Retracing Wodehouse's war

''If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?''

Sitting in a second-class seat on a slow train from the Polish city of Opole, I'm reminded of P.G. Wodehouse's quip about this notably flat and undramatic region.

Then I step out at Toszek, the train trundles off, and I'm left on a low, crumbling platform next to an imposing red-brick station building. It's a classic 19th-century German construction, for Polish Toszek was once German Tost.

It was in this small town that Wodehouse, the great British comic writer and creator of Jeeves and Wooster, was imprisoned as a civilian prisoner by the German army in 1940.

The following year, Wodehouse was invited by the German foreign office to make some humorous radio broadcasts from Berlin. Unaware of the defiant mood in Britain following the Blitz, he naively agreed, keen to reach out to his fans in the still-neutral US.

The resulting broadcasts contained such harmless lines as: ''Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, 'How can I become an internee?' Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there 'til the Germans came along.''

The reaction in Britain was explosive, including a stern denunciation by A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh (Wodehouse got his own back in his 1949 novel, The Mating Season, wherein Bertie Wooster is horrified by the prospect of reciting Christopher Robin poems at a village concert).

Though he was cleared of any wrongdoing by British intelligence services at war's end, the mistake dogged Wodehouse for the rest of his life. He never returned to his homeland, settling in the US.

I don't know what compels us to visit the houses and workplaces of our favourite authors. After all, Shakespeare would still be a genius regardless of whether or not you'd walked the streets of Stratford on Avon.


I've always wanted to make the pilgrimage to Wodehouse's wartime home. Now, on one of my visits to Poland as a Lonely Planet author, I'm here. Or almost here. I still have to locate the former asylum that became a prisoner of war camp in World War II.

After a walk past fields to the town centre, I reach a pleasant civic square with benches and shade trees. So far, so good. But this is where my research runs out.

In preparing for the trip, I made attempts to contact tourism authorities in Silesia about the wartime prison. Emails went around in circles. I was instructed to ''talk to someone at the castle''.

So a passer-by directs me through an impressive stone gateway to a time-worn Gothic castle, which, coincidentally, hosted the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1790. My limited Polish doesn't get me very far at the castle's office - the person I speak to doesn't seem aware of an old asylum but points me to the town hall.

Back at the square, I wander up to the town hall's first floor, where there's a cashier's window, at which locals might pay their council rates. Once I hit on the right Polish term, szpital psychiatryczny (psychiatric hospital), there's much nodding from the woman behind the counter and I'm given an address just around the corner.

I'm startled to discover it's not a former psychiatric hospital, as I've assumed, but several buildings, comprising a mental-health complex. The first few are too modern to be Wodehouse's prison, so I check photocopied pages from my copy of Robert McCrum's excellent Wodehouse: A Life for a description.

Sure enough, further along is McCrum's ''brooding, dark red-brick building'', a massive, grimy structure with two wings thrust to the edge of the pavement and bars on its central windows. It was presumably from here that Wodehouse could ''watch everyday life passing up and down the road outside''.

It's unexpectedly overwhelming to see this place. If I could somehow pierce the veil of time and shout up to him from the roadway, what would I say? ''Don't do the broadcasts!'' comes to mind.

I'm glad I've gained an insight into the author's war. It's reaffirmed what a remarkable person Wodehouse was. He not only typed an entire novel (Money in the Bank) while imprisoned at Tost, but weathered the subsequent storm to write dozens more before dying at 93 in 1975, just after the British establishment implicitly forgave him with the gift of a knighthood.

Back down the cracked footpath, each footstep takes me further away from this point of intersection with the darkest days of a great author's life.