HERE is a horror story. There are no knife maniacs, masked murderers or chainsaw wielding cannibals in this portrayal of crushing boredom in wartime suburbia published in 1947. But there are monsters.
The first is London, whose ‘vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels’.
As the book begins our heroine, Miss Roach, is returning on the 6.03 from Paddington after a day working as a publisher’s secretary. It is 1943. Her destination is Thames Lockdon, a thinly disguised version of Henley-on-Thames. She is a lodger at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a café turned boarding house.
The second monster is her fellow resident and self-styled dictator Mr Thwaites, a chilling comic creation based on the author’s own father. He dominates mealtimes in the shabby guesthouse with his pompous declarations. Here is a glorious passage:
‘I Keeps my Counsel,’ said Mr Thwaites, in his slow, treacly voice. ‘Like the Wise Old Owl, I Sits and Keeps my Counsel.’ Miss Roach, shuddering under this agonisingly Thwaitesian remark, knew well enough that there was more to follow. For it was a further defect of Mr Thwaites that when he had made a remark which he thought good, he was unable to resist repeating it, either in an inverted or slightly altered form.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I keeps my Counsel, like the Wise Old Bird . . . I Happens to keep my Counsel . . . I Happens to be like the Wise Old Bird . . .’
Miss Roach guessed that honour was now satisfied and that this would be enough. With Mr Thwaites nothing was ever enough.
‘I Hay ma Doots, that’s all,’ said Mr Thwaites. ‘I Hay ma Doots . . .’
(He is NOT, thought Miss Roach, going to add ‘as the Scotchman said’, is he? SURELY he is not going to add ‘as the Scotchman said’?)
‘As the Scotchman said,’ said Mr Thwaites. ‘Yes . . . I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said – of Yore . . .’
(Only Mr Thwaites, Miss Roach realised, could, as it were, have out-Thwaited Thwaites and brought ‘of Yore’ from the bag like that.’)
The third monster is another guest, the exiled German Vicky Kugelman, a scheming opportunist who speaks in wonderful outdated American-English slang. ‘Can I make a cocktail or can I make a cocktail? Uh-huh! Oh Boy! Wizard!’
The greatest monster of all is the war itself. In an introduction to the book, Claud Cockburn wrote: ‘Dozens of books, good and bad, were of course written with the war as a background, as a factor, or as a general condition like the weather. In Hamilton it assumes a more active and malign role, something rather more than human, yet affecting human life like the devil in a morality play.’
I shall not go into the plot since I hope all of you who have not read this, one of Hamilton’s masterpieces, will give it a try. Suffice it to say that it shows one of the greatest British writers at the peak of his powers.
As Keith Waterhouse once observed: ‘Patrick Hamilton is not so much the fly on the wall as the spider in the corner, luring the insect life of saloon-bar suburbia into his web. A riveting dissector of English life up to and including the war.’