Hangover Hamilton

Taking Patrick Hamilton for a ride on the Met line.

Among the hundreds of taverns sliding back their bolts in the favoured domain was The Midnight Bell – a small, but bright and cleanly establishment, lying in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street. Though it had no wide reputation, all manner of people frequented The Midnight Bell. This was in its nature, of course, since it is notorious that all manner of people frequent all manner of public houses – which in this respect resemble railway stations and mad houses.’ (From chapter one of The Plains of Cement, the third of Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, 1935.)

Following last week’s essay on overheard conversations in pubs, I thought we’d take a quick look at the work of Patrick Hamilton, patron saint of the saloon bar bore. Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is a trilogy of novels wherein a Fitzrovia pub serves as a backdrop to a series of small, sad and sordid dramas: stunted lives and doomed hopes playing out on both sides of the mahogany counter. But whilst his characters are invariably pitiful, the atmosphere he conjures of a pub at opening time is lovingly described and gives a clue to his own fondness for the milieu:

The Saloon Bar was narrow and about thirty feet in length. On your right was the bar itself, in all its bottly glitter, and on your left was a row of tables set against a comfortable and continuous leather seat which went the whole length of the bar. […] the whole atmosphere was spotless, tidy, bright and a little chilly. This was no scene for the brawler, but rather for the restrained drinker, with his wife. (The Midnight Bell, 1930.)

The Midnight Bell, the fictional pub of the trilogy, draws heavily on The Wheatsheaf, but also on his own favourite haunt, the now-lost Goat and Compasses, which stood on Fitzrovia’s northern shore, the Euston Rd. (The building is still there but is now commercial premises.) Hamilton knew the territory very well; and the assistant barman, Bob, is to an extent a stand-in for Hamilton himself, as the author also had the misfortune to fall in love with a prostitute. This doomed affair is the main strand of the first novel in the sequence, The Midnight Bell; the trilogy continues with The Siege of Pleasure, which is the back-story of Jenny, the off-hand recipient of Bob’s affections. If the reader knows the autobiographical context the masochistic nature of Bob’s behaviour renders the novel almost unbearable; but then, the trilogy trades in unbearable relationships of all kinds.

He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight […] He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again. […] He had been fooling about the West End with a woman of the streets. (The Midnight Bell).

The regulars at the Midnight Bell come to the pub because they have no real life outside it. Patrick Hamilton is the master of a very specific form of dialogue, the kind you couldn’t help overhearing if you were drinking in a London or Brighton pub between 1920 and 1950. The monstrous punters in The Midnight Bell – Mr. Sounder, Mr. Wall – possess a clammy authenticity, and the reader feels that these characters have not been invented so much as endured by the author. The unfunny jokes, the numbingly awful puns and ghastly attempts at flirtatious barmaid banter are reported with a dead-eyed horror borne of intimate acquaintance. To wit: ‘His jokes, like all bad jokes, were mostly tomfooleries with the language. To call, for instance, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Eucalyptus’, was, to him, quite tremendous in its sly and impudent irony.’ Then there is Mr. Wall, ‘obscurely connected in some way with motors in Great Portland Street’. Hamilton devotes a lengthy paragraph to Mr Wall’s conversational style, concluding thus: ‘… in his own particular idiom, Martyrs were associated with Tomatoes, Waiters with Hot Potatoes, Cribbage with Cabbage, Salary with Celery (the entire vegetable world was ineffably droll), Suits with Suet, Fiascoes with Fiancees, and the popular wireless genius with Macaroni. He was, perhaps, practically off his head.’

First edition jacket.

The trilogy’s most likeable character is Ella, a cheerful barmaid who adores Bob but who knows that he is oblivious to her shy love for him. Hamilton’s description of Ella strikes this reader as more than a bit patronising, but the author’s sympathies are fully with her. She is a good person and does not deserve the attentions of the nightmarish Mr. Eccles, the most grotesque of all the Midnight Bell’s gargoyles. When we first meet him, at the start of the final book in the sequence, The Plains of Cement, he enters the pub wearing a new hat:

There are new hats and new hats. No man in the history of the world had ever worn a hat quite as gloriously and fervidly new as this. […] You could see at a glance that that for the time being the man lived in and through his hat. You could see that it cost him sharp torture even to put it on his head, where he could not see it, and it had to take its chance.

