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Highballs for breakfast: The very best of P.G. Wodehouse on the joys of a good stiff drink

highballquotessquare10Highballs for Breakfast is a new compilation of P.G. Wodehouse’s writing on the subject of liquor, drinking, Dutch Courage and mornings after, compiled and edited by Richard T. Kelly. It’s a well-researched collection that delves widely into the Wodehouse canon, unearthing plenty of treasures on the subject.

‘…Have you ever tasted a mint-julep, Beach?’

‘Not to my recollection, sir.’

‘Oh, you’d remember all right if you had. Insidious things. They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court fifty dollars…’

Summer Lightning (1929)

The classic scenes you’d expect to find are here, including Gussie Fink Nottle’s presentation of the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School in Right Ho, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster’s ‘a-hunting-we-will-go’ with the port decanter in The Mating Season. But if you’re unfamiliar with Wodehouse’s world beyond the Jeeves stories, this book should also whet your appetite to discover hidden gems like Cocktail Time, Doctor Sally, Uncle Dynamite, Ukridge, and the Mulliner stories.

‘Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another, what in your view would best meet the case?’

The gentlemanly bar-tender pondered for some moments.

‘Well,’ he replied at length, ‘I advance it, you understand, as a purely personal opinion, and I shall not be in the least offended if you decide not to act upon it; but my suggestion – for what it is worth – is that you try a Dynamite Dew Drop.’

One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.

‘Much better give him a Dreamland Special.’

A second man, in a sweater and a cloth cap, had yet another theory.

‘You can’t beat an Undertaker’s Joy.’

‘The Story of William’ in Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927)

Few good books are without controversy; Wodehouse has always attracted his share and Highballs for Breakfast is no exception. The hot topic of discussion among the troops on this occasion is the assessment of Wodehouse’s non-drinkers as ‘puritans and bores’. Richard T Kelly introduces this chapter, noting:

Given the affection Wodehouse reserves for cheery serial tipplers, you can well imagine the rough treatment he dishes out to characters who make a terrific show of never touching a drop. A degree of moderation, at times, is commendable, perhaps – but someone who abstains entirely simply cannot be serious.

Richard T. Kelly in Highballs for Breakfast

The teetotallers in our ranks object. Wodehouse certainly created some memorably foul examples of the puritanical temperance advocate. Having lived through prohibition, he would have had a decent supply of real-life examples to work from, adding them to his diverse cast of ridiculous extremists. But Wodehouse’s most degenerate drinkers are not always such affectionate portraits.

Richard T Kelly offers Mervyn Potter’s fiancé as an example of the puritanical type; she insists that Mervyn give up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates disturbances and burns down hotels. Wodehouse gets full comedy value from these scenes, but it’s clear that Mervyn Potter is a menace who gives Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps hell.  The reader’s sympathies are with Barmy and Potter’s fiancé, on this occasion.

highballquotessquare11Another character who overdoes his snifters is Reggie Swithin’s Cousin ‘Eggy’ in Laughing Gas. Wodehouse gets good comedic mileage from Eggy, who thinks he is having alcohol induced hallucinations and is persuaded to give up drinking by a temperance group called the Temple of the New Dawn. The female responsible for saving Eggy is a girl called Mabel, and, while undeniably one of the puritans, she is not without her charms. There is no suggestion that Mabel is a bore, or that Eggy is anything but better off when he decides to marry her.

Gussie Fink-Nottle, Wodehouse’s most famous abstainer, may have restricted himself to orange juice, but I don’t recall him ever forcing the subject on his friends. Between a puritanical temperance advocate and a quiet, unassuming teetotaller there is a wide and substantial difference —neither Wodehouse nor Richard T Kelly is really ‘having a go’ at the latter.

A little controversy is good for us –it keeps the mental faculties sharp — but the inclination to analyse or search for deeper meaning in Wodehouse quickly reaches a point where it makes us (well, me usually) look ridiculous. It causes pure minded jaws to clench. ‘Leave Plum alone!’ they cry. ‘He is to be enjoyed, not dissected.’ Spades and soufflés are mentioned. Richard T Kelly, quite rightly, does not take things too far. He applies an informed, but light touch to the material and lets Wodehouse’s magic do the rest.

I drink high-balls for breakfast. I am saved.

My Battle with Drink (1915)

I would like to thank Penguin Random House for providing my copy of Highballs for Breakfast. If the producers of fine wine and porter ales would do likewise, Plumtopia would be a far, far brighter place.

HP

Win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast

To win a copy of Highballs for Breakfast, courtesy of Penguin Random House, visit the competition page and and reply by comment before 15 December 2016.

Highballs Jacket.jpg

I have dyspepsia!

