After reading Hangover Square, I thought that it must surely be his greatest novel. So I waited a while before reading another, expecting that I would enjoy it but that it would not be quite as good. But this tale of the lives of three essentially lonely Londoner's connected by the pub they all meet at, is an even more towering achievement. Hamilton's books speak of ordinary people's lives in grimy circumstances: of trasy loves and infatuations, lonely nights spent between rough sheets in a bustling city. He has a way of writing about emotions that consistently thouch something beautiful yet saddeningly dowdy. The way he sums up tawdry emotional situations in a somewhat whimsical yet tragic way, seems so effortless and easy, the way all true masters of crafts seem able to do. I love this trilogy. And I don't believe anyone who says it's too stuck in it's own time: infatuation, love, loneliness, the manipulation of human emotional needs. It speaks sadly of the human condition, which, as far as I'm aware, is pretty much the same as it ever was.
Along with Henry Green, Hamilton is one of the century's most shamefully neglected British novelists. Help change that!
Attempting to convince someone of the attraction of this book by simply recounting the bare basics of the storyline would require Noel Coward's mastery of the English language. After all, the unappealing, unfulfilled lives of a barmaid, a waiter and a prostitute which centre around a grimy pub in 1930s London does not sound like a recipe for a gripping read does it? Indeed, if it were not for the BBC's adaptation of the book which they aired in 2005 (and available on DVD if you are interested), this book would not have impinged upon my consciousness at all, so hurrah for the BBC.
Even though this book is set forty years before I was born, I was surprised by its timeless nature and how I could still relate to the characters' experiences, feelings, hopes and fears, seven decades on. The reason for this is that Hamilton has conducted a precise exploration and dissection of human nature with regards to love, infatuation, insecurity, emotional repression and many other factors besides, which are still inherently the same, even though the material world around us is vastly altered from the era of "Twenty Thousand Streets".
On a superficial level, these three interconnecting stories of ruinous infatuation ("The Midnight Bell"), a descent into alcoholism and prostitution ("The Siege of Pleasure") and soul-destroying unrequited love ("The Plains of Cement") can be viewed as a classic way for the reader to enter a depressed state. But for me, it was life-affirming material; after all, hardly anyone's life is a constant bed of roses and Hamilton's recognition and unsentimental depiction of this is a reminder that you are not alone whenever you feel that life is dealing you a bad hand.
Whilst his other novels are very good, I feel that "Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky" is Hamilton's masterpiece and deserves a wider audience and recognition for what I regard as a 20th Century classic.
The Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy is an amazing achievement, originally published as three separate books: The Midnight Bell (1929), The Siege of Pleasure (1932) and The Plains of Cement (1934).
In 1935, these books were first collected in one volume as Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky.
The Midnight Bell (1929)
Patrick Hamilton's protagonist Bob, the waiter at a Euston pub called The Midnight Bell, has saved £80 (worth several thousands of pounds in today's money) in the bank through prudence and maximising his tips. Following a chance encounter with Jenny, a prostitute, and with whom he becomes obsessed, and believing he can change her, he becomes ever more reckless and desperate. Towards the end, Bob, realising the folly of his misadventure, concludes "that it had all come from him, and only the hysteria and obsession of his pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation". Basically he'd been played.
As with all the best books by Patrick Hamilton, in addition to a riveting drama, The Midnight Bell also provides a powerfully evocation of London - 1920s London in this instance. The character of Euston, the West End, Soho, and Hampstead, still recognisable to the modern Londoner are beautifully captured, especially the various pubs and cafes which feature so heavily in the story.
The other aspect that rings true so authentically is the dialogue: whether this be the conversations between the regulars at The Midnight Bell, or the somewhat stilted and love lorn conversations between Bob and Jenny, or most powerfully a dreadful scene when Bob visits Jenny in the room she shares with two other prostitutes. The true horror of his situation dawns on Bob, who remains powerless to escape. Frequently these experiences are accompanied by boozing, and then appalling hangovers and self-loathing: clearly something about which Patrick Hamilton had already gained a thorough knowledge.
The Siege of Pleasure (1932)
The Siege of Pleasure is essentially a prequel to The Midnight Bell and the story describes Jenny's drift into prostitution.
In common with Bob, Jenny is the architect of her own downfall. Patrick Hamilton again allows his characters moments of reflection and self-insight during which there are ample opportunities to escape their downward trajectory. It's a clever technique that had me hoping first Bob, and then Jenny, might escape. Like The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure is superb at bringing the era to life via numerous little details. In this novel, Patrick Hamilton wonderfully describes the household where Jenny gets a job as a live in maid and housekeeper. The two older sisters, Bella and Marion, who employ her, are fabulous creations.
