Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky

Overview

Patrick Hamilton may be best known now for the plays Rope and Gaslight and for the classic Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor movies they inspired, but in his heyday he was no less famous for his brooding tales of London life. Featuring a Dickensian cast of pubcrawlers, prostitutes, lowlifes, and just plain losers who are looking for love—or just an ear to bend—Hamilton’s novels are a triumph of deft characterization, offbeat humor, unlikely compassion, and raw suspense. In recent years, Hamilton has undergone a ...
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Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy

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Overview

Patrick Hamilton may be best known now for the plays Rope and Gaslight and for the classic Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor movies they inspired, but in his heyday he was no less famous for his brooding tales of London life. Featuring a Dickensian cast of pubcrawlers, prostitutes, lowlifes, and just plain losers who are looking for love—or just an ear to bend—Hamilton’s novels are a triumph of deft characterization, offbeat humor, unlikely compassion, and raw suspense. In recent years, Hamilton has undergone a remarkable revival, with his champions including Doris Lessing, David Lodge, Nick Hornby, and Sarah Waters.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a tale of obsession and betrayal that centers on a seedy pub in a run-down part of London. Bob the waiter skimps and saves and fantasizes about writing a novel, until he falls for the pretty prostitute Jenny and blows it all. Kindly Ella, Bob’s co-worker, adores Bob, but is condemned to enjoy nothing more than the attentions of the insufferable Mr. Eccles; Jenny, out on the street, is out of love, hope, and money. We watch with pity and horror as these three vulnerable and yet compellingly ordinary people meet and play out bitter comedies of longing and frustration.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The rediscovery of English writer Hamilton (Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude) continues with this tale of obsessive love in the low-rent pubs of 1930s London - so evocatively rendered you almost smell the smoke and spilt ale." --Newsday

“No other English writer has written so acutely about sexual infatuation, embarrassment and self-delusion.” –Time Out

“Unsurpassed as a recorder of lonely urban existence in the mid-20th century.” –Lynne Truss, The Times [UK]

“Hamilton is a master at reproducing the inflated talk of betrayed lives.” –The Independent [UK]

“The wonderful 1935 trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is set in a pub off the Euston Road. Every detail is spot on; Hamilton’s remorseless eye weaves an atmosphere as thick as bar smoke.” –The Independent [UK]

“Bleak and brilliant…an authentic lost classic.” –The Guardian

“A little-known classic of English literature.” –Seattle Times

“When I came upon Hamilton's name in this book, I got out Hangover Square and found, just as my Penguin edition blurbed, "one of the great novels of the 20th century." (Suffice it to say that Hamilton writes about street life with an honesty and lyricism, an absence of sentimentality or fetish for squalor, that should make nearly every hard-boiled writer hang his or her head in shame.)” –Charles Taylor, Salon.com

“Patrick Hamilton is being revived again. And it looks serious this time… JB Priestley was an early supporter. Hamilton's book The West Pier was generously described by Graham Greene as "the best novel ever written about Brighton". He was John Betjeman's favourite contemporary novelist. Writers from Julie Burchill to Doris Lessing are warm admirers. Biographer Michael Holroyd has written numerous essays and introductions. Nick Hornby recently described him as 'my new best friend'.” —The Independent [UK]

“Until recently, my bedside table has been tilting under the weight of various Victorian novels; now I'm planning a book with a post-war setting and have put myself on a diet of slimmer, mid-20th-century works…Most exciting, however, has been Patrick Hamilton's fiction: I am halfway through The Slaves of Solitude, his nervy, hilarious study of the claustrophobic awfulness of British boarding-house life; now I have his trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, to look forward to.” –Sunday Times [UK]

“[Hamilton’s] scenes of pub life (and much of the action of the trilogy takes place off those 20,000 streets in an array of licensed premises) are perfectly realized. They enable him to bring a near-Dickensian sense of the comic to a gallery of the most appalling pub bores. It is certainly worth the attention of a new generation of readers.” –The Birmingham Post [UK]

