Great Books: Patrick Hamilton’s reversals of fortune

Once admired by contemporaries like Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton’s gritty tales of down-and-out London are finally receiving the praise they deserve.
Portrait of Patrick Hamilton, expert chronicler of London’s browbeaten and downtrodden in the interwar and post-war years. Credit: Public Domain
Portrait of Patrick Hamilton, expert chronicler of London’s browbeaten and downtrodden in the interwar and post-war years. Credit: Public Domain
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‘He was back in life again,’ writes Patrick Hamilton in his 1941 novel Hangover Square, as he jolts his sad, sick, drink-marinated protagonist from his latest ‘dead’ mood. George Harvey Bone will soon be shaken, pummelled and ground down by real-world afflictions – loneliness, unrequited love, booze, booze and more booze – but for a fleeting moment he embraces the cold light of day. ‘It was good to be back in life.’

Bone’s creator is now back in life, or at least back on bookshop shelves. By the time of his alcohol-fuelled death in 1962 at the age of 58, Hamilton’s readership had dwindled; for decades after it most of his books were unpublished and unread. Some went in and out of print; a dismal monotony of Hamilton antiheroes falling on and off the wagon. Recent years have seen something of a literary salvage operation, with publishers not only reissuing once celebrated works but digging up and dusting down less well known or long-forgotten titles.

Despite the welcome reappearance of his back catalogue, and the many blurbs pronouncing Hamilton revived and his reputation restored, he is still largely, and unfairly, viewed as an also-ran to contemporaries such as Graham Greene and George Orwell, or as a one-hit wonder. But to dismiss him as second-rate or to ignore his other books is to sideline a singular talent.

Hamilton was born in 1904 near Brighton. Thanks in part to the behaviour of his shiftless, alcoholic father, he spent much of his childhood in a series of boarding-houses. He was taken out of Westminster School when he was fifteen and bypassed university. After trying his hand at acting, he turned to writing, publishing his debut novel, Monday Morning, in 1925. More fiction followed, as did two stage plays: Rope (1929), which Hitchcock turned into a film; and Gas Light (1938), whose title spawned the popular term ‘gaslighting’.

In 1932, while still enjoying early success, Hamilton was run over by a car. The accident left him facially disfigured and precipitated his heavy drinking. It also resulted in him introducing darker tones to his work.

Hamilton’s finest books show him to be an expert chronicler of London’s browbeaten and downtrodden in the interwar and post-war years. In grimy pubs, shabby boarding-houses and dead-end dosshouses we meet lost, lovelorn, desperate and washed-up individuals who seek solace in fellow sufferers or drunken oblivion. Their slang, fears, dashed hopes and failed dreams are characteristic of an entire underclass. By conveying them so vividly Hamilton not only animates lives: he also serves up a valuable, and memorable, snapshot of society. 

His three novels which make up the semi-autobiographical trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) offer a perfect entry-point into his work. The first, The Midnight Bell, draws on Hamilton’s doomed affair with (or as his brother Bruce termed it, his ‘enslavement to’) Lily, a West End prostitute, in the late 1920s. His fictional self is Bob, an aspiring writer and barman of the eponymous pub. He falls for a pretty punter, Jenny, who catches his eye when she pops in for a gin and peppermint. He isn’t put off when he discovers she is a prostitute; instead his ardour intensifies until ‘Her murderous beauty held him enthralled.’ Gradually he unravels: draining his savings, drowning his sorrows when she stands him up, and deluding himself into believing he has a future with ‘this dreadful flower of the underworld.’ 

Hamilton’s pungent tale poses a conundrum for the reader: how does one champion an irredeemable protagonist? Bob is a lost cause, in too deep and too far gone. Rather than root for him, Hamilton invites us to pity him. He takes a similar approach in the second book, The Siege of Pleasure, which switches to Jenny’s perspective and charts the calamitous chain of events – triggered by a single glass of port – that led to her downfall.

