You’re obsolete, my baby

The greatest fictional characters manage to transcend time and yet remain fixed in their period. No matter how many fatuous updates there are of Sherlock Holmes or Ebenezer Scrooge, you know where they really belong.

Which can make it a little odd when the original incarnation stars in a series of books that extends far beyond their original time. And even odder when the characters don’t age but the world around them does.

Bertie Wooster, for example, is clearly a creature of the 1920s. That’s where he lives. PG Wodehouse’s books continued happily enough into subsequent decades because – for the most part – nothing ever changes in the stories. Bertie and Jeeves live forever in a pristine paradise; a world war can come and go and still the main concerns are fearsome aunts and unsuitable young women in search of husbands.

But there is the occasional moment when the outside world is glimpsed and the whole fantasy falls down. In Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974), for example, Wooster finds himself in the middle of a very contemporary political protest, a street demonstration:

By the time I had got into their midst not a few of them had decided that animal cries were insufficient to meet the case and were saying it with bottles and brickbats, and the police who were present in considerable numbers seemed not to be liking it much. It must be rotten being a policeman on these occasions. Anyone who has got a bottle can throw it at you, but if you throw it back, the yell of police brutality goes up and there are editorials in the papers next day.

And it just feels wrong. The phrase ‘police brutality’ is the language of the 1960s and ’70s. This isn’t Bertie’s world and it’s a relief to see him get out of London and, effectively, back to a fantasy version of the 1920s.When-in-Rome1

This episode came back to me last week when I was reading Ngaio Marsh’s When in Rome (1970). It’s one of her Roderick Alleyn novels, and Alleyn belongs very firmly to the 1930s, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the decade when the first eight volumes of his adventures appeared. We know from those early books that he was born around 1893 and served in the First World War.

So it’s a bit disconcerting to find him in the midst of the Swinging Sixties. He ought to be in his late-seventies by now, but of course he isn’t: he’s much the same indeterminate middle-age that he’s always been. And he’s still the same character as well, the kind of English gentleman who expostulates: ‘Blow me down flat!’

All credit to him, then, for navigating his way through a very different world and a very different vocabulary. Here’s someone inviting him on to a nightclub:

‘Toni’s Pad. It’s the greatest. Groovy. You know? Grass, hard stuff, the lot. Mind you, he plays it cool. There’ll be a freak-out.’

Alleyn is puzzled by this last expression. Freak out? Does this refer to a floor-show of some description? His interlocutor clarifies:

‘If you like – but way-out. Ever so trendy. Some people just go for giggles and come away. But if it sends you, which is what it’s for, you move on to the buzz.’

The same man goes on to explain his own position in relation to drug consumption. He’s thinking of making ‘The big leap. Pothead to main-liner. Well, as a matter of fact I’ve had a taste. You know. Mind you, I’m not hooked. Just the odd pop.’

Now I wasn’t around drug-taking circles in Rome in the 1960s, so it may well be that Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) has caught the youth argot of the times with uncanny accuracy. But I’m not sure that Superintendent Alleyn should have had to deal with such people.




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