Ray and Plum Get Spifflicated

Not south London … Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, circa 1944.

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.

It’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe sipping a dry martini (let alone a gimlet) in a London pub but the great Raymond Chandler spent his formative years in the purlieus of Norwood and Streatham. 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. 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 setting was a kind of Elysium that he transmuted into the Never-Never land of his fiction. Wodehouse began his writing career with school stories, and he remained devoted to Dulwich College for the rest of his life, following the fortunes of its sports teams with poignant fanaticism.

Wodehouse in cricket whites on the Dulwich playing fields.
Young Chandler, Dulwich schoolboy. ‘Down
these mean streets a boy must cycle …’

If you’re looking for the seeds of Chandler’s imagination, you need only take a turn around the neighbourhood. 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. 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 ultimately derives from schoolboy romanticism in the twilight of the Victorian world.

Both writers, superficially so different but in many ways so alike, celebrated drinking in their own styles. Like his creator, Chandler’s Marlowe is clearly an alcoholic: he only has to show a pint of bourbon to a reluctant witness to untie a reluctant tongue and thus advance the plot. Then he gets in his car and drives down Wilshire Boulevard, as lit up as the informants he has just oiled. Wodehouse also confers drink with magical properties, permitting his characters to glory in the release conferred by a couple of sharpeners. In Bertie Wooster’s world, the shy, teetotal Gussie Fink-Nottle only becomes truly free after consuming spiked orange juice, immediately prior to handing out end of term prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School (Right Ho, Jeeves). But Wodehouse was not an alcoholic; his chaps are always eager to get in a quick one, but it is innocent drinking, drinking without tears or serious consequences. In Jeeves Takes Charge, a hungover Bertie Wooster meets Jeeves for the first time, and immediately perceives his unique qualities:

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ I would have clutched at anything that looked like a lifeline that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything suddenly seemed to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more. ‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything.

Sadly, the otherworldly qualities so charming in Wodehouse’s fiction were no use in real life, as demonstrated by the debacle of P.G.’s war-time disgrace. Caught in France as the Nazis invaded, he was finagled into making radio broadcasts to America (not yet at war with Germany) from Berlin. Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, he became a permanent exile after that. He spent the rest of his long life in the U.S., still writing of Bertie and Jeeves and Piccadilly and Lord Emsworth and country houses in summer. By contrast, it is tempting to imagine what Chandler would have written if he had not returned to the ‘States at the age of twenty-four. I 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 raised American demotic speech to a form of comic poetry. But he might have turned out a bit like Patrick Hamilton; no bad thing in itself, but we would be deprived of Farewell My Lovely, The Little Sister, Double Indemnity (the film, of course), and all those other hymns to LA high and low life. So my fantasy ends there.

As it happens, Upper Norwood is currently drenched in anomalous Californian sunshine, the sort of weather that has you searching for a shady pub garden. But in these difficult times, gaining access to any pub is a ponderous affair. You leave your name and number before you order and wait at the other end of the bar for a barmaid in a biohazard suit to give you your pint. Or you dial a drink using an app on your phone and they dispense your alcohol via syringe or as a course of suppositories. Something of that sort, I don’t usually hang around long enough for to hear all the rules. In truth, the only pleasurable ‘drinking out’ experience I have enjoyed under lockdown involves two pints of bottled Guinness I consumed in that implausibly Provence-like park at the bottom of Gipsy Hill. I drank them as I sat under a tree reading Wodehouse’s Joy In The Morning.

Where The Drinker drank … Gipsy Hill.

‘Vile Rosa’ and The Cavendish Hotel

The Cavendish, circa 1930

‘There’s Snivelling Dick … knew him before he was born. Pots of money. They gave him a gold cigarette case when his trousers fell down in Piccadilly.’
‘Lady What’s-‘er-name over there looks like a tart but she isn’t.

‘People only come to the Cavendish to bounce cheques and pee.’
Some bon mots of Rosa Lewis, as reported in The Duchess of Duke Street, by Daphne Fielding.

Rosa in her dotage.

A semi-mythical character of St James’s, from the naughty nineties to the atomic fifties, was the cook and hotelier Rosa Lewis, invariably known as ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’. Her story illustrates the way in which the British class system could be short-circuited by a resourceful individual. Rosa had risen from domestic service in aristocratic houses to become a celebrated cook to royalty, catering for Edward VII (with whom she may have had an affair) and on one occasion Kaiser Wilhelm, the first female in charge of the kitchen at White’s club (briefly), and the proprietor of The Cavendish Hotel, a Regency-era building on the corner of Jermyn St. and Duke St.. Rosa bought the Cavendish in 1899 and stayed put for the rest of her long life. The hotel reflected Rosa’s increasingly eccentric, time-warped, personality, and retained its original Victorian and Edwardian furnishings right up to the end. By virtue of her many society connections, the Cavendish became a home from home for the children of the aristocracy, and had took on aspects of a private and erratically-run club. Rosa was the model for ‘Lottie Crump’ in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Waugh’s description of Lottie and her establishment (he calls the Cavendish ‘Shepheard’s’, after the fabled Cairo hotel) summarises her unique qualities as a hostess: ‘…one can go to Shepheard’s any day, if Lottie likes one’s face, and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.

