Tuesday, 31 July 2012

I wish I could have a pint with Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton

by Sheilagh Dyson

It started with Enid Blyton, my long love affair with books. I went through the card, read the lot, then moved on. Louisa May Alcott followed, then Susan Coolidge. One by one I picked off all the children's classics, rampaging through that series of red-bound books you could buy in Woolworths in the 1950s.  At the age of 11 I graduated to the occult books of Dennis Wheatley. (Goodness knows what a good Catholic girl was doing, messing about with them.) And it’s carried on ever since, down the decades. If I like a writer’s work, if I really like it, I have a compulsion to read all their books.

How do I choose what to read? At the moment my reading material is prescribed for me by the College and will be for the next two years – the only downside to an otherwise glorious experience. (A degree in English does not permit any frivolous reading for the pleasure of it!)  Ordinarily, I may hear an unfamiliar name mentioned on The Book Programme and decide to investigate; or I might read an enthusiastic review in the Guardian; maybe a friend recommends something that has appealed to them; or I can be browsing in a bookshop and choose something unknown on a whim. 

There is nothing quite as enjoyable as ‘discovering’ a writer hitherto unknown to me. An example is Patrick Hamilton, whose ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ was recommended in the Guardian a few years back. Patrick Hamilton was a successful writer in his lifetime and a fairly prolific novelist and playwright  from the 1920s until his death in 1962. His work was largely consigned to oblivion after his death, as the London, or near London, that he wrote about – its dingy boarding houses, rationing, the dirty streets, the grey monotony of working class life – gradually improved and the cheery pub life that he described so evocatively, with its ‘characters’, spivs, prostitutes all battling against life and fighting for survival was no longer recognised by the newly upwardly mobile. Several decades later, his worth and stature as a writer is at last being rehabilitated and his books are being republished.

‘London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the almighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.’ Thus begins ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and I was hooked.

Patrick Hamilton’s novels are extraordinarily satisfying, larger than life, brimming with pathos, packed with low-key unrequited love for unsuitable, unreliable, unattainable objects of affection, teeming with indestructible stoicism and forbearance. He was also a writer decades ahead of his time in some respects. There is something in his style of writing that is fresh and contemporary; it could be written today.

When I really, really like a writer’s work, I have to know all about them, which leads me on to their biography, of course. Through the excellent Through a Glass Darkly by Nigel Jones, I learned of Hamilton’s hopeless alcoholism, his failed marriages, his socialism, his bonhomie, his generosity, his torment, his love of pubs. I’d love to have a pint with Patrick. In the words of the Saw Doctors ‘I never even met him, but I know we’d be a pair. We’d have sat in any pub in town and had a good time there.’ Cheers, Patrick.

BS Johnson

Jonathan Coe is one of my favourite contemporary writers, for his sane, matter of factness, his beautifully understated style and his social perspective. I buy all his books on publication and have never been disappointed. We went to one of his book readings in Manchester and he was asked which of his books most reflected himself. He said that he had put the most of himself and seven years of his life into Like a Fiery Elephant, his biography of BS Johnson, an ‘experimental’ novelist, poet, stage writer, broadcaster, journalist and football reporter in the 1960s and 1970s. Who? My mystified question exactly.
Coe’s biography is probably the best single book I have ever read to date. It is an object lesson in meticulous research, deep humanity, epic empathy, warmth and humour. It’s worth reading for Bryan’s replies to publishers’ rejection letters alone! He was a gregarious, affable, larger than life character, with all the insecurities of someone who writes for a living. Having lived Bryan’s life with him I could hardly bear to read the ending, veering as it did to the inevitable suicide.
Naturally, I had to investigate Johnson’s work after reading such a tour de force. Courtesy of eBay, I acquired a prized copy of The Unfortunates, his ‘novel in a box’, which is in 27 different parts, almost like pamphlets, to be read in any order preferred by the reader, apart from the first and last chapters. It covers a semi-autobiographical account of Johnson’s trip to Nottingham to cover a football match. Crowding into his mind as he walks through Nottingham are the poignant memories of his friendship with someone who has died of cancer, his illness, other relationships, football. The format of the book lends itself to this sort of rambling reminiscence and I loved it. Which led on of course to the acquisition of various other Johnson novels and poetry books, all stashed away for the glorious day when I can again read freely once ! I’d like a pint with him too – cheers, Bryan.
The walls of our house are closing in on us, as the books threaten to engulf us and there’s no place to go with more bookshelves. I can’t really answer a question as to who is my favourite writer. The answer is, it depends. Depends on when you ask, how I’m feeling, what’s on my mind at the time, my age at the time of asking. And I don’t want to answer it either, as to do so would imply that I’ve read enough, don’t need to carry on discovering new writers, am comfortable with what I’ve already read. Never!



Christo Heyworth said...

Thanks so much for this, Shelagh.

Like you I have only recently "discovered" Patrick Hamilton (through chit-chat on the Net), but having the concentration that prose requires of us is not something I'm retaining - American and British current poetry occupies most of my reading time.

Your childhood reading reminiscence sounds so similar to my own as to be uncanny, especially what I learned about creating drama and scariness from Dennis Wheatley.

Lindsay said...

I scurried off immediately to add BS Johnson to my wishlist on Amazon, that novel really intrigued me and I now have to know how he applied that style of narrative. I may have to check out the other authors too. An informative and enriching post Sheilagh :) (My wishlist and bookshelves are groaning)

Ashley R Lister said...

I don't mind anyone adding to my personal reading list, but could someone please tell me when I will find time to read these great writers you lot keep advocating!

Great post.

Sheilagh Dyson said...

Please borrow mine, Lindsay. The version currently in print is in conventional book form (boring!) and not as the writer intended it to be read. The same goes for all the Patrick Hamilton novels, if anyone would like to borrow one.