DEREK RAYMOND and PATRICK HAMILTON: Drinking in London Through Their Eyes
Jul 1, 1996, 18:57
In the second chapter of the second of his Factory novels, The Devil's Home On Leave, Derek Raymond takes us to a pub in Hammersmith:
“At half past seven on the cold, sunny evening of Wednesday April 13th, Billy McGruder went up to a passer-by in Hammersmith.
â€˜Excuse me, mate. You know a pub called the Nine Foot Drop?'
â€˜The Drop? Sure. You cross over the Broadway here, go up King Street, turn out of Ravenscourt Road into Tofton Avenue and it's on the right. Ten-minute walk. You can't miss it—great barracks of a place.'”
Ever since I first read these lines, I had a location for this pub in mind. Although Raymond would later note, in his autobiography The Hidden Files, that he'd found a library copy of The Devil's Home On Leave onto which one knowledgeable reader had etched into the margin: “No such pub, cunty!”
The geography of my location isn't correct, but there is a hostelry on King Street that used to permeate the dubious air of Raymond's gallows-humor creation. It's called The Hop Poles, and it wasn't just that â€˜hop' rhymes with â€˜drop' that first made the connection in my mind. It was the very drabness of the place. The interior was worn and murky; shabby carpets, dark walls, dim lighting. The main sounds that you heard were the constant ringing of the one-armed bandits, played by unshaven men smoking roll-ups and hard-faced women in velour leisure suits. Builders would congregate there too, eating sausage and chips over their copies of The Sun, and it was one of those establishments, almost extinct now, where glassy-eyed old timers could stare at the dust motes over one half of bitter all afternoon.
The Nine Foot Drop was a villain's pub. The old Hop Poles looked to me like the kind of place where they wouldn't be turned away. The landlord of the Nine Foot Drop tells Raymond's nameless Detective Sergeant: “I know the Drop's a tough place, but what else do you expect in Hammersmith?”
Raymond had London nailed. He'd been a mini-cab driver here in the 1970s and the 1980s, before that he was a con man working for gangster Charles Da Silva in the 1960s. His Factory novels brought out all the ugliness of London, all the “vile psychic weather” their author sensed roiling around him. “I think Dickens would find 1993 Britain a very familiar place,” he once mused. “If you're going to cram people in like rats, they're going to behave like them.”
Most of the action in the Factory books—He Died With His Eyes Open (1984), The Devil's Home On Leave (1985), How The Dead Live (1986), I Was Dora Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993)—takes place in pubs. This is because Raymond was a habituÃ© of such establishments. He considered it essential to his writing to capture the dialogue, the atmosphere, the theatre of these places. “I certainly like a drink,” he understated, “I don't believe in writers who don't, actually. I don't mean to help write, but to learn anything. If you sit down with an orange juice in front of you, you can't really expect to learn anything exciting. I can't see it, really.”
When you picked up a Factory novel, you walked through these worlds with Raymond's narrator, the Detective Sergeant. It started at The Henry of Agincourt, in Greenwich Lane, and the book He Died With His Eyes Open:
“Very antique it looked too, compared to the high rise blocks that surrounded it,” the DS tells us. “The pub had painted medieval wooden beams at the front, the sign displayed the monarch after whom it was named. He was wearing a large crown, a doubtful piece of armour and an expression of quiet, or possibly drunken confidence, and was peering up the road as if he had just seen a load of Frenchmen.
“Inside, the place was built entirely of concrete, which nevertheless bore signs of attention from various demented customers. The bar was narrow, and behind it stood an unbelievably disagreeable-looking stout man, who had to be the governor. It was only a quarter past eleven in the morning; however, as I came in, he was helping himself to a triple vodka, obviously not his first of the dayâ€¦”
Beautifully rendered, The Agincourt will become the centre stage of this novel. The Detective Sergeant is investigating the brutal murder of a middle-aged man named Staniland, and is led to the pub by the deceased's diaries. As the facts slowly unfurl, it is revealed that in this starkly unpleasant establishment, Staniland drank regularly with his eventual killers, one of whom was his lover. Yet Raymond's grim humor is evident in his choice of pub name.
