17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

Amanda Hodges explores his links with South London’s Dulwich College.

Raymond Chandler may have based many of his detective novels on the ‘mean streets’ of Los Angeles but his early days were spent at South London’s Dulwich College. As 2009 marks two anniversaries: his death in 1959 and the 1939 publication of The Big Sleep Amanda Hodges explores his links with the school.

“If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come.”
Raymond Chandler

‘There must be some magic in the writing after all, but I take no credit for it. It just happens, like red hair.’ Pithily dismissing his significant contribution to detective fiction Raymond Chandler’s self deprecation cannot disguise his literary impact, something duly recognised by his old school. In May 2009, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the Lower School library at Dulwich College was named in honour of this Old Alleynian.

Born in Chicago in 1888 Chandler had a peripatetic childhood, his parents separating when he was small. His uncle Ernest offered to set up mother and son in Upper Norwood, the family subsequently moving around this area during Chandler’s schooldays which were spent at Dulwich College. The school, renowned for its strong academic and sporting pedigree, had long outgrown its original Elizabethan premises and was situated on Dulwich Common.

Aged twelve in 1900, Chandler, a small, handsome boy with keen blue eyes, joined as a day boy (as were most pupils) and found at the school a stability previously elusive. Run by inspirational headmaster Arthur Gilkes who towered over the boys both literally (he was 6 ft 5″) and morally, he was a ubiquitous figure, deeply immersed in the welfare of all his pupils. Dismissive of any pretension or bad language, when Chandler later created his wise-cracking detective Philip Marlowe it may well have been a legacy of Gilke’s that, despite provocation, Marlowe never actually swears.

Chandler was a gifted pupil and studied both Moderns (intended for boys with business aptitude) and Classics (for aspiring Oxbridge entrants) with ease. School records show him borrowing books by Lamb and Thackeray and a lovely image mentioned by Dulwich College archivist Calista Lucy has, in addition to its droll humour, picaresque appeal. In the opening of The Big Sleep (its title a euphemism for death) Marlowe describes the Sternwood home, noticing ‘a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady tied to a tree.’ Possibly inspired by the photo of G F Watts’ Galahad which adorned the Dulwich library, ‘I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.’

Chandler remained in touch with Classics master Henry ‘Teddy’ Hope long after his schooldays and in the early 1950s when rationing prevailed, Hope was a fortunate recipient of a thoughtful food parcel from him. Chandler maintained that his school days essentially showed him how not to write. ‘A classical education helps you from being fooled by pretentiousness which is what most current fiction is too full of,’ and this was something firmly eschewed in his own detective fiction, the familiar staples of plot and sensation being augmented by style and memorable descriptions; a typical example being ‘he looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.’

Although he wrote copious poetry when young Chandler didn’t harbour literary ambitions. After leaving school he studied languages abroad then, at his family’s behest, entered the Civil Service. Temperamentally unsuited to this he subsequently enjoyed an eclectic career: a substitute teacher at Dulwich then accountant and vice-president of an oil company before the vagaries of fortune in the Depression gave him time to explore his true metier as a crime writer.

Initially contributing to pulp magazines like the popular Black Mask Chandler honed his craft and wrote his first novel in late 1938. Calling his hero after a school house at Dulwich he offered a hardboiled yet intriguing individual with just a hint of vulnerability. ‘Down these mean streets a man must go.. one who is neither tarnished nor afraid…he must be a complete man, a common man and yet an unusual man.’ Philip Marlowe was certainly this and reflected much of the author’s own character. Like fellow Dulwich College pupil writer C S Forester who wrote The African Queen and created the memorable Hornblower, Chandler’s hero was a figure of fundamental integrity.

‘From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be looked at from 30 feet away.’ Oozing laconic humour and snappy sentences (‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year’), despite the wit he brought to crime fiction it wasn’t until Chandler’s books became cheaply available that his reputation soared. Hollywood came calling and he worked on the screenplay for film noir Double Indemnity amongst others. ‘If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come,’ was his sardonic verdict on his time in Tinseltown.

W H Auden spoke for many when he said that Chandler’s fiction should be judged ‘as works of art’. More appreciated in England than America ( where his pulp magazine reputation cemented his image as just a mystery writer) Chandler once opined, ‘ I have the type of mind that can become a pretty good second-rate anything and without much effort.’ As his influence remains profound many, including his distinguished alma mater, would certainly disagree.

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