Feb/Mar 2008

One More Round

In a trio of novels, Patrick Hamilton offered deft portraits of the English working class as World War II descended. Their republication introduces us to the odd, booze-drenched world of a terrific British writer.

Eric Banks


Over buttered scones and crumpets
Weeping, weeping multitudes
Droop in a hundred A.B.C.'s.

—T. S. Eliot, "A Cooking Egg"

When Patrick Hamilton wrote to his brother, Bruce, of the "magnifying influence of beer—the neurotics' microscope," he wasn't blowing smoke; he was faithfully expressing what for him had assumed the knife-sharp form of dogma. For Hamilton, one of the hardest-drinking authors of the twentieth century, there was more in his topped-off flask than the boozy business, though; he deftly mastered an entire worldview of late-'30s and early-'40s London and the precincts his working-class subjects haunted—not just the grubby alcoholism, the evenings of ale and pink gin and whiskey, and the fevered attempts to find an establishment open after last call but also the more plebeian desire for tea at the ABC shops and leviathan Lyons Corner Houses, one of which could seat five thousand teacup-holding Englishmen, their class anxiety served up amid marble staircases and the anodyne twinklings of a for-hire orchestra.

Hamilton's drinkers and their infelicitous, ineluctable fates are not to be forgotten, but the novelist's range and universe are not reducible to only that. For sure, alcoholism guides Hamilton's writing in the same sense that Greekness guides Cafavy's and Catholicism Walker Percy's. In Hamilton's work, drink is, more than an eventuality, a Durkheimian social fact. He is nothing less than the ultimate gerrymanderer of the physical and psychic landscape inhabited by his barmaids, waiters, prostitutes, and two-bit actresses: the dingy pubs and mammoth teahouses, the doss-houses, the theaters and catchpenny movie houses, the hewed-in, zigzagging streets enveloped in a damp, gloomy darkness. The titles of three recently rereleased novels by Hamilton tip his hand as to that peculiarly turbid black atmosphere: Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court (1941), The Slaves of Solitude (1947), and the three-part Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935), which includes the echt-Hamiltonian title "The Plains of Cement."

The time and place of Hamilton's writing are harshly circumscribed—this is an England that ceased to be when the first Nazi bombs rained down in 1940—but if history brackets his work as though it issued from another planet, the obliquity of its orbit has done nothing to halt its full-blown rediscovery. The three aforementioned books have been dusted off, stamped with new covers, and front-loaded with praise from the likes of David Lodge, Nick Hornby, and Susanna Moore, providing fresh, dry ammo for those who have maintained that Hamilton the novelist was the better of Hamilton the playwright. Still, the latter Hamilton has been lately reexamined, too: Gaslight (1938), his second-best-known play (1929's Rope, the Leopold-and-Loeb-ish drama that was the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film, remains his claim to fame), was reprised just last summer at the Old Vic; there has even been talk of its ruination on film by Joe Wight (Atonement). The 1941 New York production of Gaslight, which starred Vincent Price as a conniver trying to make his wife think she is going cuckoo, ran on Broadway for 1,295 performances—the longest stay in America of any foreign play—and filled Hamilton's pockets with more pounds than he could get rid of. The recent return to the London stage of Gaslight followed on the heels of the BBC's adaptation of Twenty Thousand Streets, which sent the curious back to the novels and their encomiums at the hands of a host of highbrow backslappers—Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, John Betjeman, J. B. Priestley—all of whom once emphatically praised the tippler ethnologist of the English working class.

Hamilton himself protested that his stage productions and radio plays were mere cash registers, compared with the art of his novels. That may be true, but you can sooner take Hamilton out of the theater than take the theater out of Hamilton: An instinct for the stage inflects all his work, down to the somewhat melodramatic bases of his plots. Reading Hamilton's novels, one gets the impression that many of the words ricocheting in his characters' brains are actors' notes, rehearsals of a range of emotional states (most of them somewhere along the continuum from fear to dread) and possible responses. Their fevered thoughts are triggered as much by something said as by something done. This passage from Twenty Thousand Streets, as the barmaid Ella weighs whether to accept a habitué's invitation to a matinee, is a typical example of Hamilton's ruminative vein:

She noticed that he not only took it for granted that she had already accepted, but regarded acceptance as an act fully in accordance with nature and all the proprieties. Moreover his keenness on her behalf, which she now was certain was sincere, had instantly infected her. Why should she not regard herself as one in luck—in great luck? She had few enough chances to go to the theatre, and from her own (and the sane) point of view there was no harm in being taken out by a friendly middle-aged customer. If there had been any harm or humiliation it would have in reference to the opinion of others—particularly, of course, to the opinion of that supremely, that only momentous arbitrator of her values—Bob. And here was Bob himself giving her his sanction! She had made a fool of herself. She was always reading things into things, and making a fool of herself.