The character of Staniland is Raymond's most autobiographical creation. Before Derek Raymond was Derek Raymond he was Robin Cook, the aristocratic son of a textile magnate who was so repulsed by the class he was born into he spent the rest of his life kicking against it. Disinherited when he walked out of Eton as an 18-year-old, enterprising Robin was headed to Soho where he was soon to find “the only useful application for an Eton tie” as the financial front man for Da Silva's various long firms.
It was something he was perpetually reticent to clarify, but after the success of one of these ventures, Cook felt obliged to move abroad for most of the 1970s and 1980s, to an impressive 15th-century tower in Aveyron, France. Here, like the fictional Staniland, Robin lived as a French farmer, working in the vineyards. While he toiled on the earth, ideas for a new set of novels fermented in his brain.
As Robin Cook, at the dawn of Swinging London, he'd had a series of novels published. The Crust On Its Uppers (1962) was a vivid recreation of the Chelsea arts and criminal milieu Cook was then ensconced in, complete with a dictionary of the slang used by his gang of â€˜morries.' This had been followed by Bombe Surprise (1963), The Legacy Of The Stiff Upper Lip (1966) and Private Parts, Public Places (1967), all corrosive satires of the class system: “The upper-middle class are always trying to struggle up the bloody social ladder,” as he told me in 1993. “What's it going to be like when you get there? And it's nothing to do with money, because there's as much violence in their bloody chateaux as you'd find in a working class home.”
The political thriller A State Of Denmark appeared in 1970 and reads as chillingly prophetic today: a future vision of an England under the dictatorship of a Labor Party re-branded as The New Pace, led by the perpetually-grinning Prime Minister Jobling.
When finally, after 13 years, his work appeared in English again, Robin Cook had decided he had to atone for his youthful ways. Taking the names of two of his favorite drinking partners, he became Derek Raymond. The mangled corpse of Staniland at the opening of He Died With His Eyes Open is Robin Cook's Agincourt; the Detective Sergeant goes on, not exactly as Henry V, but as Raymond's troubled conscience. The series reached their apex with 1990's I Was Dora Suarez.
“If I had no guilt to purge, I would not have known where the road to hell was,” he wrote of his masterpiece. “Suarez was my atonement for 50 years' indifference to the miserable state of this world, a terrible journey through my own guilt and the guilt of others.”
Just across the road from the Hop Poles, on Hammersmith Broadway as it becomes King Street, is another pub immortalized by a writer who saw London through very similar eyes to Raymond, some 40 years before him.
Although it is referred to as The King's Head, “a large and respectable house in the most crowded section of King Street”, I have it in mind that the salon now known as Edwards was the venue in which Patrick Hamilton's careless anti-heroine Jenny loses her foothold from the path of decency.
Again, it's not entirely geographically accurate, but here is how Hamilton describes it, in The Siege Of Pleasure section of his 1934 trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky:
“They went through a door marked â€˜Saloon Lounge' into a spacious room with chocolate-colored wood paneling, and copper-covered tables all round. There was a bar at one end, and one or two shining specimens of old-time armor in the corners. It was fully and brilliantly lit, although it was not yet completely dark outside and few of the tables were engaged.” Capacious and cheery, totally dominating the trade on the corner where it stands, this is how Edwards first appeared to me.
Patrick Hamilton, like Derek Raymond, knew if you want to get to describe the Capital with any accuracy, then you have to hone in on the characters that make up the regular clientele of a bar. Which is precisely what he did at the very beginning of this novel, introducing us straight away to his protagonist Bob, waiter at The Midnight Bell, a bustling house on Euston Road. Bob works with Ella the barmaid, who is secretly in love with him, and the amiable Governor and his wife, “as benign as they were bloated”. Though Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is published now as one volume, it is really three novels, on which the writer worked for five years in total. Hamilton wrote the opening section, The Midnight Bell, in 1929, when he was only 24 years old. The future playwright of the Hitchcock movies Gaslight and Rope already saw the saloon bar as the best setting for drama:
“The Saloon Bar was narrow and about thirty feet in length. On your right was the bar itself, in all its bottly glitter, and on your left was a row of tables set against a comfortable and continuous leather seat which went the whole length of the bar. At the far end the Saloon Bar opened out into the Saloon Lounge. This was a large, square room filled with a dozen or so round, copper-covered tablesâ€¦ the whole atmosphere was spotless, tidy, bright, and a little chilly. This was no scene for the brawler, but rather for the principled and restrained drinker, with his wife. In here and in the Saloon Bar, The Midnight Bell did most of its business—the two other bars (the Public and the Private) being dreary, seatless bareboarded structures wherein drunkenness was dispensed in coarser tumblers and at a cheaper rate to a mostly collarless and frankly downtrodden stratum of society. The Public Bar could nevertheless be glimpsed by a customer in the Saloon Bar, and as the evening wore on it provided the latter with an acoustic background of deep mumbling and excited talk without which, indeed, the nightly drama of the Saloon Bar would have been rather like a cinematograph drama without musicâ€¦”
Like He Died With His Eyes Open, The Midnight Bell is heavily autobiographical. Patrick Hamilton fell disastrously in love with a West End prostitute named Lily in 1927, and just as Robin Cook had smited his parents by becoming a criminal, Hamilton was rebelling against his own, domineering, upwardly mobile father Bernard.
