I was walking through London recently with the American writer Megan Abbott, author of the wonderful THE END OF EVERYTHING. We were looking for somewhere to eat and, more importantly, drink. I suggested Fitzrovia, not least for its literary heritage, and reeled off a few names that I thought might interest her. Of course, Patrick Hamilton was mentioned.
‘Patrick Hamilton!’ said Megan, visibly excited by his name. ‘I’ve just read HANGOVER SQUARE. Isn’t it fantastic? He’s hardly known back home but I bet he’s huge here.’
Well . . . yes and no. He’s certainly a household name in my house. And probably a selected few other houses as well. But not much beyond that, I reckon. Is that a problem? Well, I rate him as one of the finest British novelists of the twentieth century. And I believe anyone who claims to care about English literature should have read at least one of his novels. Perhaps the peerless psychological Brit noir thriller HANGOVER SQUARE, still in print. Or TWENTY THOUSAND STREETS UNDER THE SKY, his heartbreaking trilogy of obsessive, wrong-hearted love and the harsh erosion of dreams by a brutal reality. Or my favourite, SLAVES OF SOLITUDE, a brilliant, symbolic restaging of the Second World War with a disparate, motley collection of bottom-rung characters set in a seedy lodging house in Henley Upon Thames.
But I doubt many have. Perhaps people may be vaguely aware of Hamilton through film versions of his plays and novels: the awful, narratively disembowelled HANGOVER SQUARE, George Cukor’s enjoyably lurid and melodramatic production of GASLIGHT, starring an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman and a vowel-strangling Charles Boyer, or Hitchcock’s gimmicky, tricksy attempt at ROPE. Maybe even the TV series of the Gorse novels, THE CHARMER, starring Nigel Havers.
On the one hand it’s a terrible thing that such a brilliant writer has been so badly neglected. Admittedly there are occasional attempts to remind the general public who he is. A biography every decade or so, a documentary, the BBC’s excellent version of TWENTY THOUSAND STREETS UNDER THE SKY. And now the reissue of TWOPENCE COLOURED, which is a genuine cause for celebration. The Hamilton fan brigade (of which I’m a fully paid up member) are thrilled to bits by all this, but I fear that by and large these events don’t cause much of a ripple with public consciousness.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? I mean, I’m sure it is in terms of sales for Faber or viewing figures for the BBC. But I recall a conversation a few years ago with a friend about another writer – a ‘writer’s writer’, if you will, which usually means they’re read by other writers and nobody else. ‘He’s so good,’ my friend said, ‘that on the one hand I want to tell everyone about him. But on the other I just want to keep him for myself.’
And that’s how I feel about Patrick Hamilton. On the one hand I wish everyone could read him and appreciate his very individual brilliance. But I also freely acknowledge that with his focus on marginalised and often doomed, self-destructing characters, his dark, downbeat style and the pall of human despair that so often permeates his writing… not everyone will get him. Or necessarily want to get him. And, for those of us who genuinely love his work, if we’re honest, that’s fine by us. Because that puts him in the category of ‘special’ or ‘treasured.’ A writer who you have to deliberately seek out, but once you’ve made the effort the rewards are immense.
So who should read him? Well, any reader who appreciates a writer who can understand and illuminate the human condition to the degree Hamilton can, even its darkest aspects – he’s for them. Any reader who appreciates well-drawn characters, strong narratives and emotionally literate storytelling – he’s for them. In fact, any reader who loves good writing.
And to be honest, whom does that leave out?