July 20, 2008
Patrick Hamilton: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
Hard to believe that it’s taken me over a year to return to Patrick Hamilton after The Slaves of Solitude reminded me how great he is. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935) is widely considered to be his first major work, but its 500-page extent kept putting me off until I went on holiday and had the ideal opportunity not to be tempted by anything shorter. It’s available in the UK in Vintage Classics and in the US as an NYRB Classic. For what it’s worth, Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the former is superb.
A word about the titles. This book is an omnibus edition of three novels, connected but independent, which were first published separately. I’m not mad on the collective title, particularly in comparison to the individual titles of the novels within. The Midnight Bell (which inspired an excellent and elegant BritLitBlog), The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement seem to me to have that golden ear for a good title which Martin Amis (I seem to be quoting him a lot lately) called “almost a guarantor of minor work”. That word ‘minor’ is noteworthy. Today the language of superlative has become so devalued that ‘favourite’ has practically been supplanted by ‘most favourite’, which used to be a gag to show up an ignoramus on Only Fools and Horses, but is now used with sincere intent. In these times, ‘minor’ seems positively insulting. But it fits for Hamilton, who clearly has his limitations – the little bit (two inches wide) of beer-slopped bartop on which he works – but does what he does brilliantly, scintillatingly even.
The Midnight Bell (1929) tells the story of Bob, barman in the eponymous Euston Road pub (the book is subtitled A London Trilogy) which is full of “bottly glitter” and regulars such as Mr Sounder (“he had been to Oxford University, and was a man of letters – mostly to the papers”) and Mr Wall:
‘Ah Ha!’ said Mr Sounder. ‘The worthy Mr Wall!’
‘Oh ho!’ said Mr Wall. ‘The good Mr Sounder!’
But the two men looked at each other with a kind of glassy gleam which belied this broad and amicable opening. Indeed, these two were notoriously incapable of hitting it off, and the thwarted condescension of the one, together with the invulnerable impudence of the other, were features of ‘The Midnight Bell’ in the evening.
Bob’s mind is elsewhere, however, on a young prostitute called Jenny Maple who visits the Bell. His obsessive love for her (“completely captivating, and accessible by ‘phone”), and purchasing of her affection, is apparently based on Hamilton’s own infatuation with a prostitute, Lily Connolly. (“He informed himself that he was not insanely anxious to get her on this walk because he was in any way in love with her. It was simply because he had to find out whether he was or not – to see where he was.”) So too, we presume, are the authentic scenes of mornings after:
He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth – bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.
(Hamilton, it’s worth remembering, was on three bottles of vodka whisky [thanks Tom R.] a day by the 1940s, and died in his 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.)
In The Siege of Pleasure (1932), we learn how Jenny, with her unfortunate combination of exceptional beauty and a “gift of pleasing,” came to turn her hand (so to speak) to the oldest profession. In The Midnight Bell, there had been some touching on its social origins (“Jever hear of Bernard Shaw? … Well, he wrote a book called Mrs Warren’s Profession – an’ showed it was all economics…”), but here Hamilton focuses forensically on one evening in the life of Jenny which leads her to lose her job in service to two old maids. The story is built within an artificial framing device, as Jenny goes through the motions with another fine gent.
She saw how badly he needed a drink, and marvelled, as she always did, at these little men, to whom an evening of delight, apart from the money they paid for it, entailed such strenuous mental suffering. You would have thought he hated the sight of her – instead of loving the look of her – which his four pounds definitely demonstrated that he did in some sort of way.
This is the shortest of the three books, and is devoted almost entirely to that fateful evening, where Jenny’s anxiety “not to appear unfamiliar with the manner and ways of her present company” leads to her downfall. What is so impressive is how Hamilton has the courage to go into every detail, never pausing or leaving the reader to imagine how awful the night gets. He shows us absolutely every step on the way. This unity and direction give it – and indeed the other books in the trilogy – the force of a (very long) short story, and it’s easy to succumb to reading each one almost in a sitting.
The final volume, The Plains of Cement (1934), takes this technique of gazing unblinkingly at things we would rather not see, and applies it to Ella, the barmaid at the Midnight Bell, who adores Bob as much as he in turn adores Jenny. As a distraction from her love for Bob, Ella allows herself to be seduced – sort of – by Ernest Eccles, whose ridiculous vanity is perfectly captured in his first appearance in the book.
You could see at a glance 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. You could see him searching incessantly for furtive little glimpses of his hat in mirrors, you could see him pathetically reading the fate of his hat in the eyes of strangers, you could see him adjusting his tie as a sort of salute to his hat, as an attempt to live up to his hat. You could see him striving to do none of these things.
For the scenes that follow, where Ella tries not to become engaged to Mr Eccles (I was reminded of the similar fate for Major Archer in J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, who ended up betrothed when he and his lady friend “had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere”), the reader is well advised to pre-curl their toes in preparation. However it’s in this volume that the story also soars into truly affecting scenes, not least when Ella finds how “painful it would be to go on discussing the man to whom she was engaged with the man she loved,” and the muted emotion of the closing pages brings the trilogy as a whole close to something like greatness.
Even when being cynical about the passing caricatures, Hamilton makes his central characters sympathetic – and, as someone who normally isn’t bothered whether he likes the characters or not, I can report that it was a very nice experience for a change. The book too has a passionate depiction of Hamilton’s city, more in foul weather than fair:
‘Oo, look!’ she said. ‘It’s snowing!’
And it was. Quite hard. Tiny flakes, whirling and scampering down, as though in terror or ecstasy, from the hidden night above. A myriad host of minute invaders, coming to fill, with their delicate but excited concerns, the gloomy plains of electric-lit London.
By the end, through Bob’s obsessive trudging of the prostitutes’ favourite venues in doomed pursuit of Jenny, I felt that I really had walked the streets myself. If only Hamilton hadn’t been so keen on his research, we might have had a few more novels from him yet. Speaking of that, suspicions about Bob’s nature as representation of the author are supported too by the revelation that he writes short stories in his spare time.
And then he gave up doing that, and took to dreaming again – dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself – its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Pah! Who wants the company of those major writers when you can get all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key, right here?