Patrick Hamilton's life (1904-62) has long been incorporated into English bohemian mythology: born in Hassocks (just outside Brighton) he grew up in Hove, before leading an extraordinary existance - drink, compulsive writing in bed, troubled sexual relationships, car crashes, conversions to Marxism - which was played out in boarding houses and pubs; within a territory that stretched from Brighton, through the wastes of Earls Court, and then to -agreeable - Henley. He wrote stageplays and filmscripts, but is best remembered for his novels which reach their artistic triumph in the twin summits of Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947) These are both stories of lone people - George Harvey Bone and Miss Roach - fighting their ordinary and heroic way against human malignancy and despair.
Yet the very process that preserves Hamilton as a supporting character in the grand story of literary life - and especially literary Brighton life - stresses the man before the books; for the biography is so compelling and salubrious as to render the works themselves unread or half remembered. J.B. Priestly's telling homage: "Among the uniquely individual minor novelists of our age," - seems to have been left cut short, as just an epitaph; without its resounding and justificatory conclusion - "he is a master."
The process of slotting Hamilton in to a preformed pattern generally begins with a comparison to Graham Greene. Yet there are only superficial links: the sleazy milieu familiar from Greene's 1930's "entertainments" is also the world of Hamilton; and the shadowy menace in The Ministry of Fear has a distinct counterpart in Hangover Square. Beyond this there are a very different set of assumptions. Without the Catholic structure there is no redemptive quality that can offer a explication or ease, instead Hamilton's continual jokes, puns and sense of wanton cruelty are very much his own. It is far more plausible to consider Hamilton through his relationship to the practice and influence of cinema. In the 1930's/40's, as this artform reached the an astounding height of popularity in Britain, Hamilton wrote his intensely filmic novels, and was also linked to directly the cinema - he converted his play Rope into a screenplay for Hitchcock; and another play, Gaslight, was filmed twice. The world within the novels is pervaded by cinema. The lives of the characters are shaped through lists of fims that, after being scanned through, will allow matinee cushioned sleep - or act as the scene for seductions that allow sleep. In The Slaves of Solitude, a war novel, there are no actual machine guns spitting or artillery blasting; rather there is the drone of bombers, the shortages, and - crucially - the newsreels in the cinema: "war pictures, naturally" which make the all encompassing nature of the conflict clear.
But the basic form of the novel is indebted to film; this is especially the case in Hangover Square - as the text breaks down into what could be read as a shooting script or annotations to celluloid. Newspaper headlines pile up: 'PLAYWRIGHT OF THE MECHANICAL AGE IS DEAD...FRANCO CLAIMS 18 MILE THRUST IN GREAT CATLAN BATTLE...TONGUE TWISTING RADIO BEE ENDED LEVEL', and seem to - filmically - spin into focus. Likewise litanies of events cut to and fro setting the wider national or even world picture - with a distinct Hamiltonesque (a word that deserves wider useage) savagery:
Fine for the King and Queen in Canada...
Fine for the salvaging of the Thetis...
Fine for Hitler in Czechoslovakia...
Fine for Mr Chamberlain who believed it was peace in our time - his umbrella
a parasol!... You could hardly believe it would ever break, that the bombs had to fall.
Even direct speech between characters becomes half-heard or misheard, the reader is only given parts, as if waiting for the focus to change or the sound levels to adjust. This embedded filmic sense refutes those who read Hamilton as a simple realist in the Gissing tradition, and it is also the reason that Bone's condition is described at pivotal moments as:
It was as though a shutter had rolled down, and clicked tight. It was as though the sound track in a talkie had broken down and the still-proceeding picture on the screen of existance had an utterly different character, mysterious, silent, indescribaly eerie.
This sense of being in a dimly recognisable but estranged world confronts any reader who now starts Hamilton. The physical landscape both in London and Brighton has been shattered through bombing and redevelopment; the curved cathedral of Brighton station remains, but the surrounding railway works and streets have gone. Also vanished is the social landscape that Hamilton's characters navigate through. No more spinsters in boarding houses cower before the maid; American GI's are no longer billeted in Thameside villages; and on the seafront there are no more "huge outings of violent girls, down for the day from the 'Lucky Tip' cigarette factory in London", or perhaps now they just come from other areas of enployment.
What remains still easily accessible is the minutiae of Hamilton's human observation. For it seems the British ways of relating to each other, especially when drinking, has only slightly altered: ingroups and outgroups, the order of buying drinks, charged silences in conversations, recurring ways of teasing - this marginalia of life. His shrewd observations include: "there finally arose...one of those queer situations, so common to three cornered meetings of this kind, in which the two who have just met begin actually to take sides against the character who has introduced them and whom they both know so well..." This meeting, like many of the scenes in Hamilton's novels, takes place in a pub. It is perhaps Archie Prest, Hamilton's alter-ego in The Slaves of Solitude, who is used to most fully explain their allure as he ventures into London to seek out his old theatrical friends . The combination of alcohol (and nobody writes better on drunkenness than Hamilton) with the possibilities in a nightly shifting community had always enrapt him, indeed maybe most fully in his trilogy Twenty Thousand streets under the Sky (1935) a sprawling and complex view of west London that loops back and back again to the pub.
Yet while pubs in Hamilton are accorded the status of secular shrines, (it is here nessecery to remember his alcoholism - "by the end he needed whisky like a car needs petrol") - they are also places where the horror and violence emerge. Hamilton's works are laced with what J.B. Priestly identified as "innocence, appallingly vulnerable, and (of) malevolance coming out of some mysterious darkness of evil." But this is slightly disengenuous: both the ghastly (but beautiful) Netta and the horrendous Mr Thwaites share a common, half-concealed lust for fascism. Indeed Christopher Hitchens recently compared the Fuhrer-adoring, Mosley-marrying Diana Mitford to Netta. While it is symbolic that Netta "was supposed to dislike Fascism, to laugh at it, but in fact she liked it enormously", this cannot act as a full explanation, and lowering the political framework onto Hamilton fails. It fails because readers leave the novels with no grand sense of explanation, or even of how these characters fit into history at a certain point. What is truly memorable is rather the observed force of evil, the slow burning build to a spectacle of revealed horror. Physical spaces are imbued with foreboding and inexplicable noises; then characters are cramped into upstairs attic rooms, huddled around gas fires, crying quietly in unmade beds. Hamilton is a deft chronicler of urban ennui and claustrophobia.
It is though in language itself that the ultimate horror is seen. The dessicated speech of the boarding house in The Slaves of Solitude is remorselessly explored, with the routine questions and stock responses, the dread of revealing too much. All of this cumulatively builds - with the detached and omnipotent text of the book itself counterpointing the few words that are actually spoken. In Hangover Square the same dried language can be seen, but there is also, horrifically, the use Netta makes of language to torture poor Bone:
"Will you come for and have a meal with me sometime this week, Netta?" he
"How do you mean, exactly, a meal?" she said.
Countless examples are available ranging from the brusque to the nightmarish. The reader knows Bone is being hurt and exploited, but also enough of Netta's (lingustically) manipulative charm.
Both novels end in acts of cathartic violence, but the actual pain inflicted remains submerged beneath language; beneath attempts in variant styles, in notes, phrases or letters (and finally a headline) to blame or absolve or justify. And so I wonder what type of language, artfully abstracted, or, as Bone's friend Eddie choses - "vulgar, vivid and racy", Hamilton would use on those (myself previously included) who preserve him as just a mere "Brighton character", and on those who dumbly buy this biography = history view of literature..