Friday 13 November 2009

Mean Streets

According to yesterday's Evening Standard (which was forced on me by a wild-eyed maiden in W.H. Smiths),

Leona Lewis has paid tribute to the mean streets of Hackney, telling how her tough upbringing has prepared her to face anything.

Quite aside from the military, Roman-Empirish connotations of paying tribute, I was pleased by the tenacity of “mean streets”.

The phrase was invented by Raymond Chandler in his essay The Simple Art of Murder written in 1950:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.

It’s astonishing that such a simple tethering of a common adjective and common noun should have held on for so long, like one of those shotgun marriages that lasts to a golden anniversary. It has no official, legal or psychobabble patron like hard labour, deadly weapon or tough love. Yet, like bindweed, it lives.

Chandler probably intended mean more with the sense of lowly or poor than with the purely malicious understanding that the word acquired with Martin Scorcese’s film.

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean...

As a lovely point of trivia Raymond Chandler was educated at Dulwich College in London from 1900 to 1905 , just missing P.G. Wodehouse who was there from 1894 to 1900. They both excelled at classics: hence their impeccable grammar.

Chandler’s views on split infinitives must be left to another post.

The mean streets of Dulwich in 1890

P.S. According to Microsoft Word, which is always underlining my Heliconian scribblings, the first sentence of this post should have read “which did a wild-eyed maiden in W.H. Smiths force on me”. I rather like it; it sounds like one of those pseudy-demotic ballads of the early nineteenth century.

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