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Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and the Landscapes of Fascism


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1If Patrick Hamilton’s name is recognised at all these days, then it is for his stage thrillers Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938). Still played in repertory, these may be his best-known works but are hardly typical of his output. Hamilton had been a published writer since his early twenties and Hangover Square (1941) was his eighth novel. Like the preceding novels, it covers much of the same thematic and topographic territory. It is a world of boarding houses in unfashionable parts of London, pubs, cinemas and Lyon’s tearooms. The characters speak to each other in clichés and offer trite observations. Little it seems is said in these conversations, but much is conveyed.  Hamilton incorporated aspects of his own life into his narratives: a relationship with a West End prostitute, for instance, in 1927, became the core of The Midnight Bell (1929), and Hangover Square would feature a similar example. Another important feature of his life was his drinking. The pub scenes in his novels are products of his observation and perception of the people and the language of such spaces. For Hamilton, the pub is a social space, but it is also capable of being a lonely space, and the themes of isolation and alienation are always present within his writing.

2Hangover Square isHamilton’s most direct attempt at the thriller form, and is for many the favourite among his novels. In the inner London suburbs of Earl’s Court, George Harvey Bone pursues a helpless infatuation with Netta Longdon. What she and her associates in the Saloon Bars of the neighbourhood (including her “boyfriend” Peter) do not realise is that Bone experiences moments when there is a “click” in his head – and realises in these episodes that he must kill Netta. That he will kill her is never in doubt, the tension in the text comes from waiting for the act to occur.

3Bone and Netta are the two main characters within the narrative, but it is with Peter that this piece is concerned, as he represents one of the more prolonged literary examinations of the far Right in Britain, at least before the war - a political ideology that British writers have tended to ignore. This essay will offer an examination of his social and political isolation, and try to assess why he finds himself in this position. I will show how space in the narrative is employed to develop the theme (locations within Patrick Hamilton’s novels are never chosen at random), and how the elements of spatial dislocation from the centre, the marginal aspect of his individual politics, and the fragmented social background combine into a critique of a man and also, I would suggest, of an age. I will also note later on in this piece the part played by Bone at the climax of the novel where he kills Peter and Netta. It offers some challenging questions, which will be briefly discussed.

4Hamilton makes no clear statement of his opinion of Fascism. It is not referred to any great extent by either of his biographers, and most critical discussion of Hangover Square is focused either on Bone or his relationship with Netta. That Hamilton followed Stalinist thought is generally acknowledged, although he seems to have been a supporter from the point of view of a writer. He saw his duty to the party as supporting the need for “ideological refashioning” (Golomstock 85-9) or in the words of Philip Henderson: “the struggle of capital and labour, the class-struggle […] the struggle between fascism and communism.” (7) Perhaps the most notable comment came in 1939, when, asked about the effect of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he replied that “Hitler’s power is on the decline […] the arrangement he made with Russia was a terrible symptom of weakness from which there is no sort of recovery in the long run.” (French, 162) Although never a Communist Party member, Hamilton stood behind the Party line.

Peter’s Theatre – Earl’s Court

5It is a brief walk (approximately ten minutes) from Bone’s hotel in Earl’s Court Square to Netta’s flat and this gives some idea of the intimacy of the area. The scale of the area is reflected in the anonymity of the spaces created by the streets. This is a “stucco wonderland,” and walking it one soon becomes aware that the streets offer no discernible differences to the casual observer. The blankness of the streets is reflected in the void of the character’s lives. Getting drunk is a way of coping with Earl’s Court - but it may be that Earl’s Court is the type of space that attracts damaged characters such as these.