The third book centres on the barmaid of The Midnight Bell. Plain, shingle-haired Ella is in love with Bob (and undaunted by his ‘littery tastes’) but must make do with a solely platonic relationship. In typical Hamilton tradition, The Plains of Cement becomes a novel that skilfully synthesises two tragic elements, namely unrequited love and unsuitable suitors. Ella gets an older, socially superior admirer in the form of ghastly Ernest Eccles, whose company she nevertheless endures due to a lack of other offers. When he eventually proposes to her the narrative acquires a new dynamic, and Hamilton compels us to read on, participants in his guessing-game, wondering if Ella will take the plunge and throw her life away.

If Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky has withered on the vine over the years, Hangover Square remains a hardy perennial. For this is Hamilton’s masterpiece. The shadow of war, together with Bone’s schizophrenic moods and wicked plan to kill a woman, imbues the novel with queasy tension, a terrible energy unfelt in any of Hamilton’s other books. This tautness, an ever-present grittiness, and Hamilton’s stark and convincing depiction of a steady descent into madness and despondency, are just some of the factors that have appealed to fresh generations of readers and given the novel an extended shelf-life.

Hamilton took Bob’s infatuation with Jenny in The Midnight Bell and twisted it, making Bone ‘netted in hate just as he was netted in love.’ A beleaguered, dipsomaniacal fringe-member of Netta Longdon’s ‘filthy gang’, Bone follows them around Earls Court, drifting then staggering from one dingy bar to another. When Netta isn’t shunning him or sponging off him she is mocking him, delivering ‘hideous cuts across the soul’. After a disastrous trip to Brighton he comes back ‘a kicked dog but with his tail still wagging’ – more resolved than before to murder the woman who is both the love and the bane of his life.  

Hamilton’s late works have their highs and lows. The Slaves of Solitude (1947) is a richly inventive ensemble piece which revolves around a group of exhausted evacuees who have sought refuge from the Blitz in a boarding-house in the riverside town of Thames Lockdon. The colourful occupants include an ex-music hall comedian, a sweet-talking, big-drinking American ‘Lootenant’, and the grotesque bully and ‘hot disciple’ of Hitler, Mr Thwaites. Less successful is the decidedly uneven Gorse Trilogy, comprising The West Pier (1952), Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953) and Unknown Assailant (1955). Most of it was written while Hamilton was at his lowest ebb; some of it was dictated while he was under the influence.

In his better books, Hamilton provides sharp insight into drinkers and drinking. At one point in Hangover Square Bone turns his ‘beer-shot eyes’ away from the bar-flies and pub-crawlers, sloughs off his self-loathing, and light-heartedly philosophises on the respective pleasure and pain of the night before and the morning after. Bob regales us with similar alcoholic logic in The Midnight Bell when enumerating the many different phases of drunkenness: ‘They were talking drunk, and confidential drunk, and laughing drunk, and beautifully drunk, and leering drunk, and secretive drunk, and dignified drunk, and admittedly drunk, and fighting drunk, and even rolling drunk…’

Drunkenness and sadness permeate Hamilton’s work, just as they did his life. Shadows are everywhere. (The titles of two significant Hamilton biographies are, fittingly, Through a Glass Darkly and The Light Went Out). And yet sometimes Hamilton tempers his murk with interludes of unexpected beauty. In one instance, Bob gives Jenny another handout, hits her with another unreturned declaration of love, and then notices it is snowing. ‘Tiny flakes, whirling and scampering down, as though in terror or ecstasy, from the hidden night above. A myriad host of minute invaders, coming to fill, with their delicate but excited concerns, the gloomy plains of electric-lit London.’

With passages as powerful as this and well-drawn individuals whose fates matter to us, Hamilton’s up-and-down popularity seems baffling. Doris Lessing attributed his fall from grace and slow comeback to London’s drastic transformation in the mid-fifties: colour replaced drabness, hope supplanted fear, and ‘when you walked into a pub Hamilton’s characters were not there.’ They are still not there. However, they now speak to us loud and clear in his republished books, their despair keenly felt and their loss brilliantly rendered. Hamilton is ‘back in life’. With luck he is back for good.

Malcolm Forbes

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer and critic based in Edinburgh.

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