Biographer, music writer and Old Alleynian Patrick Humphries, was persuaded to write this compendium of five of Dulwich College’s most famous authors over tea in the Master’s study, a place where in his schooldays he feared being summoned for a caning., If Patrick did not excel academically at the College, he was in good company; neither did all of his subjects; indeed, only one, A E W Mason, famous as author of ‘The Four Feathers’, went on to university, the others left the school for pretty mundane jobs in banks, wine warehouses and accountancy. However, both Mason and PG Wodehouse were extrovert enough to appear (briefly) in drama productions although Wodehouse favoured G & S even as a member of the chorus. Mason, who lived in newly built Kingswood Drive was a keen member of the College’s cadet force.
Raymond Chandler seems ‘content’ with his schooldays at Dulwich and like Wodehouse had a lasting affection for it, even sending food parcels from the USA to his old Classics master during WW2, but he initially showed only modest signs of his future skill as a thriller writer, becoming a instead an adolescent ‘flaneur ‘ in Paris soon after leaving school. This experience left him with not only a window into a seamier side of life which would be useful in years to come, but also a dependency on alcohol. Surprisingly, he then entered the Civil Service (third out of 600 candidates at the entrance exam) with a position at the Admiralty. Writing occasional columns for newspapers and reviews and poems for magazines, hardly sustained him and he even fell back on Dulwich for employment as a Classics supply teacher for a year. Moving to California he became an accountant, first in a dairy company before becoming an executive in an oil company. It was not until 1938, when Chandler was aged 50, and over thirty years after he left the College, that his first book - The Big Sleep was published but then his success, if belated became unstoppable. It is suggested that the name of his world-weary hero, Philip Marlowe, was borrowed from one of the names of the College’s Houses.
Denis Wheatley was at Dulwich for less than a year, probably much to the relief of both parties. He loathed it, just like C S Forester and he left to become a cadet on a naval training ship. His books were hugely popular between the wars when he was the nation’s best selling author, and Humphries, who had a soft spot for Wheatley’s novels when he was a youngster, says that his books would be seen today as anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist and misogynistic (are there any other failings left!) but otherwise were all jolly good at the time.
Of course, it is Wodehouse who has most space devoted to him. His love of his old school verged on the side of obsession and can only be explained if you consider that with his parents away in the Far East for his entire youth, and brought up instead by aunts, the College was his real family -then it all makes sense. Patrick Humphries draws on his extensive knowledge of the music world to let the reader know what a force Plum was in musical theatre and Hollywood as a librettist.
All five chosen authors occupy the furrows of a well-ploughed field of literary biography, but this study brings out interesting facets of each and are spliced with the biographer’s own memories of their shared alma mater. If Dulwich College was their writing cradle, Humphries shows us that Hollywood’s film studios became their main avenue to fame,
In fact, Patrick Humphries himself had to overcome obstacles much more challenging than his subjects of this, his twenty-first book, While he was at Dulwich his academic work suffered and sport became a no-go activity after he lost a leg to cancer as a schoolboy.
A Cradle of Writers by Patrick Humphries is available from Dulwich College Commissariat price £20. Hardback 221 pages with illustrations
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