Richard Usborne

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Richard Alexander Usborne
Born (1910-05-16)16 May 1910
Shimla, India
Died 21 March 2006(2006-03-21) (aged 95)
Nationality British
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Occupation Advertising executive, journalist, editor, author
Known for Scholar of P. G. Wodehouse
  • Monica Stuart MacArthur
  • (1938–1986, her death)
Children Two

Richard Alexander Usborne (16 May 1910 – 21 March 2006),[1] or simply Dick Usborne, was a journalist, advertising executive and author. He is widely regarded as the leading scholar of the life and works of British comic writer P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975).

Early life[edit]

Richard Usborne was born on 16 May 1910 at Simla, in British India,[2] the son of a civil servant. He was educated in England at Summer Fields Preparatory school, Charterhouse School and then Balliol College, Oxford.

After failing to enter the Indian Civil Service because of a heart murmur,[1] Usborne began work in advertising, before founding with three friends a listings magazine London Week. This still survives as What's On although he was nearly responsible for its bankruptcy when the magazine was sued by a restaurant for libel because of an observation he made in a review of it. The magazine was sold and Usborne re-entered the advertising profession.[1] In 1938, he married Monica Stuart MacArthur, originally from New Mexico.

Second World War and later life[edit]

In 1939, Usborne was recruited by the Special Operations Executive and began work in Beirut, spreading pro-Allied propaganda. He was later recalled home and spent the remainder of the war working for the Political Warfare Executive.

In 1948, he became assistant editor of the Strand Magazine, then edited by Macdonald Hastings. The Strand was well known for first publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and later the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. However, by the late–1940's it was suffering from falling circulation and rising costs; it published its final issue in March 1950. Usborne then worked on the Leader Magazine before going back to work in advertising. He continued in this field for the rest of his career, eventually becoming a director of the advertising company, Graham and Gillies.[1]

In article for Punch in 1941, Usborne devised what later became known as the "Canterbury Block", a ploy for establishing "one-upmanship". This was subsequently incorporated by Stephen Potter in Lifemanship (1950). In Potter's classic enunciation of the ploy, a self-regarding "expert", who has just returned from a visit to Florence, remarks, "And I was glad to see with my own eyes that this Left-wing Catholicism is definitely on the increase in Tuscany"; to which the "lifeman" replies with the put down, "Yes, but not in the South."[3]

After the death of his wife, Monica, in 1986, Usborne became a Brother (a resident pensioner) at the London Charterhouse.[1] He died in London on 21 March 2006.

Literary career[edit]

Although working full-time in advertising, Usbourne continued to write pieces for Punch magazine, The Guardian, The Times of London, and the Times Literary Supplement.

In 1952, he wrote his first book Clubland Heroes. This acclaimed work sought to re-appraise the adventure stories of the British authors Dornford Yates (pseudonym of Major William Mercer), "Sapper" (H. C. McNeile), and John Buchan. Usborne had first read the stories during childhood illnesses, but had retained an affection for them into adulthood. Despite this, he was not blind to the flaws in these authors' works, describing H. C. McNeil's female characters as "cardboard" and noting that McNeile was "wonderfully forgetful", with characters dead in one book, but being alive in the next.[4] William Mercer, who, as the only survivor of the trio, was living in Southern Rhodesia, evidently resented some of Usborne's remarks, as he wrote to Usborne (through solicitors) that "never has the whip been so laid to my back".[1]

Clubland Heroes brought Usbourne to the attention of P. G. Wodehouse, who suggested Usbourne write an account of his life and work, in time for his 80th birthday in 1961. The result was Wodehouse at Work (1961) which began the long association between the two.

Wodehouse once referred to "a certain learned Usborne" in a conversation with journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke.[5] Wodehouse cooperated with Usborne in the latter's preparation of Wodehouse at Work, although he destroyed a draft chapter on his controversial wartime activities, of which Usborne had not retained a copy, and this never appeared.[6] Their contact was almost entirely by correspondence and they met only once, when Usborne visited Wodehouse and his wife Ethel at their home on Long Island, New York, in 1971 (the year that Wodehouse reached the age of ninety).[5]

During the 1980s Usborne adapted some of Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories for broadcast on BBC Radio 4.[7]

Published works[edit]

P. G. Wodehouse[edit]

Usborne's various published works about Wodehouse included:

  • Wodehouse at Work (1961), a wide-ranging study of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Psmith, Ukridge, Lord Emsworth and other Wodehousian characters;
  • Wodehouse at Work to the End (1976), the revised edition after Wodehouse's death in 1975;
  • Vintage Wodehouse (1977), an anthology which, among many other items, included extracts from some of the broadcasts that Wodehouse made from Berlin in 1941 after his release from internment by the Germans during the Second World War;
  • Wodehouse Nuggets (1983), a collection of Wodehouse quotations and vignettes, with illustrations from the Strand Magazine; and
  • Plum Sauce (2002) (whose title derived from Wodehouse's nickname), an illustrated companion that drew on much of Usborne's earlier material.

In 1973, Usborne contributed to Homage to P. G. Wodehouse, a tribute edited by Thelma Cazalet-Keir (1899–1989), a former Conservative Member of Parliament, who was sister-in-law of Wodehouse's late stepdaughter Leonora. He also annotated Wodehouse's final, unfinished novel, which was published as Sunset at Blandings in 1977, noting that "if the going had remained good Sunset at Blandings might, under another title, have been ready for Christmas 1976".[8] Usborne's invitation to the cartographer and Bradshaw expert Colonel Michael Cobb to produce a report for Sunset at Blandings on what the information about train timetables in Wodehouse's novels suggested about the location of Blandings Castle led to Cobb's study of Britain's railways that culminated in The Railways of Great Britain: A Historical Atlas (2004).[9]

Wodehouse at Work to the End and Plum Sauce contained diverting appendices about translations of Wodehouse into French. Examples of such vocabulary included pourvu de galette ("oofy"), déchiqueter ("to tear limb from limb"), and l'horrible drame de Steeple Bumpleigh ("the Steeple Bumpleigh horror").


Primary sources consulted
  • Usborne, Richard (1976). Wodehouse at Work to the End.
  • Usborne, Richard (1983). Clubland Heroes: A nostalgic study of the recurrent characters in the romantic fiction of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and "Sapper". London: Hutchinson. ISBN 978-0-0915-2821-8. 
Secondary sources consulted
  1. ^ a b c d e f Daily Telegraph 2006, op. cit.
  2. ^ "Richard Alexander Usborne". Retrieved 19 January 2013. 
  3. ^ Stepehen Potter (1950) Lifemanship; Alan Jenkins (1980) Stephen Potter, at page 154
  4. ^ Usborne 1983, p. 148.
  5. ^ a b Usborne 1976, op. cit.
  6. ^ McCrum, Robert (2004). Wodehouse: A Life
  7. ^ Independent 2006, op. cit.
  8. ^ Usborne, Richard (1977). "Work in Progress" in Sunset at Blandings
  9. ^ The Times obituary of Michael Cobb, 14 August 2010