24 Following


The Midnight Bell (1929)


The Midnight Bell (1929) is the first book of the Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky trilogy - the other two are The Siege of Pleasure (1932) and The Plains of Cement (1934).

Around a year before reading the book I watched a DVD of the BBC4 adaptation screened in 2005 - three one hour episodes (one per book). On reflection I wish I hadn't watched the TV adaptation first as I think I'd prefer not to have known the story before I read the book. My mental image of the characters was based on the (excellent) cast of the BBC adaptation.

I adore Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square (1941) - my favourite novel of all time. Since readingHangover Square, I have been working my way through all of Patrick Hamilton's work. The Slaves of Solitude (1947) is superb; I also really enjoyed the first two Gorse novels - The West Pier (1952); and Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953); and Craven House (1926). 

Whilst Hangover Square may be Patrick Hamilton’s best-known London novel I think that The Midnight Bell (1929) - the title comes from the pub which is the book’s focal point - is a key book in understanding his world view and the way he used his own life to inform his fiction. The story is akin to watching a slow motion car crash, the knowledge that this story is strongly autobiographical makes that feeling even more pronounced. 

Patrick Hamilton’s protagonist Bob, the waiter at a Euston pub called The Midnight Bell, has saved £80 (worth several thousands of pounds in today's money) in the bank through prudence and maximising his tips. Following a chance encounter with Jenny, a prostitute, and with whom he becomes obsessed, and believing he can change her, he becomes ever more reckless and desperate. Towards the end, Bob, realising the folly of his misadventure, concludes "that it had all come from him, and only the hysteria and obsession of his pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation". Basically he'd been played.

As with all the best books by Patrick Hamilton, in addition to a riveting drama, The Midnight Bell also provides a powerfully evocation of London - 1920s London in this instance. The character of Euston, the West End, Soho, and Hampstead, still recognisable to the modern Londoner are beautifully captured, especially the various pubs and cafes which feature so heavily in the story. 

The other aspect that rings true so authentically is the dialogue: whether this be the conversations between the regulars at The Midnight Bell, or the somewhat stilted and love lorn conversations between Bob and Jenny, or most powerfully a dreadful scene when Bob visits Jenny in the room she shares with two other prostitutes. The true horror of his situation dawns on Bob, who remains powerless to escape. Frequently these experiences are accompanied by boozing, and then appalling hangovers and self-loathing: clearly something about which Patrick Hamilton had already gained a thorough knowledge.

I am writing this without having read the other two parts of the trilogy: The Siege of Pleasure (1932) andThe Plains of Cement (1934). However, knowing the basic story, I realise that part of the trilogy's power is the way in which all the stories interlink. I will consider this in greater detail when I have read the other two, however for now I'll conclude by stating that, as a stand alone book, The Midnight Bell is right up there with Patrick Hamilton's best work. It's not quite Hangover Square or The Slaves of Solitude, but it's not far off.