Feature on P.G. Wodehouse at Addington Golf Club
A sandless bunker on a golf course near Croydon might seem like an unlikely site for a pilgrimage on a wet Tuesday in May, but if you are a worshipful fan of the great P.G. Wodehouse celebrating the republication of his books by Penguin, it is nothing short of the real tabasco. Ah, the sixth bunker at Addington. The music in those words. Described once by an eminent Wodehouse enthusiast as less of a bunker, more an “act of God”, it is a dark, deep place of Miltonic dimensions where a person may go in pursuit of a ball, twist an ankle, and lie moaning for weeks before discovery. Wodehouse once signed a foreword giving this bunker as his postal address, and the point was well made. Once inside it, you took up residence and never thereafter got out.
Now, though one can scarcely credit it, there are people who affect not to enjoy P.G. Wodehouse — who even argue with the critic James Agate that Wodehouse’s literary niche is “a little below Shakespeare’s and any distance you like above everyone else’s.” So I suppose I had better deal with these furballs in the windpipe of life at once, and declare that anyone who can’t see the poetry of, “He holed out with a light flick of his mashieniblick” or, “Love is a fever which, so to speak, drives off without wasting time on the address” really does deserve the wretched old age sucking lemons that so obviously lies in wait. Which is, come to think of it, all I have to say on the matter.
So the point is, Charles Wodehouse (a cousin once removed) is a modern-day member at Addington, one of under 300 to have the privilege. And that’s why I was lucky enough to be there. Addington itself, you see, is these days a rather solitary, secret place: ask many golfers if they’ve heard of it and they say cheerfully no, they haven’t. A recent AA guide to golf courses mentions the abundance of heather at Addington and adds with a finger-wag that “thought is required at every hole”, but this hardly does justice to the other-worldliness of this weird, deserted glade, in which peacocks are said to outnumber players even on Saturday mornings, and around which the ghosts of P.G.’s characters — Chester Meredith, Cuthbert Banks, and the legendary Scottish pro Sandy McHoots — slash at the heather unnoticed, as if they were killing snakes.
What happened here? Having been laid out in 1914 by J.F. Abercromby (“the greatest of golf architects”, according to Henry Longhurst), Addington was highly fashionable mid-century. It was a “smart” club on a par with Sunningdale. But since then, it has retired from society and put its feet up. True, one night in the early 1950s there was a spot of genuine excitement when the Tudor chalet-style clubhouse burned down (the club secretary, in pyjamas, sprang into executive action and saved his own clubs). But just like the sixth bunker — or indeed like Wodehouse himself — Addington never went away. It just waited to be rediscovered, rightly confident that its attractions were timeless.
And Wodehouse played golf here, hence the visit. According to Norman Murphy (chairman of the P.G. Wodehouse Society and author of In Search of Blandings), Wodehouse was a good golfer with a top handicap of 14, but he took more pride in big hitting than in accuracy. “In the stories,” Murphy points out, “You will notice he always takes the side of the chap who hits the ball with ‘a sickening violence’.” The story goes that Wodehouse once lost his ball during a friendly round, and thought no more about it. But when his caddie later announced he’d found the ball 300 yards from the tee (300 yards!), he celebrated as if he had won a medal.
The things about the golf stories is that you don’t even have to like the game to enjoy them. You certainly don’t have to understand it. His golfing descriptions, of chaps on the tee fussing about “like a hen scratching gravel”, or teasing the ball “like a cat investigating a tortoise” speak eloquently enough of character to enchant anybody. Having read them countless times, I still couldn’t state with confidence the function of a spoon or a brassie, but the point is that the vocabulary of the links fitted Wodehouse’s style (as the great man himself might say) like the paper on the wall.
“I killed him with my niblick,” said Celia.
I nodded. If the thing was to be done at all, it was unquestionably a niblick shot.
Whether the sixth bunker at Addington was a niblick shot I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that picking the ball up and hurling it overarm was apparently out of the question. My Addington companions — the aforementioned Charles Wodehouse, and Keith Bantick representing the club — were chaps who regularly knocked at this particular divot, and knew a thing or two about the rules too, and it seemed I was not to be allowed out of this pit of Hades until a decent recovery shot was made. So I hacked at it. I impersonated a person killing snakes. I even hit it with a sickening violence, after scratching in the gravel like a hen. But each time, though the ball skidded a few inches further up the perpendicular, it succumbed to gravity and retraced its path precisely to my feet. Anyone who has ever swung a fruitless mallet in a fairground will recognise the pattern at once.
Wodehouse-once-removed was a marvellous companion for this memorable stroll. Not only did he make a heart-stopping tee-shot at the glorious 13th (nearly holing in one), but I would grope for a favourite quotation and he would always have it perfect. “Oh, oh, um, you know, what’s that butterfly bit?” I would demand, and he’d reply beautifully, “He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows.” Twice this dear man demonstrated effortlessly how to knock the ball out of the bunker and drop it dead on the green. Head down, don’t press, full swing — but though I could see, I was powerless to copy. Some people can hole out with a light flick of their mashie-niblick, you see, and others just simply can’t.
So the conclusion was clear. From now on, until I could learn to slam that ball on the meat, all my work would be signed from the sixth bunker at Addington. But on the other hand, it could be worse. As they used to say after the First World War, if you know a better hole, go to it. So I continued to excavate towards New Zealand, and consoled myself that, “sudden success at golf is like the sudden acquisition of wealth. It is apt to unsettle and deteriorate the character.” No chance of that, I reckoned. Even in this holiest of holies, there was absolutely no chance of that.
P.G. Wodehouse’s golf story collections The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Heart of a Goof are republished this week by Penguin, each at £4.99.