18053Yesterday I received the Doctor’s diagnosis of an ailment that has been troubling me for some time. I have dyspepsia!

I don’t suppose a doctor ever received such a joyous response to this news as mine did. I practically whooped around the surgery. For now, I can read my favourite poem, by Lancelot Mulliner in ‘Came the Dawn’, with the added poignancy of personal suffering.

DARKLING (A Threnody)
By L. BASSINGTON MULLINER
(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian)

Black branches,
Like a corpse’s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky:
Chill winds,
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
Worms,
Toads,
Frogs,
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
Desolation,
Doom,
Dyspepsia,
And Despair.
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate;
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment ;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia.

from: Came the Dawn (Meet Mr Mulliner )

The physician stopped short of prescribing Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo, but I suppose one can’t have everything.

HP

P.G. Wodehouse in Bath: The Loafing Years

Royal Cres Bath sky

Bath’s famous Royal Crescent (image by Honoria Plum)

It is not unreasonable to assume that, when the assorted dignitaries of Bath bunged off their application for UNESCO World Heritage listing, the fact that P.G. Wodehouse lived here as a boy was pretty high up on their list of reasons. No doubt it weighed heavily with the judges. And yet, in all the historical and literary guides to Bath I find no mention of Wodehouse. Walking tours do not pass his former residence. No miniature of his likeness can be viewed in the Jane Austen or Holbourne Museums. How can this be?

I suspect the answer lies in the rather embarrassing truth (one not so universally acknowledged) that of all the places in which P.G. Wodehouse resided, Bath appears to be the only one in which he did not write. He wrote as a school boy. He wrote in London, and in Emsworth (Hampshire). He wrote in New York and Long Island, in Hollywood and in France. He even continued writing while imprisoned in a succession of German prison camps in 1940-41. When he died in 1975, there was an ‘unfinished manuscript beside his chair’. But in Bath, Somerset, where this prolific life-long writer lived for three years, he produced nothing at all.

By his own admission:

From my earliest years I had always wanted to be a writer. I started turning out the stuff at the age of five. (What I was doing before that, I don’t remember. Just loafing, I suppose.)

 Over Seventy (1956)

It was in Bath, Somerset, that P.G. Wodehouse spent these loafing years.

P.G Wodehouse was born in Guildford in 1881 while his mother was visiting England from Hong Kong. Wodehouse’s father was in the colonial Civil Service, and the infant Plum returned to Hong Kong with his mother. In 1883, young Wodehouse returned to England to live with his brothers Peveril and Armine at number 17 Sion Hill, Bath. There the Wodehouse boys lived under the care of Nanny Roper, surrounded by maternal relations (the Deane family) who lived next door and elsewhere in Sion Hill.

Sion Hill collage

Young Wodehouse lived at no 17 (top left) close to his maternal relations at various addresses in the street, including number 20 (bottom left)

Modern day Sion Hill is part of the Cotswold Way public walking trail from Bath to Chipping Camden. It abuts the Bath Approach Golf Course and Victoria Park , with stunning views over the city. Bath’s iconic Lansdown and Royal Crescents are an easy downhill walk away.

The same cannot be said going up the hill, which I foolishly attempted on a bicycle in the rain. It was a mad scheme, particularly when a number 700 omnibus would have sufficed. But as I huffed and puffed and cursed my way up the hill, I reflected that my chosen method of conveyance added a dash of Wodehouse spirit to the occasion, invoking poor Bertie Wooster’s distraught eighteen-mile round trip from Brinkley Court to Kingham in Right Ho, Jeeves.

Arriving at Sion Hill in a dishevelled state of the kind guaranteed to raise even the most broad-minded Bath eyebrows, I abandoned my scheme of knocking on  doors with an introductory ‘What Ho!’ Instead, I snapped a few souvenir photographs and soaked up the genteel atmosphere of young Wodehouse’s formative surroundings.

Following Sion Hill as it loops around past local allotments and the Golf Course, the city of Bath appears deceptively distant, an impressionist canvas of blurred green and sun-flecked stone. Here on the hill the soundscape is idyllic too, dominated by the rustle of the trees, not the bustle of town. Jane Austen, who famously disliked Bath, might have preferred it from this distance.

Sion Hill golf course mini

Public Golf Course, adjacent to Sion Hill

There is a sense of well-heeled serenity here that makes it easy to imagine the young Wodehouse boys at play, over a century ago. The possibilities for exploration are just the sort a growing lad requires before returning home for tea with Nanny Roper.

Some have suggested Miss Roper may have been the model for Wodehouse’s fictional nanny, Nurse Wilks in Portrait of a Disciplinarian. One can readily imagine Miss Roper having good cause to thunder at her charges to ‘WIPE YOUR BOOTS!’

