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.