This Train Calls at Earl’s Court, Hangover Square and Maidenhead
Stalking commuters with Patrick Hamilton
by Laura Forman

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Loneliness comes in stylish packaging these days. Stalk the most forlorn of the homebound commuters, as they get off the tube at Earl’s Court, and you’ll soon see what I mean. Follow them to the Earl’s Court Road exit. Make a mental note of The Courtfield pub (I’ll meet you there later), and then track them through the everywhere-and-nowhereness of this metropolitan equivalent of motorway services.

They’re on a pilgrimage to the altar of pre-packed single portions: Marks and Spencer Simply Food. They’ll either forget or try not to buy anything to drink. Perhaps the twinkly clinkiness of Oddbins, a bit further down the road, will lure them in. “To those whom God has forsaken is given a gas-fire in Earl’s Court”1 wrote Patrick Hamilton in his 1941 novel, Hangover Square. Sixty-five years on, it’s a microwave and a ready-meal.

As sprawlingly melancholic as the shabby streets it’s set in, Hangover Square chronicles the gin-fuelled meanderings of George Harvey Bone. On a good day, he finds himself “going to the Kensington movie of an evening without consulting anybody, and walking back down the Earl’s Court Road and having a cup of tea at the coffee-stall and going to bed”.2 After a succession of very bad days indeed, he commits the least malicious double-murder you’ll ever read about.

Don’t assume that gin-fuelled meanderings are best tran-scribed by a gin-fuelled meanderer; Hamilton was more of a wistful workaholic. He once said “the difference between fail-ures or half-failures and the successes in this life is the difference between mild self-control and something partially fanatical”.3 While whisky and wayward women had more than cameo roles, you get the sense that his entanglements were more literary research than real-life encounters. For him, writing verged on being a religious calling, with vows to observe revelry, vitality and experience rather than poverty, chastity and obedience.

Shortly after telling his father he must be free to “follow my own career in my own way, without hindrance or help, standing or falling by myself”,4 he was incredibly committed. He got up at half past six each morning, going to bed at half past nine. He hardly ever went out. If he did, he’d try to limit himself to three drinks, sometimes resorting to a strategy christened the “Hamilton Drop”,5 making drinks last longer by topping them up with water.

Born on St Patrick’s day, Hamilton grew up in a slightly shambolic, fairly well-to-do family with literary leanings. He was riddled with anxieties and eccentricities, later comparing the supposedly cheery noise of children playing with the “unhappy clamour” of the cocktail party. He had something of a phobia about doing anything – not just the usual behind-closed-doors activities – in a room, unless completely confident the door was firmly closed. At the risk of sounding like a quack psychologist, this might have been the first mani-festation of a tendency to compartmentalise his life, going to some lengths to keep friends (not that there were that many) from different spheres completely separate. In a way, Hamilton is Earl’s Court: all those boxy flats in relentless stacks, inhabitants rarely having much to do with each other. Thinking about it, though, that phenomenon is London-wide. I’ve lived in my current flat for seven or eight months now, and have only just managed to meet the neighbours.

In 1920, when he was 16, Hamilton left home to lodge in The White House Hotel on Earl’s Court Square. He renamed it The Fauconberg Hotel in his first novel and Hangover Square, his eighth. The building is still there, but the closest I got to communing with Hamiltonian ghosts was staring at a head appearing and disappearing in a nearby window. It belonged to a woman bouncing on a trampoline and babbling on a mobile. Impressive multi-tasking.

Who knows what Hamilton’s first impressions of Earl’s Court were? When I first arrived in the city, and didn’t realise an 0208 number was social suicide, my flat was just beyond the southernmost reaches of the District line. For a long time, Earl’s Court meant nothing more than one thing: loitering on the platform, willing malevolent retro gameshow arrows to announce the glittering prize of a Wimbledon train. I now know that feeling of waiting for direction extends beyond the station. Earl’s Court is known for its transient population of students and Australians. Hamilton didn’t stay long either, lurching from one rented room to another, with occasional long-stay visits back to wherever his family had got to.