As Mr Mulliner’s nephew Frederick reflected:

The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.

Portrait of a Disciplinarian (in Meet Mr Mulliner) 1927

Frederick Mulliner’s Nurse Wilks is not quite a spent force.

The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round he perceived a different person altogether from the mild and kindly hostess of a moment back. It was plain that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.

‘Theideaofyourbringingyournastydirtybootsintomynicecleanhousewithoutwipingthem!’ said Nurse Wilks

Almost 90 years later, P.G. Wodehouse introduced the television adaptation of Portrait of a Disciplinarian as part of the excellent Wodehouse Playhouse series, with Daphne Heard playing Nurse Wilks to perfection.

I left Sion Hill with a contented feeling that Wodehouse’s formative years were spent in such an appealing place, and that these loafing years were not perhaps, so entirely misspent as Wodehouse would have us believe.

The young Plum left Bath in 1886 to attend the Chalet School, in Croydon, Surrey. His literary career began shortly thereafter when, at the age of five, he composed his first poem.

Sion Hill walk (59)My journey to Sion Hill ended, as these jaunts so often do, with a nourishing beaker at a local pub, where I was chuffed to observe that a table for two had been reserved in the name of Murphy — it provided a fitting moment to toast Norman Murphy who had kindly provided me with the Bath addresses.

HP

Wodehouse poets: I have got dyspepsia

In approximately 25 minutes, I will be heading off to explore P.G. Wodehouse locations in Shropshire, on route to the wedding of a Wodehouse lover called Bill. To mark the occasion, I’d like to share my favourite ‘Wodehouse’ poem — presented as the work of Lancelot Mulliner in ‘Came the Dawn’. I wanted this to be read at my own wedding, but the celebrant bucked.

DARKLING (A Threnody)
By L. BASSINGTON MULLINER
(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian)

Black branches,
Like a corpse’s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky:
Chill winds,
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
Worms,
Toads,
Frogs,
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
Desolation,
Doom,
Dyspepsia,
And Despair.
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate;
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment ;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia.

from: Came the Dawn (Meet Mr Mulliner)

Honeysuckle Cottage by Wodehouse: an antidote to Valentine slush and nonsense

He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not decend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.

From ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’

1927 Meet Mr. Mulliner mycopyThis firm opinion belongs to mystery writer James Rodman, a cousin of Mr Mulliner. But then he inherits Honeysuckle Cottage from his Aunt, the romance novelist Leila J. Pinckney , and her house begins to exert a sinister romantic influence over him.

First, he inserts an unwelcome female into the novel he is writing:  ‘…the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie.’

James stared at the paper dumbly. He was utterly perplexed. He had not had the slightest intention of writing anything like this. To begin with, it was a rule with him, and one which he never broke, to allow no girls to appear in his stories. Sinister landladies, yes, and naturally any amount of adventuresses with foreign accents, but never under any pretext what may be broadly described as girls. A detective story, he maintained, should have no heroine. Heroines only held up the action and tried to flirt with the hero when he should have been busy looking for clues, and then went and let the villain kidnap them by some childishly simple trick.

It’s important (as always) not to attribute the views of the character to his creator — P. G. Wodehouse allowed plenty of girls in his stories, often as the central character.

The situation at Honeysuckle Cottage deteriorates further when a girl arrives:

She was an extraordinarily pretty girl. Very sweet and fragile she looked as she stood there under the honeysuckle with the breeze ruffling a tendril of golden hair that strayed from beneath her coquettish little hat. Her eyes were very big and very blue, her rose-tinted face becmingly flushed. All wasted on James though. He disliked all girls, and particularly the sweet, droopy type.

This sickly-sweet specimen of femininity is struck by a passing car and must be nursed back to health at Honeysuckle Cottage.

In some of his stories (Bachelors Anonymous being a notable example) Wodehouse often shows avowed bachelors the error of their ways — converting them to the kind of fellows who slap other fellows’ backs and urge them to marry. James Rodman is made of stern stuff, but he is sorely tested.

Now that the girl was well enough to leave her bed, she spent her time sitting in a chair on the sun-sprinkled porch, and James had to read to her — and poetry, at that; and not the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either — good, honest stuff about sin and decaying corpses — but the old-fashioned kind with rhymes in it, dealing almost exclusively with love.

Tempted though I am to tell you what happens, this story’s too good to spoil for those of you who might not have read it. All I will say is that it makes excellent Valentine’s reading for anyone who shares James Rodman’s distaste for romantic slush.

One of the curses of being female is the assumption, made by almost everyone, that we are inherently wired to enjoy romance novels (and what passes for romantic comedy at the movies). Weak female characters, in need of a decent meal and a shot of gumption abound. Heroines are painfully self conscious or smugly self-reliant, always beautiful, with a tendency to take themselves far too seriously.