Unfortunately, Rosa didn’t care for Waugh’s face much after that: Vile Bodies may have been too close to the bone. By then, The Cavendish had lost its lustre, its Edwardian grandeur tatty at the edges, the pictures of long-dead grandees and sons of the gentry covered in dust. After a stay there in 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘It was like staying in a run-down country house – large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and just a bit dirty’. But Huxley wasn’t much of a drinker and the Cavendish was a draw for serious topers. An evening’s drinking at Rosa’s could be a challenging proposition: for a chosen few, drinks were available well into the small hours served in the first floor drawing room, and the drink was invariably champagne (she was said to have inherited remnants of the late Edward VII’s wine cellar). The late night crowd was a peculiar admixture of well-connected ‘bright young people’, an occasional guardsman, baffled American tourists, regulars up from the country, and cameo appearances by familiar soaks like Augustus John and Nina Hamnett. Rosa presided over the ill- assorted throng with quasi-maternal affection and a certain studied offensiveness; as a professional ‘character’ her rudeness was part of her schtick (her insults delivered in antique stage cockney), as was her policy of presenting an entire night’s drinks bill to the person she reckoned could most afford it. Anthony Powell recalls an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality, also noting the hotel’s ‘macabre’ and ‘tense, menacing atmosphere’. This brittle, unreal quality made it a congenial spot for the leading lights of the doomed ’20’s party set, whose parents and even grandparents had been coming to Rosa’s for decades. The likes of Elizabeth Ponsonby (‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies), Diana Guinness, Brian Howard, Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton, the Jungman sisters, etc., adopted Rosa as a sort of ‘nanny’ figure; this seems entirely appropriate, as many of the ‘Brights’ were attempting to prolong their childhoods in much the same way that Rosa was still living in a world that had died in 1914.

The Cavendish stayed open throughout the 2nd World War, but by this time proprietor and hotel were collapsing in synchronicity. The war had taken its toll on the clientele and Rosa was suffering from the kind of acute eccentricity that constitutes dementia but which in those days was never quite diagnosed as such. One of the guests in its final years was Royal Navy frogman Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb. Crabb was a decorated war hero who spent several months at the Cavendish, cheerfully squandering a legacy and leaving behind more than a few promissory notes. In 1956 he disappeared during an ill-advised attempt to inspect the hull of a Russian warship in Portsmouth Harbour during a Soviet state visit. Later reports suggest that his cover was blown by another St.James’s habitué, Kim Philby, and that Crabb was killed by a Soviet diver lying in wait.  

Buster Crabb and fans.

Rosa died in her hotel in 1952. Ten years later, the Cavendish fell victim to the tenor of the times and was demolished; but not before it had been used as a set for a B movie called The Party’s Over about ‘young people who have opted out of society’, starring the young Oliver Reed. A BBC TV series based on Rosa Lewis’s life (The Duchess of Duke Street) was a hit on British screens circa 1975. The site is now occupied by the ‘new’ Cavendish – a charmless sixties block that does absolutely nothing for either Jermyn Street or Duke Street, and late-night drinkers must look elsewhere for champagne and verbal abuse.

Julian and Dylan at The Wheatsheaf

The saloon bar of the Wheatsheaf was not large but cheerful, warm in winter and always brightly lit, good blackout boards fitting tightly over the windows of armorial glass and the floor spread with scarlet linoleum. It had mock-Tudor panelling and inset round the walls, squares of tartan belonging to various tartan clans. (‘Memoirs of the Forties’, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

London never did café culture, that was Paris’s forte; but what we used to have was the writers’ pub. During the 1930s and 40s London’s own left bank was Fitzrovia, that archipelago of pubs and restaurants between Fitzroy Square and the bottom of Rathbone Place, where it slams up against Oxford St.. The queen of Fitzrovia’s literary pubs was the mock-Tudor Wheatsheaf on Rathbone Place. The stories associated with the Wheatsheaf are the stuff of literary cliché. If you walked in here one lunchtime during the 2nd World War, you would almost certainly encounter the twin popes of The Wheatsheaf bar, Dylan Thomas and the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, each with his own set of acolytes.

‘What will you have to drink Mr. Thomas?’ ‘Anything that goes down my throat.’

