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?


  1. As you know, I have the world’s longest reading queue and although this particular Hamilton is not in the queue his “Hangover Square” has been sitting there gathering dust for about two years. I may just have to bump it up for a summer read.

    I quite like Jean Rhys and I have been informed that the two are of a similar ilk in terms of describing the seedy side of London life. Don’t know if you agree?

  2. Well, I have heard of Patrick Hamilton before, but never investigated him further, and now I have an urge to add this trilogy to the list that lies beside me on my desk as I type of books to buy as soon as I get some time and money and finish all the other paperbacks and hardbacks I have on the go.

    I have to confess since googling ‘Netherland’ after reading it and coming across your blog (I left some comments on that work underneath your review), I have become a regular reader of your blog, and you have an appreciative reader in me.

    One last thing — I feel that after reading this review, I may finally have the ideal work to read on those afternoons and early evenings in which you sequester yourself in the corner of a quiet pub sipping a few pints and reading a novel. Maybe subject matter and surrounding will at last be truthfully matched? Let’s see. Once again, thanks for the review.

  3. Thanks for your kind words, kelskels and Paul – which are very much appreciated. Paul, naturally I remember your valuable comments on Netherland. I think this book is a perfect pub-corner read, and you must let me know if the experience is rewarding!

    Mrinal, I read this book on holiday, so had an opportunity to get through it quite quickly. I think I read each of the three volumes in about a day each. Otherwise, I think my ‘secret’ is simply to bring a book with me everywhere I go, and (crucially, I understand from friends who aren’t in this position) not having children – yet!

    kimbofo, I think Jean Rhys is an excellent comparison for Hamilton (as would be Julian Maclaren-Ross – at least for the milieu of the books (though Rhys wrote about Paris as much as about London). Also Hamilton’s fiction is definitely more structured than Rhys’s, who has a more impressionistic feel; but generally they do seem kindred spirits. And Hangover Square is the only other Hamilton I’ve read apart from the ones I’ve written about on my blog; it’s certainly one of his best books. I hope to revisit it soon and will keep an eye out on your blog to see if you get there before me!

  4. John, I’m heading off on a weeks’ holiday soon and trying to figure out which books — and how many — I should pack in my suitcase. I’m not sure whether “Hangover Square” would be a suitable lazing-by-the-pool type of read though. Not heard of Maclaren-Ross, so I’ll have to do some more investigation. Thanks for the tip-off.

  5. Oh dear… I have problem with my short-term memory… I first heard this Jean Rhys/Patrick Hamilton comparison theory from YOU (I just noticed my comment in your Jean Rhys book review to which you kindly included the link). Although I have a funny feeling I have also discussed this theory with one of my colleagues… Or maybe I simply dreamt it?? 😉

  6. Yes I just noticed that myself after doing the link, kim! I can confirm that I did read parts of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky while lazing by a pool, but I know the crucial question of how many books to bring is a vexed one so I won’t try to influence you further!

  7. I’ve not read Hamilton, John — or, actually, bits and pieces yonks ago — and don’t really feel the need at the moment despite your excellent advocacy here…

    Apropos “lazing by a pool” — I always find that this is exactly the best time to read the most challenging books. I’ve always found the term “beach read” something of an oxymoron referring as it so often seems to do to a book that you can pay scant attention to. When I’m on holiday, and I don’t have to pay that much attention to anything else, is precisely the time I want to get into something really meaty.

    If I get away this year, it’ll be more Beckett and Mann!

  8. I absolutely loved these books (some of my ‘most favourites’!) and reading your post has reminded me of just how brilliant they are and why. The level of detail and complexity with which Hamilton describes the inner lives of his characters – and their relationships – is incredibly rare I think, and you can see this even in some of the short passages you quote above.

  9. Mark, I agree with the theory. But I usually alternate: I read a check-your-brain-at-the-door novel first, then try something a bit challenging, then go for a brainless read again and so on. My problem, however, is trying to figure out how many to pack in my suitcase. It would be my worst nightmare to run out of books to read while on holiday, especially if I am in a country where English language novels are hard to come by!

  10. It’s interesting, because the car crash at the centre of ‘The Siege of Pleasure’ is very like the one Hamilton suffered–basically he was run over by a hit-run driver, and suffered disfiguring facial injuries (which is why the few photos of him always show only one side of his face properly). This traumatic episode is relived in various places in his books, as in ‘Siege’ and an almost hallucinatory section about cars swarming all over the world in one of the Gorse books.

  11. Yes JRSM, according to Holroyd in the intro to the Vintage UK edition, the car crash was added to the final draft of The Siege of Pleasure – Hamilton had mostly written the book when the accident happened. Speaking of the few photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen any so will have to look them out.

    I agree with Mark’s holiday reading policy. My greatest fear on holiday is boredom so I will always want something to stimulate me – though in practice all I do is read exactly the same sort of things that I will read at home.

  12. Nice thoughts on minor works, you’re quite right it seems almost insulting but also that in fact fascinating things can be done in minor keys. I found that quite thought provoking, in terms of how I describe books myself. Also, I didn’t know one could make a comparison with Rhys (Maclaren-Ross I was familiar with), that’s very interesting and bumps her up my reading pile. In some ways I’m also reminded of the much later writer Derek Raymond, but that may be a coincidence of lifestyle more than literary content.

