Tag Archives: Corky Pirbright

Happy New Year: Snifters with Ukridge at the Coal Hole

Coal Hole and steps
Ukridge took snifters at the Coal Hole in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’. Image by Honoria Plum

N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.

‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’

(Ukridge, 1923)

Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.

stage_door_johnnies_28drawing29
Stage Door Johnnies (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.

The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.

There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.

(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)

874817Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.

There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.

‘You aren’t George Bevan!’

‘I am!’

‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’

George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.

‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’

‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’

‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’

‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’

‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’

A Damsel in Distress (1919)

Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.

We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.

My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.

Best wishes to you all for 2016!

HP

Coal Hole cellar bar
The Coal Hole cellar bar (Image by Honoria Plum)

 

Wodehouse’s men: objects of desire

P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith. Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936).
Cover of the Bietti edition of Leave it to Psmith (1936) courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’d like to take a short break from my series exploring Wodehouse on Women  to share a remarkable piece entitled 111 Male Characters Of British Literature, In Order Of Bangability by Carrie Frye, in which Ms Frye lists 111 fictional characters she finds sexually desirable enough to take to her bed. Almost as astonishing as her stamina, is the fact that she includes not one, but three Wodehouse characters in her list of male sex objects. These are, in order of appearance:

Gussie Fink Nottle (at 106)

Bertram Wooster (at 87)

– Jeeves (at 65)

Gussie’s inclusion in the list defies belief, as does Jeeves, who at 65 ranks above the virile and irresistible Flashman.  Ms Frye gives her source for these appearances, as Right-Ho Jeeves and the story Extricating Young Gussie. I’ve read both, but confess I’ve never felt these characters casting quite the same kind of spell over me.

It would not be in quite the Wodehouse spirit for me to devise a list of my own, but if I may take the liberty, I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for the benefit of any other impressionable romantics considering a mate from the world of Wodehouse:

Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, would make an excellent companion for any woman who is looking to curl up happily with a book in her spacious ancestral boudoir, unbothered by  the attentions of a human octopus, or indeed any attention at all. If your idea of romance is watching the sun set over the Empress of Blandings as she enjoys a late supper (of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes and separated buttermilk)  in her sty, then Clarence is the man for you.

Monty Bodkin is a romantic soul who will make considerable personal sacrifices (like working for Lord Tilbury) to win the girl he loves. Unlike many of his fellow Drones, he is financially solvent and won’t ‘touch’ you for a fiver or pawn your jewellery to placate a wrathful bookie. He is handsome, charming and honourable, but – it must be said – not an intellectual giant.

Galahad Threepwood is a debonair man-about-town who can be relied upon to show you a good time, taking in the best restaurants and night spots of London. You’ll be enthralled by his conversation too, particularly his reminiscences. You may not replace the women he loved and lost (Dolly Henderson) in his affections, or persuade this old bachelor to don the sponge-bag trousers and gardenia button-hole, but his gallant conduct is unlikely to bring about a breach-of-promise case either.

Esmond Haddock has the kind of rugged good looks and self-effacing charm that enticed actress Cora Star to give up Hollywood in favour of Kings Deverill, Hampshire. He is the popular local squire, loved by one and all. But this handsome, likeable fellow may need your help to prevent his five scaly Aunts (including the domineering Dame Daphne Winkworth) from dominating the proceedings at Deverill Hall.

Rupert Psmith is my personal ideal, an appealing Dorian Gray of comedy, without all that fuss in the attic. He is witty, adventurous, original and terrific fun. (If he takes you to dinner, don’t order the fish.)  Life will never be dull with Psmith around, but you may have to get used to living in the shadow of his remarkable personality.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to retire to bed with a good book.

HP