Bernard Hamilton was precisely the type of character Derek Raymond would have raged against as “a fucking bore,” which, to his mind was the quality of a psychopath. In his introduction to the 1987 Hogarth Press edition of Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, Michael Holroyd describes Bernard thus:
“He was a comedian equipped with a monocle but no sense of humour, a chameleon-like figure given to self-dramatisation, who nevertheless drank to be rid of himself.”
A wife-beater to boot, Bernard was often an absentee father, but the length of his shadow imbued in Patrick such a sense of insecurity that, despite his frequent detours into London's lowest quarters, he was in fact often repeating patterns set by Bernard. Hamilton Sr.'s first wife had been a prostitute who he met on the promenade of the Empire Theatre, and who had ended the relationship by throwing herself under a train. As Patrick immersed himself in the underworld he only heightened his own lack of self-esteem and dependency upon the bottle.
For fictional Bob, the road to hell is signposted in the appearance of two women at the Saloon Bar of The Midnight Bell and the realization that they were not as others in this smug enclave:
“These two were beyond society because they evaded its burdens: these two were born to toil but did not toil: these two were for that reason bold, lazy, ruthless and insensitive: they were women of the street.”
Nonetheless, and despite all reason, Bob has procured a date from the youngest and most beautiful of the women by the end of the night.
Jenny, as we later discover, was the woman seduced by a pub in Hammersmith into her life of indolent opportunism. The Siege Of Pleasure, the second volume of the trilogy, was written in 1932, after Hamilton had escaped from his infatuation with Lily and had embarked upon a sensible, if passionless, marriage to Lois Martin in 1930. During this time, to the undoubted chagrin of Bernard both The Midnight Bell and Patrick's stage play Rope had been tremendous successes, the latter attracting the attentions of the upcoming director Alfred Hitchcock.
So it was as another symbolic revenge that this story begins with Jenny gaining employment as a housemaid in Chiswick, in a fusty old mansion that is based upon Patrick's own childhood home. Her escape from servitude, via a glass of port in The King's Head, mirrors Hamilton's own snubbing of suburbia.
Just as Bob is seduced by Jenny's beauty, Jenny falls for drink itself. After her first day in Chiswick, she is talked into a drink by her older friend Violet and two young men they encounter on Hammersmith Broadway. It doesn't take long for the port to work its magic:
“A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around â€“ together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news â€“ a delicious short cut to that inconstant elation which was so arduously won by virtue from the everyday world. It engendered the desire to celebrate nothing for no reason.”
And so, Jenny does not return to her day job. Instead, she wakes up at the house of one of the young men, setting the pattern for the rest of her existence. And in a punchline to The Siege of Pleasure, we leave Jenny, years later in a Paddington hotel, in the company of the man who bought her that first glass of port.
The completion of Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky took a further two years. A sobered-up Hamilton was walking along Earl's Court Road in January 1932 when he was knocked down by a car and very nearly killed. He was left with prominent facial scars and writer's block, which was only assuaged by the sudden creative spurt that accompanied the conclusion to the trilogy, The Plains of Cement in 1934. This is Ella the barmaid's story, and Hamilton uses it for his most scathing attack on the class system with the creation of his most Dickensian character, the awful Mr. Ernest Eccles. Ella's would-be suitor is a mirror for Bernard Hamilton; at once ridiculous and sinister. When we first encounter him, he is making his entrance to the Saloon bar, wearing a new hat. Hamilton's acid description of the accessory, and its effect on its owner, tells us everything we need to know about Eccles:
“You could see that it cost him sharp torture even to put it on his head, where he could not see it, and it had to take its chance. You could see him searching incessantly for furtive little glimpses of his hat in mirrors, you could see him pathetically reading the fate of his hat in the eyes of strangers, you could see him adjusting his tie as a sort of salute to his hat, as an attempt to live up to his hat. You could see him striving to do none of these things.”
