BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Friday, 2 July 2010 17:13 UK

Where Jeeves meets a hard-boiled detective

Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich Picture Gallery was designed by Sir John Soane


Literary giants PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler wrote about different worlds, but they had more in common than people think, including the same education at one school in south London, says David Cannadine in his Point of View column.

Under normal circumstances, the suburbs of our great capital city south of the Thames seem of little interest to the national media, which is largely based north of the river, let alone to that of other countries.

But all this changes during the Wimbledon fortnight, when London SW19 becomes for a brief time the Mecca of the sporting world - a position it may even have retained this year, despite serious competition from the football in South Africa.

Dulwich College
New Zealand's rugby team trained at Dulwich College

Celebrities throng the All England Tennis Club, both on the courts and off them; despite the credit crunch, strawberries and cream are consumed in large quantities of corporate hospitality; and this year, the Queen herself was present for the first time since her Silver Jubilee of 1977, when Virginia Wade won the women's singles title in her presence.

This is more than enough to keep the media interested, but for the remaining 50 weeks of the year, little is heard about south London; and when there is something to report, it's often sad and shocking news, as with the terrible killing of Damilola Taylor in Peckham 10 years ago.

Yet, as I was recently reminded, there's much to celebrate in south London if you look in the right places, one of which is the suburb of Dulwich. About 10 days ago, I delivered a lecture there at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is the oldest purpose-built public art museum in England.

It was designed by one of our country's greatest architectural geniuses, Sir John Soane, little of whose work survives today, beyond some parts of the Bank of England, his own extraordinary house on the northern side of Lincoln's Inn Fields and the Dulwich Picture Gallery itself.

David Cannadine
A Point of View, with David Cannadine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 BST and repeated Sundays, 0850 BST
Or listen to it on the iPlayer later

The gallery also boasts an outstanding permanent collection of European Old Masters, initially acquired by two dealers in London during the late 18th Century on behalf of the King of Poland. But by the time it had been put together, Poland had been partitioned and the ruling dynasty had disappeared, so the canvasses stayed in Britain, where they can be seen in Dulwich to this day.

The creation and construction of Dulwich Picture Gallery is a remarkable story, and its recent history is equally instructive. In 1994, the gallery became independent of Dulwich College, the private boys' school with which it had been connected throughout the whole of its existence, and was re-established and re-financed as a charitable trust.

At the same time, the newly-formed board of trustees decided to make the gallery financially self-sufficient. Instead of seeking a yearly grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, they resolved to create an endowment, to charge admission fees, and to undertake an energetic and aggressive programme of fundraising.


At the time, this seemed a risky - even foolhardy - strategy: but in the light of the impending cuts in government funding, which may be somewhere between one quarter and one third, and which are bound to have a severe impact on those many galleries and museums which rely heavily on their DCMS grants, it now seems to have been a wise and prescient decision.

In setting up Dulwich Picture Gallery as an independent charity, its trustees were also emulating the earlier example of Edward Alleyn, an Elizabethan actor and entrepreneur, who in 1619 created a foundation which still supports three local educational establishments, Alleyn's School, James Allen's Girls School, and Dulwich College.

The fictional worlds these two authors created were as unalike as the lives they lived

In social and status terms, Dulwich College has never claimed to be the equal of Westminster or Winchester, let alone Eton or Harrow. But it's of high standing academically, and since the mid-19th Century, it's produced a remarkable succession of notable and bestselling writers, beginning with AEW Mason, author of The Four Feathers, who attended the college during the 1870s.

In later times, Dulwich pupils included Dennis Wheatley and CS Forester, and more recently, Graham Swift and Michael Ondaatje. But the most famous authors associated with the college are probably PG Wodehouse, who attended during the 1890s, and Raymond Chandler, who followed him there in the 1900s.

At first glance, it's difficult to imagine two writers who were more different. Wodehouse was English, happy, buoyant, optimistic and generally contented. He produced nearly one hundred books during his long and prolific life, and he made a great deal of money.

Chandler and Wodehouse - worlds apart
Chandler and Wodehouse - worlds apart

But Chandler was American, lonely, morose, alcoholic and suicidal. He won literary recognition only late in life, and he wrote a mere seven full-length novels.

Not surprisingly, the fictional worlds these two authors created were as unalike as the lives they lived. Wodehouse invented a hilarious universe of comic mayhem, high aristocratic farce, and eternal innocence, full of dotty peers, intimidating aunts, dubious impostors and unfailingly resourceful butlers, set in Mayfair, Belgravia and the English countryside, where the sun is always shining, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Chandler, by contrast, was the master of the world-weary, hard-boiled detective story, shot through with loneliness, sorrow, alienation, remorse and disappointment, as well as plenty of sex, drugs, alcohol, corruption, violence and murder, and most of it set in the urban jungle of Los Angeles. As he would famously write in his essay The Simple Art of Murder, "down these mean streets a man must go".

Yet for all the undoubted differences in their lives and their work, Wodehouse and Chandler also had quite a lot in common. They both grew up with distant relations to their parents, and they were intimidated by overbearing aunts. They were both denied the opportunity to go on from school to Oxford or Cambridge, because the family funds were deemed to be insufficient.