“This reprinted classic well deserves its shelf space with new novels…The magic lies in Hamilton's ability to get inside the head of his rather tragic and innocent characters, and in his power of description, especially of pubs. The atmosphere of 1920s-30s London hostelries and the joys of having a drink in them makes you long to be there, watching one of the scenes he so vividly describes unfold in the corner.” –Coventry Evening Telegraph

Hamilton captures the "authentic atmosphere of what it was like to live in England between the two world wars". –Michael Holroyd

"He is a master." –J. B. Priestley

“Patrick Hamilton was a marvelous novelist who’s grossly neglected...I’m continually amazed that there’s a kind of roll call of OK names from the 1930s, sort of Auden, Isherwood, etc. But Hamilton is never on them and he’s a much better writer than any of them…He wrote more sense about England and what was going on in England in the 1930s than anybody else I can think of, and his novels are true now. You can go into any pub and see it going on.” –Doris Lessing, The Times [UK]

“A magnificent portrait of the renting twilight class of 1930s London. Too bleak for its own times, its nihilism suited us just fine.” –Daily Telegraph

“A criminally neglected British author.” –Daily Telegraph

“My big discovery of the year has been Patrick Hamilton. His trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, written in the 1920s, is a beauty - one of the finest books I've ever read.” –Dan Rhodes, Sunday Glasgow Herald

“I've gone Patrick Hamilton crazy. I was blown away by the superbly excruciating Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky , and I'm going to track down some of his out-of-print novels. He writes brilliantly about infatuation and drunkenness - two subjects close to my heart.” –Dan Rhodes, The Observer [UK]

"It's rainswept and melancholy–just my kind of stuff.” –Phil Davis, The Times [UK]

“Hamilton wrote a world into being that still exists: a London world of smoky pubs and bedsits, homeless individuals and forlorn lovers, people at the pictures, people in Soho, English men and women living in and around the centre of the city's capital in the first decades of the last century, people full of yearning and loneliness. He was a poet of the foggy lamplight and the nicotine-stained ceiling, and we mustn't forget him. We daren't. We are still in need of his intelligence and his moral insight.” –Daily Telegraph

“A writer I love is Patrick Hamilton…I am reading his trilogy, which is called Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky. His world is a world of thwarted dreams in the 1920s and '30s. His writing is phenomenally good.” –Wesley Stace, The Newark Star-Ledger

“Hamilton was an expert at describing the simple sadnesses of unfulfilled lives” –The Observer

“Hamilton was the son of a tyrannical, drunken barrister and a failed actress. He published his first novel at 19, establishing himself as one of the bright young novelists of the 1920s and 1930s, only to be knocked over by a car at the height of his career and badly disfigured. Despite professional success, his work reflected his life -rootless and depressed, buffeted by failed relationships and awash with alcohol -and he died in 1962 of cirrhosis of the liver.” –The Times [UK]

“Funny and moving trilogy of low-life love affairs in 30s SoHo” –The Times (UK)
June 27, 1987

“Writers such as Lynne Truss and Nick Hornby are proclaiming his genius. Hamilton is about to be ‘rediscovered.’” –The Daily Telegraph

The Barnes & Noble Review
A revival of the strange, tragicomic novels of Patrick Hamilton, which has been underway for some time in Britain, has moved to this country in the last couple of years. It should be possible to describe these works without giving some account of their author's life, yet that wretched life is so distilled and decanted in the books that one can't pass over it. Briefly: Patrick Hamilton was born in 1904 in West Sussex, England. His father was an alcoholic bully, a onetime comedian and a historical novelist; his mother had been a singer and later committed suicide. Thanks to his father's improvidence, Hamilton grew up in boardinghouses and rented rooms, leaving school at 15. He got mixed up with the theater, eventually writing a number of plays, including Gaslight and Rope. He published a well-received novel at 21 and others subsequently. All in all, he can be said to have had a successful literary career. His life was a different matter: he drank heavily and disastrously, squandered all his money, fell obsessively in love with a prostitute, and was horribly mangled by a car driven by a drunk. He had a couple of marriages and died in 1962 of cirrhosis of the liver.

