First-Page Review: Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Patrick Hamilton, as many contemporary readers and reviewers are discovering, was a hugely under-appreciated writer during his own lifetime. The Guardian even went so far as to say that Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky was an ‘Authentic Lost Classic’, and the world-renowned author Doris Lessing once wrote that ‘Hamilton was a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected’.

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Composed of three seperate, and yet inexorably linked, semi-autobiographical novels, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky is regarded as one of Hamilton’s finest works.

When I picked up my very own copy of Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, I was unaware of the ‘hubbub’, if you will, that has arisen around Hamilton in recent years. I read the back, thought it might be interesting and then read the first page of the narrative proper, skipping past the introduction written by Michael Holroyd – a bad habit of mine I seem unable to shake in bookstores.

Of course, I immediately had some inkling as to Hamilton’s reputation, as the above quote by Lessing is written above the blurb on the back page, but, still, it was the first page that convinced me to buy the book. It didn’t leap out and grab me, like so many authors attempt to do, but it seemed that it slipped from between the pages and coiled around my hands, that it crept up my sleeves and, somewhere along my arm, burrowed into me like the memory of a Dystopian dream. I knew, right from the start, that this would be a novel I would enjoy reading, even if I had no reaction to the characters.

Sleeping, just before five, on a dark October’s afternoon, he had a singularly vivid and audible dream.’ Immediately I was attracted to the style, to the retrospective language and tone – I reasoned that this first sentence was poetry without the form. Even so, I find it difficult to explain what attraction, exactly, this sentence so possesses that I was already convinced I was going to purchase the novel; I was hooked, but in a subtle way.

Perhaps it is, simply, that adjectives have fallen out of favour with many writers; particularly those who follow the Hemmingway method – either the writer’s or that of the repulsive little App, which is designed to remove originality, style and attitude from any sentence in its desire to include everyone’s reading capabilities into a text. Hamilton was writing at a time when literature was still, ostensibly, an inclusive kind of community. The simplicity of a text to read did not hold domination over the style or the language of its composition.

A strong wind was blowing, buffeting his ears, roaring over the green waves, and rendering utterly silent and unreal the land he had just left.’ A dream of the ocean takes pride of place on this page, a dream which is summarily crushed down into an urban scene; immediately we know the character has some experience with the ocean and that he is of the literary persuasion, whatever his current circumstance.

He awoke, with jarring abruptness, into the obliterating darkness of his own room.’ – Once again, we have an incredibly simple situation; a man wakes up in London, even if we are, as of yet, unaware of where the ‘obliterating darkness of his room is located’. It is not a huge event but, thanks to Hamilton’s style, it could rival the sacking of Troy or the assassination of an Arch-Duke in the early twentieth century.

My favourite sentence, however, of Hamilton’s incredible first-page, is the second to last of this print – ‘His dream sickness was a waking sickness.’ – It seems, to me, to suggest an incurable sensation of entrapment; he cannot escape into his dreams to avoid his life, the world, the society, within which he finds himself embedded can strike at him even through the filtration of his wakefulness.

In conclusion, Patrick Hamilton was, inarguably, a staggeringly talented writer; I am only sorry that I haven’t read him earlier and I am already picking out other novels of his to read.

Ramblings On… My Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about political fiction recently. I have read 1984 and Brave New World too many times to effectively count, but recently I’ve been feeling like they, perhaps, aren’t as relevant as I considered them to be, even so recent as a year ago. I feel, particularly with the rise of Ukip and the Greens and the ideas Russell Brand has been shouting about on every television channel, that politics is no longer a war between conservatism and liberalism, between the proletariat and the bourgeois, but between the apathetic and the fervent.

A year ago, if asked, I might have said that I was a firm supporter of Labour – to my mind, it wasn’t so much a matter of supporting Labour but, instead, a matter of opposing every other party. Even then, as I’ve seen people flock from Labour to Ukip or other parties, I’ve rapidly become somewhat disenfranchised with a political system that doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m not saying don’t vote, of course not, I will no doubt end up voting – but I don’t actually support any party anymore. Continue reading “Ramblings On… My Politics”

Ramblings On: Will Varley’s Sketch of a Last Day

An apathetic romance, dedicated to the lamentation of modern ‘culture’.

If one of the great artists of the past, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, or any creator you would care to name, was tasked with creating a small work of art, one to fit in the pocket, to raise the spirits of anyone who would desire it to do so and, after they had accepted, given only a small canvas, a brush and one tube of slate-grey paint, then they would have produced the canvas-based version to this text.

Sketch of a Last Day is almost unique in that, whilst forcing you to read on through the apathetic misery of the protagonist, you know that there can be no happy ending here. Much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or even Orwell’s 1984, the sheer soul-crushing hopelessness of the narrative, of the stylised prose, is like a noose around your neck, dropping you deeper and deeper into the text, until it draws tight and, suddenly, the narrative is at an end.

Though it certainly fits into that execrably connoted format as the ‘Novella’, it is impossible to imagine it in any other way. A longer piece would drag, the horror of the dull world which Varley has created would suck any life out of the reader, and a shorter piece would fail to show of the talent, the unique mind of the writer to address a modern-dystopia.

For Dystopian fiction is certainly the shelf amongst which this title must be placed. There are events which, in any other work, would drive the protagonist, (if such a term can even be applied to the main character of this text), insane with grief, with anger or tortured sensibilities, apathy is the only product of the text. This technique continues to the reader with, even myself, failing to react to even the most horrific of ideas Varley has put forward as fact.

It says, unhidden and in a manner lacking in pretension, that ‘This is how the world is. This is how our culture will soon be’ and, though I might try, I cannot find it within myself to react in any way, save for agreement. The narrative should be shocking, the narrative should leave the reader disgusted and angry but, in fact, it leaves me empty. It leaves me with nothing more than a grey brush and a blank canvas, staring into the thick material, hoping for some answer, for some mystical saviour to leap out of the frame.

I cannot be certain that simple, experimental entertainment is not Varley’s driving force behind this text, but all the evidence I can see disagrees with this purpose. Instead, Sketch appears to be a product of compulsion, of modern misery and horror and an insight into modern culture which would put someone with a sociology degree to shame.

Varley is, as I am sure many of you are aware, less a singer/songwriter than a poet, and it is easy to see the crossover between these two in the text. The phrase ‘Advert Soundtracks’, the title of his first album, crops up here and there but, even where I lacking this knowledge, the imagery he creates, and stylised form of the text, firmly set this novella up as almost lyrical prose, absent in eventual meaning and lacking in joyful resolution.

It’s a goddamn masterpiece.

Sketch of a Last Day is available both in print and on eBook