It's not necessarily odd to portray characters' inner thoughts as self-torturing; what is odd is to throw up such mental monkey bars in a social-realist architecture. The minds of Hamilton's characters are so contorted by the gymnastics of conflicted thought that it's a wonder they can ever act at all.

Patrick Hamilton in his rooms at the Albany, London, during World War II.

Of course, to be rediscovered, you have first to be forgotten. At this, Hamilton (1904–1962) succeeded marvelously. He was one of three children born to a dipsomaniacal blowhard father, who, when not imagining a fanciful claim to aristocratic filiation, was the author of several awful historical novels, and a writer mother on her second marriage, who eventually committed suicide. Hamilton dropped out of high school early on and bummed around as an actor. But he seized on his familial calling as a novelist and managed to publish, a few days after turning twenty-one, the highly successful Monday Morning (1925), a winning if conventionally Dickensian novel about a writer's ambition to set down to writing. He parlayed his magic with the well-received Craven House (1926) and then Two Pence Coloured (1928), which shifted the action to the theatrical climes he knew intimately, not just from his own juvenile exposure but from the experiences of his sister, Diana, who was just then sampling the ambrosia of early success on the stage. That success would be fleeting.

Hamilton, a famous author in his twenties, saw most everything go downhill from there. In 1932, he was mowed down by a car; the accident ripped off his nose and left one arm mangled, and recovery took a year. The event, followed by his mother's suicide the next year, egged on his drinking, already prolific. His brother reports that by the '40s, Hamilton had graduated to three bottles of whiskey a day. His personal life had never been satisfactory, and now it grew worse. Hamilton shared his father's enthusiastic obsession with prostitutes, even though he seems to have abstained from consummation (a withdrawal that likely extended to carnal relations with his first wife, Lois). Where Hamilton senior had blown most of his inheritance on a hooker he married, who put an end to the relationship by throwing herself in front of a train, Hamilton junior was in the grips of the streetwalker Lily Connolly, whose grammatically challenged letters he cited almost verbatim in Twenty Thousand Streets. Though he somehow produced the great Gorse Trilogy in the early '50s, it met his publisher's disfavor and sold dismally. He eventually underwent electroshock in an attempt to cure his alcoholism. It didn't take, and he wrote nothing thereafter. By the time he'd finished drinking himself to death, in 1962, six people attended his funeral.

The last book that Hamilton began to write was a memoir of his addiction. The incomplete manuscript is modeled after George Gissing's late semiautobiographical novel, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. (Gissing, his literary idol, also married a streetwalker; it didn't turn out any better for him than it did for Hamilton's father.) That pseudo roman à clef tells of a writer's final years of happiness after abandoning Grub Street for a cottage in the country. Hamilton found little solace in his declining years, and he was at pains to discover the root sources of his alcoholism. But if he never found peace with drink, he did find an outlet in three novels, published decades earlier, for expressing his own quizzical relationship to the bottle. We are fortunate to see all three republished.

In Twenty Thousand Streets, the decline and fall of two of the three main characters takes place with a helpful shove from alcohol. The waiter Bob, the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of the first part, "The Midnite Bell," sees his savings, his sobriety, and his will to become a writer purloined through his hopeless pursuit of a prostitute. Her name is Jenny, and the story of her descent from skivvy is swift following her exposure to the temptations of port in the second part of the trilogy, "The Siege of Pleasure." The fate of the simpleton Ella, the barmaid at the Midnite Bell and the third player in this triangle of degeneracy, is narrated in the final section, "The Plains of Cement," in which her bleak but becalmed existence is forever unsettled once the dull, bucktoothed older patron Mr. Eccles begins to make advances toward her.