And they eventually became hugely successful bestsellers throughout the English-speaking world. Even more importantly, Wodehouse and Chandler were profoundly influenced by their time and their teachers at Dulwich.

They found personal happiness and companionship, their memories of the place were fond and warm, and they would remain devotedly loyal to it for the rest of their lives. But in addition, Wodehouse and Chandler both excelled at Greek and Latin, and were influenced by Dulwich's then-legendary headmaster, Arthur Herman Gilkes, who seems to deserve the credit for teaching them to write the superb English prose of which each would become a master, and which would win for them the admiration of Evelyn Waugh.

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake
Raymond Chandler, in Farewell My Lovely

It might seem impossible to depict the perpetual sunshine of Blandings Castle and the mean streets of Los Angeles in the same words and style and idiom. But thanks to their formative years at Dulwich, Chandler and Wodehouse played with the English language in ways that were sometimes very alike, especially in their use of metaphors and similes which were vivid and unexpected, yet also completely apt and utterly unforgettable.

Early in Farewell My Lovely, for example, Chandler introduces the sinister character of Moose Malloy: "a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall, and not wider than a beer truck". And later comes the great line: "he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake".

Wodehouse's writing abounds with similar flights of literary fancy: he once described the loud and raucous laughter of a young and intimidating woman as resembling the noise made by a troop of cavalry crossing a tin bridge, and on another occasion he likened the unhappy demeanour of one of Bertie Wooster's aunts to someone "who, picking daisies on the railway, had just caught the down express in the small of the back".

Jeeves and Wooster
Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster were evoked on screen

Indeed, on occasions, their word-play is so similar in its memorable inventiveness that it's almost indistinguishable. Consider, by way of illustration, this wonderful image: "she was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window".

This could certainly be Raymond Chandler: he wrote a great deal about blondes, especially powerful, sinister, sexy blonds, and the violent simile is certainly in keeping with his cynical, disenchanted view of the world, in which religious morality has no place and churches serve no purpose.

But it could equally be PG Wodehouse: his work is also full of aggressive, assertive and athletic women with fair hair, and there are vicars and bishops aplenty in his books, not surprisingly, since four of his uncles were Church of England clergymen.

So which of them is the author of this marvellous and oft-quoted line: is it Chandler, or is it Wodehouse?

Many of you will no doubt know the answer already, and as for those of you who don't, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the fun by telling you.

Just read Chandler, and read Wodehouse, and as you turn the pages of their pitch-perfect prose, be grateful that they both went to that particular school in suburban south London.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

And what of Enid Blyton? Who lived down the road from the college? South London is a veritable richness of culture, H G Wells, Bowie, Siousxie, Max Splodge from Bromley alone, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman Lewisham/Deptford, Christopher Marlowe was murdered in Deptford right close to where Oldman grew up, Danny Baker, you have such a large collection of south London creative people. Barnes Wallace lived in New Cross and developed the theory of his bouncing bomb in his back garden there alongside a great deal of other of his inventions and innovations. Although it is a misnomer that Sir Thomas Crapper of Chislehurst designed the first flushing toilet, his claim to fame is along those lines but Chislehurst brought us Siouxsie of the Banshees defining Punk as an era in South London, Hale and Pace, Jeremy Beadle, the list is fairly big when you think about it.
Ian, UK

Another literary connection with Dulwich College is Ngaio Marsh, New Zealand detective-story author and theatre producer. She notes in her autobiography that her detective hero - Roderick Alleyn - was named after the founder of Dulwich College, which some of her friends attended.
Valerie Pegg, Wigan, UK

I have often thought these two writers must have shared a teacher ... thank you for the illumination.
Jeremy Best, Wincanton UK

In mentioning the 'most famous' writers to have attended Dulwich College, you left out the 13 year duration Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin comedy duo of the 1950's-1960's who not only had multiple radio and TV programmes of their own, but wrote for Peter Sellers, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies, and David Frost amongst others. Denis Goodwin died in 1975, and Bob Monkhouse continued on to become one of only three to have been the guest star of , "This is Your Life" three times in his 50 years in show business.
Jeremy Goodwin, MSc. MD, Mount Shasta, California, USA

Having never been to England, I had no idea where Dulwich was - I only knew of the college from the blurbs of Wodehouse books.My knowledge would have remained there, but for this author. Remarkable piece of information, and heart-warming. Giving the world authors with such turn of phrase - something that endears the language to so many like me - proves that Dulwich College was anything but "Lovely as a rose, dumb as a peahen", or what!!!
Mohan A, Bangalore, India

Wonderful prose from both. Chandler, like Jane Austen, is to be read once a year, straight through. But it does not brighten up the day. For that, you need Wodehouse. Both are also masters of the serpentine plot.
Peter Simons, Dublin, Ireland

Could James Rodman, the hero of Wodehouse's short story Honeysuckle Cottage be based on Chandler? Rodman is a novelist who produces five hundred words of "wholesome bloodstained fiction" every day, and stories that centre on "revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies - with or without gash in throat." I wonder if the two authors ever met.
Andrew J Dunn, Glentham, England

Print Sponsor



Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific