Patrick Hamilton

by John Boland

No one in literature has written with such dark intensity and sardonic humour  about the pleasures and  perils of pub life as Patrick Hamilton – and he wasn’t even Irish. Instead, his luckless characters inhabit the bars around Earls Court and the Edgeware Road. Occasionally they’re to be found nursing a pint or a whiskey in Brighton or Hove, but it’s the city in which they’re mostly entrapped and no one has written so well, either, about the impersonality and loneliness of urban existence.

Hamilton, who was born in 1904 and died of drink in 1962, went entirely out of fashion in the latter half of the 20th century but is now enjoying something of a revival – most of his novels are back in print, last year BBC4 screened a fine adaptation of his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (which was his description of London), and his early play Gaslight, which in the 1940s was made into a film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, has been attracting large audiences at the Old Vic. His other famous play, Rope, was turned into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1949.

His most famous novel, Hangover Square, which was first published in 1941 and has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic, is generally regarded as his masterpiece. Set in London on the eve of the Second World War, it evokes a demi monde of hardened, hopeless drinkers with such brooding immediacy that you feel you’re among them in their squalid Earl’s Court bars. At the heart of the story is the murderous intent of the unhinged main character towards the heartless, manipulative young woman with whom he’s besotted, and it’s a measure of Hamilton’s achievement that you feel an appalled complicity with this schizophrenic man as he indecisively plots her demise – in the same way that Patricia Highsmith makes you a willing accomplice in the murderous doings of her anti-hero Tom Ripley.

Good as this novel is, though, the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is even better. The first novel of the trilogy, The Midnight Bell, written in 1929 when Hamilton was only 25, concerns a young barman’s doomed infatuation with a pretty young prostitute, which mirrors Hamilton’s own disastrous relationship with a prostitute at that time. The second novel looks at much the same milieu from the young prostitute’s point of view, while the third revisits the scene through the eyes of the plain young barmaid who’s in love with the barman.

These three books are shot through with an intense sadness about people’s forlorn hopes as they try to make their way in an unforgiving city, but they’re full of social comedy, too, and  psychologically they’re very astute, with not a trace of condescension towards his working-class heroes and heroines, though Hamilton himself came from a fairly privileged, if eccentric, middle-class background. The account of servant girl Jenny getting drunk for the first time and thus setting herself on the road to prostitution is a masterpiece of descriptive insight, and you feel as if you’re getting drunk along with her.

Even finer than these novels is The Slaves of Solitude, written in 1947 and set in a boarding house at a war-time seaside resort outside London, where Miss Roach, a spinster approaching forty, has to cope with some dreadful fellow tenants, as well as with duplicitous friends, feckless sexual predators and her own essential loneliness. She’s one of the great heroines of modern fiction, and how she achieves her own kind of redemption makes for a very funny and intensely moving book.

Hamilton, who found early fame and fortune, was badly injured and disfigured when struck by a car in the early 1930s and he retreated into heavy drinking, which two marriages did nothing to halt. When he died he was an almost forgotten man, but how his hour has come again.

I’m glad it has because, although I’ve known of Hamilton ever since I became interested in books, I only started reading him in the past year. And that’s the great thing about literature – discoveries like this, no matter how late in the day they come, are always exciting as they remind you that there are neglected but wonderful books out there waiting patiently, perhaps for decades or more, to surprise and enchant new readers. And I hope that Patrick Hamilton does just that for you.

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