6There is little sense in the text that the area can be associated with socialising, vice, or an active nightlife outside the pubs. It is difficult to think of an identifying aspect to Earl’s Court; it fades into the surrounding areas. Andrew Saint, in one of the few descriptions I have found of the area, describes it as offering Londoners “outlying concentrations of the French horizontal style of living that grew in ease and acceptability as time enriched the styles and services of ‘mansion flats’” (18). These tended to be four-room apartments: living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, with maid service. The rooms in the block on the corner of Earl’s Court Road and Logan Place, where Netta lives, are small, but they do have high ceilings, which provide a greater sense of space to the flat than might be realised from the street. The residential hotel, another aspect of Earl’s Court, is an extension of the “mansion flat” in that it offers affordable accommodation to a middle class who still require some form of service to support them. The “Marine Hotel” in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1965) is an example of such a place, and there is a similar establishment described by Julian Maclaren-Ross in Of Love and Hunger (1947).

7This is not an area with redeeming associations of colourful cosmopolitanism. Its reputation seems to rely on the residential hotels and, in later years, the Arena. There is no recognisable artistic or aesthetic movement that can trace its foundation to an Earl’s Court establishment. It is a residential area. Robert E. Dickinson describes such an area in his essay on regionalism, where he notes how the residents of the city carry on their daily rounds and live out their lives “in their own small worlds, largely unaware of the larger unity of the city” (22). Mason W. Gross similarly describes a city as “a vast collection of memories […] with its greatest concentration of human meanings at its centre and a gradual thinning out of emotional value until one reaches the emotional drabness of the fringes” (RG 04/A16). Leo F. Schnore notes (and in the context of this essay we may read this ironically) that the individual in the city “will become acquainted with neighbours and members of his work group from whom he learns of other potentially satisfactory destinations within the city” (114). As I will argue below, Hamilton’s placement of Peter within this boundary area is not just a narrative decision but also reflects the public perception and reception of his right-wing views in the lead-up to the war. He believes in a cause that has become marginalized, and in consequence has found himself located on the margins of the city. If Bone is isolated because of some internal mental collapse, then Peter (and Netta) have found themselves equally isolated because of the way they have chosen to relate to the external world.

8So who is Peter? The physical description (no surname is ever given) is of a man with a “guardsman’s’ moustache” and a “huge sneering chin”; overall, a “formidable, sullen, brooding and curiously evil man”(Hamilton 37). He also has a jail record:

“I have been in jail twice, to be precise,” said Peter, lighting another cigarette, and suddenly employing a large, pompous professorial tone. “On one occasion for socking a certain left-winger a precise and well deserved sock in the middle of his solar plexus, and on the other for a minor spot of homicide with a motor-car…” (115)

9Peter is, or rather was (the text is unclear here), a Blackshirt, a member of the British Union of Fascists. The organisation, founded by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, had at its peak 20,000 members. Mosley based their uniform and methods on the Italian rather than German model of activist. The Party relied on marches, propaganda aimed at the lower middle class concerned about losing employment to foreign workers, and violence to promote their brand of British Fascism. Martin Pugh suggests in his book Hurrah for the Blackshirts! (2005) that the BUF enjoyed a significant amount of support in the mid-thirties, although in retrospect they seem to have presented a rather ineffectual political force. However, William Joyce, for one, always felt that Mosley was much too liberal in his opinions. The BUF held two major political rallies; one in 1934 at Olympia and the other, in July 1939, at the Earl’s Court Arena. A favoured tactic of the party was to use spotlights during the proceedings to “identify” undesirable elements who would then be beaten in their seats, or taken outside and then beaten.

10Peter’s conviction for assault against the “left winger” is then an appropriate reflection of this period of the thirties. A Mass-Observation correspondent recording a demonstration in Trafalgar Square during the Munich crisis noted: “One Fascist, over six foot, strikes a smaller man, as he goes, making him reel on to the pavement, holding his jaw” (81). Peter’s “homicide” also reflects something of Hamilton’s autobiographical concerns with the motorcar (see above) and in addition reflects back to The Siege of Pleasure where Jenny is in a car that knocks over and kills a man on a bike (Hamilton Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky 297). Peter fits well into the model of the British Fascist. There is a casual use and acceptance of violence on his part, but also the occasional evidence of intellect.

