If not his masterpiece, Twenty Thousand Streets is Patrick Hamilton’s most summative, personal novel. Comprised of a trilogy of short novels that centre around ‘The Midnight Bell’, a sorry pub on the Euston Road, Hamilton captures the grimy, sleazy and oppressive life of 1930s London with typical panache.
Each segment of the trilogy follows a different character in their haphazard and inevitably ragged path, revealing with candid simplicity their flaws and striking humanity. Bob, barman at The Midnight Bell, falls incurably in love with a stunning but devilish prostitute, Jenny, whose decent into the dangerous whirlpools of temptation we see later in the book. Ella, the hapless barmaid of the same pub, cannot help her own love for Bob but instead becomes ensnared in the presumptuous advances of an elderly ‘gentleman’.
Many features within the novel are personal outlets for Hamilton. Bob’s story reflects Hamilton’s own struggle with his love for a girl from the streets, and a drink driving incident is homage to the destructive collision that left Hamilton hospitalised for three months, and greatly affected for the rest of his life.
As the narrative thrusts you into dingy dwellings and the inescapable trappings of the 1930s class system, a bleak tale awaits. In the midst of a cruel and careless city at the turn of a ruthless modern era, these characters are made all the more real, their toils heartbreakingly futile.
There is an entrenched conflict within the hierarchies of 30s London, brought to life by the unfolding relationships within the book. Bob’s suppressed disdain of his street-girl Jenny, Ella’s awkward politeness in the face of the unwelcome pressures of Mr Eccles, Jenny’s aspirations to be more than just a servant girl, and the human failings of them all, reveal the oppressive world forced upon the working classes and their innocent struggle to rise.
For a 21st century reader, Hamilton’s Dickensian style – especially when spread over 500 or so pages – can be wearing. However, the balance between narrative summary and scene is well refined. As soon as insight into the minds of his characters is aptly explored, the reader is thrust back into a pulsating dialogue or sequence. This clever combination of reflection and mental incision with active drama was mastered by Hamilton, giving his characters both depth and authenticity.
For anyone looking to immerse themselves in the grit and grime of 1930s London, Patrick Hamilton is undoubtedly the author to go to. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a journey into the vulnerability and hopeless optimism of humanity, and a book as brilliantly-crafted as it is bleak.