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29 December 2010

London through a glass

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:

In here and in the Saloon Bar ‘The Midnight Bell’ did most of its business – the two other bars (the Public and the Private) being dreary, seatless, bareboarded structures wherein drunkenness was dispensed in coarser tumblers and at a cheaper rate to a mostly collarless and frankly downtrodden stratum of society. The Public Bar could nevertheless be glimpsed by a customer in the Saloon Bar, and as the evening wore on it provided the latter with an acoustic background of deep mumbling and excited talk without which its whole atmosphere would have been lost – without which, indeed, the nightly drama of the Saloon Bar would have been rather like a cinematograph drama without music . . .

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:

The long, warm, bright days still persisted, and the door of the pub was flung and fastened back. It was cool, dark, and restful inside and pleasant with the peaceful beginnings of the little house’s evening trade – two men talking quietly, another reading a newspaper, the flutter of a canary in a cage, the barmaid vanishing into other bars and returning, the occasional oily jab of the beer-engine and the soft spurt of beer.

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:

At this point they reached Bolsover Street. This starts off with tall and newly erected buildings, but soon dwindles down into the drab and decayed slum which actually it is. She took him to a door not far down. The house was of four stories, and seemed to be untenanted. [. . .] She let herself in with a large key, and they found themselves in a dark passage which chilled Bob’s soul, but which had no such effect upon Prunella, whose dainty high heels went clock-clocking up the bar wooden stairs. He followed. On each landing three different doors led into three different rooms containing three different families. All the doors were closed, but the awful belligerence of the poor was to be heard and sensed. On the first floor a man was reviling a woman, and a child, in another room, screaming. It did this not as though it was being beaten (which it possibly was) but as though it was being put to death. On the second floor someone was playing a harmonica, but in the front room an old woman groaned. You could not imagine what at, unless it was the harmonica. On the third floor two other children were being put to death.

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:

The wheels and track clicked out the familiar and unmistakable rhythm – the sly, gentle suggestive rhythm, unlike any of its others, of a train entering a major London terminus, and he was filled with unease and foreboding as he always was by this sound.
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