Thursday, 16 June 2011

Let's Drink to Patrick Hamilton

It's not often I can bring myself to read the Grauniad, let alone quote a chunk of it, but the following piece is a must, even if it is from 2007. Patrick Hamilton is one of our most wonderful and original writers and playwrights and if you haven't yet, you really must give him a try.

I'm off on holiday soon and at least a couple of Mr Hamilton's novels will be accompanying me. I can also recommend the wonderful BBC adaptation of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky if you want to watch some excellent drama set in 1930's London. Here we go:
The long-neglected author of some of mid-century English fiction's most striking fiction, is finally coming back into favour - and print.
I've been trying to banish the cheesy image of Nigel Havers from my head since being given a preview copy of the soon-to-be-reissued Gorse trilogy by Patrick Hamilton.
The first two of the three books - West Pier (1952), Mr Stimson and Mr Gorse (1953) and Unknown Assailant (1955) - were screened by ITV in 1987 as The Charmer, which many may remember Havers in full "Alan of all trades" sports casual mode cast as the villainous seducer of wealthy spinsters sent to the gallows (Havers seems to follow bad literary adaptations around - see what he did to Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy).

Yet we cannot afford to scoff too much. Graham Greene, who we can all agree might be considered something of an expert on the seaside resort's underbelly, hailed West Pier as "the best book written about Brighton" (if only he'd lived to read Sugar Rush). The Black Spring Press edition brings the three books together in one volume and the cover image of the choppy waters on the seafront and the peeling paint of iron railings more than hints at the malevolence, perversion and avarice contained within.

The reissue of the Gorse trilogy - the last set of novels from Hamilton's estimable pen before his drink-induced death in 1962 - marks the completion of the recently rediscovered author's back catalogue in print. Secondhand copies of the Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of Slaves of Solitude still sell on Amazon for upwards of £100, even though it was only published in 1999 (there's probably several in Oxfam shops around the country whose staff are unaware of its worth), before Constable and Robinson put those without wads of cash to spare out of their misery last year by reissuing it.

The Hamilton back catalogue forms an odd assortment, with Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky (recently adapted for BBC4) out in Vintage Classics and Hangover Square still doing well as a Penguin Modern Classic, while Impromptu in Moribundia, his most explicitly political work as a declared Marxist, can also be found on a small press.

Ignore Nick Hornby's banal comment about Hamilton being the missing piece of motorway between Dickens and Martin Amis, Hamilton's worth is proven by the devoted legions of fans among younger authors such as Dan Rhodes and Niven Govinden and those who pack out rooms above pubs in Soho at nights organised by the Sohemian Society.

While the Gorse trilogy is not exactly Hamilton's magnum opus (especially the drink-soaked Unknown Assailant), it does demonstrate his handy knack for both literature and drama and we can all raise a glass to its reissue, something I fear the man "who needed whisky like a car needed petrol" and died of multiple organ failure would approve no doubt.
The original article on the Guardian's Books Blog.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Book Review: Red to Black by Alex Dryden

If you like your spy stories a la James Bond, with lots of martinis, gizmos and explosions from the off then you will have to be patient with Red to Black, it's much more le Carre than Fleming. It is a slow build up but all the better for it, this is a real must read.

The Soviet Union is gone, Putin is in power and Russian oligarchs are seemingly buying up the world in a capitalist orgy of conspicuous consumption. But is all as it seems? Has Russia embraced the freedom and democracy that people fought to replace the totalitarian terror of the USSR with?

The book is set today with Europe obsessing about itself as it slowly stews within the incompetenc and complacency of the European Union. But Europe can't see what is so plain to the rest of the of the world, it is blinded to reality by its self-obsession. Is the Cold War really over, or is it just by-passing Europe now?

Anna and Finn are spies from opposite sides who come together in a thoroughly realistic and credible working and personal relationship around which the terrifying tale unfolds. Throughout the 501 pages Alex Dryden entertains, teases and at times terrifies with a style that sometimes resembles a historical account of the Putin years. Many times I had to remind myself that the book is a powerful tale of fiction and not a warning. Or is it?