for whom women might excusably go wailing through the woods, but he knew that his little friend was deeply attached to this uniformed perisher and his heart bled for her.
- Whether one is justified in describing Bill Oakshott and Pongo Twistleton as great minds is perhaps a question open to debate.
- [Pongo, expecting a quiet night, finding Uncle Fred and Sally in his bedroom:] …in the armchair, clad in a flowered dressing-gown, [was] a girl at the sight of whom his heart, already, as we have seen, on several occasions tonight compelled to rival the feverish mobility of a one-armed paperhanger with hives, executed a leap and a bound surpassing all previous efforts by a wide margin.
- [Pongo, seeing Sally’s smile:] Yes, he had forgotten just what it could do to your system, suddenly flashing out at you like the lights of a village pub seen through rain and darkness at the end of a ten-mile hike and transporting you into a world of cosiness and joy and laughter.
Uncle Dynamite: Sir Aylmer Bostock
- [Uncle Freddy:] ‘he looked a dangerous specimen, the sort of man whose bite spells death. What is he? An all-in wrestler? A chap who kills rats with his teeth?’ [Bill Oakshott:] ‘He used to be Governor of one of those Crown colonies.’ ‘Then we must strain every nerve to pacify him. I know these ex-Governors. Tough nuts.’
- [Pongo Twistleton meets his future father-in-law, Sir Aylmer:] On both sides the reaction to the scrutiny was unfavourable. Pongo, gazing apprehensively at the rugged face with its top dressing of moustache, was thinking that this Bostock, so far from being the kindly Dickens character of his dreams, was without exception the hardest old gumboil he had ever encountered in a career by no means free from gumboils of varying hardness: while Sir Aylmer, drinking Pongo in from his lemon-coloured hair to his clocked socks and suede shoes, was feeling how right he had been in anticipating that his future son-in-law would be a pot of cyanide and a deleterious young slab of damnation. He could see at a glance that he was both.
- [Sir Aylmer, encountering Uncle Fred:] Sir Aylmer sat brooding in silence, his Adam’s apple moving up and down as if he were swallowing something hard and jagged. The stoutest man will quail at the prospect of having the veil torn from his past, unless that past is one of exceptional purity.
- We have made no secret of Sir Aylmer Bostock’s views on nervous gigglers. The ex-Governor had never actually fallen on a nervous giggler and torn him limb from limb, but that was simply because he had not wanted to get himself involved in a lot of red tape.
- [Sir Aylmer suffers a shock:] There had been an instant, just after the words, ‘Plank’s my name,’ when Sir Aylmer had given a quick and extraordinarily realistic impersonation of a harpooned whale, shaking from stem to stern as if a barb had entered his flesh.
- For the first time that evening Sir Aylmer was feeling cheerful; as cheerful as a Colosseum lion which after a trying day when everything has gone wrong has found itself unexpectedly presented with a couple of Christian martyrs and has been able to deal faithfully with them.
- It frequently happens that prospective sons-in-law come as a rather painful shock to their prospective mothers-in-law, and the case of Lady Bostock had provided no exception to the rule. Immediately on seeing Pongo she had found herself completely at a loss to understand why her daughter should have chosen him as a mate.
- Standing at a respectful distance in one of the corners, as if he knew his place better than to thrust himself forward, was Constable Harold Potter, looking, as policemen do at such moments, as if he had been stuffed by a good taxidermist.
- [Hermione seeing her mother:] …incredulity blended in her gaze with the natural dismay of a daughter who, having said good-bye to her mother on a Monday afternoon after entertaining her for a week at her flat, sees her come bobbing up again on Wednesday morning.
- [Hermione, on finding that Bill Oakshott loves her:] Looking on Bill as a sort of brother, she had always supposed that he looked on her as a sort of sister. It was as if she had lived for years beside some gentle English hill and suddenly discovered one morning that it was a volcano full to the brim of molten lava.
- [Hermione, being told by Uncle Fred of Pongo’s supposed bad behaviour:] A girl who has been looking on the man of her choice as a pure white soul and suddenly discovers that he is about as pure and white as a stevedore’s undervest does not say ‘Oh, yes? Well I must be off.’ She sits rigid. She gasps. She waits for more.
- [Uncle Fred and Sally discuss Pongo:] ‘No wonder Pongo loves you.’ ‘Not any more.’ ‘More than ever. I was noticing the way his eyes came popping out last night every time they rested on you. did you ever see a prawn in the mating season? Like that.
Wodehouse’s world (in this case, “Ashenden Manor”
I always enjoy the settings in which Wodehouse places his characters. Uncle Dynamite is no exception:
- Curfews had tolled the knell of parting day, lowing herds wound slowly o’er the lea. Now slept the crimson petal and the white, and in the silent garden of Ashenden Manor nothing stirred save shy creatures of the night such as owls, mice, rats, gnats, bats and Constable Potter.
- When a housemaid in curling pins and a kimono finds herself in a drawing-room at one in the morning with her employer and a male guest, she should as soon as possible make a decorous exit. This is in Chapter One of all the etiquette books.
- In this lax age in which we live, it not infrequently happens to girls of challenging beauty to find themselves approached by hat-raising strangers of the opposite sex.
Wodehouse on publishers
Uncle Dynamite includes an important subplot about a book being published. Wodehouse takes the opportunity to make gentle fun of them.
- Too often when a publisher entertains an author at the midday meal a rather sombre note tinges the table talk. The host is apt to sigh a good deal and to choose as the theme of his remarks the hardness of the times, the stagnant condition of the book trade and the growing price of pulp paper. And when his guest tries to cheer him up by suggesting that these disadvantages may be offset by a spirited policy of publicity, he sighs again and says that eulogies of an author’s work displayed in the press at the publisher’s expense are of little or no value, the only advertising that counts being – how shall he put it – well, what he might perhaps describe as word-of-mouth advertising.
- [After Otis, a publisher, kisses Hermione:] The last thing we desire being to cast aspersions on publishers, a most respectable class of men, we hasten to say that behaviour of this kind is very unusual with these fine fellows. Statistics show that the number of authoresses kissed annually by publishers is so small that, if placed end on end, they would reach scarcely any distance.
What to do next
If you like comedy, do try my own comic writing in Seven Hotel Stories.
If you would like to see more of my Wodehouse reviews, click here. Or try the “Wodehouse” tag at the foot of the page.