11The young man whom Jenny and Peter bring with them to Brighton, who dominates the Railway Bar and later the hotel, presents a more extreme version of Peter. Hamilton describes him as “a nasty-looking piece of work, short, virile, stocky – with a darkly tanned, scarred pugilistic, Rugby-football face – a full mouth and the burning brown eyes of the school bully” (150). This character evokes a common theme in Hamilton’s work, namely that of the failed middle class. Ian Kershaw notes of Hitler’s rise in Germany that: “Part of its illusion was an implied return to the “good old days” before the First World War and protection of the little man from the incursions of the modern, interventionist state” (407). For Mowat, the Mill-Owner, in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Cloud Howe (1933), nationalist politics represents a means of regaining control of a society still divided by the effects of the First World War and the current depression. For Peter, the aims and goals of the BUF represent something allied to those of Mowat, yet are complicated by other factors: ones related to Peter’s social position.

12The violence within Peter can be read as a manifestation of the resentment that he feels towards his social class. Peter’s attitude towards Bone is throughout the text one of antipathy. Both are of a similar middle-class background, yet each responds to this background in a different way. Bone maintains a careful attitude towards money. He has respect for his Aunt, and carries himself with good manners throughout the narrative. Peter on the other hand has less respect for society; he possesses an “intense, smouldering, revengeful social snobbery” (128). This anger is a product of minor disadvantages, such as his not having been to “a mentionable public school” (128). Peter’s reasoning is that:

Banished, by reason of his birth and lack of money, from the class of which he had so fanatical a secret desire to be a member, he had not turned in anger against that class, or thrown in his lot with any other […]. On the contrary he sought to glorify it, to buttress it, to romanticise it, to make it more itself than it was already. (128)

13In referring to the issue of the school, Hamilton (who went to Westminster) picks up on one of those social details that we may nowadays miss. This is a society where little is said but much is inferred. The question of school tie means so much more than a series of colours; it places one within a sub-caste of the ruling caste. Anthony Farrant in England Made Me (1935) meets his sister wearing a Harrow tie. “I’ve promoted myself,” he says in reply to her query (15). It is Farrant’s bad luck to meet the journalist Minty, who is able to decode the significance of the tie and Farrant’s own understanding of what it means. Vincent Penhale is able to pass himself off as an “old boy” in Wyndham Lewis’s The Vulgar Streak (1941), and it is only because he admits he is not one really that Martin Penny-Smythe knows any different (30-4). Orwell, as an old Etonian, could always afford to be dismissive of such matters. For Peter, the matter evidently has gnawed away at him both spiritually and mentally to such an extent that it has led him to a form of politics where power is not there to be taken, but to be seized.

14Peter seeks membership of a society that doesn’t exist, at least in a form that he would acknowledge. He is delusional, believing himself possessed of great importance, power, wealth, intellect, or ability. In reality, he is part of a small drinking circle in an unfashionable west London neighbourhood. Set apart from what he feels is his rightful place in the world, and unable to confront his delusions, Peter has retreated into a state of isolation, both physical and psychological. He is oblivious to his social position. He cannot see how his personality limits his hopes of social advancement. He cannot change his outward appearance; and in consequence he cannot progress outside Earl’s Court. Peter cannot see how his personality limits his hopes of social advancement.

15Hamilton argues that Peter’s separation is not determined by political forces but by his laziness. The Earl’s Court space symbolises this disenfranchisement as it represents an alienated space within the metropolitan area, a space that has failed to develop or manufacture a reputation in the manner of Chelsea or Hampstead. In this isolated space, it is easy for the inhabitants to surrender to the sense of apathy that the anonymity of the streets offers. The attraction of order and the “marching, regimented men” is that they offer something that is missing from their lives – a sense of structure (129). The disenfranchisement that a character like Peter feels manifests itself as a political and social resentment at those in power who deny him both a voice and what he perceives as his rightful social place. In the novel, this resentment is a stage of experience that is coming to its conclusion, and in the novel’s climax Hamilton offers a perception of what the future will offer. Unfortunately for Peter, this means that he must die. It is not without coincidence that this conflict occurs at the end of the decade, when the uncertainties and social changes brought about by the conflicts in economic, national and political movements since 1930 are about to reach their apex. Hangover Square represents not just a particular time and a place, but, I would suggest, the summation of a decade.

16We can read in Peter’s character a need for action, a desire to emulate the spirit of the generation of older brothers who went off to war in 1914. For those on the left, this desire to fight for a cause was provided by Spain. For those of a conservative persuasion, there was less chance to be actively involved in fighting for a cause, unless it was the BUF.Alienated from the political, economic and cultural battles of the 1930s as rentiers living off trust funds, in alcohol-induced oblivion, the developments of the Rhineland and the Anschluss passed them by. Munich has impinged on their consciousness only because of it required a change in everyone’s thinking. This may be one of the reasons that Peter and Netta fail to see the coming of the war. They have insulated themselves within cultural or physical domains that insulate them from the realities outside. The space outside their front door is constituted not by real experience, but by distorted perceptions, born of their own ambitions and desires.

17The sense of “revengeful snobbery” that motivates Peter can be found in the speeches of Mosley and Hitler. For example, at Earl’s Court in July 1939 Mosley talked of standing for “the people’s cause, and in their cause I challenge the money power […] We shall get the resources with which to defeat them, not because those with money love us, but because before long they shall fear us” (6-7). Reading Mosley, one can also see an appeal to the spirit of the bully that Peter and the young man in Brighton exemplify:

We have got 70 million white British people in the British Empire. Before the Anchluss Germany had precisely 70 million people in Germany. Since then they have picked up a few million Austrians and a few million Czechs. All right, let the original 70 million white British people in the British Empire face the original 70 million of Germans. Then the other 430 million of coloured population in the British Empire can look after the few million Czechs and Austrians that they picked up the other day. (19)

18This admiration of the use of force is also depicted by Greene in The Confidential Agent. Captain Currie, first met as the manager of a Kent roadside hotel, is throughout the text portrayed as a bully. With the assistance of his driver, he administers a beating to D. on the road to London. On his own, however, he is obsequious and deferential, his attempts at ingratiation symptomatic of his need, and those of his type, for acceptance. Vincent Penhale in The Vulgar Streak is perceived by his friend Martin as possessing “a coarse streak […] that no gentleman would display” (60-1) Penhale can assume the dress and manners of a gentleman but not the feelings, hence his behaviour towards April Mallow. In both cases, there is a division made by the individual concerned between aspects of his life. There is the public life and the private. Currie may be the jolly host when he is in the hotel; outside it he is an intimidator. Penhale is perceived as an English gentleman, yet he has lied about his background. Currie and Penhale have, like Peter, created their own private worlds.

19Captain Currie’s hotel can be seen as a corollary of Earl’s Court in that it allows its residents to feel that they have isolated themselves within their particular space. Yet there is a difference between Currie and Peter. The characters described above challenge the social code in an implicit way, but for Peter the challenge is explicit. He challenges the political order, and in so doing he finds himself isolated in way that Currie will not experience. Peter makes no excuses for his time in prison, but it is the time he spent there that really offends Bone: “Jail-birds and proud of it. No doubt it would soon transpire that Netta was a shop-lifter” (155). The separate state each character lives in recalls Fredric Jameson’s comments on the mode in which the social totality must now be represented, taking “the (impossible) form of a coexistence of those sealed subjective worlds and their peculiar interaction” (350). Peter and Netta have their worlds of narcissist nihilism; George Harvey Bone has his own disjunctive sphere, entered in the click of madness. As the reader knows, Bone’s separate world is the more dangerous one.

20Both the macro-space of Earl’s Court and the micro-space of the bar offer Peter a sense of being within a fortress. Within these small spaces, he feels he can control both his political and topographic location. Yet his is a group that for all its dreams of social advancement does not seem close to achieving it. The professional agitators of the BUF offer a radical model of political activism. Peter is, however, no professional, merely a player at the game. As he himself notes when in Brighton, he is part of the muscle. Isolated from his class, he is also isolated from the centre of the political movement. The BUF focused its activities on the East London; except for his trip to Brighton, Peter never seems to leave the West London space. Thus his placement within Earl’s Court can be read as an experience of a heterochronic space. Peter is not just out of time with regard to his politics, but in his relationship to the party itself. Peter’s isolation is a physical, political and temporal condition. He belongs nowhere and to no time.

