Louis MacNeice, it was sometimes said, was always in the pub but never really of it. Much the same could be said of Patrick Hamilton, who was best known in his lifetime for his stage chillers Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938), but is mostly remembered for the expert depictions of joyless interwar boozing in Hangover Square (1941) and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1929-34). 'If ever a man knew the atmosphere and life and ethics of these places,' he boasted in 1928, when he first had the idea of setting a novel in a pub, 'it's me.' Yet he didn't inherit a tradition of pub-going - his father did his drinking in gentlemen's clubs - and held on to an idea of himself as a participant-observer gathering material from an exotic social scene long after he became a full-time alcoholic. Taciturn, shy, convinced of his ugliness, he figures in most accounts as an inconspicuous customer sharpening what Claud Cockburn called his 'bat's wing ear' for dialogue. According to Cockburn, who often drank with him during the war, this caused him to startle violently at unexpected moments. 'My God,' he would say, abruptly tuned in to someone standing eight feet away with his back to them, 'don't you see the sort of thing he is up to? God help us.'
LRB 29 January 2009 | PDF Download