on 25 May 2011
'Give me a really good read' I said to to an academic friend of mine who teaches English literature over, appropriately, a post-Christmas drink. 'Hmmm' he pondered and then smiled knowingly, 'try Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. I reckon you'll like that one'. Good enough for me I thought and two days later, there it was, sitting on my doormat, courtesy of our old friends at Amazon (crikey they've done well out of me over the years).
And what a read it is. Hamilton pulls you into the sad, seedy, drink-sodden (but irresistible) world of pre-war London. We are in the mind of schizophrenic George Harvey Bone, a loveable loser caught in the grips of a mean and heartless group of boozy 'friends', who take his money and goodwill without the slightest shred of guilt or remorse.
Despite knowing he's being taken for a ride ('I've been such a fool' Bone tragically confides to his only real mate), he remains in the pernicious orbit of this cruel and heartless mob, unable to pull himself away. Why? Because of his doomed, and, needless to say, unreciprocated love for the cold and manipulative femme fatale at the centre of the Black Hart public house drinkers, Netta.
The mark of Hamilton's work is one yearns for the gentle, ever so lonely Bone to escape his torment; to be rid of these callus parasites forever - 'go to Maidenhead, go to Maidenhead, George!', I heard myself shouting at the page, raising a few worried looks from passengers on the Bakerloo Line during my dull Monday morning commute (read the book - the Maidenhead reference will become clear).
But of course poor Bone can't escape and therein lies the tragic destiny of this wonderful, compelling and brilliantly written story.
Do yourself a favour - buy Hangover Square right now, tell the kids to watch some episodes of Scooby-Doo on DVD ('old' Scooby-Doo of course, not the vastly inferior 'new' Scooby), settle down in your favourite armchair and read the best book you're going to read this year.
Patrick Hamilton is a not-quite-forgotten, admired author, who specialised in getting inside the heads of those who were disaffected, on-the-margins, or even, dangerously psychopathic - he was a stage and film writer, as well as author, and responsible for the highly charged, tightly wound, thrillers of sinister psychopathology, Gaslight, and Rope
Hangover Square was one of his most iconic novels. Set primarily in London on the very edge of, and then just at the start of, the Second World War, this follows the fortunes (pretty well unstoppably downwards) of George Harvey Bone, a not quite impoverished, weak willed man with a severe drinking problem, some undiagnosed dissociative mental health problems, and a dangerous 2 year infatuation with a hard, vicious untalented actress.
Bone is an unlikely subject to capture a reader's compassionate interest, yet he does, because despite the fact that he is someone of a definite wasted life, a bit of a bumbling, naïve and pathetic character, he is nevertheless like a lost and vulnerable puppy, possessed of great sweetness of temperament, despite his irritating flaccidity of purpose
Netta, the object of his adoration, is a beautiful and completely amoral, woman, without any charm, wit, intelligence, talent or likeability. Her one asset is her extraordinary beauty, which is clearly barely even skin-deep. Whereas Bone is a marshmallow, ineffectual, likeable drunk, Netta, and her closest crony, louche, spiteful Peter, are hard, aggressive, deeply unpleasant drunks.
The trajectory of the story is George Bone's worsening mental health problems, and the hopeless infatuation with Netta, who is completely uninterested in George, in any way, except as someone to sponge money from, and exploit.
This should be an unbearably depressing book, but instead, there is a kind of gentle humour in George, a puppyish enthusiasm and a potential for excitement and joy which carries the reader along, despite the awareness of the grim background of war on the horizon, the predictable and nasty leanings towards Fascist sympathies espoused by Netta and Peter, and George's inability to free himself from the nest of vipers he can, in some ways, clearly see.
Perhaps Hamilton's ability to make us feel George from the inside, and care about him, too, comes in part from what must have been a certain self-identification in the writer, as Hamilton himself had a disastrous relationship with alcohol, child of an alcoholic father, he died in 1962 of liver cirrhosis. He was a writer who definitely identified with the underdog, the marginalised, and the powerless in society.
J.B. Priestley in his introduction to the the Penguin Classics edition of Hangover Square, describes Hamilton as one of the best `minor novelists' writing in the interwar and beyond years. And lest that seems like damning with faint praise, it is I think fair, admiring praise.
However.........I should caution anyone who gets this edition, with the Priestley introduction to AVOID reading that introduction if you have never read Hangover Square, as foolishly, in the closing paragraph of his otherwise pertinent and interesting introduction, he reveals one of the major spoilers.
on 24 October 2000
Hamilton's characterisation and sense of diction mean that this a novel as re-readable as any by an English author in the twentieth century. The pathetic figure of George Harvey Bone lurches through a perfectly described Dreary Twenties London trying to maintain his sanity and rid himself of his infatuation with a petty and cold actress. The author's sense of tragedy on the small scale echos through all of his better work: this novel, and also The Slaves of Solitude and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.
His humour, his understanding of frustrated sexuality, his cruelty (the author is God in any novel), and his ability to humiliate pathetic but sympathetic characters puts him up there with Nobakov - just a pity Hamilton couldn't have cleaned up his act and kept writing as well as this. However, his work being of a vaguely (very vaguely) autobiographical nature, he had to drink himself to death after writing a number of poor quality later works. This, though, is an absolute gem of a novel.