This wincingly awful non-relationship is the main subject of The Plains of Cement, and Mr. Eccles’ clammy overtures to the cringing Ella (‘You little Puss! … You make me want to Squeeze you!’) are presented with forensic precision. Much of the comic tension (not that you want to laugh) derives from the revolting thought that 28-year old Ella might give in to the 52-year old Mr. Eccles’s suit, on the basis that ‘he had a bit put by’ and might offer some form of protection against poverty. I first read the book years ago and Mr. Eccles just made me want to puke. Reading it now, I find myself brought up short: suddenly, I find myself to be several years older than Mr. Eccles, and I too have had the experience of being smitten in high middle-age by a much younger woman serving behind a bar. (More than once, in fact, and sometimes in Fitzrovia.) It’s not a good look. Surely I am not that man? No-one likes to think that they are drinking in The Loss Of Dignity.

Hamilton is an unusual example of a writer who managed to be as dissipated and disappointed as he was successful. His two smash-hit plays – Rope and Gaslight, both filmed by Hollywood – made him rich at a young age (the latter being well-enough known to lend its title to a form of controlling behaviour); but at the height of his early success he was hit by a car whilst crossing a road in Earl’s Court, suffering multiple injuries and having his nose badly gashed. The trauma and disfigurement contributed to his chronic drinking. His early books are invaluable documents of their time. His masterpiece was his valedictory study of the last years of the peace before the war, Hangover Square, a nightmarish account of psychosis in low-life Earl’s Court. (Hollywood also filmed that, but in such a mangled fashion that it caused considerable distress to its star, Laird Cregar, who had brought the book to the attention of studio bosses in the first place. One gets the feeling that Hamilton wasn’t bothered, the film rights being worth more than just a few cases of gin.) His later book The Slaves Of Solitude is also very fine, and offers another interesting take on forgotten lives on the home front in WW2. Opinions on the later novels vary and the consensus is that the drink began encroaching on the prose. Hamilton drank himself to death in 1962 at the age of 58.

Patrick Hamilton in his 40s, looking awfully jolly behind the wreck of his nose.

(Photos of Hamilton from Sean’s French’s biography, published by Faber.)

Brave And Chilly Spring

April is the cruellest month … Gipsy Hill, 11 April 2021.

Sam Hancock, The Independent, 13 April 2021:

London’s Soho was busier than ever on Monday night — although some of those enjoying the reopening of pubs admitted there was “very little” social distancing being adhered to. Police patrolled central London as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street, signalling the end of certain lockdown restrictions and the reopening of pubs and bars’ outdoor areas across England. Several West End streets were even closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm, to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses. Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables, while dozens more stood on the streets raising a glass to England officially entering into stage two of Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.

The spring-like peep out of lockdown has everyone on edge. And attempts to enjoy a freezing al fresco drink inevitably emphasise the painful distance between Before Covid and our current Covid Era. Personally, I have no plans to book a slot to do my Captain Scott impersonation (‘this is an awful place …’) in an arctic pub garden, and don’t fancy drinking amidst desperate Soho crowds pretending it’s VE Night. It’s indoor spaces that I miss. My mind wanders to cold spring evenings in former times; when the pub garden turned chilly in twilight, you would retreat to the cosy public bar, to the gleam of polished mahogany and the crystalline brightness behind the counter. You’d take your drink to a spot next to the wooden partition that separated you from the customers in the saloon, and fragments of their conversation drifted in and out of your hearing:

‘Nah, it was John Wayne they filmed in this pub. Him and that Richard Attenborough, played policemen they did. Filmed it here, I should know, I was in it wasn’t I?’

‘Do you know what my son said to me the other night? He phones up and he says: :”Dad, can I come round? I need to borrow fifty pence”‘.

‘I don’t know whether she knew or not, but let’s put it this way: she got very good at getting blood out of carpet.’