One of the novel's longest scenes takes place over a night out in a pub in Hammersmith. Needless to say, Patrick Hamilton nails both the pub's atmosphere, and the way the evening evolves as two women and two men, first meet and get to know each other as inebriation takes hold and inhibitions melt away. Jenny's descent into drunkenness is one of the best descriptions of getting drunk I have ever read.
Patrick Hamilton also works in an incident of drunk driving - this following his own horrific accident at the hands of a drunk driver. In 1932, whilst walking with his sister and wife in London, Patrick Hamilton was struck by a drunk driver and dragged through the street. His injuries were devastating. After a three-month hospital stay, multiple surgeries (the accident ripped off his nose and left one arm mangled), and a period of convalescence, Hamilton suffered physical and emotional scars that would continue with him for the rest of his life. Some claim this contributed to his alcoholism. It certainly badly affected his self-esteem and he became very self conscious about the visible scars and loss of mobility. (His second play, To The Public Danger, commissioned by the BBC as part of a road safety campaign, was also an account of the carnage caused by drink driving).
The Plains of Cement (1934)
As with the other two books, The Plains of Cement works as a stand alone story, however the reading experience is even richer, for those that read the trilogy in sequence.
When writing this book, Patrick Hamilton saw himself as a Marxist, and, in common with the previous books, part of the book deals with the limited options for someone with no capital. Ella, in addition to herself, has to support her Mother, and Step Father, from her meagre earnings at The Midnight Bell. She also acknowledges that she is a plain looking woman.
Unexpectedly, she is courted by one her customers, Mr Eccles, an older man. Mr Eccles is at pains to point out he has Something Put By, and for Ella's benefit He's Letting Her Know (Patrick Hamilton again employing his customary "Komic Kapitals" to emphasise key phrases, and/or cliches, homilies etc).
Mr Eccles is another of Patrick Hamilton's monstrous males (which start with Mr Spicer in Craven House (1926), continue with Mr Eccles, and which reach its apogee with Mr Thwaites in The Slaves of Solitude (1947) (although perhaps Ralph Gorse tops them all in The West Pier (1952); and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953)).
I digress, Mr Thwaites at first appears absurd, but quickly becomes more sinister, using his creepy and evasive conversational style, along with this financial independence to trap and coerce poor old Ella. He is lecherous and exploitative. However, Ella is not the naive fool he assumes, and is able to see through him. Some of the book's most appalling scenes are a result of Ella's internal thoughts on Mr Eccles' absurd conversation, conduct and attitudes.
Anyone looking for a happy conclusion, to the trilogy, should look elsewhere. The final story continues the tragic arc of the previous books, and perhaps more distressingly - and unlike Bob and Jenny - Ella is not the architect of her own situation, she's a victim of circumstance.
Ella is one of the most sympathetic characters ever created by Patrick Hamilton and this makes her tale even more affecting. This story confronts the loneliness and sorrow of existence and concludes that all we have is our humour and humanity to confront and counteract this cold truth.
Whilst Hangover Square may be Patrick Hamilton's best-known London novel I think that Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy (in particular The Midnight Bell) is a key book in understanding his world view and the way he used his own life to inform his fiction.
The Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy is a masterpiece. Each story works well on its own terms, however when combined it creates one of the ultimate London novels. The twilight world of ordinary Londoners, trying to get by, yet all too easily seduced or distracted by the capital's temptations before coming crashing back down to earth. Beautifully written, it unerringly captures the world of the London pub, and the desperate lives of many ordinary people in the 1920s and 1930s, from a writer who was familiar with this world and sufficiently skilful to capture its every nuance.
Brilliant - but very, very bleak. 5/5
on 22 January 2010
Reread this again recently. Hamilton's novel - actually a collection of linked novellas - has finally been getting some of the attention it so richly deserves these last few years. Most of his books come with introductions by people like Holroyd or JB Priestly nervously pointing out that he was "a genuine minor talent", or damning him with other faint praise. Critics never seem to have known quite what to do with Hamilton, and he's never been spoken of in the same context as, say, Greene, which is wrong. His evocations of the dowdy, gas-lit world of London's poor and down-at-heel are extraordinary. I actually think he's a much better writer - I don't believe Greene when he's writing about the working class, but I do believe Hamilton. Hamilton is also much, much funnier - even when, as in this wonderful, unforgettable book - he's breaking your heart.