Twenty thousand streets.., p.1
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, p.1Patrick Hamilton
About the Book
With an introduction by Michael Holroyd
The Midnight Bell, a pub on the Euston Road, is the pulse of this brilliant and compassionate trilogy. It is here where the barman, Bob, falls in love with Jenny, a West End prostitute who comes in off the streets for a gin and pep. Around his obsessions, and Ella the barmaid’s secret love for him, swirls the sleazy life of London in the 1930s. This is a world where people emerge from cheap lodgings in Pimlico to pour out their passions, hopes and despair in pubs and bars – a world of twenty thousand streets full of cruelty and kindness, comedy and pathos, wasted dreams and lost desires.
See Also: The Secret Agent
About the Author
Born in Hassocks, Sussex in 1904, Patrick Hamilton was the youngest of three children. At the age of seventeen he began to train as an actor before realising that his talents lay in literature. In 1925, at the age of nineteen, he published his first novel Monday Morning, two more followed in quick succession, and he began to be admired and widely read. His first theatrical success was Rope (1929) on which Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name was based. His play Gaslight was also adapted for the big screen starring Ingrid Bergman. His novels include The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure, The Plains of Cement (a trilogy later published together under the title Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky), Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude.
Hamilton died on 23 September, 1962.
ALSO BY PATRICK HAMILTON
Impromptu in Moribundia
The Slaves of Solitude
The West Pier
Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse
John Brown’s Body
Money with Menaces
The Duke in Darkness
The Man Upstairs
‘No other English writer has written so acutely about sexual infatuation, embarrassment and self-delusion’ Time Out
‘Bleak and brilliant . . . an authentic lost classic’ Guardian
A London Trilogy
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
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Epub ISBN 9781446426500
Published by Vintage 2010
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Copyright © The Estate of the late Patrick Hamilton 1987
Introduction copyright © Michael Holroyd 1987
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First published in Great Britain in 1935 by Constable and Co. Ltd
Hogarth Edition published in Great Britain in 1987
First published by Vintage in 1998
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Introduction by Michael Holroyd
The Midnight Bell
The Siege of Pleasure
I The Treasure
II A Glass of Port
III The Morning After
IV The Marion and Bella
The Plains of Cement
L. M. H.
C. R. M.
PATRICK HAMILTON WROTE this London trilogy when in his middle and late twenties. The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement are each self-contained and were first published separately before being collected in 1935 under the title Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. The Midnight Bell, which appeared in 1929 when the author was still twenty-four, is b
The controlling figure in his life was his father. Bernard Hamilton had been given little affection as a child and grew up without much self-esteem or self-knowledge. ‘What a low comedian you would have made!’ Henry Irving had complimented him after he had been speaking at great length on the principles of religion. But Bernard Hamilton could never get his act together. He was a comedian equipped with a monocle but no sense of humour, a chameleon-like figure given to self-dramatization who nevertheless drank to be rid of himself. His children found it impossible to form a consistent or friendly relationship with him and would await with trepidation his return from various trips abroad. From Italy he came back a conscript father with a dash of Mussolini; from France he returned with an ineffable Gallic accent; Spain gave him an air of grave courtesy and a grandee’s dignity; alighting at Euston Station very Scotch and drunk after a journey north, he told Patrick, ‘My boy, if ever it comes to war between England and Scotland, you and I will cross the border.’
Though often absent from home, and despite violent scenes with his wife, Bernard took a solemn view of his parental duties and, having been granted a commission in the Royal Horse Artillery, would address his children in parade-ground language and have them up for military-style inspections.
Patrick grew up a silent, observant child, fretted by anxieties, and longing for some creed of certainty – which he was eventually to find in Marxism. From his father he could win no support for his wish to be a writer, although this wish reflected Patrick’s need to feel closer to him. For Bernard, when acting the novelist, published several historical novels of which he appeared to think rather well (‘As a puff preliminary,’ he advised his publisher, ‘you may say that this is the greatest novel ever written – which indeed it is’). His disinclination to help may have come from the suspicion that his son was naturally more gifted as a writer. Instead, he sent him to a commercial school near Holborn with a marvellous letter of instruction:
On Sabbath mornings you will sit, regularly, under the minister of the Scots Presbyterian Church near St Pancras. This is a parade. You will then proceed to Chiswick, reporting for Dinner at one-thirty, military time – i.e. five minutes early . . . You will bring with you a weekly report on conduct and progress from your tutors, endorsed by the Principal. If any difficulty should arise, you are to say that, I, your father, the author and barrister, require this.
You will make enquiries as to membership of the City Volunteer or Cadet companies; I believe such bodies still exist. Understand this is an order; excuses will have no more avail with me than the preachments of Mormon missionaries.
For exercise I recommend rowing. Ascertain the conditions of membership of the London or Thames Boat Clubs – you cannot hope for Leander.
Patrick did not remain long at this school, but while there he first fell in love. ‘His surrender was instant, absolute and agonizing,’ his brother Bruce Hamilton remembered. ‘I could see that her mere appearance made him almost faint with longing.’ More damaging was a love affair which began in 1927 with Lily, a West End prostitute. This must have seemed an escape from the respectable middle-class world of his parents into the world of London’s defeated classes – the insignificant, the needy, the homeless and the ostracized – that populate his novels. But it also followed the pattern of his father’s first marriage to a prostitute he had met in the promenade of the Empire Theatre, which ended when she threw herself under a train. The affair with Lily seemed both a copy of, and perhaps an exculpation for, that marriage – for here it is the prostitute who educates and takes revenge on the gentleman. By moving into a lower social sphere, Patrick Hamilton did not shed the insecurities implanted by his upbringing: his emotional vulnerability helped to make him one of the chronically dissolute and distressed who wander the dingy London streets and find refuge in its pubs and dosshouses.
