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Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Wodehouse’s Invasion Novel? An early glimpse of a masterful talent

ater this year, MGM will release Red Dawn, in which a group of small town American teenagers hold off an invading North Korean army. (The invaders turned North Korean in post-production. During filming, they had been Chinese. MGM then decided not to lose out on the Chinese market.)

This year's Red Dawn is a remake of the 1984 movie, in which America was invaded by the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. But the older Red Dawn itself drew on a century old genre called invasion literature.

In the 1870s, the Prussian army won an overwhelming and quick victory against France, partly because the Prussian army was one of the first to put Industrial Age technology – railways, the telegraph, and rifled artillery - to use in warfare. The sudden change after centuries of medieval warfare upset the status quo and caused anxiety, paranoia – and invasion literature, as people across European nations suddenly worried that their own country would soon be invaded by another one which actually took military prowess seriously, dammit.

While 'The Swoop!' is funny, it isn’t funny in the same way or to the same sublime extent as the interbellum novels. The humour is a little juvenile, relying on stereotypes – often nasty ones – a little too often.

By the time the 20th century came about, military technology was advancing fast enough to make lots of people worried that their countries were being lapped in arms races. To compensate for lack of dreadnoughts, Britain produced lots of invasion novels, including The Riddle of the Sands, The Invasion of 1910, and The Swoop of the Vulture. So many, in fact, that the genre became ripe for parody. In 1909, one such parody titled The Swoop!, or how Clarence Saved England was published. Its author was a struggling writer of school stories named P.G. Wodehouse. You may have heard of him.

he Swoop! is a short book, less than eighteen thousand words long, and was written about ten years before Wodehouse found his sweet spot of gently threatened love story combined with implausible and hilarious situation comedy, all brought together in perfectly paced writing. And so, while The Swoop! is funny, it isn't funny in the same way or to the same sublime extent as the interbellum novels. The humour is a little juvenile, relying on stereotypes – often nasty ones – a little too often. Even so, it has flashes of the flair for absurd situations that Wodehouse would develop over the rest of his career.

The absurdity starts with the premise – that England, grown soft and unwarlike thanks to its obsession with sports, is seen as a ripe target by everyone – and therefore is invaded by seven nations' armies (no, not a Seven Nation Army) simultaneously. In fact, it has grown so unwarlike that people do not even resent the invasions, and instead treat them more as an amusing side show, to the point where the Generals of the invading armies are invited on to the music hall circuit to give lectures of how they carried out their successful invasions. The only people actually concerned with upholding the national pride of England are the Boy Scouts, led by the Clarence Chugwater of the title. The absurdity ends with the specific tactic used by Clarence to get the invaders out – I won't spoil it here.

In between, there is lots of the ridiculous: Boy Scouts signaling each other by imitating the cry of the tarantula, or the striped iguanadon; and a hilarious send up of 'diplomatic language'. But above all, there is a deflation of the paranoia of the invasion novels that preceded it. Just as in Wodehouse's mature novels, nothing bad happens. The invading German army shells London, and nobody is hurt, because nobody is in London during August anyway. Even better, the bombardment destroys some of the ugliest architecture in London.

MGM's attempt to remake Red Dawn notwithstanding, it's unlikely that invasion literature will work in this century. Our paranoias are different now: terrorist strikes, financial crises, and having our races or religions outbred. But wouldn't it be nice if someone sent those up as well?


The Swoop! Is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.

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