When I was a boy my Dad would take me and my brother on holiday. Being poor, what this meant was that we would be crammed onto a coach, with 50 other unhappy holidaymakers, and driven to one of the nearby seaside towns, Bridlington or Scarborough. Once there, we would trawl around the near-deserted town, whilst being spied on by suspicious-looking seagulls. We would mournfully cast our eyes over the cheap plastic souvenirs in the seemingly endless rows of local shops and kiosks before heading for a cold, windy, and dirty beach. Mercifully, around midday we would leave the beach and head for a café and eat fish and chips with enough salt and vinegar to make your eyes water and your tongue tingle. We always ate fish and chips, because that’s just what you do when you’re on holiday. After eating we would perhaps take a stroll towards ‘the arcades’. The arcades were a bunch of slot machines and video games that were hopelessly out of date. I would play some sort of football game and my brother would play Street Fighter. Then we would have a go at an evil contraption which involved a series of shifting plates, upon which were mounds of old coins, mostly made up of 2p’s.
The idea was to drop your own coin into the slot and wait, in agonised suspense, to see if it would be the one to push the overhanging mound of old coins over the edge, so as to allow you to pocket them. Of course, this never happened. It is impossible. In the entire history of the world no one has ever won. And what if you had won? Who wants a heavy pocketful of 2p’s anyway? But play you must. In the afternoon we would take another stroll, a tired but strangely upbeat stroll, for the day was coming to an end. We would eat candy floss. You had to do it. If you didn’t eat candy floss you’d have to eat a stick of rock, and no one wanted that. At around five p.m. we would make our way towards the spot where the coach was to pick us up and return us to an equally miserable, but less indolent existence.
I tell this story because my memories of being on holiday with my Dad conjure up the same kind of melancholy feeling I experienced while reading Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. I am sure you could say this of all countries, but the English experience is a unique one, especially once you leave the bigger cities and head out towards the eternally dying coastal towns and little villages. There’s a unique kind of misery involved when one stays in or visits these places. Being English, no one ever really voices this misery, you simply suffer in silence, and pray for some sort of escape, be that the coach or train that will take you away, or death. I’m not suggesting that you must be English to enjoy the book, because that is clearly not the case, but I think it will resonate most strongly with someone from these shores.
The Slaves of Solitude is set in Thames Lockdon during World War Two; and is centred around a boarding house, the Rosamund Tea Rooms, which is mostly populated by spinsterish old women. The central character is Miss Roach, a timid, self-questioning, and pretty fucking unhappy, thirty-something who is staying in Thames Lockdon, not as a holiday, but in order to avoid the full force of the war in the capital. She is, in a way, in hiding, or certainly in retreat; and that tension and unease, that sense of being somewhere that you really ought not to be, somewhere that is alien, hangs over the novel.
For me, Hamilton’s novel is the greatest representation of the drudgery of a mediocre existence in literature. Miss Roach goes for walks, occasionally, but the majority of her time is spent, when not at work, in the guest house, in silent conflict with her surroundings, the owner, and, most intensely, Mr. Thwaites. The self-important Thwaites is a masterpiece of cuntishness; he’s a bastard of epic proportions [the “president in Hell”], and he is, also, probably the single funniest character in any novel I have read. His M.O. is a kind of passive-aggressive [less passive, more aggressive] verbal bullying. Again, it’s a very English kind of bullying, whereby instead of openly declaring one’s dislike for something or someone, one will make sarcastic allusions and jibes while appearing, on the surface, to be merely engaging in debate or friendly conversation. Take, for example, this interaction between Thwaites and Miss Roach, where he is accusing her of Communist sympathies:
‘I said,’ he said, looking at her, ‘your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual.’
‘Who’re my friends?’ murmured Miss Roach.
‘Your Russian friends,’ said Mr Thwaites.
‘They’re not my friends,’ said Miss Roach, wrigglingly, intending to convey that although she was friendly with the Russians she was not more friendly than anyone else, and could not therefore be expected to take all the blame in the Rosamund Tea Rooms for their recent victories.
As this conversation progresses, Mr. Thwaites’ baiting of Miss Roach intensifies, and becomes somewhat surreal, as he explores the consequences of a Communist society:
‘The Coalman, no doubt, will see fit to give commands to the King,’ he said, ‘and the Navvy lord it gaily o’er the man of wealth. The banker will bow the knee to the crossing sweeper, I expect, and the millionaire take his wages from the passing tramp.’
‘At least,’ he said, looking straight at Miss Roach, ‘that’s what you want isn’t it?’
While Thwaites, for me, dominates the novel, and Miss Roach is a believable, psychologically sound, and sympathetic heroine, many of the minor [although all of them are minor in some way – that’s the point] characters are also finely drawn. Vicki Kugelman is appropriately slimy, and the American Lieutenant Pike is brash, without coming across as a caricature or stereotype. Then there is the lovely piece of writing, a short story almost, involving Mr. Prest and the time he spends away from the Tea Rooms. This episode includes one of my favourite lines in the book, where Hamilton describes how, when playing golf, Prest will only leave the course once he has hit the ball squarely off the face of the club four or five times:
Alone in the distance, lost in the wind, this obsessed figure, requiring, really, a Wordsworth to suggest the quality of its mystery and solitude.
On the prose, it is both a great strength and a minor weakness. Hamilton could really write. He could write in a way that very few authors can, with consistent insight and empathy and humour. The book is chock-full of quotable, grim lines, like when he says of Thwaites “He had further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad, where he had again always made his way to the small hotels”; open it at any page and you will likely turn up some gold. However, on occasions Hamilton overwrote, although not in the way that one would usually understand that term. He didn’t succumb to treacly poetics, but, rather, was too keen on exposition. There are points in the text, particularly during conversation, where Hamilton resorts to over-explaining the thoughts, motivations, etc, of his characters, when it is already abundantly clear what these thoughts, motivations, etc, are on the basis of what is being said [there is an especially aggravating dialogue between Miss Roach and Vicki about a third of the way through the book]. Of course, one could argue that it is intentional, that this over-analysis is meant to amplify the atmosphere of monotony; if so, it works, but I think it is being very charitable to make that argument.
In any case, The Slaves of Solitude is a fine novel; it is eminently readable, despite the slow pace and lack of explicit drama, and possesses a depth that belies the relatively small number of pages. It is dark, it is pretty much hopeless, but, for anyone who is lonely or who has spent significant time in the company of a bunch of tedious, close-minded people [we all know them] it is a strangely warming experience: that, that warmth, is the joy of seeing one’s own fears and small-scale miseries shared by others. You are not alone. Someone understands you. That is the great wonder of quality literature: you never need be completely alone.