Passing-Out Time

Christopher Tayler

  • The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
    Constable, 327 pp, £7.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 1 84529 415 1
  • The Gorse Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton
    Black Spring, 603 pp, £9.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 948238 34 5

Louis MacNeice, it was sometimes said, was always in the pub but never really of it. Much the same could be said of Patrick Hamilton, who was best known in his lifetime for his stage chillers Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938), but is mostly remembered for the expert depictions of joyless interwar boozing in Hangover Square (1941) and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1929-34). ‘If ever a man knew the atmosphere and life and ethics of these places,’ he boasted in 1928, when he first had the idea of setting a novel in a pub, ‘it’s me.’ Yet he didn’t inherit a tradition of pub-going – his father did his drinking in gentlemen’s clubs – and held on to an idea of himself as a participant-observer gathering material from an exotic social scene long after he became a full-time alcoholic. Taciturn, shy, convinced of his ugliness, he figures in most accounts as an inconspicuous customer sharpening what Claud Cockburn called his ‘bat’s wing ear’ for dialogue. According to Cockburn, who often drank with him during the war, this caused him to startle violently at unexpected moments. ‘My God,’ he would say, abruptly tuned in to someone standing eight feet away with his back to them, ‘don’t you see the sort of thing he is up to? God help us.’

If he wasn’t of the pub, though, where did he fit in? Hamilton never found a satisfactory answer to this question. Born in 1904 into a downwardly mobile, fitfully ‘creative’ upper-middle-class family, he wrote knowledgably and scornfully about decayed rentier types, as he learned to think of them when he became a Marxist during the 1930s, without forging himself much of an alternative identity beyond the one provided by his high-end, Somerset Maugham-like notion of the writing life. He wore ‘perfectly made’ suits and, when taxed about his drinking, could always name three bigger pissheads among his fellow members of the Savile Club. During the war he acquired a Raffles-style flat in the Albany. Although he dabbled in Freud and Nietzsche during the 1920s, he was suspicious of highbrows: he had more connections in the West End than in universities or journalism and little feeling for most writing done after about 1918. Eliot, Huxley, Lawrence and Joyce were too ‘painfully subjective’, he wrote in 1939, giving their work ‘the character of meaningless masturbation’. Auden was no good either, and Hamilton’s contact with the circles that came to dominate the received story of the 1930s was limited to one or two peripheral figures.

As a result, and thanks also to the inconvenient range of his professional activities, Hamilton didn’t get filed under any particular decade or literary-historical heading when he died of liver failure in 1962. His reputation had been guttering since the early 1950s, when even close friends began to describe his output as ‘slight’ and ‘peevishly overstated’, and if Rope hadn’t been filmed by Hitchcock, the usual post-mortem downgrading might have snuffed out his name for good. And yet his novels have survived, thanks to the efforts of such admirers as J.B. Priestley, Doris Lessing and Michael Holroyd, and to the biographical enterprise set in train by his older brother, Bruce, whose memoir of Patrick, The Light Went Out (1972), prompted the first Hamilton mini-revival. Bruce was upfront about his brother’s drinking: his book is the source of the much quoted calculation that Hamilton’s postwar whisky intake rarely fell ‘below the equivalent of three bottles a day’. But he also made it possible to see his brother as an interestingly troubled victim of their father, Bernard, who emerges in the memoir as one of the great Edwardian monster-dads.

‘The author and barrister Bernard Hamilton’, as he styled himself, began to generate a considerable body of anecdote on his 21st birthday, when he inherited £100,000 (perhaps £7 million in today’s money). ‘The day was also made memorable,’ Bruce writes, ‘by his first meeting, in the promenade of the old Empire Theatre, with the prostitute whom he was to marry and attempt to reclaim.’ This relationship ended a few years later when ‘the unfortunate woman threw herself in front of a train at Wimbledon Station, leaving behind a letter exculpating her husband as the only good thing in her life.’ Bernard then married Ellen Day, the snobbish daughter of ‘a fashionable London dentist’. Their children grew up in a big house in Hove while Bernard slept off hangovers in his London chambers, spent time with his French mistress and did a spot of writing. His first novel, The Light? (1898), ‘had to do with ancient Egypt, reincarnation and contemporary life’; Coronation (1902) ‘was distinguished by the most alliterative opening sentences I have ever read’. (‘Boom! went the bell of St Botolph’s, bidding her boys from book and board. Clang! came the curfew of Carfax, calling the citizens from counter and cloth-yard.’) From time to time Bernard would show up in Sussex and bark orders in ‘his military voice’ – he had others – or claim to be the rightful heir to the Scottish throne.

After 1915, when he landed an administrative job in France with the Royal Horse Artillery, Bernard’s military pretensions intensified. But he began to feel cash-strapped during the postwar slump. The house in Hove was sold and the family entered the dilapidated sub-world of boarding houses and hotels that became Patrick’s second favourite setting for his novels. Meanwhile, Bernard began to take an interest in politics. He broke with the Fabians after only one meeting, then switched allegiance to the National Citizens’ Union, a middle-class Fascist pressure group, and became a fan of Mussolini, to whom he sent a signed copy of The Giant (1926), his fictionalised life of Danton. ‘As a puff preliminary,’ he informed the book’s publishers in a late-life flash of his earlier manner, ‘you may say that this is the greatest novel ever written – which indeed it is.’ By then, though, the drink had taken its toll, and he died in 1930. His last decline began with a nasty fall, which took place while he was being ejected from the Trocadero restaurant after making anti-semitic comments about the Lyons company, which owned it, when asked to put out his pipe.

As young men, the Hamilton brothers were determinedly arch about ‘the author of The Light?’, as they liked to call him. Patrick, a frequenter and memorialist of Lyons tea houses, often gave the bullies and bores in his novels a few of Bernard’s more understated mannerisms. As Bruce saw things, a need for a more reliable father-figure explained his brother’s long-term admiration for Stalin as well as his propensity to fall under the sway of older or intellectually more confident friends. Yet Hamilton often showed Bernard-like tendencies, most obviously by becoming infatuated with Lily Connolly, a young woman working as a prostitute whom he met in a London pub in the late 1920s. Post-Suez, he became a Marxisant Tory-voter. His lifelong, ‘almost pathological hatred of the Labour Party’ had congealed, he explained, into ‘a genuine contempt for what largely supports it, the British Working Class’, which had ‘proved itself despicably incapable of what might have been its historic task’ by hoisting TV aerials instead of the Red Flag. And of course there was the drinking.

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