Whisky sour

Laura Thompson raises a glass to the novelist Patrick Hamilton, remorseless chronicler of downbeat pub life
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The Independent Culture

Patrick Hamilton, who was born 100 years ago this Wednesday, wrote about pubs better than any other novelist. As a dedicated drinker - he could get through three bottles of whisky a day, and was still lacing his tea with it when dying in 1962 of liver failure - he knew what he was talking about. But it wasn't just drink that he understood, it was the whole life of the pub: its rituals, rhythms and earthy glamour, its professional willingness to embrace the lonely, the displaced, the unutterably tedious.

The wonderful 1935 trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is set in a pub off the Euston Road. Every detail is spot on; Hamilton's remorseless eye weaves an atmosphere as thick as bar smoke. He was just 24 when he wrote the first of the trilogy, The Midnight Bell (1929), and the three books reek of a young man's appalled fascination with a world that he used for his own artistic ends, but was unable to resist on its own terms.

"I couldn't run away," wrote the middle-class ex-Westminster schoolboy to his brother Bruce. Later he did revert to type, in externals at least. He married twice - first to a cultured older woman named Lois Martin, with whom he found a kind of sexless stability, then to the aristocratic Lady Ursula Stewart - and earned enough to take a house in Henley and rooms in the Albany apartments. But his urge to describe the rootless, questing, twilit world of pubs, rooming-houses and hand-to-mouth living would never leave him. Nor would the urge to drink.

Patrick Hamilton is the poet of compulsion. His best writing - including the plays that made him rich and famous, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938) - is steeped in it. The Midnight Bell, for example, tells the story of Bob, who works in a pub, and his obsessive passion for Jenny, a pretty Soho prostitute; this is a more or less accurate retelling of Hamilton's infatuation with a "mad harlot" called Lily Connolly, who humiliated him much as Jenny does Bob.

In the book, the urge to drink becomes a metaphor for emotional craving. With his innate understanding of the rhythms of drink, Hamilton shows how his characters' moods bloom and despair in line with their alcohol levels. After a single glass, Bob feels life to be "indescribably fine"; he has another drink, and "because the barmaid was affable, and because he had a kind of beautiful pity with the barmaid for ... not being able to make her life indescribably fine, but being affable all the same, he had an extraordinarily pleasant and forgiving conversation with her about nothing in particular ..." Later, after a drunken night with Jenny, he has "a vision of his lost evening ... with himself and his ambitions (and his two pounds intact)." In the morning, he believes himself to be "totally dissolute". The reader travels with Bob through every inch of this emotional ebb and flow; and waits in mesmerised horror for him to do the same thing all over again.

It is Patrick Hamilton's peculiar talent to engage his reader in this way. His best books have a strange dual viewpoint: they give us this awful ability to oversee his characters' folly, while at the same time taking us through every step of the folly as seen by the characters themselves.

Thus Bob, with his proudly harvested £80 savings, which in the course of The Midnight Bell he scatters upon the barren soil of Jenny's favour. We see exactly what he is doing. Hamilton writes that one morning "Bob came to a new theory of Money" (capital letters feature heavily in his characters' thought processes): he would "henceforward regard himself as a man with seventy-five pounds behind him instead of eighty." Reading this, we fear the worst, which does indeed happen.

At the same time - and this is where Hamilton is so superb, so unusual - we see exactly the way in which Bob is thinking, the logic with which he is pursuing his illogical end, the apparent control he has over his lack of control. We are with him, every doomed step of the way that he believes himself to be travelling of his own free will. Hamilton never misses a single stage of the ghastly process of obsession, he doggedly fills in what most writers would skim or omit, and thus he achieves his extraordinary grip upon his reader. Hangover Square (1941) does this most famously, although it lacks the pure breath of funniness that circulates around Twenty Thousand Streets.

The third book of the trilogy, The Plains of Cement (1934), contains one of the most deliciously excruciating courtships in literature, that of the sweet, plain barmaid Ella (who loves Bob - and how the reader wishes he would love her back!) by her "elderly admirer", Mr Eccles. Hamilton applies the same techniques to banality as he does to obsession, refusing to spare the agony, working at the repetitive idiocy of conversation until he finds its pathos and poetry: "Oh well," says Ella, desperately seeking a breathing space as Eccles grimly flirts with her. "Oh well what?" he counters. "What do you mean? Oh well, what?" "Oh, just 'Oh well, what'." "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean." "You said, 'Oh well', so I asked you what you were thinking of." "Oh well, one often says 'Oh well' - doesn't one?" "Does one?"

Patrick Hamilton's later trilogy, The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse and Unknown Assailant, centres upon the swindler Ernest Ralph Gorse, a creation who is sui generis both for the vacuity of his evil and the remorseless way Hamilton presents it. "In years long after the events related in this book, people often argued as to whether Gorse (who was by then a famous figure) had 'any good' in him. He had not any sort of good in him ..."

Hamilton sees Gorse as a mechanism rather than an organism, socialised but inhuman (similarly he sees Netta Longdon, the "cruel, dissipated" temptress of Hangover Square, as having the emotional capacity of a fish). He has no interest in extending compassion or understanding to his creation because it would, as Ella might put it to herself, Be Wasted on him. Nor does he necessarily extend it to his victims. Had the widowed Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, who is swindled of her savings in Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, been less vain a woman, she would not have been so easy to flatter and deceive.

This is stern logic; and such relentless misanthropy did not go down well. Hamilton was no longer dealing exclusively with "low-life" - women like Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce were recognisably middle-class - so his contempt for his characters could no longer be dismissed as vaguely justifiable. Now, it was clear, Hamilton hardly liked anyone. Some of us might agree that he had a point. But not his publisher, Michael Sadleir, a close friend for nearly 30 years, who in 1952 wrote to Hamilton that Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse was "disagreeable and unsympathetic ... sustained mockery and relentless scarification, dealt out by a novelist to characters whom he has purposely presented as grotesque marionettes, bring weariness to a reader ..."

There is irony in the fact that Sadleir, while proclaiming the sixth-former orthodoxy that writers should strive not to hate the human race, should have perpetrated such an intense cruelty upon Patrick Hamilton (but that's publishers for you). He never really recovered from the blow of this letter. A good deal of his life had been spent in the shadows that permeate his books - in 1932, for example, he had a disfiguring car accident from which he recovered only tentatively - and in the Fifties he became suicidally depressed, underwent electro-convulsive therapy which finished him as a writer, then declined into a semi-willed illness and death.

From this, one might think that the sadness of his life affected Hamilton's work with the spirit of dark determinism. Yet it seems to me equally possible that he lived the life he had created through his writing. In an artistic sense he knew perfectly well what he was doing when, for example, he sought out humiliation at the hands of Lily Connolly; in that sense he was master of his fate, and no doubt merrily so.

There is only one great novelistic theme, he once wrote to his brother: "that this is a bloody awful life, that we are none of us responsible for our own lives and actions ... and that whether you're making love, being hanged, or getting drunk, it's all a futile way of passing the time in the brief period allotted to us preceding death. It is all, of course, profoundly true, and bears no actual relation to life whatever. It is merely the portentous dirge of the poet's mind ... Everybody knows, in his heart of hearts, that it's a first-rate existence if only one or two things would go right."