This is the third novel by Patrick Hamilton I’ve read this year or, really, third, fourth and fifth since it’s a trilogy in one volume, and I have to admit that I picked it up with some trepidation. I think Hamilton is an excellent, insightful writer who creates marvellous characters with distinct voices, but while Slaves of Solitude was bleakly humorous, Hangover Square was just plain bleak. My plan with Twenty Thousand Streets was to read one novel at a time, interspersed with something light and frothy so that I didn’t throw myself out of the window by the end of the week.
So I both wanted and didn’t want to read it, because I wasn’t really up for being put through the emotional wringer. Pulling myself together I embarked on the first book, ‘The Midnight Bell’ (the name of a pub), and waited for the unhappiness to descend. It never really did, though, because although basically decent waiter guy (Bob) gets bilked of his savings by nasty harpy prostitute (Jenny), I somehow wasn’t as crushed by the eventual ending. (a) You could see it coming a mile off and (b) so could Bob, really, but he was being self-deluding. Anyway, throughout the trilogy, what happens isn’t as important as how it happens, and the physical events of the ‘how’ are less important still than the strikingly believable inner monologues that lay bare the characters’ inconsistencies and accommodations in thinking as they respond to the relatively minor events that constitute the ‘what’.
The second book, ‘The Siege of Pleasure’, is more of a novella, being a scant 100 pages or thereabouts. It narrates how Jenny took the first steps that led to her ending up on the streets, and does so fairly unsympathetically. Jenny isn’t a tart with a heart and the last scene in particular made me think that since she’s depicted as pretty much always having had the soul of a prostitute, her descent is more about her finding her true level than indicative of any moral degeneration.
Since I was two-thirds of the way through and yet unscarred, I forged on with ‘The Plains of Cement’ (which I find a very odd title; I have no idea what it means). This third volume is a companion to the first, returning us again to The Midnight Bell but this time focusing on Ella, the barmaid. Despite the ostensible closeness of working together in the same establishment and even living under the same roof, separated by only a thin wall between attics, Bob and Ella have no idea what’s going on in each other’s lives. That is a point well made, because I think Hamilton’s characters are above all individuals who are fully caught up in their own lives, as are we all.
At the same time as Bob is involved with Jenny, Ella starts walking out with an admirer of her own, and both are desperate to keep their entanglements a secret. The relationships mirror each other. Whereas Bob spends much of his time trying to divine Jenny’s true feelings for him, Ella spends her time trying to figure out how she really feels about Mr Eccles. There is no genuine love at all, and in fact both relationships are envisaged as being transactional in nature. That’s surely at least in part because the prevalent conventions held that the men paid for everything when a couple went out, but when it comes down to it, both women are after some form of security. Money plays a large part in Ella’s thinking, albeit not as directly as it does for Jenny, and Mr Eccles’ generosity will in the long term exact repayment in the form of gaining him a docile, grateful wife.
Still, ‘Plains of Cement’ treats the theme more lightheartedly, as though Hamilton had worked the bitterness out of his system and was prepared to back off a bit. Ella, who is in love with Bob but knows her feelings are not returned takes a prosaic attitude to the situation. The courtship between her and Mr Eccles is hilarious, since he won’t really come out and say anything and instead speaks in a cryptic manner leaving his words open to interpretation. Ella varies between liking and disliking him, sometimes talking herself into the whole thing since it might be her only chance at marriage and security, and sometimes appalled at the very prospect of tying herself to the nasty thing for life. Here’s a characteristic bit of dialogue.
“But you haven’t answered my question yet,” he said, dismaying Ella, who thought he might have forgotten about this. “When did you first Know?”
“I don’t know, really,” she said, her voice begging him, if he could but know it, to have mercy on her.
“But you must know. When did you first know I Cared – eh?”
At this point she felt relief, as she had thought at first that he had meant to press her as to when she first knew, i.e. knew she Cared for him.
“It’s hard to say,” she said …
“But you must have had a Feeling. When did you have a Feeling?”
“Perhaps,” she said, “That time in the bar when you asked me to go to a theatre.”
“What first gave you the Feeling then?”
Impossible to tell him that it had been his absurd new hat which had given her “the feeling.” And was “the feeling” the exact expression? At that time, alas, she would herself have much more readily described it as “the creeps.”
Who hasn’t had one of those circumlocutory conversations? I haven’t quite gotten to the end yet but it’ll never work, of course. I’m sure there won’t be a happy ending, but my confidence is fairly high that Ella will escape.