Happily, Wodehouse offers us a third way — where the romance can coexist with intelligence and humour.

HP

The Truth About George

1927 Meet Mr. Mulliner mycopyI asked my eight year old daughter to share her favourite Wodehouse romance and, after much umming and ahhhhing, she chose ‘The Truth About George’. In this short story (from Meet Mr. Mulliner) Mr Mulliner recounts the ordeal of his nephew George Mulliner, who must overcome his stammer in order to declare his love for Susan Blake.

Many Wodehouse couples are brought together through a common interest  — it might be golf, Tennyson’s poems, or a shared love of mystery novels, for ‘there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature’ (‘Strychnine in the Soup’). In the case of avid cruciverbalists George Mulliner and Susan Blake, it is a love of crossword puzzles.

…George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning ‘appertaining to the profession of plumbing’, and Susan was just as constant a caller at George’s cosy little cottage, being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying ‘largely used in the manufacture of poppet-valves’. The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word disestablishmentarianism, the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realised that she was all the world to him — or, as he put it to himself from force of habit, precious, beloved, darling, much-loved, highly esteemed or valued.

In an effort to cure his stammer, George consults a specialist —‘…a kindly man with moth-eaten whiskers and an eye like a meditative cod-fish’ — who advises him to speak to three complete strangers a day. I won’t spoil the fun by recounting George Mulliner’s disastrous pursuit of this advice. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you have a treat in store (the text is available free online from Internet Archive).

Instead, I will skip straight to the part where George asks:

“Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, help-meet, consort, partner or better half ?”

To which Susan replies:

“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yes, yea, ay, aye ! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute!”

The reader is left with the happy impression of a well-suited couple looking forward to a congenial married life with barely a cross word between them.

For more on the theme of Wodehouse and crosswords, see Alan Connor’s excellent piece — Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no 9: PG Wodehouse’s The Truth About George  — for The Guardian’s Crossword Blog. I also understand (courtesy of The Wodehouse Society mailing list) that Connor’s recent book “The Crossword Century” also includes a chapter on this subject.

Connor’s blog piece features an image of John Alderton, who played George Mulliner in the BBC Wodehouse Playhouse television series. It is a fine adaptation, recorded shortly before Wodehouse’s death, and includes an introduction from the author himself. You can watch it via You Tube.

Enjoy!
HP

Meet Mr. Mulliner

A review of Meet Mr Mulliner by ‘The Grand Reviewer’

The Grand Reviewer

Meet Mr. Mulliner, a local fisherman and popular visitor of the pub, the Angler’s Rest, where he shares the almost unbelievable escapades of various members of the Mulliner family tree. From George the stammerer, who overcomes his stammer so he can marry the crossword-loving love of his life, to Augustine the curate, who after drinking some Buck-U-Uppo becomes a fearless aid to a bishop, to James the author, who finds his bachelorhood threatened by the sappy romance of his aunt’s novels, each tale in the collection shows how the Mulliners face adversity in the most ridiculous of situations and overcome it in the most convenient of coincidences.

Meet Mr. Mulliner is authored by P.G. Wodehouse, who most people recognize for his stories about Jeeves and Wooster (Jeeves being the inspiration behind askjeeves.com). Wodehouse’s writing style truly defines the book. He makes it fun to read the tales of the Mulliners…

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Meeting Mulliners

Henley and surrounds Maltsters Arms

   Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was telling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional ‘Biggest I ever saw in my life!’ and ‘Fully as large as that!’ but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.
The action had  the effect of establishing a bond between us; and when the story-teller finished his tale and left, he came over to my table as if answering a formal invitation.

The Truth About George (1927)

This simple introduction from Meet Mr Mulliner has been on my mind lately, because it captures a little piece of Wodehouse’s England that I’m pleased to find alive and well in 2013.

Since last writing, I have moved to the south of England. One of the delights of this experience has been getting the know the locals in our pleasant town on the banks of the Thames. And what better way to meet true locals of great character and charm than to frequent the local public houses?  There are a great many pubs here, several of which are delightfully reminiscent of Mr Mulliner‘s Anglers’ Rest.

For the newcomer, entering a village pub is much like the narrator’s experience above. There is a certain well-mannered English reserve that holds most people back from being too intrusive or inquisitive of strangers. But this is easily overcome with a genial disposish, an  encouraging smile, and a few comments about the weather.  Consequently, I’ve  enjoyed some delightful conversations with a host of marvellously eccentric people – many of whom would be quite at home in the pages of Wodehouse.

The beer garden of this lovely pub overlooks the local cricket ground.

The beer garden of this lovely pub overlooks the local cricket ground.

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