PATRICK HAMILTON’S NOVELS are among the best books to resurface amid the growing interest in London as a literary subject. He was at his most productive between the late 1920s and early 1940s with a string of novels set in the then sub-bohemian districts of Fitzrovia and Earls Court.
Pubs and drinking play a big part in Hamilton’s books, just as they did in his life, and he provides us with some good descriptions of the past sounds of pub life. Here ‘The Midnight Bell’ pub is heard early on in the novel of the same name from 1929:
Hamilton’s 1941 Hangover Square is a bleakly humorous tale in which George, the main protagonist, goes into a fugue state whenever he hears a popping sound inside his head – the first word in the book is click. Most of the action takes place in pubs and lodgings around Earls Court, an area which would later feature in other London novels including Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and Jonathan Raban’s Soft City. One drinking den off the Cromwell Road provides a refuge from the sun’s glare:
Pre-war pubs had other forms of automated entertainment before juke boxes came over from the USA. A coin-operated player piano is described in The Midnight Bell:
By this time they were half way down Wardour Street. She led him into a little alleyway leading therefrom, and into a little public house situated therein. They went up into a little room on the first floor, where there was a bar, tables, chairs and sofas, some with people on them, and an automatic piano sort of instrument, which was susceptible to pennies, but brief in its susceptibility, and dumb at the time of their arrival.
He observed in passing, quite uncritically, that whereas she had invited him to, he was paying for, the drinks, and when he came back to her she had already bribed, with a penny, the piano, which responded with a brisk rendering of ‘So Blue’ – which clamoured uproariously in the ears of all present, many of whom (including himself) would have eagerly given it a penny (or even sixpence) to have done nothing of the sort.
Hamilton’s arch and condescending tone in that extract might have come from the pages of Punch magazine, or a student humorist at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival sharing his ‘sideways look at life’ – he was only 25 when the The Midnight Bell was first published. Again Hamilton reminds the reader of the distance between himself and the subject in this description of a slum house in Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia:
Like Earls Court, Fitzrovia is now at one with the wealth and transience of most of central London. Only Cleveland Street hints at the existence of a settled community needing things other than media production houses and sushi restaurants.
One sound described at the beginning of Hangover Square hasn’t disappeared though, and I felt that slight jolt of surprise at seeing what I’d thought was a peculiar and private experience (as if) written down in print: