Authors: Patrick Hamilton
Also by Patrick Hamilton
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
The West Pier
Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse
The Duke in Darkness
Money with Menaces
To the Public Danger
Constable & Robinson Ltd
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London WC1B 4HP
First published by Constable and Company Ltd 1947
This edition first published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2006
Copyright © Patrick Hamilton 1947
Introduction © Doris Lessing 2006
Introduction to the 1999 edition © Michael Holroyd 1999
The right of Patrick Hamilton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication data is available from the British Library
The Slaves of Solitude
, whose characters are entirely fictitious, Thames Lockdon bears a rough geographical and external resemblance to Henley-on-Thames. The
Rosamund Tea Rooms, however, resembles no boarding-house in this town or any other, though it is hoped that it resembles in some features every small establishment of this sort all over the
BY DORIS LESSING
How wildly an author’s reputation may fluctuate can be shown no more dramatically than by the story of Patrick Hamilton. We know that an author’s repute sometimes
falls to zero after their death, usually often to recover, but he remained ignored and even unknown for longer than usual. You would say, ‘Patrick Hamilton,’ and hear ‘Who?’
even from Literary Departments, but then his admirers and a natural uplift in the invisible cycle that determines renown caused some of his books to be reprinted, and so he is remembered again.
He was in his lifetime well known as a novelist and as a playwright, spoken of as the heir to Dickens, George Gissing, Defoe. He was not a major writer, but that is not why he was temporarily
forgotten. Major writers may suffer the same fate – George Meredith, for instance, that most civilised and witty writer, is fathoms deep in a sea of oblivion. What Patrick Hamilton has is an
immediacy of empathy that makes some of his characters, his scenes, as unforgettable as Dickens’s, as painful as Gissing’s.
He was being read by the young in the forties, because when I was in Southern Rhodesia, kept there unwillingly first by the Second World War, and then by the aftermath of war – no ships,
and air travel for the common traveller still in the future – I longed for my origins (I had heard England referred to as Home all my life) and I wrote to a friend who had been in the RAF in
what was then Salisbury (now Harare) for training, and asked him what London was like these days. ‘We can’t go on using Dickens as a guide for ever.’ He sent me the novels of
Patrick Hamilton, which certainly did not depict a promise of plenty and good times, but chimed with the reports of England bombed, rationed, beleaguered. And when in 1949 I did at last come to
London I found Hamilton’s pages coming to life in pubs, streets, cheap hotels. He was a much-spoken-of writer, popular and approved of by the then literary arbiters. His plays were running in
the West End,
, for one, which was made into a film by Hitchcock, radio plays and later, television.
was well known. Everyone read him who read at all, and people
waited for his next book as they do now for our popular writers. He was known in left-wing circles because he was a communist, or reported to be. ‘The Party’ – which was how the
Communist Party was referred to then – was proud of him in its contradictory way. They were pleased to boast of such a well-known writer, but were wary of writers and artists who so seldom
were prepared to toe the Party Line. The gossip about him was far from malicious, though with the rumours about him, it could have been. He was drinking himself to death, and although attempts had
been made to stop him, these had failed. He was known to fall unfortunately in love, even absurdly, once at least with a prostitute. On the other hand he was generous with his money, considerable
for those days, helping young writers and people fallen on hard times.
He had been poor himself and his descriptions of poverty were far from academic. When he began writing he was not immediately successful, and in those days young writers did not expect to be
instantly well off. He was kind, and approachable and lovable, and so said everyone, while also saying, ‘What a tragedy, how very sad’. And he did die of drink and that was a
Three bottles of whisky a day
? Is it possible?
The main reason it took so long for Hamilton to come back into view was that his London had gone in that transformation which took place in the second half of the fifties. The dirty,
war-damaged, unpainted, grubby streets that greeted me on my arrival had given way to something new, and lively. Colour had returned, the bombed sites had gone. And the people had changed too. Now,
when you walked into a pub Hamilton’s characters were not there. The young were everywhere, particularly in the new coffee bars – courtesy of the Italians. The pubs themselves were
being done up, not always to everyone’s taste.
