There comes a moment, in every bout of virus-induced sofa-occupation, when you feel yourself getting better. Like Violetta in the last seconds of La Traviata, you rise with purpose and hope.
‘In me rinasce – m’agita insolito vigor! Ah! ma io ritorno a viver! Oh gioia!’
It is, inevitably, a false dawn. After an ill-judged burst of energetic activity – making a cup of tea, perhaps, or tidying the kitchen table, or, in extreme cases, doing the ironing – you fall back amongst the cushions, your body wracked by consumptive coughs, there to languish for all eternity in a welter of fever, snot and self-pity. Or at least, if not eternity, till Thursday morning.
Illness is tedious. I’m not talking about proper illness – the kind of thing braver souls than me endure without complaint for weeks, months and years. That’s actually debilitating and awful and life-ruining and not to be joked about. No, this is just your seasonal viral thing that’s ‘going around’.
If you’re a woman, you shrug it off and carry on. Of course you do. But for men the whole thing is fraught with danger. Fearing accusations of malingering, not to mention the ultimate humiliation of the withering ‘man flu’ tag, you soldier on for a good fifteen minutes before succumbing to the inevitable and retiring to the sofa, first ensuring that tissues, Lemsip and TV remote remain within easy reach.
Part of me feels I should soldier on, that to be laid low by the virus is in some way pathetic or weak. But that part of me is quickly shouted down by its wiser, more pragmatic counterpart. It’s not a sign of strength to soldier on – it’s just stubborn and selfish, especially when your job involves engagement with largeish groups of people.
‘Evening everyone, just to say I’ve risen from my sick bed to conduct this rehearsal because I have a delusional estimation of my own worth. So irreplaceable do I consider myself that instead of furnishing you with a healthy, cheerful and competent deputy who would be both mentally and physically up to the task, I’ve come here to scatter my germs far and wide in the manner of a benevolent dictator scattering largesse among the masses. Setting aside for the moment the inconvenient truth that because of this illness I’m not only a festering bundle of germs but of grumpiness as well, we’ll start with the Brahms OH FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T PLAY IT LIKE THAT WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU.’
There are exceptions, of course, but on the whole it’s better to stay at home and spare the masses.
The sole consolation in all this ghastliness is that it justifies a bout of comfort reading. Brain shrouded in fog? Body shivering? Throat burning? Head stuffed? Crack out the Wodehouse and let’s have at you.
Yes, for me it’s invariably Wodehouse first. If particularly debilitated, I reach further back, for Peanuts or Asterix or Tintin. And sometimes I’ll be in the mood for something more adventurous, like Dick Francis. But Plum is the writer for all seasons, guaranteed to enfold me in his jovial embrace and engender fuzzy feelings of childish goodwill.
You’ll have your own choices, no doubt. And I’d be willing to bet that they’re rooted in the warm and safe memories of childhood. Deep in our brain resides the comfort and safety gland, upon which we call in times of need. When everything feels too much like hard work we need things we can process with the minimum of effort for the maximum reward, and the familiarity of those much-loved books and films and TV shows gives us that much-needed hug.
I could go on for weeks about Wodehouse, but it would do little good – you’re already either a convert or immune to his charms. But here, from a randomly selected page of Company for Henry (not by any means one of his best), is a simple example of one of the many reasons I love him: ‘It was, she felt resignedly, the sort of thing one had to expect in England, like driving on the left and calling Cholmondeley Marchbanks.’
The combination of elegance, balance and wit in Wodehouse’s prose is as effective a tonic as Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo, as comforting as the sight of Jeeves shimmering into view with the silver salver, as fulfilling as Anatole’s legendary ‘Sylphides à la crème d’écrevisses’. And if those references are lost on you, perhaps you should read more Wodehouse.
Lest you still doubt, heed the words of Evelyn Waugh. This assessment, much quoted as a back cover blurb, is bang on the money: ‘Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.’
And so say all of me.