One of these moves, to New Cavendish Street, meant that he was within walking distance of his research ground: Soho. Fired up with alcohol, “the neurotic’s microscope”,6 he searched for and catalogued all the “stored observation”7 he needed for The Siege of Pleasure. The second novel in his great trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, it focuses on the transformation of a servant girl to prostitute.

He  had  mentioned  in  a  letter  to  his  brother  that  he’d decided to work on this theme, and soon set about doing some research. Hamilton’s dealings with women had never been straightforward. He tended to idolise those he found beautiful to the extent that he couldn’t interact with them easily. But he couldn’t really be bothered with those who didn’t inspire this idolatry. He was often so paralysed by his own imagined ideal version of a woman that he couldn’t actu-ally do anything about getting close to her. Hamilton admitted that he enjoyed the feeling of yearning as much as anything else. He was only able to report his first experience of “unequivocal love-making”8 in his mid-forties, with the aristocratic author who would become his second wife.

His research involved a number of prostitutes, most notably one called Lily. He claimed to be infatuated, yet all the while despising and mocking her for, amongst other things, thinking her surname, Connolly, was written “Connerlly”.9 His friends pressed him to pay his money and leave it at that, instead of mooning and yearning. But it was a long while before he could bring himself to do this – about long enough to furnish The Siege of Pleasure with accurate characters and details.

Hamilton revisited the theme of desperate infatuation in Hangover Square. George Harvey Bone is well and truly snagged on the beauty of Netta, a girl who wears her looks like magnetic barbed wire. “The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathed, that he could think of nothing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side”.10

George often used to stroll around Earl’s Court, apparently without a purpose, but usually to look up at Netta’s flat and divine some knowledge about her from the configuration of curtains and lights. The point where George always stopped to look up was the exact point where, in 1932, Hamilton was almost killed by a car. You can navigate much of Hamilton’s writing by his autobiographical signposts. This is the one where fact and fiction collide most violently. According to one of his biographers, Sean French, his “left leg and arm were so severely broken that the bone was projecting through the skin. Both bones in the wrist were broken, and he suffered a number of severe flesh wounds. His nose was virtually ripped off”.11 It left him unable to write for two years.

JB Priestley believed the accident was the main reason Hamilton never achieved the following he deserved, noting that, at the time, “his public were rapidly growing; the review-ers were waiting to praise the final novel of his trilogy; and he himself was obviously in a fine creative vein, a young artist quickly maturing. Few novelists can have had a more bitter stroke of bad luck”.12 Hamilton developed a hatred of the fast-car set. Disastrous road accidents and their consequences became a recurrent motif in his work.

Of course, London isn’t a place where you can stand still, except in queues, for very long. And Hamilton knew that people become vulnerable when they stop. The city isn’t set up for reflection or contemplation. Diaries are force-fed social events until they yield an oozing foie gras of busyness. Colleagues in lifts no longer open a conversation with “how are you?” but “are you busy?”. New-build flats are marketed as havens from the hectic pace of modern life – yet when they’re next to thundering urban thoroughfares, the chances of any peace (even on that aspirational sofa) are slim. The noughties soundtrack is the white noise of relentless, often pointless, activity.

No wonder we’re starting to see a backlash, with move-ments like Slow Food and Slow City – ideas that originate on the continent, which have found an English accent with farmers’ markets and cycle paths. They’re all about taking time to notice things: flavours, experiences and, crucially, other people. Maybe, today, Hamilton would subscribe to The Idler magazine. And not just because he developed a taste for afternoon drinking.

Still, we shouldn’t get carried away with skipping through what George Harvey Bone called the “violets and primroses”13 version of life. The seamy side of Earl’s Court that Hamilton chronicled so well is still very present. Last time I was wander-ing around the area, I noticed a giant metal container on the pavement. Painted in an inappropriately innocent shade of baby blue, it sported the most depressingly catchy copywrit-ing I’ve ever seen, “Get a life – bin that knife”. It was an amnesty box for lethal weapons. George could’ve used it to deposit the golf club he used to dispatch one of Netta’s lovers. Telling Netta “It’s all right. Don’t be frightened!”,14 he’d drowned her in her own bathtub, the only time he ever got to see her naked, seconds before.

