If you’re anything like me, this time of year represents the ideal time to buy those books you’ve been meaning to read for months. However, have you looked at the bestselling charts recently? It’s nothing more than a dispiriting collection of inane celebrity “autobiographies”, poorly written “erotica” and cookbooks. No thanks. Instead, I urge you to turn your back on such nonsense, pour a stiff drink, and immerse yourself in Patrick Hamilton’s superb Hangover Square. It’s one of those books you’ll insist your friends read.
Hamilton initially enjoyed a positive critical reception and plenty of sales. Born in 1904, following the publication of his first novel in 1925, he swiftly gained a wide readership. Despite personal setbacks and, not surprisingly given the book’s subject matter, drink problems he continued to write some impressive works. These included Rope (famously, made into a film by Hitchcock) and Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (less famously, serialised by the BBC). Despite this, his fame and success faded in later years and he drifted into obscurity. Whilst the BBC serialisation has led to his reputation being partially revived it hasn’t reached the level it deserves.
A neglected classic, Hamilton poignantly and atmospherically evokes the seedy fog-bound world of London’s saloon bars, dingy lodging-houses and boozers. Frankly, there’s so much alcohol, you’ll need a Berocca when you’ve finished. The description of pubs and booze culture is one of the best things in the book. Anyone who’s ever spent time in pubs will recognise at once the “pub-mate” type relationship that develops where all that binds you together is your love of drinking. Written in 1941, but set in the months leading up to the outbreak of war with Germany (the swirling unease of this time is vividly captured), this is a coruscating study of loneliness, obsession, thwarted love and lives adrift. It’s through the hazy world of smoky, shabby pubs and endless drinking that we see the doomed infatuation develop.
This pitch-black comedy (those final 3 lines…), Hangover Square is the tale of the obsession of a decent man, George Bone, for a failed actress, Netta Longdon, primarily set amongst the pubs of Earls Court, where social lives revolve around heavy drinking. Bone, an amiable but vulnerable young man, has drifted to the fringe of a small group whose existence largely revolves around cadging money off him. Bone is hopelessly besotted with a woman who despises him and only tolerates his company as his recent win in the pools allows him to be manipulated to pay her debts. Cool, contemptuous and desirable Longdon has to rank as one of the finest and most repulsive femme fatales ever.
If this weren’t enough to cope with Bone also suffers from a split personality which manifests itself in “dead moods” where his personality completely changes. Something in his head goes “CLICK” and the subsequent sudden changes of mood and memory loss last from minutes to days. These attacks occur throughout the novel and it’s when suffering from these “dead moods” that he realises that Longdon must die. Only than can he be truly content: “Then he remembered…without any difficulty, what it was he had to do: he had to kill Longdon. “ When he “CLICKS” back to normal he completely forgets – until the next time he snaps back. “It was like bursting up into fresh air after swimming gravely for a long time in the silent green depths.” This simple narrative device serves to ratchet up the dramatic tension. Will he or won’t he kill her?
Although Longdon can be beguiling she is totally self-serving. You soon realise that Bone has to forget about her and move on. He knows it too but he can’t escape her. How many of us can say we’ve not been, or had a friend in a similar position? Their infatuation can’t be dented even by the knowledge that the one they’ve fallen couldn’t care less about them. Frustratingly, it’s a successful round of golf that gives you a glimpse of the more fulfilling existence Bone might have had he not missed the correct path in life and ended up trapped. At times you almost want to shake him and implore him to leave the destructive relationship he’s embarked upon. However, such is the quality of Hamilton’s writing it’s implausible to imagine Bone doing anything else.
And it’s that writing which really clinched it for me. For example, Hamilton, through their speech and manners, brilliantly immortalises that pre-war generation on the edge of society who don’t, or don’t want to, fit in. Such is Hamilton’s memorable depiction of bar-hopping, hoped-for comradeship and boozing with anyone available to stave off loneliness that, by the end, it’s like you’ve been in and out a succession of Earls Court boozers. Furthermore, it’s still relevant today. Think about the chat the morning after the office Christmas party: “When you met in the morning all you talked about was last night – how ‘blind’ you were.” Universal themes such as unrequited love (actually, it’s hard to think of a novel which better conveys what it means to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you) and unrealised potential strike a chord in us all. Think of it as the perfect antidote to the saccharine festive season.