‘My dad knew him, he was staying at a hotel in Kensington Gardens, very dapper and polite he was, you’d never guess he had bodies dissolving in a tank in Crawley’.

Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing.’

Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell.

‘From Muscat he was, yeah – one of those places where they don’t wear things on their feet.’

The Victorian pub interior is an inviting place, an urban parlour, a place where plumbers give racing tips to bankers, where visitors from exotic lands fall for boys from Penge or girls from Hainault, and where addled regulars share unlikely stories (‘it’s true, I swear, I was there’) with anyone who will listen. Britain’s peculiar drinking culture might have been a source of appalled wonder for foreign tourists but London’s lugubrious, booze-only boozers offered easy access to the interior life of the city. In an earlier time, I would bewail the rise of the gastro-pub as a factor eroding the democratic nature of the institution: tables take up room, families colonise the bar space and the social or solitary drinker is marginalised. ‘The decline of the pub’, I would say to anyone who would listen, ‘as a place to just drink is making the city colder and less knowable than before’. (And thus I became someone else’s loquacious pub bore.) Well, what did I know. Now, if I could, I would cheerfully walk into a gastropub and order the most pretentious thing on the carte du jour just so I could be in an interior where people have come to gather. Even a hipster bar is good for overheard remarks:

So what does a full-time anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’

But if Monday night demonstrated anything, it’s that Londoners need to drink. The manifest ills of drinking are well rehearsed, but the social value of documents such as Life and Labour of the People in London are often compromised by their authors’ failure to empathise with hard-pressed city-dwellers, or to fully understand their need for release. London is an ongoing experiment in urban life: a 2,000 year-old Roman settlement that became the first industrialised city, the first world city, the first mega-city. Londoners have had to suffer the sharp end of history so it’s no wonder that they developed a craving for booze – as a stimulant, a palliative, a tradable commodity, or simply a safer beverage than Thames water. And, call me old-fashioned, but I think that public drinking is healthier than private drinking: if there are people around you, there’s always someone to tell you that you are overdoing it, or simply being a tit. (Altogether now: ‘What good is sitting alone in your room …’ etc.) But I’m looking forward to getting inside pubs, not lurking outside them. And who knows? Maybe it will be all over by Christmas.

The other milestone this week was, of course, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. I did, as it happens, have a few encounters with him over the years but I didn’t fancy contributing to the tsunami of news coverage, or the grinding of axes by op-ed toters. Those stories will have to wait.

Working Class Family’ by Ralph Steadman, circa 1969. Via Ralph Steadman Printshop.

Flogging A Dead Thing

The Fortune of War, circa 1900. Note the Golden Boy.

Every trade has its pub. And The Fortune of War, Giltspur Street, Smithfield, was a speakeasy for the bodysnatching fraternity. At one time, it was said that the pub accommodated its clientele to the extent that the landlord allowed customers to leave corpses under the benches – with tags attached – whilst they went to try to strike a deal with the surgeons at St. Barts, just around the corner (the porters at Barts left empty hampers outside the hospital, a tacit invitation for them to be taken and filled with fresh ‘specimens’ by those in the ‘resurrection’ business’). And if Barts didn’t want what you were offering, there were plenty of other places you could try.

Saturday 5th November 1831. A ferry carrying two men arrived at the riverside entrance of Robert Smirke’s handsome new King’s College (so new that a mason was still working on site) to enquire whether the resident surgeons might be interested in a body – or, as they said in the trade, a ‘Thing’. The two men, one of whom was drunk, were trying to sell a ‘Big Small’, and wanted ten guineas for it. (A dead child was a ‘Small’; a ‘Big Small’ was a dead adolescent. Ten guineas would be worth something in excess of £1,000 today.) They had been trying to sell the Thing since the previous day and had traipsed all over London in search of a good price (as well as hospitals, there were private academies where anatomy was taught), fortified by frequent visits to the pubs en route. The surgeon said he might be interested – but would only offer nine guineas. The men went away and returned later with two accomplices and a hamper containing the body of a boy of about 14, which they tipped onto the floor. ‘It’ s a good ‘un’, said one of the men trying to make the sale. The dissecting room porter and the college anatomist were suspicious of the freshness of the corpse and called in the Covent Garden police.

