Sweetly Sour: Lennie Lower, Antipodean ‘Plum’

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Oranges and apples can’t be compared – we all know that. But what about plums?

Well, you be the judge. See if you can spot the similarities between these two fleshy fruit.

First, a piece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle:

He was profoundly stirred. It is not too much to say that he was shaken to the core. No father enjoys being flouted and defied by his own son; nor is it reasonable to expect a man to take a cheery view of life who is faced with the prospect of supporting for the remainder of his years a younger son…

And now a slice from Here’s Luck by Lennie Lower:

Problems innumerable beset the conscientious father, but the greatest problem of all is to know in what trade or profession the boy will be best fitted to support his old father at a later date.

Yes, both are about self-pitying parents – that’s a superficial similarity. More telling, though, is their matching moods, the light satirical tone that makes both excerpts amusing. Because this is what our two ‘plums’, Wodehouse and Lower, have most in common: both are masters of comedy.

We’ve all heard about the European ‘Plum’, as P.G. Wodehouse was known to his friends. He published scores of best-selling books, and is, some say, one of the funniest men who ever wrote in English.

And yet his southern equivalent, Lennie Lower – the Antipodean ‘Plum’, as I’ve dubbed him – is much less famous, despite being no less funny or prolific.

Born in Dubbo, Australia, in 1903, Lower served briefly in the navy before falling out of work. He started publishing humorous pieces in the late 1920s, and for the next two decades he wrote up to eight newspaper columns a week.

New Doc 2018-11-27 15.08.22Published in 1930, Lower’s one and only novel, Here’s Luck, was an instant success. The work has gone on to become a modern-day classic, a contender for the title of ‘Australia’s funniest book’.

And funny it is.

Set in Sydney during the early depression years, Here’s Luck is a tale of middle-aged male discontent. Jack Gudgeon has it all: a wife and a job, a terrace house and a teenage son. But aged forty-eight, worn down by responsibility and his routine existence, Gudgeon finally rebels, seeking solace and excitement in women and wine. Mayhem ensues.

His wife, Agatha, leaves him.

Here was I, a lone man, left to look after the house and Stanley, my wife selfishly gone off to her mother’s, leaving me to manage as best I could, with only memories for companionship. Deserted. Bereft. Alone . . . Hooray!

Gudgeon and his son, Stanley, are left to fend for themselves.

‘The trouble with some people,’ said Stanley, stamping on a piece of blazing charcoal that had once been bread, ‘is that they’re too well fed. There’s an onion behind the gas-stove if you’re feeling fastidious.’

Hounded by hoodlums and by the private detectives hired by his wife and her sister, ‘that parrot-brained Gorgon’, Gertrude, Gudgeon is unable to work.

Woggo Slatter was on my trail . . . Agatha and Gertrude would arrive with a gang of witnesses at eleven o’clock that night. I had lost my job; this did not worry me much but I put it in with the rest.

The destruction of the family home proves to be the last straw. As an ‘enormous green elephant’ walks out of the ‘flickering ruins of the gutted house’, Gudgeon collapses. He comes to in a sanatorium.

I’ve been out of hospital a week now. My life was despaired of and I suffered frightfully. The doctors told me that I had alcoholic poisoning but I know that it was something entirely different and far more serious. Something to do with a nervous breakdown.

Is it the fire that pushes Gudgeon over the edge? Or rather his realisation that he can’t escape his fate as a fettered man, his wife having forgiven him and a job having been found for him in a ‘little ham and beef shop in the suburbs’.

Either way, all is not lost. Gudgeon still has grog to fall back on. In fact, alcohol is seen as much more than a drink, as the words of the proselytising politician, Mr Sloove, suggest:

‘Gaze on your glass of beer . . . See how the lambent, lazy bubbles drift to the top, as men drift through life; linger a while in the froth, and burst of old age, or are cut off in their prime in Fate’s thirsty gulp.’

It’s shadowy sentiments like this one that distinguish Lower’s novel from the works of Wodehouse, which are invariably sunny throughout. For there’s an underlying sense of futility to the action in Here’s Luck, as if Gudgeon knows that his struggles are hopeless, that life itself is a flop.

It’s in this way, then, that we’re able to tell the two writers apart, despite their similarities. Both are funny, but each has a flavour of his own.

P.G. Wodehouse is the original European ‘Plum’, a Damson perhaps, and is large and lovely and sweet. Lennie Lower, on the other hand, has a tartness to him that doesn’t travel well, for he is an Elephant Heart, the perfect Antipodean ‘Plum’.

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