It is the drinking life -- its hectic joys; its preposterous impulse for celebration with strangers; its milieu of bores, spongers, and petty con men; its shabby rooms and rundown pubs; its loneliness and regret -- that, more than anything, sets its mark on Hamilton's novels. Even his fantastical, anthropological observations on the peculiar social and psychological formations that occur "in that weird teeming aquarium of the metropolis" are like the lone drinker's scrutiny of a world separated from him by his glass. Incredibly, the novels are also brilliantly funny. Their comic set pieces and wickedly portrayed pub creatures, bullies, manipulators, and snobs leaven and, indeed, redeem what would otherwise be unbearable.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a trilogy set in the London of the 1930s. Each of its three novels covers much the same territory, but each enters it through the life of a different character: Bob, a waiter at the Midnight Bell, a cheery enough pub "in all its bottly glitter;" Ella, its barmaid; and Jenny, a girl of the streets. The first novel, The Midnight Bell, follows the doings of Bob, 25, who, when we meet him, is just awakening from having got drunk at lunchtime: "The burden of cold and ever-reoccurring existence weighed down his spirit. Here he was again." Chastened -- again -- he is still not without prospects, at least in his own mind. Building from a small inheritance, he has saved 80 pounds and continues to add to it from his tips, shilling by shilling. He revels in this nest egg. It will buy him the freedom to fulfill his secret dream of becoming "a great writer." Although he has left off actual writing, he warms himself with reveries of the novel to come, a novel that "would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself -- its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser."

This agreeable destiny is imperiled when Bob falls under the spell of Jenny. Over the next couple of weeks, and with Bob's own terrible, deluded connivance, the young prostitute divests him of his money. Those who have read Hamilton's Hangover Square -- a later and grimmer novel -- will find the dynamics, trajectory, and many darts of irony of Bob's downfall painfully familiar.

The second novel, The Siege of Pleasure, tells the tale of how Jenny came to the harlot's estate and came to live in surroundings that Hamilton, a master of sordid interiors, portrays in his version of loving detail: "There were two arm-chairs -- threadbare, down at castors, and bursting.... There was a large double bed, whose sheets were grey. There was a deal cupboard, with shelves above for plates. There was a washing stand with a jug and a basin -- a source of cleanliness, no doubt, but easily the dirtiest thing in the room. A towel, attached to it by a line of string, was several grades greyer than the sheets. Propped up everywhere were framed portraits of men. The favoured gentlemen were mostly taken in their hats and grinned their signed compliments in a sidelong way." It is drink that has brought Jenny to this, and Hamilton pays fearsome homage to its treacherous analgesia: It "seemed to trickle down and heat and awaken every little cell and channel with its brisk medicining.... Last night it had been like the feeling of good news without the good news. Now it was like the news that her bad news was not such bad news after all."

The final novel, The Plains of Cement, is the barmaid Ella's. Poor, plain, and, so her creator tells us, unimaginative, Ella has little chance of fulfilling either her dream of romance with Bob or of freedom from a life of grinding toil. To be sure, opportunity to gain the latter does appear in the shape of a suitor, one Mr. Eccles, a pitilessly rendered petty tyrant, a monster of vanity and priggishness. Hamilton slips his knife into this character so mercilessly that one feels heartfelt authorial revenge is afoot, a fury against the dominion of class and money and morbid respectability that is not unlike Dickens's. Mr. Eccles and his oppressive little ways are observed with indignant disgust by Ella, whose unspoken, blackly comic thoughts on the subject prove her to be not quite the dud Hamilton at first insists that she is. At one point, the officious Eccles, "with sudden Chadbandian fervour" adds exhortations to prayer to his persecutions: "This was frightful," Ella reflects, "If he was going to superadd Religion to all the other mental thumbscrews and tortures he had at his disposal in the dungeon of his shameless and enwrapping personality, she really could not bear it." Her trials, which also include rough treatment at the hands of a ghastly child and a cavalier, dog-owning memsahib, both drawn in vitriol, are awful, but horribly funny. The novel may leave Ella unfulfilled, but by its end, its readers feel that a woman of such penetration and sardonically expressed affront is a heroine.