At the start of the 19th century the science of anatomy advanced and the ‘bloody code’ of the 18th century receded, resulting in fewer executions and, thus, fewer bodies available for study. Surgeons had to make a queasy compact with those who were prepared to furnish subjects by illegal means, and prices were high. But although the trade aroused public revulsion, it was seen as a relatively trivial crime, as a human body was not considered to be anyone’s actual property. The commonest method of obtaining a body was simply to dig up a newly-dug grave, but other ruses included posing as a relative of the recently deceased to claim their remains, or stealing them from homes where they were awaiting burial. But some in the trade resorted to murder, and the notoriety of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare in 1828 exposed the medical profession’s indifference to the sources of their research material. In London in 1831 the murder of ‘The Italian Boy’ threw the furtive relationship between body- snatcher and man of science into sharp relief, and shone a searchlight into London’s darkest corners.

John Bishop, the ringleader of the gang collared at King’s College (and who claimed to have sold over five hundred Things), later confessed that the ‘Italian Boy’ was actually a drover from Lincolnshire that he had picked up on market day in Smithfield and enticed back to his family home in Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green: a swampy, semi-rural slum. There, Bishop and his son-in-law accomplice Thomas Williams stupefied the boy with rum and laudanum, then drowned him in a well at the back of the house. Bishop admitted to using this method on another child and a woman. (In his confession Bishop exonerated his grave-robbing colleague James May of knowledge of the murders. The party who carried the body to King’s was a Covent Garden porter and sometime corpse-hauler who was not charged in connection with the killings.) It is at least possible that the real number of Bishop and Williams’s victims was far greater but no-one was in a position to prove it. Many women and children went missing in the capital but institutions kept very few records of their transactions with bodysnatchers, and human remains were totally consumed by dissection. As no-one reported a Lincolnshire drover missing, the corpse was formally identified as Carlo Ferrari: the lost ‘Italian boy’, trafficked from northern Italy by a ‘master’ who sent him out to exhibit animals for pennies on London’s streets.

Sarah Wise’s magnificent book on the case depicts London in that nameless age in the reign of William IV, the same city that terrified the young Dickens and formed the setting for his greatest novels.* An unlit, unpaved, undrained, festering town that has more in common with Hogarth’s London than the city of the high Victorian era. A stinking metropolis of rookeries and public executions, of cattle driven to slaughter through busy streets, overflowing cesspools, vagrant children and numberless poor. In this context the body-snatchers sound like almost any other street trader, hawking their wares around the teaching hospitals and schools of anatomy before the produce went off. What is really striking is the social aspect of the trade in the dead; as Ms Wise comments, convivial drinking was central to the enterprise, and a pub like The Fortune of War was a safe space for those in the trade to share tips and compare notes on the going rate for a Thing. On Friday, the day before the trip to King’s and during one of the gang’s many trips to the pub, James May stood at the Fortune’s bar rinsing blood and flesh from a set of teeth he produced from his handkerchief. The teeth belonged to the dead boy, and he nonchalantly discussed their potential value with the barman: May was confident that he could get two pounds for them. (He managed to sell them to a dentist before his arrest; the dentist later displayed them in his window as ‘the teeth of the murdered Italian Boy’.) The Fortune of War was only a few yards up the hill from Newgate Gaol, and it was outside the Debtor’s Door of that prison that Bishop and Williams were hanged before a large crowd on 5 December, 1831, just four weeks after their arrest. Their bodies were promptly handed over for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation to Australia, but died on board a prison ship before the voyage began. The Fortune of War was demolished in 1910.

* Sarah Wise suggests that Dickens might actually have been present at the Old Bailey for the climax of the trial of the Bishop gang: an anonymous published account of the reading of the verdict bears a striking resemblance to Fagin’s court appearance in Oliver Twist.

Newgate’s Debtor’s Door, photographed shortly before the prison was demolished in 1904.