Whilst Dylan was versifying by the stained glass windows in the public bar, MacLaren Ross occupied the saloon end of the counter, from where he would broadcast his opinions on films or modern novels. You might see George Orwell on lunch break from the BBC, perhaps waiting to meet the glamorous Sonia Brownell who lived just around the corner. Sonia’s employer, Cyril Connolly, the pudgy aesthete and editor of Horizon review, might be there too, talking an incongruously beautiful woman into investing money in his magazine. Perhaps you’d notice a young woman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be Quentin Crisp in austerity drag. Or you might wonder about the demure ‘Sister Anne’, a prostitute whose quiet demeanour gave no indication as to her trade. And you’d also see the bar limpets of an older Fitzrovia: an ancient lady in Edwardian dress drinking Guinness over newspaper crosswords; or the venerable Nina Hamnett, a once feted artist and model, muse to Modigliani, Sickert and Gaudier-Breszka, but now well into her alcoholic decline. You get the idea. The Wheatsheaf was the real thing: the place where dreams, greatness and failure met.

John Banting’s cover illustration for Maclaren-Ross’s 1946 collection of short stories.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Julian Maclaren-Ross was a ‘promising’ writer, his stories exploring the seedy, London-to-Brighton idiom pioneered by Patrick Hamilton (who used aspects of The Wheatsheaf in his monument to inter-war drinking 20,000 Streets Under The Sky) and the young Graham Greene. Like those illustrious practitioners, Maclaren-Ross described the furtive world of the travelling salesman, the cheap hotel, and the saloon bar – but Maclaren-Ross was living the material of his own stories to an alarming extent. He pursued his own ideal of how a modern man of letters should live, an experiment carried out in the teeth of aggrieved landladies, vengeful girlfriends, and exasperated publishers. He had a career-trashing habit of selling the same rights to the same unwritten novels to multiple publishers in return for a few quid to pay the next week’s rent. His occasional commissions were marked by a celebratory splurge of immoderate spending, the lavish dinners, benders and extra-long cigarettes somehow failing to mitigate the mounting bills and imminent (and occasionally actual) homelessness. One way of supplementing his shaky literary income was to lure the gullible into playing his ridiculous matchstick game ‘Spoof’ for real money, the bar of the Wheatsheaf offering him the ideal venue to fleece the unwary. And when the pub closed at 10.30, Julian would lead the hard-core drinkers a few steps up Rathbone Place to the Marquis of Granby, which – being in the borough of Marylebone – was subject to different licensing laws and didn’t ring time until 11. After that, it was back to wherever he was kipping that night; a Turkish baths, say, or the waiting room of Euston station, or – if his luck was in – a girlfriend’s flat in some distant suburb.

Meanwhile …

‘Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.’

Dylan Thomas, drunk again, the quote taken from a live radio broadcast for the BBC. Everyone knows Dylan Thomas; but in life, his burgeoning fame as poet and public figure offered no respite from the lure of the London pub. Although he was the prototype professional Welshman it was in London that Thomas cemented his reputation as a raconteur, mimic, and purveyor of his own patent brand of Welsh sentimentality. There’s a strangely touching story about him taking Henry Miller on a pub crawl around Soho and Fitzrovia and then on to a little dairy that sold sandwiches just opposite The Wheatsheaf. Miller was rather more far-gone than Dylan Thomas, as well as being very short sighted, and was convinced that he was in some kind of brothel, and Dylan was trying to stop him propositioning the startled waitresses. This is an unusual story as it casts Thomas in the unaccustomed role of (relatively) responsible adult, as opposed to the incorrigible man-child drunk that forms the bulk of his legend. It’s a more endearing image of Thomas than, say, that of him shacking up with Caitlin Macnamara, teenage mistress of the ageing Augustus John, a few hours after their first meeting in The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf’s front door, July 2020; note (i) the blue plaques for Orwell and Dylan Thomas; (ii) safety tape on the pavement – to facilitate drinking in the time of Covid.

Literary drinking in Fitzrovia is a big subject and I will return to these characters in future instalments. But, for now, I will leave the last word to the Wheatsheaf’s most extravagantly dressed monument to squandered talent. Julian Maclaren-Ross’s conspicuous outfit (teddy-bear overcoat, green aviator shades, a carnation in his button hole, an extra-long cigarette in his cigarette holder and a silver-topped malacca cane in his hand) made him an occasional target for abuse. Towards the end of his stint as barnacle in chief of the Wheatsheaf bar, he was approached by a clutch of menacing youths who demanded that he ‘Say something witty!’ Maclaren-Ross peered at them and declaimed:

‘Noel Coward!’

(For those interested in Maclaren-Ross, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Willetts, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia.)