Hunting for happiness

Patrick Hamilton is honoured with a blue plaque.

The novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton, who died in 1962 aged 58, was commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque last Saturday, installed at his birthplace in Chiswick. Best known for Hangover Square and the play Rope, later adapted for the cinema by Alfred Hitchcock, Hamilton is nevertheless largely overlooked, for many years shoved to the margins of the established literary canon.

Yet Hamilton wrote masterfully about London's "shabby genteel" in the inter-war years - depicting the quietly desperate, doomed lives of alcoholics and whores in grimy corners of the city, where greed and manipulation are masked by a drink-soaked camaraderie.

Hamilton had an ambiguous view of the city he so often depicted, a complicated mixture of fascination and repulsion. Late in life, he observed in his unfinished novel The Happy Hunting Ground that "London's a place where you're forever hunting for happiness - and even if you find it it's soon taken away from you".

The plaque at least offers a permanent memorial for a writer so preoccupied with unnoticed lives slipping away into a kind of terminal misery and whose own life, before his early death, was somewhat shambolic.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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