In the early 1900’s there was a fear amongst some that Britain’s military was vastly unprepared for any kind of potential invasion. In the first decade of the century, there was a burst of novels dealing with the subject, in which Britain would be invaded and much suffering would ensue because the country had been so lax in its preparations. The Swoop of the Vulture by J. Blyth was one such book. Also published in 1909 (before Wodehouse’s book), the story told of a German invasion with, from what I can understand, a great deal of drama.
Wodehouse being Wodehouse, his version of an Invasion Novel was written completely tongue-in-cheek and, while lacking the tight plotting of some of his later novels, still caused me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. It’s a fairly short book, and I believe it only lacks popularity today because several passages definitely are set firmly in their time, providing gentle mockery of several people who would have been well-known at the time but have since faded into obscurity.
Wodehouse’s preface sets the tone for the book:
It may be thought by some that in the pages which follow I have painted in too lurid colours the horrors of a foreign invasion of England. Realism in art, it may be argued, can be carried too far. I prefer to think that the majority of my readers will acquit me of a desire to be unduly sensational. It is necessary that England should be roused to a sense of her peril, and only be setting down without flinching the probable results of an invasion can this be done. This story, I may mention, has been written and published purely from a feeling of patriotism and duty. ….
The story itself begins in the home of one young Clarence Chugwater. Clarence is a Boy Scout, a skilled Boy Scout, who could “low like a bull. He could gurgle like a wood-pigeon. He could imitate the cry of the turnip in order to deceive rabbits,” and so much more. One warm day in August, Clarence’s family is gathered in their home engaged in various domestic pursuits, most of which center around catching up on the national cricket news. As a matter of fact, the headlines of the newspaper read: “SURREY DOING BADLY. GERMAN ARMY LANDS IN ENGLAND”. Upon reading further – “Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.”
As the story progresses, England is overrun by not just the Germans, but eight other countries. They are not met with rage or terror, but with complete indifference – except when one of the invading armies tromps across a cricket pitch! In chapter six, London is bombed:
Thus was London bombarded. Fortunately it was August, and there was nobody in town.
Otherwise there might have been loss of life.
Eventually, the invaders all gather in London –
And the question now was, What was going to happen? England displayed a polite indifference to the problem. We are essentially a nation of sight-seers. To us the excitement of staring at the invaders was enough. Into the complex international problems to which the situation gave rise it did not occur to us to examine. When you consider that a crowd of five hundred Londoners will assemble in the space of two minutes, abandoning entirely all its other business, to watch a cab-horse that has fallen in the street, it is not surprising that the spectacle of nine separate and distinct armies in the metropolis left no room in the British mind for other reflections.
Eventually, the Germans and the Russians manage to run off their competition, leaving only the two armies left to divide up the country. This led to one of my favorite passages of the book – a diplomatic dinner (please excuse me while I quote at length):
Anyone who has had anything to do with the higher diplomacy is aware that diplomatic language stands in a class by itself. It is a language specially designed to deceive the chance listener.
Thus when Prince Otto, turning to Grand Duke Vodkakoff, said quietly, “I hear the crops are coming on nicely down Kent way,” the habitual frequenter of diplomatic circles would have understood, as did the Grand Duke, that what he really meant was, “Now about this business. What do you propose to do?”
The company … bent forward, deeply interested to catch the Russian’s reply. Much would depend on this.
Vodkakoff carelessly flicked the ash off his cigarette. “So I hear,” he said slowly. “But in Shropshire, they tell me, they are having trouble with the mangelwurzels.”
The prince frowned at this typical piece of shifty Russian diplomacy.
“How is your Highness getting on with your Highness’s roller-skating?” he enquired guardedly.
The Russian smiled a subtle smile. “Poorly,” he said, “poorly. The last time I tried the outside edge I thought somebody had thrown the building at me.”
Prince Otto flushed. He was a plain, blunt man, and he hated this beating about the bush. “Why does the chicken cross the road?” he demanded, almost angrily.
The Russian raised his eyebrows, and smiled, but made no reply. The prince, resolved to give him no chance of wriggling away from the point, pressed him hotly. “Think of a number,” he cried. “Double it. Add ten. Take away the number you first thought of. Divide it by three, and what is the result?”
There was an awed silence. Surely the Russian, expert at evasion as he was, could not parry so direct a challenge as this!
He threw away his cigarette and lit a cigar. “I understand,” he said, with a tinkle of defiance in his voice, “that the Suffragettes, as a last resource, propose to capture Mr. Asquith and sing the Suffragette Anthem to him.”
A startled gasp ran round the table.
“Because the higher he flies, the fewer?” asked Prince Otto, with sinister calm.
“Because the higher he flies, the fewer,” said the Russian smoothly, but with the smoothness of a treacherous sea.
There was another gasp. The situation was becomingly alarmingly intense.
“You are plain-spoken, your Highness,” said Prince Otto slowly.
Of course our young hero is not idle during this time. Clarence works to rally the Boy Scouts and comes up with a truly ingenious method of ridding the country of her invaders. While the majority of the population is more or less indifferent to the enemy, they do become rather mildly irritated with the foreigners as time passes:
The attitude of the British public, too, was getting on [the invaders’] nerves. They had been prepared for fierce resistance. They had pictured the invasion as a series of brisk battles – painful perhaps, but exciting. They had anticipated that when they had conquered the country they might meet with the Glare of Hatred as they patrolled the streets. The Supercilious Stare unnerved them. There is nothing so terrible to the highly-strung foreigner as the cold, contemptuous, patronising gaze of the Englishman. It gave the invaders a perpetual feeling of doing the wrong thing. They felt like men who had been found traveling in a first-class carriage with a third-class ticket. They became conscious of the size of their hands and feet. As they marched through the Metropolis they felt their ears growing hot and red. Beneath the chilly stare of the populace they experienced all the sensations of a man who has come to a strange dinner-party in a tweed suit when everybody else has dressed. They felt warm and prickly.
All in all, The Swoop was a surprisingly delightful and humorous tale that I highly recommend. It’s quite short and perhaps lacks in depth and at times has plot turns that feel rather abrupt, but it is so funny and written with such delicate snark that it kept me snorting with laughter throughout. 4/5 for a funny, snappy little tale that I am sure, at the time, brought many a British citizen to his sense concerning the perilous state of his country’s military.