You’ll be relieved to learn my penguin is back. ‘How long was it gone?’ you ask. About six months. ‘And sorry, it’s a real penguin?’ Actually, no. Here’s the story: back in 2005, I was staying at the 60 Thompson Street Hotel in Manhattan. On my first afternoon in town I went for a stroll along Bleecker Street and popped into a shop called Leo Design where I spotted and purchased a charming bronze penguin — three inches high, and ounces heavy. Back in my room I placed Mr Penguin among my coins and keys, and thought little of him. The next afternoon, after housekeeping had visited, I spotted Mr Penguin on top of the television. Odd, I thought, moving him to the window-sill. Over the next week, housekeeping and I engaged in an anonymous battle of whimsy, moving Mr Penguin around the room twice a day. On returning to London I told my cleaner of this game, and we played it on a weekly basis for several years until she hid Mr Penguin under my bed and we both forgot about him for many months. Anyway, I lost him again for a longish spell, and had to lure him back to my mantelpiece with a shoal of miniature bronze fish.
I’ve recently returned from a week’s language school in Italy, and am able to report that the best penne all’Amatriciana is to be found in the staff canteen of the Verona Carabinieri. For obvious reasons this is a tricky reservation to score and my entrée (in both senses) was secured by a Carabiniere called Franco who — as the husband of my wife’s cousin — is now my honorary Italian brother. Franco picked me up after school one Wednesday and Vespa’d me at speed to the military barracks just south of the old city. After a brief tour of the facilities, we descended to an austere basement cafeteria. I have to admit my expectations were not great and, out of politeness and caution, I declined various more elaborate dishes (including a delicious-looking pollo arrosto con riso), opting instead for pasta. It was a revelation: perfectly al dente penne with a piquant ragù of fresh tomatoes, succulent guanciale, and sharp pecorino. The second surprise was to see a number of Carabinieri offspring eating lunch and doing their homework. Many Italian high schools, I learned, finish at lunchtime, obliging parents to feed and occupy their children every afternoon. I’m sure there are wider sociopolitical lessons to be learned about structuring the school day, introducing children to the workplace, and the civilizing effect of communal eating, but I’m just plotting how to get another plate of pasta without resorting to crime.
As I may have mentioned (cough), my authorized homage to P. G. Wodehouse — Jeeves and the King of Clubs — has just been published. And because ‘a boy has to hustle his book’, as Truman Capote once said, this means a fresh round of publicity. I should stress that much book promotion is tremendous fun: to meet the fine folk who pay hard-earned oof for your work is a genuine honor — especially when they arrive with a stack of books or a curious story. I remember one fragile young man who asked me to sign an impossibly dog-eared first edition of Schott’s Original Miscellany. As I took pen to half-title he apologized for the book’s parlous state and explained, in halting fragments, that a near-fatal car crash had rendered him amnesiac and he was using my miscellany to rebuild his memory.
Not all moments are so poignant. The oddest encounter took place in a bookshop in the Midlands, where I was signing copies of my Food & Drink Miscellany spectated by a lone employee. After 20 minutes this chap finally broke the ominous silence: ‘I love your books,’ he said in a mirthless voice, ‘they’re hilarious.’ ‘Thank you,’ I replied, cautiously. He got up, put on his jacket, and made for the door. ‘You know what you should write a miscellany about?’ I didn’t. As he reached for the handle he offered a single word of editorial advice: ‘Sodomy.’
Many parents are rightly concerned about their children’s activities online — not least the abbreviated slang they use with Snapchat and Instagram. So, in conclusion, and as a public service, I tabulate below some of the telltale signs that your child just might be texting about Jeeves and Wooster:
BRB — Bertie Regrets Betrothal
STFU — Spode’s The Fascist Upstart
NSFW — Never Safe From Wedlock
ASAP — Aunts Seldom Ask Permission
OMG — Our Man Gussie
LMAO — Like Mastodons Aunts Orate
YOLO — You Often Lunch Often
TL; DR — Top Laughter; Drones Reunion
JK — Jeeves Knows
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.