Revisiting Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square

Hamilton first delivered this to his publishers 80 years ago in March 1941. What does a re-read of it tell us about the time that produced it?

Artillery Row Books

When a reader imagines the world of Patrick Hamilton’s novels, it is to imagine a very specific milieu. Hamilton’s landscape is beer-stained, the cast is one of hardened day-time drinkers, sauntering into the pub to order their first gin and French at opening time. Idle drunkenness and the pain of unrequited happiness are the two central features of Hamilton’s novels.

Hamilton’s 1935 publication Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky features three stories that take place in and around a public house in Euston Road, where the possibility of happiness slips through the characters’ fingers. It is about lost possibilities. When Hamilton produces his eighth novel, Hangover Square, in 1941, it is a different beast. There is no possibility of happiness to lose, only pain, monstrous devotion, insanity and – in its opening pages – a pledge that one character will commit murder.

Hamilton writes drunks so brilliantly because he was one

Hangover Square is a crime thriller and a tragedy. It centres around the character of George Harvey Bone, a sad-eyed, big man who haunts the streets, flats and pubs of Earls Court in 1939, and who is hopelessly in love with a lazy, sometime actress named Netta Longdon. Netta is a study of bone idleness and intense cruelty. George’s devotion to her serves only to inspire Netta to take money from him for drinks, dismiss and make fun of George in front of her two drinking friends – Mickey and Peter – and sexually humiliate him. Bone is essentially a good man but his cardinal sin is that he is weak. We follow George’s gloomy steps as he trails in Netta’s wake, from poorly lit flats to overlit saloon bars, on trains and in Lyons Corner Houses.

But George has “dead moods” heralded by a “click!” in his brain. He experiences the phenomenon as “a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases”. During these episodes he disappears into an eerie reverie where the only sound is his inner voice reminding him that he must kill Netta. Following that he will escape to Maidenhead. “He had got to kill her because things had been going on too long, and he had to get to Maidenhead and be at peace with himself. Why hadn’t he killed her before?”

Hamilton writes drunks so brilliantly because he was one. You can nearly smell the tepid gin sloshed into tooth glasses at washbasins, and the half pints of warm ale supped at breakfast. But you can also smell something else: the stink of appeasement.

Hamilton started writing Hangover Square on Christmas Day 1939. He completed it in February 1941, delivering it to his publishers a month later. The story is set just before war, starting on Christmas Day 1938, where we meet George Harvey Bone walking “along the cliff at Hunstanton”, after a sad Christmas lunch. On the cliff he walks in the no man’s land between grim life and grimmer death, between his sane brain and his insane one, in a country neither at war nor in peace.

Hamilton’s refusal to name any specific dates results in a countdown to war that is a quiet, sinister background noise

This scene is set three months after the Munich Conference of September 1938, where Chamberlain came away declaring “peace in our time”, and Hitler came away with the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. The British had been trying to stick plasters over gaping Europeans wounds for several years; certainly since 1936, when the government stated it “would not take part in any actions conducive to war” when Hitler occupied the Rhineland. When a rebellion broke out in Spain in July 1936, Lord Halifax advised in keeping the conflict “local” as he believed that providing outside assistance would “prolong the war”. Britain spends the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s desperately trying to avoid conflict. By the time they come to Hangover Square, Hamilton’s readers know it’s all been in vain.

Bone hates the idea of the Munich Agreement: “He still couldn’t get over the feeling that there was something indecent about it – Adolf, and Musso and Neville all grinning together.” Peter, Mickey and Netta had loved Munich: “They went raving mad, they weren’t sober for a whole week after Munich – it was just in their line. They liked Hitler, really.” Netta likes “the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots…” Her natural sadism propels her towards the aesthetic of fascism. Her glib fascination with fascism extends to Peter, her drinking buddy, who has spent time in prison for “socking a left-winger” at a political rally.

For George, this peacetime is a grubby way of life, in which he has to appease with a monster. “Can’t you be civil? Can’t you look at me and say something civil?” George desperately remonstrates with Netta. During an unhappy weekend in Brighton, George finds himself wondering what “it was all about – the pounding sea, the beach, the rain, the stars, the lights, the piers, Brighton, Hitler, Netta, himself, everything”. Nazi Germany is just another tedious problem in a list; an ordinary thing. This, together with Hamilton’s refusal to name any specific dates until he gets to 3 September 1939, results in a countdown to war that is a quiet, sinister background noise, like a radio someone has left on in a distant room.

‘Peace in our time’ moves further and further away in the narrative until it vanishes altogether

Hamilton continues to write while the bombs are falling, into the autumn and winter that saw the Luftwaffe bomb Britain for fifty-seven consecutive nights. “Peace in our time” moves further and further away in the narrative until it vanishes altogether, eventually becoming as remote a possibility as George finding sanctity in Maidenhead. The “click!” in George’s head returns with increased severity. When he wakes up at the end of novel “at about three o’clock on the morning of Sunday September the third, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine” the 1941 reader knows precisely what he is going to do. Arriving at Netta’s flat, he puts the wireless on. “That was old Neville: he knew that voice anywhere … ‘consequently this country is at war with Germany…’ Oh, so they were at it, were they, at last!” Netta’s murder is complete and he “had done his duty”. Outside the gloomy sirens begin their first wail.

The murder is George’s own blitzkrieg: a swift decisive violent attack against his enemy. The events of 1938 were destined to lead to war just as the insane half of George Harvey Bone’s mind was destined to take over the sane one. This novel could not have been written at any other point in history. Hamilton is a great navigator of human frailty in the face of desolation. It is not the bar room drinkers, but the articulation of the tragic lack of power man has over the madness that swirls about him that makes Hangover Square a novel of its time.

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