Exiles and Mean Streets. (1/2)Posted: May 2, 2017
London from Gipsy Hill. © David Secombe.
From The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, 1953: I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.
D.S.: The other evening I was discussing Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with my friend (and sometime contributor to this site) Andrew Martin. Andrew is a thriller writer so his opinions on Chandler’s novels are acute and unsparing; I mostly agree with him, although I am more prepared to forgive the incomprehensible plots for the sake of the terrific dialogue. The question of Chandler’s adolescence in London came up. It’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe sipping a dry martini (let alone a gimlet) in a south London pub, but I found myself arguing that Marlowe is a product of Chandler’s formative years in the city’s leafy southern suburbs. Chandler may have been born in Nebraska but by the age of 12 he was living with his mother in Upper Norwood, and was a fledgling day boy at Dulwich College, the venerable boys’ school that floats alongside the South Circular like a Pre-Raphaelite idyll.
At the bottom of the above photo you can just see the College’s Italianate campanile vainly asserting itself against The Shard; here’s a better view of it …
Chandler entered Dulwich in 1900, his first year at the school coinciding with P.G. Wodehouse’s last. It’s fitting that these two writers should have coincided at Dulwich as they are both examples of a rare breed, the true trans-Atlantic writer. Robert McCrum on Wodehouse: “No English writer of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, was so successful at relating the two cultures to each other”. The school and the surrounding suburbs informed their work in differing ways. For Wodehouse the school and the tidy streets and parks that surrounded it remained a kind of Elysium that he transmuted into the Never-Never land of his fiction.
Dulwich College’s cricket pavilion and the Crystal Palace transmitter.
Wodehouse achieved colossal success on both sides of the Atlantic (apart from the novels, he was also a Hollywood screenwriter and played a considerable part in the creation of the Broadway musical as we know it) and enjoyed an opulent existence in Le Touquet; yet for all that, he remained devoted to his old school, and was weirdly fanatical in following the fortunes of its sports teams. In his biography of Wodehouse Robert McCrum includes a poignant description of the great writer’s last visit to Dulwich, in July 1939, an image of ‘Plum’ sitting disconsolately in the pavilion watching a dull cricket match. No-one could know it then, but Wodehouse’s real exile was about to begin; he was trapped in occupied France the following year, and subsequently taken to Berlin where he was finagled into making broadcasts on German radio. For all the extenuating circumstances, his reputation never recovered in his lifetime.
Church Rd., Norwood.
A recent blue plaque marks the site of Chandler’s childhood home in Norwood: it’s a house typical of the district, a large, slightly Gothic, mid-Victorian number. It isn’t the fabulously ornate pile in the above photo; but if you’re looking for fuel for the young Chandler’s imagination you need only take a turn around the neighbourhood. The area was built up in the latter half of the 19th century, mainly after the arrival of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, transplanted from Hyde Park to Sydenham after the close of the Great Exhibition. The district is full of shadowy villas, houses suggestive of secrets, insecure money and dubious respectability. Victorian Gothic architecture often feels like a projection of repression and even now some streets are suffused with a sort of whispered dread (seems fitting that Gipsy Hill should boast a Cawnpore Street, the name memorializing a notorious massacre of the Indian Mutiny). No wonder Marlowe was unfazed by the Sternwood mansion in The Big Sleep; his creator had seen such houses before. Chandler was more reticent than Wodehouse on the subject of Dulwich College, but he was always proud of his classical education; moreover, his detective embodies some of the idealised values prized by the public school ethos. Chandler called Marlowe a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, and in some ways he is like a G.F. Watts hero in a powder-blue suit. The wisecracks camouflage a moral purpose. ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean …’ Philip Marlowe has a code of honour that separates him from contemporary fictional detectives like Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade or Continental Op, one ultimately derived from schoolboy romanticism in the twilight of the Victorian world.
I don’t want to stretch the point too much; it’s self-evident that it was Chandler’s return to America at nineteen that sealed his personality. He may have been writing bad poetry before he left England but he only started writing detective fiction in his forties, his first novel appearing when he was fifty. Moreover, Chandler’s California is not transferable to any other place (you only have to see Michael Winner’s British-set version of The Big Sleep to appreciate that). Frank MacShane asserts that if Chandler had stayed in Britain he would have stuck to sentimental poetry. Maybe. But I still like to imagine the mature Chandler looking for material in south London, using the city’s vernacular in the same way that, in our own universe, he used American speech.
So where does all this lead? Well, I live in Upper Norwood, which is in full suburban bloom just now. Over the bank holiday I visited several local hostelries in search of photos and Chandleresque moments. In one bar, an unavoidably hipster establishment, there was an exhibition of stick-figure cartoon art entitled It’s Going to be Okay (a title I could take issue with). I overheard one good line when I was in there: ‘So what does a full-time Anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’ After that I retreated to an Irish pub, taking refuge in my old paperback edition of Farewell My Lovely as the other patrons watched big screen football. D.S.
All photos © David Secombe.