The blackest of boozy pre-war comedies …

lar-button-finalPatrick Hamilton is one of those authors whom I’ve been meaning to read for years – when one of the blogs I follow (sorry can’t remember which one) reviewed his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky last autumn and loved it, I was moved to check my shelves and found his 1941 novel Hangover Square on them. That book moved to my bedside pile, and so I’ve been able to combine my TBR reading with Long Awaited Reads Month (hosted by Iris and Ana).

Why, oh why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’ll say it up front – it’s my first 10/10 read for 2014 …

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Starting in the dying days of 1938, George Harvey Bone, a tall and ungainly young man is spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton hoping she’ll give him some money to keep him and his ‘friends’ going.

hangover squareGeorge is jobless, and lives in a backstreet hotel in Earls Court, an area of West London that was, (may still be) bedsit-land. He spends most of his time either asleep or in one boozer or another with his so-called friends Peter, Mickey and Netta.

It’s thinking of Netta that makes George’s brain go ‘click’ while he’s out walking in the Norfolk air that Christmas. The click puts him into a ‘dead mood’ which puts his body into automatic, and his brain into thinking bad thoughts for George is an undiagnosed schizophrenic …

This Netta business had been going on too long. When was he going to kill her? Soon – this year certainly. At once would be best – as soon as he got back to London – he was going back tomorrow, Boxing Day. But these things had to be planned: he had so many plans: too many. The thing was so incredibly, absurdly easy That was why it was so difficult to choose the right plan. You had only to hit her over the head when she was not looking. You had only to ask her to turn her back to you because you had a surprise for her, and then strike her down. You had only to invite her to a window, to ask her to look down at something, and then throw her out. You had only to put a scarf playfully round her neck, and fondle it admiringly, and then strangle her. You had only to surprise her in her bath, life up her legs and hold her head down. All so easy: all so silent.

He’s on the train home, before the shutter opens in his brain again, and “he wished to God he could remember what he had been doing and what he had been thinking.

What has Netta done to deserve all these bad thoughts?  She is the number one object of his affections but treats him badly, shamelessly milking him for drinks, dinner, subs for her rent, using poor lovelorn George.  The others take advantage too.

He could see through them, and, of course, he hated them. He even hated Netta too – he had known that for a long time. He hated Netta, perhaps, most of all. The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathes, that he could think of nithing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta! … God – how he loved her!

He hated himself, too. He didn’t pretend to be any better. He hated himself for the life he led – the life in common with them. Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant, pub-crawling cheap lot of swine – that was what they all were. Including him and Netta.

Netta wants to be a film-star, and lets George take her to dinner in a posh London restaurant.  George is overjoyed at getting her to himself for even a short while, but once at the restaurant it is clear she picked it because Eddie Carstairs, a casting agent is often there, and her feminine wiles are all directed at him. Poor George is a meal-ticket again.

George becomes even more useful when he meets an old friend Johnnie from his school days. Johnnie is a true friend, but when Netta finds out he works at Carstairs’ company, George has another use again. When George is invited down to a company do at Brighton, Netta has to get in on the act…

You can sense right from the beginning, when George’s alter-ego has those murderous thoughts, that this novel is unlikely to have a happy ending. George does manage to have a few genuinely good moments, away from Netta, but he’s not strong enough to get up and go.  He does realise this, but with war in the air, and no jobs on the ground, he can’t dig himself out of the pit he’s fallen into. The constant drinking doesn’t help, and his ‘dead moods’ are getting worse.  Poor George.

This novel is subtitled ‘A story of darkest Earls Court’, and it certainly is that. Netta and co have a Hemingwayesque relationship with booze, and are flirting with Fascist attitudes too, but George has problems with Munich – he’s scared at the prospects of war.  It adds an undercurrent throughout the book which adds to the inevitability of what happens.

The novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

I loved this book so much it’s going into my Desert Island Books booktrunk. I reluctantly put it down with fifty pages to go the other night, and waking up at about 3.30am for some reason,  rather than go back to sleep, I finished reading it. It may be sad, but it’s an absolute classic. (10/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941), foreword by J B Priestley, Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages.

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19 thoughts on “The blackest of boozy pre-war comedies …

  1. It’s great, isn’t it, when you hit such a good book so early in the year. I read it a few years back. I also read Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, part of the Gorse Trilogy and thought it was fantastic. Mrs Plumleigh Bruce was an amazing creation. Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet (and grab the DVD The Charmer too)

    • I was stunned by this book,Guy. My reaction reminded me of the first time I read Graham Greene way back when – they tell similar stories,but with different styles. I’ve ordered ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ next. I’ve read that Hamilton was too mired in booze himself by Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, but sounds like that one is still good to read too.

      • It’s part of a trilogy (didn’t know when I read Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse), so I can’t say anything about the other two novels, but Mr S and Mr G is very darkly funny. Something I didn’t except from Hamilton. He really nails middle class snobbery.

    • Thanks Sharkell. It is always a wonderful to start the year with a great modern classic. Last yr it was Mrs and Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell, this year Hamilton…

      • I had a very good start to the year with Magda, thanks to your recommendation. I loved it! I have Mrs and Mr Bridge on my wish list – it certainly did the rounds last year and sounds excellent!

  2. Wow, 10 out of 10! I have this and one other Hamilton on my TBR – I thought I had read this, but I’m not so sure now and I may well go home and pull it straight off the shelf!

  3. So glad to hear such positive things about this one! I really loved The Slaves of Solitude, but have read no more (besides starting a later one which wasn’t amazing). This is waiting on my shelf, and might come off soon… It might be Harriet who reviewed Twenty Thousand Streets?

  4. Oh my God, I’ve had this book on my shelves for years since I first caught sight of it in a bookshop. Don’t you just love the title? But I still haven’t managed to read it although I’ve been pondering about picking it for my book group several times. I really must read it now! I saw the telly version of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky several years back which I really liked too but haven’t read the books yet.

    • I agree, the title is inspired Sakura. It would definitely make a good book group choice too – go on…. I enjoyed the TV 2000 Streets also.

  5. I did review Twenty Thousand Sttreets Simon but didn’t enjoy it as much as Slaves of Solitude which I really loved. I’m afraid I never finished Hangover Square though I could see how brilliant it was, for the very weedy reason that I found it too upsetting. Glad you loved it so much – your review makes me think I should give it another go.

    • You’re right Harriet, it was upsetting, but if was so beautifully crafted,I just had to see it through. Looking forward to the Slaves of Solitude now which arrived yesterday, but I can’t read until April with my TBR only plan.

  6. I have only ever read Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, though it was a cracker and I admired it enormously. Heaven knows he’s a gloomy writer, though, and I’d have to be in the right mood for him. But I completely agree with you, he’s an amazing stylist and you remind me I really should read him again.

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