London Lit: Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Today I’d like to talk about a trilogy of linked novels. You may recall if you read this on a regular basis that I discussed Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square some months back. Well, this trilogy is another of his works, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It comprises three linked novels, The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement.

Hamilton is most at home when writing about losers – not necessarily contemptible or unpleasant characters, but characters whose lot in life is simply to lose.

There is something of an autobiographical element to his work because, for want of a better way of putting it, Hamilton was a bit of a loser himself. He was taken out of school at 15, having lived much of his childhood in poverty due to his father’s alcoholism. After a brief period as an actor, he broke into writing at the age of 19. Like his father, he struggled with alcohol (at one stage getting through three bottles of bootleg whisky a day), as well as chronic depression. He eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver.

The Midnight Bell, published in 1929, is very much in the author’s cynical and embittered voice. It’s set in the titular pub, located “off Euston Road” (presumably in Fitzrovia, going by geographical cues in the text) and centres on Bob, a handsome former sailor, now bar waiter. Now there’s a period detail for you – when was the last time you went to a backstreet boozer that had waiters? Sorry, I digress. Bob finds himself becoming obsessed over one of the customers, a young prostitute by the name of Jenny.

This being Patrick Hamilton, the course of true love never does run smoothly, or indeed, at all. It’s clear from the very start that Jenny has no intention of reciprocating. While Bob financially supports Jenny out of a kind of nobility, Hamilton spins it as a kind of selfish act – Bob is noble because it makes him feel good to be a white knight. Inevitably, things end badly for Bob. Jenny leaves him with nothing. This novel is based on Hamilton’s own life – he too had become infatuated with a prostitute, and it’s hard not to see his condemnation of Bob’s actions as self-loathing. If I’m honest, the problem I personally had with this novel was that it was a bit too similar to the later, but more polished, Hangover Square.

The Siege of Pleasure takes us out to the West London suburbs, and back in time a little. Jenny is the focus of this story – a young woman going into domestic service with high hopes for the future. I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice it to say that she makes a lot of bad choices. Hamilton has little sympathy.

I have to admit that I delayed reading The Plains of Cement. It centres on the kindly but dull Ella, the barmaid in the background of The Midnight Bell. I couldn’t see this being particularly thrilling, but more fool me. This was, I have to say, the most enjoyable of the trilogy because the main character is so ordinary. There are no earth-changing events, no suicides, no murders, no torrid love affairs. Hamilton’s great strength is portraying the suffering of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. Not to ennoble it or to dismiss it, but to show it as it is.

This trilogy is full of marvellously-observed characters and situations – the passive-aggressive Mr Eccles is the most stand-out character in this regard, but the pub is just full of ’em. It’s not difficult to imagine Patrick Hamilton sitting in the bar of some equivalent of the Midnight Bell, overhearing some drunk and taking mental notes.

This is why I enjoy his work. He doesn’t attempt to judge his characters, either favourably or unfavourably, but simply to present them with all their qualities and flaws. Morality is hardly your concern when you read about these people because even the most peripheral character is so real that to moralise about them is to reduce them to two dimensions. The atmosphere, too, drips with authenticity – the Midnight Bell is a hopeless place in a grim West End a metaphorical thousand miles from the glamour of Piccadilly. Hamilton concentrates on three particular characters, but one suspects he could have built a novel around any of them. Check it out sometime, do.

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Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Fitzrovia, Geography, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Suburbia, West End

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