The brilliantly chiastic structure of Twenty Thousand Streets becomes fully apparent only with the final section. But once it does, the novelistic crisscross illuminates all three characters while providing continuity with running comic figures, like the buffoonish Governor, who provides lodging to Bob and Ella above the pub. (The rediscovery of Hamilton has tended to short his gift for dry comedy, but in drawing characters like the horrid Mr. Eric, the suavely impudent, spoiled schoolboy grandson of the Governor, he creates a nice foil for his tragic main players.) What seems baffling at first about Bob's story—the plot of "The Midnite Bell" can at times appear to be a wobbly nail on which Hamilton is hanging his picture of the waiter's debauched final night and decision to abandon his literary aspirations in favor of a life at sea—becomes more resonant across the other two: Jenny's sleaziness becomes leavened and humanized; Ella's innocuousness is reconciled with her deep and unreconciled longing for Bob.

Ella and Jenny are no less the petty victims of proffered hopes than is Bob. In the case of Jenny, the drunken offer she receives for work as a "mannequin" excites the dim view she holds of her present prospects—she is a housemaid for a dismal, snobbish pair of octogenarian sisters and a deaf retired doctor, but she blows off her job, as well as her respectably mediocre boyfriend, Tom, on the second day of employment. Multiple glasses of port served up after work when she meets a friend—who cajoles two slimy alkies to join themdon't exactly dissuade her from her career choice: Bucking her desire to quit the ad hoc drinking party, "she lacked the pure inclination to [depart] which she had felt a few moments ago. A new sensation had replaced it. A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around—together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, and a kind of premonition. . . . It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news. . . . It engendered the desire to celebrate nothing for no reason."

A narrative structure that so broadcasts that Jenny's fate has been fixed is preciously facile, yet this is exactly what Hamilton employs. Her involvement in an awful drunk-driving accident later that night turns out to be a Rubicon moment, and by the time she accepts her companion's hair-of-the-dog suggestion of morning drink, we already know she's done for. The most autobiographical of Hamilton's novels, Twenty Thousand Streets is probably his most humane as well. But it is no less marked by the novelist's weaknesses: The attempt to mimic demotic language betrays a too-easy realism; coupled with the hand-wringing in his descriptions of ersatz, alcohol-fueled enthusiasm, his characters become a bit cardboard. If compulsively readable, Twenty Thousand Streets is a novel in which Hamilton fails to work his way out of a very stagy set of empathically penned character sketches.

Take heart, though: Hamilton's foundering here is hardly the case in his two masterpieces, Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude. Maybe what Twenty Thousand Streets needs is a really nasty character. Hamilton clearly relished creating truly reprobate, noxious pieces of work, and in both novels, he sketched a pair of pigs—in Hangover Square, the hateful, social-climbing actress Netta and the creepy, Owen Mosley–ish Peter; in Slaves of Solitude, the petty Lord Haw-Haw of the boardinghouse Mr. Thwaites and the sniveling German expat Vicki Kugelmann. If every woman adores a fascist, so did Patrick Hamilton.

His evil characters tug on his protagonists in a magnetic field of misplaced devotion, and indeed, the bulks of both Hangover Square and Slaves of Solitude are spent in the attempt to understand what it means to be under the sway of maleficent forces. For the self-hating, mentally ill George Harvey Bone of Hangover Square, the struggle is a matter of justifying his murderous impulses toward the opportunistic Netta and her Blackshirt consort; for the spinsterly Enid Roach of Slaves of Solitude, it will be a battle to break through Mr. Thwaites's bating, bullying control over the London refugees inhabiting the suburban boardinghouse to which they have retreated to ride out the blacked-out days and nights following the Blitz.

Hangover Square is a novelist's attempt to update and anglicize Raskolnikov under the guise of pulp. Bone suffers from a mental disability that is signified by the click that accompanies a sudden disruption of his stream of consciousness. (Hamilton is quick to give a cinematic tinge to Bone's malady: "It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the soundtrack had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world.") That thought-erasing click briefly frees Bone from his confused addiction to the cruel Netta and clarifies the singular assignment he has given himself: to murder her.

Boxing Day, 1938: Bone returns to Earl's Court, the seedy London district whose pubs he frequents, determined to put an end to the hold Netta (her name evoking his ensnarement) has on him. They, with her thuggish fascist friend Peter and the disastrously alcoholic Mickey, met initially over drink, of course. ("He was no longer the sole escort of a delightful girl: he was a interloper in a strange gang. . . . He didn't even know their language, their idiom. He would never forget the way Peter looked at him and behaved when they first met at the 'Black Hart.' Netta, of course, made no attempt to introduce him. She seemed to take a sort of cold delight in his humiliation. He didn't know to this day how he had struck on; he had only made the grade because he just couldn't stop himself from seeing Netta, and because he had money at that time.")

