Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is the ultimate novel about pubs- the places where many of us spend our twenties, watching people come and go. Based on the author’s own experiences, this trilogy- each novel told from a different character’s point of view- is the unhappy story of Bob, a young waiter in a pub off the Euston Road who falls for Jenny, a beautiful young prostitute, and of Ella, the barmaid who loves him stoically and in secret. Hamilton wrote the first novel in the trilogy when he was twenty-one; it was a huge success, but the final novel from Ella’s point of view, written when the author was twenty-eight, is the greater artistic achievement. Here is real London life- smoggy, penny-pinching, full of eccentric old men in pubs who just want some attention and whose mannerisms are heart-wrenchingly easy to recognise even as they subtly annoy the other damaged drinkers and the well-meaning staff. Hamilton knew every aspect of his story well; he liked a drink, he had terrible taste in women, and although the young man who wrote the first novel was already a huge hit (he had also written the popular play ‘Rope,’ at that age, which is still well known) there’s a pervasive melancholy about these novels that suggest he knew things weren’t going to end well, and that the best you could hope for would be a fleeting moment of contentment and happiness in the foggy, anonymous streets of a brutal, seductive and unapologetic city. It was made into a decent TV adaptation in 2005, which is how it first caught my attention. I have now read all of Hamilton's books and while some of them are better written and more mature, there's an energy and open-heartedness to these that work well in conjunction with the bitterness and booze that would eventually overwhelm him.