Hanging out in ‘Hangover Square’
I have become a literary stalker of Patrick Hamilton, the 1930s British novelist who captured longing and loneliness like no other writer.
Readers are idiosyncratic beasts that can nevertheless be divided into species. There’s the skimmer, the trash whore, the short-attention giggle-seeker, the populist, the escapist, the wistful romanticist, the book group conversationalist, the academic, the self-improver, the factual addict, the fetishist, the literary stalker.
I’m the latter. Like an infatuate, once I’ve whiffed a scent that makes me giddy, I am, start to finish, a stand-on-street-corners-in-the-rain adorer. I reread the old favourites compulsively and although I may plough through new arrivals, like chance acquaintances in the pub they’re easy come, easy go. The special shelf for rumpled, scrawled across, savaged and mangled paperbacks rarely admits new members, filled as it is with all brands of Waughs, Austen, Toni Morrison and Russians in chronological order. But now, cover bent like origami, there is an addition: Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941).
Finding Patrick Hamilton feels somewhat like joining a secret society. Born in 1904, Hamilton enjoyed great popularity from the late Twenties until the early Fifties, when his Gorse trilogy (1952-5) was badly received and he retired. He died in the seaside resort of Sheringham in 1962, his ashes scattered on the Blakeney mud flats. After his death, Hamilton’s readership went into sharp decline and many of his novels fell out of print. Although he has recently undergone a revival in notice, he’s still not in the canon of the expected. The re-publication of his Gorse trilogy and the fresh West End production of his stage play, Gaslight (1938) earlier this year, caused a flurry of articles in the British press. They revealed that Hamilton has a small army of famous fans, who are baffled as to why his work is so little known. Julie Burchill, Peter Ackroyd and Lady Antonia Fraser, to name but a few, have all been revealed as Hamilton addicts. As Doris Lessing, writing in the Sixties, explained:
‘Patrick Hamilton was a marvellous novelist… A much better writer than Auden, Isherwood… He wrote more sense about England and what was going on in England in the 1930s than anybody else I can think of… Now people have forgotten the kind of smell that came out of England in the Thirties, the cheese-paring and the obsession with money. Then, people were always calculating… could they afford to have this drink here, or a cheaper meal there. Never has anyone written about crooks as well as Hamilton. And it’s the details that are so absorbing.’
Hamilton himself was a writer of rare early promise. He wrote his first novel at 19; it was published three days after his twenty-first birthday. His stage plays, Gaslight and Rope, won him enormous success, and after they were converted into Hollywood movies, they earned him a great deal of money, too. Despite this, he was never a happy man. His mother committed suicide, his sister was a drunk and his father seems to have cast a long shadow over his life. Bernard Hamilton, ‘a comedian equipped with a monocle but no sense of humour, a chameleon-like figure given to self-dramatisation who nevertheless drank to be rid of himself’ (1), was an ‘eye-wateringly bad’ novelist, who had yet a high regard for his historical novels. (‘As a puff preliminary’, he wrote to the publisher of one of his books, ‘you may say that it is the greatest novel ever written – which indeed it is.’)
Patrick Hamilton’s love life was a greater disaster even than his family life. In 1927, he fell disastrously in love with a prostitute named Lily, the details of which are replicated almost blow for blow in his early acclaimed novel, The Midnight Bell. His most lasting relationship was with the bottle. His brother, Bruce, said that by the end of the Second World War, Patrick had spent nearly £2,000 a year on black market booze. After he was run down by a car in the late 1920s and left permanently disfigured, Hamilton, in the words of JB Priestley, ‘spent too many of his later years in an alcoholic haze, no longer a social drinker but an unhappy man who needed whisky as a car needs petrol’.