Every encounter with Netta ends in abject, painful failure. Bone takes her to an expensive dinner only to discover that she has selected this restaurant in order to flirt with a theatrical producer. She wheedles money from him whenever she comes up short. She accepts a retreat with him to Brighton in exchange for his paying her bills, then shows up inebriated with Peter and another man they've picked up, "a nasty-looking piece of work short, vile, stocky—with a darkly tanned, scarred, pugilistic, Rugby-football face." The gang, already lit up like a Christmas tree, terrorize the staff while getting even more bombed, and Peter loudly affirms his admiration for Chamberlain and Hitler. Netta beds the unnamed thug within earshot of Bone's room. In the morning, Bone discovers all three have been kicked out of the hotel, sticking him and his shrinking wallet with the bill.

By the time Bone carries out his homicidal plan, it is clear that he is snuffing himself out as well. What saves Hangover Square from being a melodramatic, misogynistic harangue is how finely Bone, Netta, and Peter are drawn and how clearly and powerfully Bone's fall, the bleak atmosphere of England in 1938–39 (of which we are endlessly reminded, not just in the jackboot rhetoric of Peter but in the newspaper headlines that Hamilton interlards throughout), and the dark hopelessness of the pubs reinforce one another.

Where Hangover Square succeeds in capturing the mood of England on the verge of war, Slaves of Solitude, Hamilton's greatest novel, pictures the moment of 1943 and the fatigued survivors of the Blitz as experienced by Miss Roach, an assistant at a publishing house who joins others in taking refuge in the suburbs: "The conditions," Hamilton writes, "were those of intense war, intense winter, and intensest black-out in the month of December." His opening description of Miss Roach attempting to make her way from the train station to the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the lightless streets of England during the blackout is a tour de force of scene setting.

The boardinghouse is lorded over by Mr. Thwaites, who, when not verbally taunting Miss Roach, adopts a bizarre "Troth" voice. ("'And what of my lady of the Roach?' asked Mr. Thwaites. 'How doth she disport herself this morning?'") Being a prim Englishwoman, Miss Roach defers to the unpleasantness of her situation, until two figures appear suddenly in her life: the American soldier Lieutenant Pike, the friendly-dog drunk whose remonstrances at the local pub lead to make-out sessions in the park and quickly to a marriage proposal, and Vicki, the German woman she befriends, who moves into Rosamund only to verbally seduce Mr. Thwaites and deflect Pike's attentions to herself. The social order of the boardinghouse is grossly upset, and Miss Roach, who over the course of the novel goes from a mousy naïf to a jilted woman of a certain age, finds a critical self-consciousness of her life and of her place in the history of her time. She ultimately triumphs over Mr. Thwaites, Lieutenant Pike, and Vicki, but it is a victory over which Hamilton dangles a good dose of ambiguity. Still, to portray a single woman surviving by her wits the terrors of World War II London is admirable and perhaps unrivaled in the literature of its day.

With Slaves of Solitude, Hamilton managed to turn his characters into something more than the doomed drinkers of his earlier work. They still imbibe a ton, and much of the action involves prideful nights in which drink is Dutch courage that forces his protagonists to make impaired, fateful decisions. (There is a wonderful line in Slaves of Solitude when the susceptible Miss Roach, seduced to drink heavily under Lieutenant Pike's pressure, describes feeling "a sudden, delightful, modest, gin and french pride in her experience as a 1940 Londoner.") But here, unique among Hamilton's novels, his main character somehow rises above it all. I'm inclined to think that the title, Slaves of Solitude—particularly the solitude part, applying to Miss Roach's utter loneliness and growing acceptance that her only chance to escape spinsterhood was destroyed by the nefarious planning of Vicki and Mr. Thwaites and the drunken silliness of Lieutenant Pike—is Hamilton's most deeply autobiographical gesture, in the novel that is his least so. He never again matched its brilliant combination of social observation and narrative insight. At its very end, Miss Roach has returned to London and is staying overnight at Claridge's. She looks up at the ceiling, adjusts her pillow, "and hopefully compose[s] her mind for sleep—God help us, every one, all of us." One can imagine Patrick Hamilton, as he dozed off, asking for that same gift every forsaken, drunken night.

Eric Banks is editor in chief of Bookforum.

Advertisement