Literary Drinkers by Pete Bunten
P G Wodehouse
If you enjoy this extract from Literary Drinkers, try the articles on Thomas Hardy and John Clare - and why not buy a copy for yourself or a friend or two?
The history of English Literature is studded with examples of writers for whom good drink and good drinking were the elixir of creative life. Nor were these scribblers necessarily tortured souls, wrestling with their inner demons in some shadowy and poverty-stricken attic. The whole point about drinking, after all, is that it is meant to be fun. So, it seems, thought P G Wodehouse.
If for no other reason, Wodehouse would be assured of an honoured place in the ranks of literary drinkers on account of his gleeful compilation of terms for that blissful condition of being 'merry'. In no particular order, try these, all taken from his novels and short stories: boiled, awash, stinko, tanked, tight as an owl, under the sauce, ossified, fried to the tonsils, scrooched, whiffled and woozled.
Although a series of financial and political intrusions into his life kept Wodehouse abroad for long periods, the world of his imagination remained rooted in the country of his birth. Wodehouse's fiction is full of inspirational names of English villages: Twing, Old Crockford, Market Snodsbury, Lower-Smattering-on-the Wold. And in these villages, of course, lie English inns: The Bull and Bush, The Beetle and Wedge, The Goose and Gherkin, The Goose and Grasshopper, The Stitch in Time.
Perhaps the most famous of Wodehouse's parade of English inns is the Angler's Rest where the benign and philosophic Mr Mulliner holds forth to his (fairly) captive nightly audience. The pub is, as pubs should be, an English idyll: 'Twilight had fallen on the little garden of the Angler's Rest, and the air was fragrant with the sweet smell of jasmine and tobacco plant. Stars were peeping out. Blackbirds sang drowsily in the shrubbery.... It was, in short, as a customer who had looked in for a gin and tonic rather happily put it, a nice evening'. The Angler's Rest is frequented by regulars identified only by their chosen tipple: 'a Stout and Mild', 'A Whisky and Splash', 'A Small Bass'. Serving this mixed assortment is the quintessential barmaid, Miss Postlethwaite, in whom 'the quiet splendour of her costume and the devout manner in which she pulled the beer handle told their own story.' Indeed.
Wodehouse, quite rightly, was fond of old men who liked their drink. Galahad (Gally) Threepwood 'had discovered the prime grand secret of eternal youth ... plenty of alcohol and a lifelong belief that it was bad form to go to bed before three in the morning'. Galahad had firm views about the road to good health: 'No healthy person really needs food. If people would only stick to drinking, doctors would go out of business.'
Villains are never really villainous in the world of Wodehouse, but those who come close can easily be identified by their lifestyle choices. Sir Gregory Parsloe, who pits himself against Galahad in 'Pigs Have Wings' loses any sympathy from the reader when he bans his pigman, George Cyril Wellbeloved, from the solace of an after-work beer. 'What beats me,' says the foolish Sir Gregory, 'is why you fellers want to go about swilling and soaking. Look at me. I never touch the stuff.' Hubris brings its inevitable punishment, however, and after a broken romance Sir Gregory is brought to understand the error of his ways. 'A tankard stood beside him . .. , and in the manner in which he raised it to his lips there was something gay and swashbuckling. A woman is only a woman, he seemed to be saying, but a frothing pint is a drink.'
Romance, of course, lies at the heart of the Wodehouse comic world and even, or especially, here beer plays its supportive part. Malevolent aunts who put obstacles in the way of young lovers are characterised by their vicious prejudices: 'Lady Hermione shuddered. She was not a woman who had ever been fond of public houses.' The inestimable qualities of the young romantic heroines, however, are revealed to us through appropriately alcoholic imagery. '"Oh, Bertie," she said, in a voice like beer trickling out of a jug.'
Even hangovers are brought into service as a means whereby Wodehousian good can be distilled from suffering. It is after Jeeves produces a miracle tissue restorer that Bertie Wooster makes the life-changing decision to employ him. The wonderfully named Oofy Prosser is dissuaded from an unsuitable romantic alliance by awakening from a refreshing sleep on the hearth-rug and beholding the frightening visage of Algernon Aubrey, the infant son of Bingo Little.
Equally surprisingly, the image of enforced abstinence teaches its own lesson in the world of Wodehouse. When Wodehouse's young heroes suffer, they suffer in terms that only literary drinkers can fully understand. 'Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoi's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka-bottle empty.'