Wodehouse in America, thinking of the English pub

The English writer P.G. Wodehouse is best known for his stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves but also invented a pub, The Angler’s Rest, which was the setting for his Mr Mulliner stories.

The story ‘The Truth About George’, first published in the Strand in 1926, opens the 1927 collection Meet Mr Mulliner and gives us our first taste of this ideal small town inn:

Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s 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.

These stories are not about the pub but, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, exploit the pub’s reputation as a place where stories get told.

So, in the course of forty pieces, most written in the 1920s and 30s, we get a series of mere glimpses into The Angler’s Rest, adding up, just about, to a portrait.

In the second story, ‘A Slice of Life’, we meet a recurring character, the barmaid Miss Postlethwaite. We don’t learn much about her in this brief first appearance other than that she likes going to the pictures to see films on their first night of release and that she is ‘courteous and efficient’. Elsewhere, she is ‘able and vigilant’, ‘gifted and popular’ and ‘a girl of exquisite sensibility and devoutness’.

The landlord, Ernest Biggs, is also introduced. He opens the 1933 story ‘The Juice of an Orange’ by kicking the pub cat, to everyone’s astonishment, ‘For Ernest had always been known for the kindness of his disposition.’

Eventually, the regulars are brought in, too, with a convention emerging in the second batch of stories collected as Mr Mulliner Speaking that each of them is named for the drink they usually consume: ‘Small Bass’, ‘A Tankard of Stout’, ‘A Pint of Half-and-half’, ‘Rum and Milk’, and so on.

In ‘Something Squishy’, 1929, a point of etiquette is spelled out: ‘A tactless Mild-and-Bitter, who was a newcomer to the bar-parlour and so should not have spoken at all, said that…’

Wodehouse captures the tone of the conversation between these barroom acquaintances in ‘The Man Who Gave Up Smoking’ from 1929:

In a mixed assemblage like the little group of serious thinkers which gathers nightly in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest it is hardly to be expected that there will invariably prevail an unbroken harmony. We are all men of spirit: and when men of spirit, with opinions of their own, get together, disputes are bound to arise. Frequently, therefore, even in this peaceful haven, you will hear voices raised, tables banged, and tenor Permit-me-to-inform-you-sir’s competing with baritone And-jolly- well-permit -me- to-inform-yous. I have known fists to be shaken and on one occasion the word ‘fat-head’ to be used.

The space gets filled out, bit by bit, as Mr Mulliner and his loquacious drinking companions move around the bar from one story to the next. Here’s the window seat, for example, from ‘Mulliner’s Buck-u-uppo’:

The village Choral Society had been giving a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Sorcerer’ in aid of the Church Organ Fund; and, as we sat in the window of the Anglers’ Rest, smoking our pipes, the audience came streaming past us down the little street. Snatches of song floated to our ears, and Mr. Mulliner began to croon in unison…

As for Mr Mulliner himself, he is a portrait of the long-winded pub bore, or would be if his stories were less entertaining and outlandish. Here’s a brilliant description of him, and by extension of his type, from the 1927 story ‘Those in Peril on the Tee’:

I think the two young men in the chess-board knickerbockers were a little surprised when they looked up and perceived Mr. Mulliner brooding over their table like an affable Slave of the Lamp. Absorbed in their conversation, they had not noticed his approach. It was their first visit to the Anglers’ Rest, and their first meeting with the sage of its bar-parlour, and they were not yet aware that to Mr. Mulliner any assemblage of his fellow-men over and above the number of one constitutes an audience.

It’s telling, we reckon, that Wodehouse wrote these stories while he was working primarily in New York and Hollywood – pining, perhaps, for this most English of institutions.

If you find yourself craving a bit of escapism for, oh, any reason at all, you could certainly do worse than spend some time in The Angler’s Rest yourself.