All three novels here belong to a species of noir in their bleakness, vague air of menace, and sense of inalterable fate. But they also strongly convey the author's compassion for that stratum of English society whose members' lonely, impoverished lives are further diminished by the gaze of uncaring multitudes, in pubs and tea emporiums and beneath the dripping skies on the "plains of cement." --Katherine A. Powers

Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590172568
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 2/19/2008
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 438,292
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick Hamilton (1904—1962) was born into a literary family and became active in the theater at a young age. He was a prolific writer, both of fiction and for the stage, and a notorious alcoholic. Among his most famous novels are Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude (NYRB Classics).

Susanna Moore is the author of the novels My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones, Sleeping Beauties, In the Cut, One Last Look, and The Big Girls, as well as a book of non-fiction, I Myself Have Seen It. She lives in New York City.

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Foreword

1. The three different volumes of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky go over the same story from different points of view revealing the inner lives of the characters. Discuss this method of storytelling and how it adds to our enjoyment and understanding of each of the characters.

2. Hamilton's novels end without any redemptive vision. He refuses to allow his characters to have unrealistically happy endings. Discuss.

3. The most distinctive feature of Hamilton's fiction are the Dickensian narrative voice and dialogue. Discuss (you may wish to look at specific characters such as Bob, Ella, Jenny and Mr Eccles).

4. Hamilton's portrait of Jenny is not a sympathetic one, though it is not moralising or judgemental either. Ella, however, is an attractive character. She keeps her feet on the ground and shows herself to have moral integrity. Compare and contrast the two women and Hamilton's moral standpoint towards each.

5. 'She had never seen so many desperate buses and blocked cars, and swarming people, in all her life. In all the teeming, roaring, grinding, belching, hooting, anxious-faced world of cement and wheels around her it really seemed as though things had gone too far. It seemed as though some climax had just been reached, that civilization was riding for a fall, that these were certainly the last days of London'

The characters Hamilton portrays are lost amidst a civilization riding out of control. Look at each individual story as a quest for Ella, Bob and Jenny to attempt to find something that will give their life a sense of inner meaning and purpose against the solitude and anonymity of the increasingly industrialisedcity in which they live.

6. Look at Hamilton's portrayal of Bob's slide into despair and obsession. Is this a convincing depiction of someone falling in love? Could this have worked as well had Hamilton not told the story from Bob's inner viewpoint?

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Reading Group Guide

1. The three different volumes of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky go over the same story from different points of view revealing the inner lives of the characters. Discuss this method of storytelling and how it adds to our enjoyment and understanding of each of the characters.

2. Hamilton's novels end without any redemptive vision. He refuses to allow his characters to have unrealistically happy endings. Discuss.

3. The most distinctive feature of Hamilton's fiction are the Dickensian narrative voice and dialogue. Discuss (you may wish to look at specific characters such as Bob, Ella, Jenny and Mr Eccles).

4. Hamilton's portrait of Jenny is not a sympathetic one, though it is not moralising or judgemental either. Ella, however, is an attractive character. She keeps her feet on the ground and shows herself to have moral integrity. Compare and contrast the two women and Hamilton's moral standpoint towards each.

5. 'She had never seen so many desperate buses and blocked cars, and swarming people, in all her life. In all the teeming, roaring, grinding, belching, hooting, anxious-faced world of cement and wheels around her it really seemed as though things had gone too far. It seemed as though some climax had just been reached, that civilization was riding for a fall, that these were certainly the last days of London'

The characters Hamilton portrays are lost amidst a civilization riding out of control. Look at each individual story as a quest for Ella, Bob and Jenny to attempt to find something that will give their life a sense of inner meaning and purpose against the solitude and anonymity of the increasingly industrialised city inwhich they live.

6. Look at Hamilton's portrayal of Bob's slide into despair and obsession. Is this a convincing depiction of someone falling in love? Could this have worked as well had Hamilton not told the story from Bob's inner viewpoint?

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