21His is the social class Hamilton had been writing about since 1924; and after seventeen years of detailing its quirks, foibles and failings, the author seems to have decided that it was time some of its members finally died. There is a streak of dark humour in the novel’s climax, when Bone at last murders Netta and her boyfriend. John Branston, in an article for the Morning Star, notes that: “the drunken double killer who, hell bent on revenge, is not too drunk to be too clever for the man and woman he plans to annihilate” (3 November 2004) is also killing a pair of Fascists. As he puts an end to the lives of Netta and Peter, the radio is broadcasting Chamberlain’s declaration of war. The juxtaposition invites readers to question whether, in killing these two Fascists, Bone is really mad? Is the murder of Peter and Netta justified because of their political inclinations, and the way that they have treated Bone throughout the text? Or is the act of killing in any form morally wrong? Do readers at this point lose sympathy for Bone, or are they too involved in the consciousness of this now tragic figure to be able to disassociate themselves from him?

22I do not believe that Hamilton himself wanted to supply an easy answer. Writing in 1941, in the perspective of two years of war, Hamilton wanted readers to assess their own feelings, and to bring reason, as well as empathy, into their responses. They might sympathise with Bone and his individual act, but they might also see him as a selfish figure, killing to satisfy some private instinct when the community would have been well served by the elimination of an ideology that was destroying Europe.

23In the course of writing Hangover Square, Hamilton witnessed the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz. It is a novel written during the bleakest period of British history in the twentieth century. Hamilton noted of the writing: “the effort to concentrate and write a long book in wartime has been prodigious – and I have lost that awful feeling of waste which has been on me so long.” (French 165) The waste is probably a reference to his periods of inactivity when he wrote little of any worth, but it also a larger assessment of what his contemporaries had made of the previous decade. It was, for a Marxist writer, a period when chances to “sweep the detritus of the deracinated, urban society away” had been thrown away by men and women who preferred to sit drinking in saloon bars. (French 162) I would suggest that Hangover Square could be read as a requiem for the Thirties. The deaths of Bone, Netta and Peter are the necessary apocalypse to conclude a decade in which much was hoped for and little was achieved. It is the last of Hamilton’s novels with a wholly pessimistic ending; his remaining novels would attempt to find some positive summation for the lives of those involved in their narrative. The quietism that Orwell referred to in Inside the Whale has been replaced by the dynamics of a war society; and as Homage to Catalonia anticipated, the “roar of bombs” has awakened the “deep, deep sleep of England” (187).

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Branston, John. “Love and Death in Publand.” The Morning Star, November 3 2004.

Dickinson, Robert E. City Region and Regionalism. New York: Kegan Paul, Tench Trubner and Co, 1947.

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——. The Confidential Agent. [1939]. London: Vintage, 2002.

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——. Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky. [1935]. London: Vintage, 1998.

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Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. [1938]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000.

Pugh, Martin. Hurrah for the Blackshirts. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Saint, Andrew. “The Quality of the London Suburbs.” London Suburbs. London: Merrell Holberton Publishers, 1999.

Schnore, Leo F. “The City as Social Organism.” Internal Structure of the City. Readings on Space and Environment. 1st Edn. Ed. Larry S. Bourne. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Waugh, Evelyn. Sword of Honour. [1965]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001.

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Simon GOULDING, « Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and the Landscapes of Fascism », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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University of Birmingham
Simon Goulding has recently completed his PhD on Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell. His previous publications include work on James Hanley and on Patrick Hamilton’s novel, The Midnight Bell. He is currently working on a study of British writing in the Second World War, and an account of depictions of the Auxiliary Fire Service in the period 1939-1945, in the works of Henry Green, William Sansom, Stephen Spender and Humphrey Jennings.

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