I was delighted to discover recently that the works of Patrick Hamilton, one of my long favourite writers, have come back into fashion. In fact, my favourite work by him ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ – generally regarded as one of his masterpieces – is currently ranking at 70,000 in the Kindle store.
How far this is due to an revival of interest in fiction related to World War II, and the recent (‘socially distanced’) celebration of VE Day, I don’t know. Anwyway, I was very pleased. I feared that his style, relying as it does on eleborate detail and the gradual building of tension, might seem too old fashioned for modern readers ever to develop a taste for it.
He infuenced my own style of writing, particularly in his darkly comic approach. I have imitated him in sometimes using the facetious use of capitals to emphasize certain phrases. I am sure other writers have used versions of it .
I remember reading ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ (not quite such early reading for me as ‘The Queen of Spades’ or ‘Carmela’ but in my teens, anyway) and being delighted by the dark humour that pervades that story.
Patrick Hamilton’s own life was to some extent tragic, though he achieved so much as a writer.
Born into an upper middle class background with an overbearing father who took out his frustrated authoritarian tendencies on his wife and family, Patrick and his beloved brother Bruce retained scars from their childhood all their lives. Patrick slipped early into alcoholism, tormented by and a horror of life, which he feared was meaningless.
His success came early, in his twenties, and he went on to write the fascinating trilogy depicting isolation in the London of the late nineteen twenties ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’.
His masterpieces, however, are ‘Hangover Square’ (from the preface to which I learned the poem ‘The Light of Other Days’) and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’.
Looking for a creed in which to believe, he became a communist. Bitterly disillusioned by the degeneration of the buoyant hopes of a better world that supported so many through terrible war against Nazism into a society based on consumerism, he became a sad and backward looking figure. For the last few years of his life he was hardly able to write at all.
That wonderful sense of the darkly comic aspects of life, of the delightful absurdities to be encountered every day, of the pathos and bathos of life are unique.
I’d like to quote from ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ here, where the dreadful boarding house bully, Mr Thwaites, is ridiculously drunk following Christmas dinner in the local pub.
‘”Methinks it Behoveth me’, said Mr Thwaites, ‘To taketh me unto my mansion. Doth it not? Peradventure? Perchance?”
“Yes,” said the Lieutenant. “Come along the. Get a move on.”…
“Come along Mr Thwaites.” said Vicki (the vulgar, Hitler admierer who coquettishly who encourages his advances).
“Ah, the Beauteous Dame.” said Mr Thwaites. “The beauteous damsel that keepeth me on tenterhooks.”
“Come on then,” said the Lieutenant. “Take my arm.”
“Hooks. Tenter One.” said Mr Thwaites. “See Inventory.”
“Aw, come on, will you?” said the Lieutenant.
“Damsel, Beauteous, One.” said Mr Thwaites.”Hooks, Tenter, Two. Yea, Verily.”…
“April, too.” said Mr Thawaites. “Thirty days hath November.”
At this he lurched forward, and the Lieutenant caught him…”‘
This book, which deals with a microcosm of the menace of fascism during the huge theatre of World War Two, tells the story of the lonely Miss Roach, an unmarried woman in early middle age living in an era when to be a ‘spinster’ was regarded as a grim and lonely fate. Miss Roach is in her late thirties, and many of the young men in her generation were killed of in World War I. The story is set in late 1943 in World War II, and again men of her own age and younger are being killed off.
Bombed out of her London flat, she still works in the capital but commutes from Berkshire and a genteel boarding house in ‘Thames Lockdon’ (based on Henley-on-Thames). In this boarding house, known by the absurd name of ‘The Rosamund Tea Rooms’, she has become the target of an idiotic but sinister elderly man named Thwaites, whose hobbies are bullying and boring people with his snobbish and absurd views.
Miss Roach does a seemingly lonely German woman friend a favour in introducing her into the Rosamnund Tea Rooms. As a German, Vicki Kugelmannn has been singled out for social ostracism in the town, and is exploited at her curerent lodgings. She is also single, about Miss Roach’s age, and Miss Roach hopes to find a good friend in her and possibly even a source of moral support against the overbearing Mr Thwaites.
However, Vicki soon reveals that far from being grateful to Miss Roach, she is eager to steal from her a generous but drunken American lieutenant who has been taking Miss Roach out. Now, despite her ver ordinary appearance, Vicki is shown as being insanely vain, and to regard herself as a sort of femme fatale. Worse, she gangs up with Mr Thawaites against Miss Roach, and both of them gradually reveal their Nazi symapthies…
A psychological thriller, the novel depicts a struggle against the power of evil which reflects world events.
Intriguingly, the novel ends with what I consider a truly inspired phrase from this most irreligious of writers: ‘God help us, God help all of us, Every one, all of us.’