It soon becomes apparent that Eccles wants a wife, and he sets his sights on Ella. As he relentlessly pursues her from The Midnight Bell across the cinemas and tearooms of the West End, Eccles constantly dangles the carrot of financial security at his intended. Ella could do with the respite—she works mainly to support her unfortunate mother, who is married to a violent and vicious leach of a man called Mr. Prosser. Yet, the reader is acutely aware that should Ella succumb to the advances of Eccles, she too would end up being trapped in a very similar situation.
Thankfully, Ella escapes the clutches of Mr Eccles: she is the only character in the whole of Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky who is self-aware enough to make her own decisions and not be buoyed along by the winds of chance. Hamilton would continue to explore the darkest impulses of the human psyche. In Hangover Square (1941) he studied schizophrenia through the dank flats and bars of Earl's Court; in The Slaves Of Solitude (1947) he reprises Ernest Eccles in the form of Mr. Thwaites, the bullying bore-in-residence of a wartime boarding house on the fringes of London. His next and greatest work was another trilogy, The Gorse Chronicles, written between 1947 and 1955, which charted the progress of conman, sadist and potential killer Ralph Ernest Gorse.
That Patrick Hamilton's pub stands over the road from Derek Raymond's is no surprise to me. Both these writers were obsessed with getting to the core of why people do bad things. “I can't perceive of anything worse than taking somebody else's life,”
Raymond told me. “That's the iron curtain. You're either on this side of it or on the other. And if you're on the other side, well then you're living on a strange new planet. And I want to know why people commit crimes like murder. Why, how, and where they differ from people that don't.”
Both of them were bound to the bottle, too. As J.B. Priestly writes in the introduction to the latest Penguin edition of Hangover Square: “Hamilton spent too many of his later years in an alcoholic haze, no longer a social drinker but an unhappy man who needed whisky as a car needs petrol.” He died, after a long illness, in 1962. Derek Raymond was not an unhappy drinker, indeed, he was an extremely sociable one, and as such brushed off his doctor's warnings as if replacing whisky with beer was not really drinking. He died from liver cancer in July 1994.
If you're tempted to try and meet with their shades over a drink one evening, a word of caution—don't do it in Hammersmith. Despite what I've said here, the Hop Poles and Edwards have changed a lot in the past few years. Here's what greatpubguide.com has to say about them now:
“Edwards is the pub that likes to think it's a club. A sign on the door reads â€˜Dress Code—Smart Casual Dress Only.' That pretty much says it all. There's disco lighting all about the place, speakers on every wall and a set of decks by the stairs. On a Friday and Saturday night it does become a pub disco with bouncers on the door and by about 9pm a â€˜one out, one in' policy. If you're looking for a quiet pint, you’re gonna be out of luck at Edward's.”
Â “The Hop Poles 2002 is far removed from its previous incarnation; of all the renovations that have occurred recently on King Street this has been the most extensive. The slightly worn dark interior has gone; it's much brighter inside, mainly due to the new pastel paint job and the new carpet. At the weekend, The Hop Poles goes into direct competition with Edwards. It has music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Saturday night it manages to attract its fair share of those headed for School Disco.comâ€¦”
And this is a horror not even Derek Raymond or Patrick Hamilton could have foretold.
â€¢ Serpent's Tail re-release of Derek Raymond's He Died With His Eyes Open and the previously untranslated French thriller Nightmare In The Street comes this September.Dora Suarez, the record Derek Raymond made with Gallon Drunk's James Johnston and Terry Edwards, is re-released by Sartorial this October. The BBC adaptation of Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is currently available on BBC DVD.
â€¢â€¢ Cathi Unsworth is the author of The Not Knowing (Serpent's Tail UK/US) and the editor of London Noir, a compilation of new crime fiction (Serpent's Tail UK/Akashic US).