Psmith in the city

Akshat Jiwan Sharma, Thu Apr 09 2015

Before you ask, yes that is psmith with a p. The p is silent. Psmith almost never is. He is a smooth talking, monocle wearing, English gentleman who has his own way of looking at things.

The story Psmith in the city starts with Mike on a cricket field. Mike is batting superbly at 98 when Mr Bickersdyke walks behind the bowlers arm causing Mike to loose sight of the ball and getting him clean bowled. And with this Mr Bickersdyke "makes a dramatic entry" into Mikes life just like the author intended.

The plot revolves around two characters-- Psmith and Mike. Mike is 19, fond of playing cricket, but he is forced to join the New Asiatic Bank in London doing the work that he does not quite enjoy. He has no choice though. His family is in financial trouble and he must step up and earn his keep. He does not find London to be friendly. The author describes the feelings of Mike when he first steps into the great city like so:-

"London was too big to be angry with. It took no notice of him. It did not care whether he was glad to be there or sorry, and there was no means of making it care. That is the peculiarity of London. There is a sort of cold unfriendliness about it. A city like New York makes the new arrival feel at home in half an hour; but London is a specialist in what Psmith in his letter had called the Distant Stare. You have to buy London’s good-will."

London's "distant stare" leaves Mike homesick and lonely. Thankfully though Psmith joins Mike not too long after he moves in. The two decide to stay together. Psmith appoints Mike as his personal Secretary and refuses to accept any rent from him if he could provide him with his company. They find a nice little apartment where it is revealed that Psmith was a man of few wants. As he puts it quite well:-

"I can rough it. We are old campaigners, we Psmiths. Give us a roof, a few comfortable chairs, a sofa or two, half a dozen cushions, and decent meals, and we do not repine."

While the problem of lonely evenings was settled there was still left the drudgery of the bank in the day. At the bank Psmith takes upon himself to make better men out of his superiors. His department in charge Mr Rossiter is easy to handle. He is a football fan and all it takes to win him is for Psmith to spend a few late nights brushing up his knowledge of football. Mr Bickersdyke the bank manager however was a tougher nut to crack and Mike and Psmith both found it was best to avoid him altogether.

But I suppose the two had different interpretations of the term avoid. While for Mike it meant to sit quietly at his desk and perform the work assigned to him for Psmith it meant loitering around the office and chatting about football. While for Mike the term avoid meant spending a quiet evening in the apartment for Psmith it was to follow Mr Bickersdyke to the club.

As you can probably tell the driving force of the story is Psmith. He has this unique gift of causing trouble in the most harmless of circumstances. Take for instance the episode where Mr Bickersdyke is in the midst of delivering a powerful speech to seek votes for an upcoming election. Everything was going well when Mr Bickersdyke, to engage, his audience tells them the story of the trout on the wall. The people are quite amused and there is a thunderous applause when Psmith gets up quietly and ask Mr Bickersdyke if Jerome K Jerome stole his story and published it in "Three men in a boat". This gives the members of the opposing party a chance to pounce upon him and what was until then a good day ends in a riot.

Psmith has a way of saying most uncomfortable things in a pleasing tone which leaves the reader in a bit of a shock. There is a scene in the book when he joins Mr Bickersdyke in a scented turkish bath and asks if it was not the kind of place where if a man was murdered no one would ever know? Much like the reader Mr Bickersdyke does not quite know how to respond to this question. What follows from there is one of the most funny blackmails that I have every experienced. Well not that I have ever been personally blackmailed. Nothing of that sort. I am only comparing it to stuff I have watched on T.V or read about in newspapers and books.

The scenes in the office are somewhat autobiographical. Before he was a celebrated author, PG Wodehouse worked in a bank. Like Mike he did not quite enjoy spending his time there and longed to get out of that place and pursue his passion in writing. The dryness with which he describes the work in the office rings true. Like from one who has suffered.

"What rot it all is! went on Mike, sitting down again. What's the good of it all? You go and sweat all day at a desk, day after day, for about twopence a year. And when you're about eighty-five, you retire. It isn't living at all. It's simply being a bally vegetable."

My favourite part in the book is the cricket match at Lords. Mike after having slogged through the bank entire winter can not contain himself any longer when the summer arrives. His will breaks when his bother asks him he could play for his team. Mike abandons his post and puts his career in jeopardy just to play a cricket match. To a cricket lover like myself he is a hero. The way PG Wodehouse describes the match is so beautiful. Lord's ,in case you did not know, is the holy ground of cricket and for a few brief paragraphs I thought I was there.

"Will I like this book if I don't like cricket?"

You don't like cricket? Well I suppose you have your reasons on missing out one of the sweetest and most purest pleasures that life can offer, but that does not mean that you can't still enjoy Psmith in the city. The bulk of the story takes place inside the new Asiatic bank with Psmith and Mike find new ways to look busy doing nothing. Whether it is going out on long coffee breaks or engaging in useless chit-chat with their comrades Psmith in the city is a story of two young men stuck in an oppressive job trying to make the best of the situation.

So it is true what they say about Wodehouse?

For the benefit of the reader who is unaware--- it's a well know fact in the circles of Wodehouse fan club that Mr Wodehouse's stories have an ability to cheer up the reader no matter how discouraged he may be. But we still get questions from the unacquainted doubting this fact. Well I don't blame you if you have doubts. After all trust is hard to earn, but let me tell you a little story:-

A few weeks ago India lost to Australia in the world cup semifinals. Needless to say as a supporter of my team I was utterly dejected. I spent a couple of days moping around from one room to another wondering if life had any meaning. In my moment of weakness I decided to read a few lines of Wodehouse. Listlessly turn around a few pages to pass time, nothing more, quite certain of the fact that nothing could lift my spirits. Lo and behold! the effect was immediate. In just a couple of paragraphs it was all sunshine and roses for me. The cloud lifted. There was light. All was well again.

I believe that there is no better remedy for the droopy soul than words of Wodehouse.

Before I go a warning to reader

After reading Psmith in the city, the character of Psmith may grow upon you. You may want to try to act like him in real life. It is no good. People these days have little patience. And if you try to speak superfluous sentences you will find that most people would, rather rudely, leave before you could finish one.

Psmith in the city book

Murder by death


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