The Midnight Bell (1930) is an account – in places almost a transcription – of Patrick Hamilton’s disastrous romance with Lily. When first published it had the subtitle ‘A Love Story’. But the word love, though desperately repeated in the many blurred conversations, loses all particular meaning and becomes a vague shorthand for what the characters imagine they want – the possession of beauty, money or security: in short, the possession of the unattainable.
The Midnight Bell is a study of infatuation. We are spared none of its detailed tortures or griefs, betrayals and deceits, in this anatomy of humiliation that brings us to the frontiers of Patrick Hamilton’s famous psychological thrillers for the stage, Rope and Gaslight, and his classic murder novel Hangover Square. ‘Her perfect cruelty and egotism appalled him . . . He would kill her.’ But there are to be no murders in this trilogy, for it is the endurance of ordinary life that we are being shown. What The Midnight Bell loses in detachment, it gains in intensity. The appalling monster-bores of this pub are excruciatingly observed and intimately known. As we follow the intricately plotted inanities of their tales, which divert us by driving the other characters to distraction, we do not overhear them from a distance, but are brought into their very presence.
The Siege of Pleasure (1932) is the story of Jenny Maple’s first step down from respectable servant girl towards prostitution. ‘Jever hear of Bernard Shaw? . . . He wrote a book called Mrs Warren’s Profession – an’ showed it was all economics,’ Bob, the waiter of ‘The Midnight Bell’, tells her – to which she replies: ‘I guess he was just about right.’ The economic point is well made in The Siege of Pleasure, which portrays the meagre and pleasureless conditions of her servant life as a form of socially acceptable, class-regimented prostitution. By describing as the place of her employment his own suburban home in Chiswick, and giving portraits of his nerveless mother and eccentric aunt as her employers, together with a fearful silhouette of his father (pathetically fallen away after a stroke and the unwelcome double success of Rope and The Midnight Bell), he aligns his own escape with Jenny’s to make it all the more comprehensible.
Jenny is a shallow character – her shallowness makes all the more remarkable the power of her beauty which so profoundly impresses Bob. ‘He decided he would really die for such beauty.’ This sexual-aesthetic longing, and a longing for the freedom of financial security, are the two motivating forces in all these novels. Jenny herself has no eye for beauty and is even blind to her own looks, believing Bob is ‘a bit mad’ to be so ‘crazily in love’ with her. It is one of the ironies of the trilogy that the prostitute is sexless and the barmaid, Ella, does not drink. Both have little understanding of their clients, though a good deal of professonal expertise. As a servant, Jenny has been ‘arduously trained in the practice of pleasing strangers’ and it is this skill she has taken on to the streets. Her own pleasure comes through drink which gives her access to wonderful sensations and the feeling of being in harmony with her environment. ‘She never believed it was possible to be so happy.’ For Jenny, drink is the replacement for everything that her existence itself has prevented her from enjoying naturally. ‘Love, of which some spoke, was a closed book to her, and she honestly believed it would remain a closed book all her life. It was a closed book which she had no desire to open.’
But love seems an open book to Bob and as real as his literary aspirations. When, intoxicated by her murderous beauty, he puts his arms round Jenny and wills himself to believe that she loves him, happiness feels very close. Led into a hell by this alluring and irresistible pilot, he comes to use drink as a way of forgetting a ‘vile and disappointing planet’, where such promised happiness is only a mirage.
Between the writing of The Midnight Bell and The Siege of Pleasure, Patrick Hamilton managed to free himself from his debilitating passion for Lily. He was helped in bringing his life under control by a sensible, if passionless, marriage in 1930 to a woman who was also in ret
For almost two years following the completion of The Siege of Pleasure, he was unable to write anything new. Then, in a sudden concentration of creative energy, he completed the trilogy with a wonderfully balanced and accomplished novel developing a subsidiary plot from The Midnight Bell. Also centred in the pub, The Plains of Cement (1934) is Ella the barmaid’s story, which complements Bob’s story and brings a deeper perspective to the themes of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Although apparently disinherited from the privileges of romance by her plain looks and financially disadvantaged by her background of lower-class poverty, this sensible girl is not without her dreams of a better emotional and economic life. But, unlike Bob and Jenny, she struggles to keep these tempting fantasies under control. She is secretly in love with Bob but endeavours to keep this a secret even from herself. She has it in her to feel for him what he feels for Jenny, for although ‘a placid and efficient girl, she also worshipped at the shrine of pure beauty and romance’. Knowing nothing of Jenny, she believes that ‘any girl with eyes in her head would be after’ Bob, but schools herself to accept that she can never hope to attract his attention. ‘She was, she found, incapable of inspiring his tenderness.’
Because of the social divisions between men and women and the incompatibilities of male and female sexuality, there is truth in Ella’s sober assessment. To Bob’s mind, Jenny, with her ingenuous expression and clear blue eyes, is a heavenly creature who ‘with the child’s weight of her body’ seems magically uncontaminated by the world; while the humming buoyant figure of Ella, his frank and admirable companion in toil, who really is uncontaminated, appears no more than ‘a jolly good sort’. Jenny is the child who must be owned, and Ella the mother who is taken for granted and eventually will be left. His intelligence tells him that this is false; but we do not act through intelligence, reserving it for commentary on our actions:
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