Hamilton’s characters came out of an unhappy history. It is forgotten now that before the First World War there was talk of imminent revolution – the condition of the working people
was so poor – though now people talk as if the Empire benefited everyone. The fear of Revolution made King George refuse to give asylum to his relatives Nicky and Alex, the Czar and Czarina
of Russia. They begged for help, did not get it, and were then murdered. Then came the First World War and its depredations, and the difficulties of post-war times. Then the Wall Street collapse
and the Depression. It is forgotten often that again the condition of the working people was such that whole swathes of them lived on bread and dripping, bread and margarine, and sugar and tea.
When the young men reached the call-up centres, the Other Ranks were a good foot shorter in height than the middle-class boys, and in bad physical condition. The Second World War and its aftermath
impoverished Britain. The moneyed classes were amply chronicled by Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Antony Powell, but there were other witnesses, of whom Patrick Hamilton was the most reliable.
People ask now, ‘But how could so many people become communists? Why did they?’.
It is this history, particularly the desperations of slump-time, that made so many communists.
Decades of hard and turbulent times had created Hamilton’s world of crooks and spivs, blackmailers and bounders, murderers and thieves, and some of the nastiest women in literature. It is
forgotten that then girls had to look for husbands to keep them from the fate of spinsterhood, and a miserable old age; they had to find men to exploit. Now girls get jobs. If they did have jobs
then they certainly did not earn anything like what the men did. But Hamilton records penniless girls’ attempts to be decent and honest, just as George Gissing had done before him. But I
think one has to remember Hamilton’s scheming greedy bitches with a horror reserved for no other writer.
He was a good hater. He loathed a certain stratum of British life, just as George Orwell did. Pretentiousness and snobbishness, ignorance about the outside world, coupled with a complacency that
came from knowing they were members of the greatest empire in the world. And there were the real crooks, like Gorse: the trilogy about him made a TV series and put a word into the language.
‘He’s a real Gorse, that one,’ you would hear.
The Slaves of Solitude
is set in wartime but not in London, where life was easier, if more dangerous than outside. There were restaurants for the well off, people danced in the big
hotels. An old woman told me, ‘It was so glamorous, don’t you see? The wonderful uniforms, and so many men from everywhere. Any girls with any kind of good looks had the time of their
lives.’ An American, who had flown many sorties over Germany, said that in between dropping bombs he and his fellow officers had danced in the London hotels every night. He had a wonderful
time. A new slant, surely, on ‘The best time of my life’.
But these amenities were not known in the little towns outside London where people were living as they could through a war that seemed endless. ‘They once had a Thirty Years War,
didn’t they? A Hundred Years War? Why shouldn’t we?’
Their war was dark, oppressive, cold – and endless. Some landladies found the wartime restrictions to their taste. In the Rosamund Tea Rooms – once real tea rooms (a name enough to
revive memories of bad boarding houses and penny-pinching hotels) – the landlady took the light bulbs out of the sockets, so that the inhabitants had to use their torches inside as well as
outside in the dim streets. Miss Roach, the patient long-suffering heroine, does not think much about the fortunes of war, the smashed empires, the ruined cities, the cold seas full of the dead.
The war for her was all attrition and doing without. ‘The war . . . was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, day by day, emptying the shelves of the shops – sneaking
cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores . . . beer from the public houses, and so on
endlessly – while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels,
and sitting or even standing room from the trains.’
I am reminded of a woman who re-read her war-time diaries years later and found she had never mentioned great events like Stalingrad or the Siege of Leningrad. She had written about the
black-out, about queuing for a bit of off-ration meat, or a few sweets.
The general gloom is livened by an American soldier, Lieutenant Pike, born to illustrate the old gibe, ‘Over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.’ Among these English people wearied by
the war, he is large, florid, generous, careless, good humoured and always out for a good time. His emotional excesses include a compulsion to ask every girl he meets to marry him, one of them Miss
Roach, who though thirty-eight had ‘given up hope’ – to use the old phrase – years ago. Oddly enough, though ‘hopeless’ she had recently received an offer of
marriage from ‘An impossible man who had somehow perceived her possibilities.’ The pensive resigned sadness while rejecting him, was because she was contemplating ‘the joy which
would have been hers had she now been receiving, or had ever in her life received, an offer which she could reasonably accept.’