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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Why is Alan Dein so good at getting his interview subjects to talk?

The presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Aftermath never traps or exhausts his subjects – he just gets them to open up.

“I like to feel like I’m a conduit, an enabler – does that sound soppy?” After listening to a couple of episodes of his exceptional new series, Aftermath (23 January, 8pm), I wanted, not for the first time, to know what drives the oral historian Alan Dein to keep making the sorts of radio programmes that he has made for the past 20 years. These include the award-winning Lives in a Landscape and Don’t Hang Up – ostensibly uncomplicated exchanges with people going about their daily lives, sometimes revealing very little, sometimes more than you can bear. (Landmark radio initiatives such as The Listening Project owe a great deal to Dein.)

In Don’t Hang Up recently, a woman mentioned that her grandmother had flown herself across Africa in a biplane in the 1930s. Dein always seems to have the same sort of response to any such information: lightly intrigued sympathy, shot through with an implacability, like a ship’s figurehead battling into the elements.

In Aftermath, he explores what happens to a community after it has been at the centre of a nationally significant event: Hungerford; Hyde in Manchester, post-Shipman; Morecambe Bay. Some of the most memorable parts of the first programme involve Dein simply driving around the streets of Hungerford with a resident. As the car’s indicator softly clicks, the interviewee points out the plethora of yew trees in that pretty Berkshire town. A great place to make cricket bats, the man thinks out loud, as Dein unhurriedly steers the conversation back in the vague direction of the shootings.

Dein never seems to set traps for his interlocutors, never exhausts them. And yet unhealed wounds are frequently bled. Has he always been good at getting people to talk? He tells me that when his dad took him as a kid to watch Arsenal play in the 1970s, he found he was always more interested in the crowd than in the match, in “looking at faces and wondering about how they spoke to each other”. He says that one question guaranteed to get someone talking is, “Why do you live where you do?” All things will unfurl from this: personal circumstances, family history, work. Communicated in that quintessentially undramatic Dein way, like puddles gently drying in a courtyard.

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era