Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Welcome to the Midnight Bell

'At five o'clock in the afternoon, when the turbulent and desperate traffic, coursing through the veins of the West End, announces the climax of London's daily fever, a thing occurs in Oxford Street, which, though unknown to the great majority, and barely perceptible by the senses of anyone in that overwhelming noise, is all the same of great ulterior significance. The bolts on the inner sides of the doors of the public-houses are slid back, and any member of the public is at liberty to enter and drink.'

The opening to The Plains of Cement, the final part of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, reminded me of the old pub hours, before Tony Blair's drinking revolution. The establishment at the centre of Patrick Hamilton's early 1930s trilogy, the Midnight Bell, lies 'in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street… A student of the streets, conceiving "The Midnight Bell" as the nucleus of a London zone less than half a mile in diameter, could not have failed to have been impressed by the stupendous variety of humanity huddled within the region thus isolated by the mind's eye. The respectable, residential precincts of Regent's Park, the barracks and lodging-houses of Albany Street, the grim senility of Munster Square, the commercial fury of the Euston and Tottenham Court Roads, the criminal patches and Belgian penury of Charlotte and Whitfield Streets, that vast palace of pain known as the Middlesex Hospital, the motor-salesman's paradise in Great Portland Street, the august solemnity of Portland Place itself - all these would crowd upon each other in the microcosm thus discriminated - a microcosm well-nigh as incongruous and grotesque as any searcher might be able to alight upon in the endless plains of cement at his disposal.' It's an area I wander often in search of a pub.

The rich world of Hamilton's characters - barmaid Ella, her colleague Bob and prostitute Jenny - is split between the Saloon and Lounge bars, a distinction that could have perhaps been revived when so many pubs turned themselves over to serving food, leaving little space to sit and have a comfortable drink.

Jenny accepts the fateful glass of port that leads to her downfall at the King's Head in Hammersmith. She is due to start work in Chiswick but wakes up on her first day (im)proper in the flat of a strange man in Richmond. It takes her a while to find her bearings as he drives them to his work in Chiswick: 'At the top he turned to the right, and they were going down hill. She at once knew where she was. They were on the steep road leading from Richmond Park down into the town.' I live nearby.

Meanwhile, in one of my favourite lines in the book, Ella is pursued by an ageing regular with a wonky tooth. She goes to visit her Aunt Winnie in Clapham for advice but her relative is distracted by plans to place her niece as a nursemaid in India: 'There is nothing in the world so confusing, so vexing, and perplexing as having tea with an Aunt who is convinced in all her senses that one is going to India, whereas one knows in actual fact that one is engaged to be married to a man in Chiswick…'

I was inspired to read Twenty Thousand Streets... by this post from the outstanding Caustic Cover Critic. The book was adapted for BBCs 2 and 4 in 2005 with Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Made in Dagenham) as Ella. A social history of the pub might make a good TV series if there hasn't already been one, and where better to start the new year? Cheers!

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