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of Hangover Square if you do reread it.

  13. As it happens Max, I just noticed that I have Hangover Square lined up for a book group I’m part of in September. To be honest if I’d realised that I wouldn’t have read Twenty Thousand Streets so close to it, but we shall see. Rhys I think is definitely worth trying, though as I say above she’s much looser stylistically than Hamilton: Good Morning, Midnight would be a good one to start with. Derek Raymond I tend to group along with grimmer, more modern stuff like David Peace, though that’s pure assumption as I haven’t read any.

  14. I just wrote up a Derek Raymond novel on my blog, and explicitly linked him to David Peace, so your assumption looks good from where I’m sitting.

    Thanks for the Rhys tip. I’ll check that one out first.

  15. Great review! I love everything I’ve read of Patrick Hamilton’s. And this book is one of very few (dare I say the only) that had me in tears as I turned the final pages.

  16. If PH was drinking today, I’m sure he’d tuck into vodka: much less odour than scotch. As one of the biographers, I think Sean French, points out, to get through three bottles a day, in wartime, when even bathtub gin was hard to come by, was no mean feat.

  17. Finished Hangover Square recently. Really enjoyed it. Just when I thought it was getting a bit predictable the story took a lovely, if heartbreaking, dog-leg. Recommended!

  18. That’s good to know, Sam. Hangover Square was the first Hamilton I read and it set me up as a fan of his for life, even though I can’t remember much about it now (except that the central character’s blackouts or whatever they were reminded me in a horrible way of the disturbing ‘headaches’ which the main character in Darren Aronofksy’s film Pi suffered from). I was certainly glad when The Slaves of Solitude and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky lived up to it.

    There was a piece on Hamilton’s Gorse Trilogy and Slaves of Solitude in the last issue of the London Review of Books, which I haven’t got around to reading yet (like most promising things in the LRB). It’s online here, though for subscribers only, alas.

    Incidentally, I am hoping soon to read Norman Collins’ London Belongs to Me, a new Penguin Modern Classics reissue which sounds as though it might be in subject and spirit akin to the likes of Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross. The blurb says:

    Written while working in BBC Radio, Norman Collins portrays a world of séances, shabby gentility, smoky pubs and ordinary lives in an extraordinary city with brilliant deadpan humour. This has some wonderful female characters: put upon Mrs Josser, Connie, the faded actress-cum-nightclub assistant; Mrs Vizzard, in whose house all the characters live.

  19. *Spoiler alert* (does anyone ever take notice of these warnings? Yeah, me neither.)

    I felt Bone’s – the central character’s – ‘dead moods’ got a bit tiresome, if I’m honest. They felt too easy an explanation for his actions; though, to the author’s credit, Hamilton does start looking for a more complicatedly psychological explanation towards the end of the book.

    I’ve read that the last lines of the book – headlines from a newspaper (Slays two. Found gassed. Thinks of cat) – are Hamilton’s ‘blackest pun’. I can’t for the life of me work out what the pun is! I understand that it’s perhaps morbidly funny that Bone kills Peter and Netta, and then himself, on the day war is declared, and he therefore gets little space in the papers; that world events conspired against giving to Bone in death the kind of attention, understanding and affection that he craved, and was denied, in life – but is that the pun? I can’t help feeling I’m being stupid and missing something obvious. If anyone can shed any light, please do!

    Yes, I’ve tried getting through to that LRB article a few times now, as though trying to sneak past a bouncer, but each time I’m pulled back by the collar, asked for my subscription, and then sent on my way.

  20. Just finished re-reading Twenty Thousand Streets and decided to see what people had been saying about it. I loved your review. The first time I finished the book – having never heard of Hamilton before – I considered it an absolute masterpiece, and even more so now reading it for a second time. The ending is so crushingly sad, and the three perspectives so perfectly separate yet involved, that I’m just full of awe at the world Hamilton describes. The minor details and the utter lack of contempt that he has for these people is almost beautiful. I always feel like he was an author that actually cared for his characters, so we do too.

    On a final note, I’ve not seen it mentioned often but I think he also deserves a nod of recognition for the consistently subtle humour in the bleakest of scenarios. The final book – Ella’s story – is especially full of these little moments of absurd comedy. Indeed, Eccles is almost a full-on caricature, the likes of which you’d expect to see in a Dicken’s novel.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Hamilton’s novels were read by so many more people?

  21. I have just finished reading this and was interested to see what someone else though. What a wonderful, perceptive review! I found myself nodding at virtually every point- you even managed to include most of my favourite quotes! Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks Lisa! As discussed on Twitter, The Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square are also worth reading. His other books are less well-regarded (though I haven’t read any of them).

      1. Hey John, I read Lisa’s comment and it resonated with my own that I left December 2012. Would love to get you reply to that!

      2. Thanks JDK for your comments – and apologies for not replying to your earlier one. (I only saw Lisa’s comment today because I came here to tweet the link, having been reminded about it by her talking to me on Twitter…!)

        I agree that Hamilton is full of humour, though it’s pretty chilly at times. If you haven’t read The Slaves of Solitude, I recommend it – it’s bleaker probably than 20,000 Streets, but not so bleak as Hangover Square (where I can’t remember any comedy, though I’m sure there was some…).

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