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"Twopence Coloured" has much to enjoy for readers who have come to know and love Patrick Hamilton's work
on 20 July 2013
I adore Patrick Hamilton's "Hangover Square" (1941) - my favourite novel of all time; "Slaves Of Solitude" (1947) is superb; I also really enjoyed the first two Gorse novels - "The West Pier" (1952); and "Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse" (1953); and "Craven House" (1926) (the book that preceded this one). I would also heartily recommend the biography of Patrick Hamilton, "Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton" by Nigel Jones. Since reading "Hangover Square", I have been working my way through all of Patrick Hamilton's work.
"Twopence Coloured" was published in 1928, two years after "Craven House" which had been well received by both critics and the reading public. "Twopence Coloured" was out of print, and all but forgotten, until the Faber Finds reissue in 2011. This does not surprise me as "Twopence Coloured" is the least successful and pleasing book that I have yet read by Patrick Hamilton. I was dismayed that, after the wealth of disparate characters that appear in "Craven House", he wrote this baggy, meandering, overlong and slight tale. With the light of hindsight, we know this was a blip in an otherwise upward trajectory, and he was to hit form again with "Rope: A Play", and then "The Midnight Bell", and then onwards to the peak that was the sublime "Hangover Square", via the "Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky" trilogy.
There are three main reasons why "Twopence Coloured" is far less successful than "Craven House", and the books that were to follow:
1) It's too long. For the first time ever reading Patrick Hamilton, I felt occasionally bored and was tempted to skip ahead. The tale is slight and could have been effectively told in a short story.
2) The lack of social context. "Craven House" managed to tell an interesting story that highlighted the broader generational conflicts after WW1, along with the social tensions during that era. "Hangover Square" and "Slaves Of Solitude" were to even more perfectly marry social and political comment with compelling drama and wonderfully observational writing about pubs, boarding houses, personal relationships, addiction, love and obsession.
3) Uninteresting characters. The book's two main characters, Jackie Mortimer and Richard Gissing, dominate the story, and yet I felt I never got to know much about either of them. Given the well observed, and perfectly described, characters in Patrick Hamilton's other books, this seems odd and anomalous.
Despite these flaws, the book still has much to recommend it. This is Patrick Hamilton after all. He drew on his experience of working in theatre, and seems to perfectly capture the theatrical milieu - both in London's West End, and the provinces. As always with Patrick Hamilton, the dialogue and humour ring with authenticity, and I have no doubt that much of what is stated in the book was originally heard by Patrick Hamilton.
Despite its unnecessary length, "Twopence Coloured" has much to enjoy for readers who have come to know and love Patrick Hamilton's work. Newcomers should start with "Hangover Square" and "Slaves Of Solitude", and then work through the many other highlights of his bibliography before tackling "Twopence Coloured".
I'll finish this review with two pieces of trivia associated with the book:
1) Mark (at The Patrick Hamilton Appreciation Society on GoodReads) informed me that UK theatre-goers in the early twentieth century could purchase miniature paper replica model kits of the stage set and the characters, and - once home - re-enact the play for friends and family. These model sets were typically available in two versions - black and white and full colour . The vendors would cry, "Penny Plains! Twopence Coloured!". Now you know.
2) Jackie and Richard dine at Booth's Restaurant in Brighton on a few occasions. As a resident of Brighton and Hove I wondered where this establishment used to be. I had not heard of it before. It was surprisingly difficult to find information, however after some intense searching I discovered that Booth's Restaurant aka Edwin Booth & Sons, Pastry Cooks and Confectioners, was located at 69-70 East Street in Brighton from 1870 until at least 1950. The beautiful double fronted Victorian building is still at 69-70 East Street and, at the time of writing, is a hairdressers.