8 September 2017

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

There was a time when I would pick up a book, and should there be even a hint of a despicable character, the book would be set aside.  Reading should be for pleasure, to enhance idle moments.  I had little time for manipulative ne'er do wells or spoiled brats as characters.  I've since come to realize that I was an immature reader.

Being slightly obsessed with London as a backdrop in my reading material, Patrick Hamilton stood out as an author who supplied not only a novel rich with scenes of London, but evocations of the inter-war period as well.  I bought two of his books, The Slaves of Solitude and Hamgover Square.  A few years ago I read the former title and was put off by the copious amounts of drinking, surly behaviour and the bleakness of a dreary boarding house.  Needless to say, Hangover Square was then sentenced to neglect, continuously passed over for something more cheery or domestic.  I have now been enlightened.

'Click!...Here is was again!  He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again...Click!...'

This story begins on Christmas Day in 1938 and George Harvey Bone is visiting his aunt.  It's not out of kindness or affection, but rather for the £10 note coming his way as his annual gift.  At thirty-four George leads a down at heel existence in a shabby Earl's Court hotel.  He's been aware of the 'click' in his head ever since he was a boy, leading the reader to interpret some sort of personality disorder, perhaps schizophrenia.  When George feels the 'click' on Christmas Day he's driven by an intense urge to kill Netta, a manipulative slattern if ever there was one.

So far, not very cosy, is it?  And yet Patrick Hamilton's writing is absolutely brilliant.  He had me standing on the street corner with breeze-blown newspapers and cigarette butts, sitting right there in a smokey pub, walking up the filthy stairs of a run-down bedsit, and you can just about taste the gin.  The mention of an odd cup of tea came as a relief....and I was riveted by what would happen next.

George Harvey Bone worships Netta, who in turn uses George for his casual acquaintance to a man connected with a movie company.  Despite knowing his time and precious money is being wasted, George finds Netta is every bit as addictive as alcohol.

'...in spite of her intelligence and quick wits she couldn't act for nuts (he had ascertained that): but principally because she was spoiled and lazy, and drank too much - because she had expected success without having to work for it, and now drank and was lazy in a sort of furious annoyance at the fact that success was not to be had that way - a vicious circle of arrogance, and laziness and drink.  In other words she had never got out of being the bad-tempered, haughty tyrannical child she was at the beginning.  She lacked the imagination and generousity to do so.  And that brought him to the present Netta he had in front of him - the one who was making use of him in order to be near a man who might be of use to her.  For the moment he was sorry for her, and rather happy.'

As the situation with Netta and a peripheral crowd of punters in Earl's Court leads George further down a path of demoralization and depression, he turns to an unyielding plan of revenge.  And I couldn't be torn from the last pages of the book for anything.

Published in 1941, I never fail to be in awe of writers accomplishing such stellar pieces of work while bombs rained over England, buildings lay in ruin, and there were petrol and food shortages.  I was also saddened to learn that much of Patrick Hamilton's childhood was spent living in the type of boarding house he wrote about, with an alcoholic father of limited means.  He left school at fifteen and as an adult, Hamilton faced his own struggle with alcoholism, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.  

Hangover Square couldn't be further from my usual preference of a cosy read, but Patrick Hamilton shares the distinction of many of my favourite authors from this era in that their books fell out of favour.  I'm sure I could mention Patrick Hamilton to any number of readers at my library and be met with a blank stare, and that is a great shame.

Publicity photo from Hangover Square (1945) starring Laird Cregar and Linda Darnell.   

6 comments:

  1. More literary London from tonight's Standard - not cosy, but I've already reserved my copy! https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/smileys-london-exploring-the-underground-haunts-in-john-le-carr-s-a-legacy-of-spies-a3630006.html

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    1. Just read the review and laughed at mention of 'meddlesome characters with names like Bunny and Tabitha...' Perhaps not quite for me, but one of my VLS customers at the library would absolutely love it. Thanks, Mary!

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  2. I've been meaning to read this one for a decade! I think you've convinced me - when I've finished the book I'm reading now (Magician's Nephew) I'll give it a go :)

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    1. Glad to hear it, o! The Backlisted podcast is excellent for sharing the joys of twentieth century literature. They recently aired an episode on Patrick Hamilton's 'Slaves of Solitude' that got me thinking I was missing something....and I was. Hopefully you'll enjoy Hangover Square as much as I did.

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  3. It sounds such a good story but very nitty gritty. I wonder whether it is for me.

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    1. It's far from a cosy read, Mystica, but should you ever feel the need for nitty gritty....look no further!

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