Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


World-renowned literary figures seldom stay long in Hong Kong. Given the city's overweening philistinism, why would they? Those who did stay for a while in the colony were usually, as Somerset Maugham candidly described himself, in the first rank of the second rate.

Central's Statue Square contains the frock-coated Victorian figure of Sir Thomas Jackson, a former chief manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Jackson plays an important footnote in literary history, as he was the person that impelled world-renowned author P.G. Wodehouse into a literary career. Having retired from Hong Kong, Jackson superintended the London office and made a clearly negative impression on Wodehouse.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse - known as Plum to family and friends - was the son of Ernest Wodehouse, a late 19th-century Hong Kong magistrate. His brother followed his father to Hong Kong, where he joined the police and became, in the tart words of one of Plum's many biographers, a 'stereotypical colonial blimp'.

Due to family connections, P.G. Wodehouse joined the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the early 1890s as a trainee, and - like other members of the international staff - spent some years at the London offices. Banking didn't appeal to him, however, and he started writing in his spare time. Successful as a freelancer, Wodehouse abandoned The City and lived for the rest of his very long life by his pen.

One of the 20th century's most prolific writers, Wodehouse's novels and stories have delighted millions with their zany plots, hysterically wrought characters, delicious wordplay and sheer exuberant fun and happiness. Hong Kong doesn't feature in any of his stories - as far as is known he never visited the colony - and in any case the city would have provided little material. As others have observed, the most improbably hilarious aspects of Hong Kong are, on closer reflection, also the most deeply unfunny.

Perhaps, though, the city may have provided some inspiration after all. For many years certain long-established trading companies provided a natural haven for clones of Bertie Wooster-ish public school types, the Hong Kong Club was The Oldest Member's natural habitat, and both the Helena May and Ladies' Recreation Club have numbered more than a few formidable Aunt Agatha types among their ranks down the decades.

From next week, Post Magazine will have a new look, and Out and about will no longer be part of it. I hope my column has been as enjoyable to read as it was to write. Thank you all very much.