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Hangover Square


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Recently reprinted in Penguin Classics, Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square was first published in 1941 and is set London just before the outbreak of WW2. It is a strangely compelling story of a schizoid alcoholic, George Harvey Bone, who is obsessed with Netta Longdon, a beautiful but heartless bitch of a girl. To say that she leads him a dance would be an understatement. There's nothing new about the setting (Earls Court, Fitzroy Square, Brighton) or the theme ('La Belle Dame Sans Merci' + tragic consequences).


The joy of the book lies in the reader following the progress of Bone in his doomed quest to win the heart of this worthless trollop Netta. Time after time he vows to kill her and her sybaritic lover Peter, only to find some reason for sparing her, for submitting to fresh humiliations from the scheming out-of-work useless actress, who lives off wealthy or even less wealthy clients. Bone is a sucker and falls for her schemes every time. He is in fact a serial loser, a lonely under-achieving alcoholic who lives half his life in a fantasy world. Yet Hamilton makes us come to love him and correspondingly hate Netta, even while we are fascinated by their one-way relationship.


The desperately escapist but menacing atmosphere of pre-war London is delicately maintained throughout as Bone drifts alone from pub to pub, dreaming of his next possible glimpse of the girl. In the pubs he is only happy when in the company of Netta's empty pleasure-seeking crowd, hearing her voice or even her name. Here is Peter, the unworthy lover, bragging to the idle crowd, while Bone simply takes it on the chin, all 'for Netta's sake.'


'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 . . . '


He sat there, smoking and drinking with them, and saying not a word. He was frozen inside. So it was all coming out now - it was all coming out! Jail-birds and proud of it. No doubt it would soon transpire that Netta was a shop-lifter. Never mind. He could take it. He was frozen inside.

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  • 10 months later...

As nonsuch has written, this novel is 'strangely compelling'.


While at times I was muttering to myself 'George Harvey Bone, you are a fool, get over her' I was drawn to him as a character. Towards the end, in a particular scene in Brighton, I was quite touched on his behalf when an old pal introduces him to some male acquaintances who are unanimous in their condemnation of the terrible Netta and are, to George's surprise, 'nice' to him. This niceness reduces him to tears. He's not used to it.


I liked this line:"To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas-fire in Earl's Court".

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  • 11 years later...

There's a modern term that's used to describe men who pander and flatter women in the hopes that they'll be rewarded with love, sex, attention. Simp! And this book is about the king of the Simps -- George Harvey Bone. He is in love with the beautiful Netta and hangs around with her and her set, drinking at all hours and avoiding employment of any kind. He confesses his love for her but she continues to use him for his money and, later, for his connections. One of her hangers-on is Peter, a spiv character who is just as keen to take advantage of George as she is.

I honestly found myself despising Netta quite viscerally but also George too, his unwillingness to grown a spine despite being treated like a doormat something that infuriated me. The book reminded of the Tunnel by Sabato but whereas the paranoia of that book's male protagonist could be interpreted as self-inflicted, there is no ambiguity about George's feeling of humiliation and poor treatment. Netta is, quite explicitly, a bitch. She has a past working as an actress and has aspirations to get back into that world but otherwise she is, like the men she consorts with, a self-interested alcoholic. And George is nothing more than a means to an end for her.

And here's where things get complicated because George, also a big drinker, suffers from a unique mental illness. I would describe it as a dissociative personality disorder but it's all a little vague. Essentially, it involves George going into a kind of dream state where an alternative version of himself is in control of his thoughts and actions. When George clicks in and out of these personalities, he remembers very little of what has happened. The whole thing is very effectively done by Hamilton and you get the impression that George is just one person but has two states of being.

The book also takes place just as the 2nd World War is about to begin and I found it fascinating seeing these young people presented in a manner that was very familiar to me. When I think of that period, I think of straight-laced individuals wearing starched clothing and doing their bit for the war effort. But obviously, young people were just the same as they've always been; keen to get drunk, have fun, and avoid work. That the book was published in 1941 at the height of the war is also interesting as Hamilton essentially takes it for granted that fascism will lose.

This was a great book. And very uniquely British.



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