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