2009 is the 105th anniversary of the birth of novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. He is a bit forgotten and unfashionable now, but he’ll come round again in a small way, he usually does. Though his chief subject matter of emotional dysfunction, money and alcohol couldn’t be more ‘relevant’, his stage, the old style pub with separated bars and a murky saloon, has largely been dismantled.
His master was Dickens and, though Hamilton has big flaws as a novelist, I think the big fella would have approved, not least because of Hamilton’s talent for characterization and tart humour.
One of the good things about television back in the day was that it still paid higher art forms the compliment of adapting them for its own ends (apart from obvious exceptions, TV largely lives off itself now, so to speak, with predictably banal results). You could discover literary gems through the box. So it was with Hamilton and me. More than twenty years ago ITV adapted his trilogy of novels about a serial killer called Ernest Ralph Gorse. Although I didn’t know to call it that, I was developing an interest in social history, particularly for the period bookended by the two world wars. The Charmer, as the programme was called, therefore caught my attention.
I sought out the novels but found them hard to come by, though I eventually got the Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, and The West Pier, which Graham Greene judged to be the best novel ever written about Brighton. This was followed by reading Hangover Square and other novels by Hamilton.
Hamilton's novels conjured that gloomy interwar world of intense snobbery and social pretension all mixed up with drink and neurotic behaviour.
Doris Lessing observed that what made Hamilton’s novels ever-relevant was that ‘you can go into any pub and see it happening in front of you’. This is true. As teens, my mates and I spent a huge amount of time in pubs of all types. Then, as now, I liked to observe people and behaviour and, after I’d read a couple of his books, I saw Hamilton as one of those kindred spirit writers you encounter from time to time in life, that seem to be speaking directly to you. You walked into a pub and there, as Lessing said, it all was. Just read his description of a pub’s atmosphere from opening time to closing time in The Plains of Cement.
Although they were changing rapidly and had been pillaged by design fads in the 60s and 70s, some pubs twenty-odd years ago were far closer to the pubs of Hamilton’s era than they are now. The décor, the attitudes, the behavioural codes, the demographics, the drinks all had a closer connection with Hamilton’s saloon bars than they do now. Depending on which set of friends you were hanging out with, you might find yourself in some small side-street pub that hadn’t changed significantly in decades (the sort of pub that is now usually closed or denuded of its decoration and atmosphere in a vain attempt to make it appeal to the tastes of youth). And there, on some dark winter evening (and it's usually a dark winter evening in his books), you’d see a vignette at the bar that had walked straight out of one of Hamilton’s novels. An aged, pedantic bore with his crossword, a youngish alcoholic chasing the pub coquette, who’d come with a party from the office and stayed all evening getting drunk on “whisky and American”, or rum and coke; the overpowering smell of beer and different tobaccos; the illicit affairs and blazing rows.
And it all still goes on, obviously, and with a vengeance in fact, but the point is that it looked and smelled a little more like Hamilton’s world than it does now, and I found that fascinating.
Although they captivated me, his books were not altogether a pleasant read. Although they were amusing and I loved the literary style, the biliousness, depression and dark atmosphere that sustained drinking can cause sweated off the pages, sometimes causing you to feel hungover even if you were not. But you had to go on with them.
As he aged and guzzled two or three bottles of scotch a day (in this era, where every other television personality claims to have ‘battled the bottle’, Hamilton’s intake reminds us what real and hopeless alcohol addiction is), his authorial voice became ever more hostile and negative, but that, in a way, suited his milieu perfectly. He gave in to the temptation of explaining to the reader in a sour and insistent tone motivations that the reader could already see; consequently, he became at times in print the sort of bore he feared in pubs.
However, his best work is powerful and memorable. Take the first paragraph of The Slaves of Solitude, which comes into my head now and again:
'London, the crouching monster, like any other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, exhaled violently through the same channels.'
As may be deduced from that paragraph, he was at one time a convinced Marxist (like many on the Left he thought the fascist conflagration of the second world war was a ‘crisis of capitalism’) but apparently later became disillusioned. He must have been savvy enough to know that the paragraph quoted above would be perfectly descriptive of city life in any of the workers’ paradises round the world that have followed Marxist revolution, with, of course, the added element of an all-powerful secret police and no freedom of speech or expression.
I don’t have it to hand but the final paragraph of Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, a vision of the countryside smothered in mechanical beetles (cars) is prophetic of today’s teeming traffic domination.
After my early 20s I never read Hamilton again, but I occasionally had a dip, just to see if that comic, queasy and slightly depressing world was, as it were, all still there. And it was, and is. If you come across an old pub that's somehow avoided the wrecking ball of the accountants, nip in and drink a toast to Patrick Hamilton.