What Arthur learnt from Old Mother Goose

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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I WAS indeed sorry to see that my old friend and quaffing partner Arthur Mullard had finally dropped off his perch. His was an extraordinary life. Born the Honourable Arthur Clarence Montagu-Mullard, second son of the Earl of Abercrombie and Neath, he was educated at Eton College, where with Harold Acton and Cyril Connolly he edited the pioneering magazine Eton Candle. Arthur thus seemed set for a burgeoning career as a founder member of the young literary lions of the 1930s, and is mentioned as a thin, brooding youth in many of the memoirs of the time.

"Virginia brought a young poet called Montagu-Mullard around to see us," records Vanessa Bell in her diary of 9 August 1931. "They say Lytton is desperately enamoured of him, but his own interests lie elsewhere, with the French symbolists, upon whom he is penning a most admirable essay." Arthur also turns up later on, in Christopher Isherwood's seminal works Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains, for he was at that time a close friend of WH Auden. It will be remembered that in the 1970s film Cabaret, loosely based on Goodbye to Berlin, his part is played by the young Anthony Andrews, then fresh out of drama school.

Research suggests that Montagu-Mullard became plain Mullard in the late 1930s: around this time he moved to the Essex Road. While many others of his class and background sought to embrace the common man, he alone actually strove to become the common man. Two years with notebook and pen studying the niceties of the East End tongue in a Hackney fruitmonger's made his transformation complete: henceforth, he would be known as Arthur Mullard, the nation's best-loved cockney.

It is one of the many peculiarities of the English class system that while the second son of the Earl of Abercrombie and Neath was busily moving down the social structure, two of his most brutish fellow regulars in the Old Mother Goose in Hackney had determined, by hook or by crook, to move themselves upwards. One of these was a young boxer known to one and all as Tony the Pow, the only man ever to last the full 12 rounds with Wallis "Jaws" Simpson before the notorious sex-change. But Tony had decided at an early age that boxing was a means and not an end: it was his ambition to be taken seriously as a novelist and man of letters, with the eventual aim of achieving a knighthood for services to literature. Surveying the world of English letters, he soon realised that a cockney accent, a pair of boxing gloves and a broken nose were rare among the literati, Edith Sitwell's early career as a successful bouncer notwithstanding.

With this in mind, he played hookey from the gymnasium, gained a place in night school, and acquainted himself with the ins and outs of the upper- class life. Few people today realise that the first five books in the Dance to the Music of Time sequence were written between bouts at the Hackney Empire; the occasional longueurs in the prose may be put down to the fact that Anthony Powell, as he had then become, wrote much of the original manuscript with his hands still clad in boxing gloves.

Another of Arthur's contemporaries in the historic public house was the young Terry Worst. Mustard-keen to make his mark, Terry vowed that a future serving as second-string to his father behind the "Worst Whelks" stall in Upper Street was not for him. Many a butler and liveried servant was to shop at his stall over the next four years, and in a series of looseleaf notebooks Terry jotted down everything he learnt of life among the aristocracy in the English Country House. Needless to say, he learnt almost as much about his intended quarry from his fellow-quaffer Arthur Montagu-Mullard, who proved as enthusiastic in dispersing his knowledge as Terry proved in acquiring it.

Soon, Terry was in demand for his varied and energetic set of opinions on all aspects of the British upper classes. Nowadays, as Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, he is able to look back over a lifetime of helping to mould the opinions of the great and the good. But I sometimes wonder whether, as he tucks himself in his thick linen sheets at night, he ever finds time to recall those far-off days in that snug, days spent swapping accents with the late, great Arthur Mullard in the hurly-burly that is English social life.