So why did a fundamentally kindly man (look out for the scenes with the cat if you don’t believe me) kill two people? When in a normal mood, George spent most of his time trying to engineer pathetically platonic and ruinously expen-sive encounters at Netta’s preferred restaurants. But things changed whenever he sensed a click in his head “as though a shutter had fallen”.15

George then felt that other people had “no valid existence; they were not creatures experiencing pleasure or pain. There was, in fact, no sensation, no pleasure or pain at all in this world: there was only himself – his dreary, numbed, dead self”.16 It’s easy enough to slip into feeling like this in the city. How can you fully appreciate people when faced with so many of them every day? With George, this feeling is taken to extremes. When his mood is numb and dead, he is controlled by a overwhelming urge to kill Netta. Though the literary device isn’t medically accurate or genuinely convincing, it does allow guilt-free sympathy for George: he does not know what he is doing.

George realised Netta wasn’t the “fireside”17 girl she pre-tended to be in the early days. He knew she’d “hoot with laughter”18 if she found out what he really wanted: a “good old cottage in the country” and “to live happily and quietly ever afterwards”. But George couldn’t help wanting it, even though it reduced him to being a “sad, ungainly man with beer-shot eyes who loved a girl in Earl’s Court”.19 A somewhat more successful dreamer, Hamilton got his country cottage, in Norfolk’s Overy Staithe. But the grass wasn’t any greener there, and he was soon trying to escape back to London for his old adventures. Hamilton’s first wife, Loïs, was described by his brother as playing “her usual part, patient, kind and sadly tolerant”.20

Throughout Hangover Square, George longs to escape, at least for a while, and Maidenhead (a deliberately sexual pun?) becomes a destination where rowing boats and redemption are gift-wrapped in sunshine. But he soon realises he can never escape himself, the idealised women or the murders, and writes “I am taking my life, as coming to Maidenhead was not of any use”.21

So let’s head back down Earl’s Court Road, and to The Courtfield pub. In the novel, it masquerades as The Rockingham, and it’s there where George and Netta first met. “It happened in the big bar of the ‘Rockingham’, opposite Earl’s Court station”, Hamilton writes. For Netta and her “the-atrical gang”, the drinks were on George that night. He “buttered in and paid. He was as tight as they were. He paid again and again, amidst their laughing and incredulous applause”.22

In Hamilton’s later years, workaholism gave way to alco-holism. Booze blotted out the white noise that had seeped into his head and drowned his authorial voice. He even dropped the pretence of the Hamilton Drop, needing whisky “as a car needs petrol”.23 When Hamilton died in 1962, his second wife, whose breathless novels he’d given up reading, described the “silence of snow”24 filling the house.


  1. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 38.
  2. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 119.
  3. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, 10 March 1927) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 66.
  4. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bernard Hamilton 28 August 1924) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 51.
  5. Page 257, Patrick – A Tragedy (second version of PH’s memoir) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 65.
  6. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton 22 June 1934) quoted Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 137.
  7. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, undated, probably December 1928), quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 93.
  8. Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 203.
  9. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, undated, probably December, 1928) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 93.
  10. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 29.
  11. Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 124.
  12. JB Priestley’s introduction to Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Craven, 1935) Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 125.
  13. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 68.
  14. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 273.
  15. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 15.
  16. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 17.
  17. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 51.
  18. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 28.
  19. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 146.
  20. Page 167 Patrick – A Tragedy (first version of PH’s memoir) quoted page 144 Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993).
  21. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 280.
  22. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 49.
  23. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 7 (JB Priestley’s introduction).
  24. Letter (Ursula Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton 27 September 1962) from Patrick – A Tragedy (second version of PH’s memoir) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 279.

1 Comment

  1. Jim says:


    I enjoyed your review of Patrick Hamilton – we seem to have picked up very similar nuances in the novels language and symbolism of the book. “To those whom God has forsaken is given a gas-fire in Earl’s Court” tickled me too, and I also thought that ‘the literary device isn’t medically accurate or genuinely convincing’: unless I have mis-read the book though, I thought Bone committed his crimes during a period of relative clarity.