But out of all this wreckage emerged a most extraordinary novel: Hangover Square. In many ways it’s like Wuthering Heights written entirely from Heathcliff’s perspective – if Cathy were heartless as well as wild and if Heathcliff were, at bottom, a rather sad and kind, gentle giant, who circumstances had bereaved and made alone. For it is a tale of the obsession the lonely drifter George Harvey Bone has for Netta Longdon. No novel has better conveyed what it means to be in love with someone who does not love you, who, in fact, has no interest in your existence, but from whom you cannot, or will not, escape. In Bone’s case, knowledge that his loved one is a heartless, sexual freelancer, that she isn’t even nice, can’t dent the hammer-blown infatuation. The figure of Netta Longdon squats across the novel, her evil beauty smothering the whole.
Bone, it becomes clear, is a schizophrenic. A ‘CLICK!’ in his head triggers a new personality – a personality which does not long for Netta in a pathetic way, but seeks to kill her. Netta becomes an objective correlative for fascism: ‘What could ever turn up now? The year was dying, dead – what had next year, 1939, in store for him? Netta, drinks and smokes… Or a war. What if there was a war? Yes – if nothing else turned up, a war might. A filthy idea, but what if a war was what he was waiting for?’ When the war does come, Netta will be purged.
Hamilton paints a searing portrait of the defeated classes, those drifting from place to place and finding commune only in bars. He ushers us into an Earl’s Court ‘No Man’s Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet’. The prose drips with drink. The dialogue is sodden with the mutterings of drunks. Hamilton, it has often been noted, had a ‘bat’s wing ear’ for pub patter, recording its every banal nuance with precision. ‘When you met in the morning all you talked about was last night – how “blind” you were, how “blind” Mickey was, my God, you bet he had a hangover. “Taking a little stroll round Hangover Square” – that was Mickey’s crack.’
But the bleakness of the detail does not mean the experience of reading is a struggle through a personal misery; rather it is a page-turning romp into the loneliness of a sweet alcoholic, in love with a woman who had nails dripped in blood, and who, when Bone has spent all his money taking her to an expensive restaurant, will flick ‘the ash of her cigarette into her coffee saucer’. Bone loves her but longs to hate her. ‘For the time being there was a certain joy in his hatred. Like a local anaesthetic round a tooth, it numbed the pain around his heart – the heart which, normally, ached with the pain of Netta continually.’ The other characters note his schizophrenic moods, when his brain goes ‘CLICK!’ and of which he has no memory. They are his ‘dotty’ moods, his ‘dead’ moods, his ‘stooge’ moods, and suspense is maintained – as despite declaring from the very outset that he will destroy Netta, it seems till very late on impossible that he would do her any harm. It does not seem likely that this man who ‘seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded’ is capable of inflicting harm.
But there remains no doubt that Netta is an evil like Nazism itself, that his ‘eternity of longing’ for her is a longing for freedom and peace, which she will never allow him. It is in descriptions of Netta that Hamilton’s writing glitters with brilliance. Her thoughts ‘resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid, moving… Netta Longdon thought of everything in a curiously dull, brutish way… She was completely, indeed sinisterly, devoid of all those qualities which her face and body externally proclaimed her to have – pensiveness, grace, warmth, agility, beauty.’ And her thuggish brain is exalted, not by piteous George Bone, but the Mosley-ite Peter:
‘He had been in jail on one occasion for assaulting and wounding a man at a political meeting, and on another for killing a pedestrian with his car while drunk, and this she liked, this stimulated her. She liked the whole atmosphere: she liked the deeds themselves, and she liked the jail. Both provided something bloody, brutal, and unusual which gave him a halo of originality.’
When the purging comes, it is accompanied by the whirr of the wireless, as Neville Chamberlain declares war: ‘Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against, brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.’
Yes, this is the sort of thing that can make a literary stalker of you. And leaving you with this recommendation, it is up to you to decide whether you, as a skimmer, will race through, absorb and discard Hamilton, or as a giggle seeker ignore him completely, or as a fetishist, discover your new toy, buy every work he ever wrote, devour them all, make them ragged and place them on the shelf for all your dog eared best beloved.
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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