I’ve been worrying about George Harvey Bone more than half my life now. What is it about him? He, the lead character of Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square, recalled by an old schoolfriend as a ‘tall, shambling, ungainly, shy, haunting, readily affectionate figure’; ‘a noticeably uncruel boy in that cruel and resounding atmosphere’.
Of course he’s lonely. At one point we’re even told ‘He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded.’ He is, largely, alone. On earth. We learn this in the opening pages – where he’s, briefly, spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton. But, as Olivia Laing puts it so well in The Lonely City, aloneness is not the same as loneliness:
Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others.
Above all, it seems, what George Harvey Bone experiences is this lack – and this he transmutes into an unbearable crush: unbearable for us, at times, to witness. Unbearable, in the end, for him to endure.
Why had he taken a taxi! Why did he get into ‘states’ like this? He had suddenly got into a state of panic because he had thought Netta might not be in her flat, and he couldn’t wait to find out, couldn’t stand a train with a change. But what did it matter if Netta wasn’t in her flat? There was tomorrow, there was the day after….
‘a train with a change’
How I appreciate that ‘train with a change’. What anxious person wouldn’t? What’s more, George Harvey Bone’s ‘bouts’ of hope are almost more painful than the times of grinding hurt and disappointment. (Remember that classic line from the 1986 film Clockwise? ‘It’s not the despair… I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!’)
The hope that things may work out for him, in ‘love’; or, more, that he may outrun its clutches. The hope he may discover he is a good person after all – and thus, entitled to be happy.
He walked alone along the Downs, this sad, ungainly man with beer-shot eyes who loved a girl in Earl’s Court – carrying an old bag of borrowed clubs and thinking of nothing but his game of golf. His face shone, his eyes gleamed, and he felt, deep in his being that he was not a bad man, as he had thought he was a few hours ago, but a good one…
Our hearts go out to him. Though little can this help. From the moment we meet Netta Longdon we’re in no doubt about George’s chances. Nor even, really, is he. Except at the very start – when he fantasises she could just be his ‘fireside girl’. The fact is George is in the grip of a fierce compulsion – self-loathing caving in time and again to panic…
‘he had been happy’
So what is Patrick Hamilton’s purpose in committing his fundamentally decent, lovable but isolated George – ‘the uncruel young man into which this uncruel boy had grown’ – to such a cycle of destruction? Is the ‘story’ that George Harvey Bone is so alone, lost so much too young, that his loneliness now defines him? The symbol of ‘Maidenhead’ – yearned-for idyll; ‘he had been happy there with his sister Ellen’ – hanging over all this.
Set – and quite possibly written – in 1939, Hangover Square also depicts a generation that has endured one World War, is about to be plunged into another. Is there a point in trauma beyond which there is no real, internal hope? Despite a character’s flights of self-delusion? Is, in fact, distrust poor George’s biggest problem? Distrust in life; distrust in his capacity to cope with it?
And the clearly safely-futile crush, and consequential endless rounds of booze and pubs, actually quite an ingenious solution – to kill his time, mop up his wasted spools of energy? To ensure there is no chance of him, in fact, engaging. Nor risking further devastation.
Doesn’t it represent, instead, just, pure anxious energy? Poor George, poor George… ‘He could be terrified now,’ one passage starts, referring to the thing he actually really does, urgently now, need to attend to – his growing spells of disassociation;
he could let himself be terrified – but the thing had been happening so often recently that it had lost its terrors, and he had too many other worries. He had Netta to worry about. That was one thing about Netta – you couldn’t worry about much else.
‘playing the piano’
Every time I read the novel, I want to repair these things. See George find the peace he needs. The kindness. Far away from his fascistic circle.
We see many times within the book that that’s the missing element: kindness. For instance, when he’s run into his old friend Johnnie, and together they reminisce about George’s only great friend, Bob Barton:
‘I know I miss him,’ said George, in that naive, frank tone of his, ‘terribly.’
‘Oh, so do I,’ said Johnnie, but it occurred to him that he probably did not miss Bob in the same way as George, or to anything like the same extent…
Or in his dealings with the white cat who lives in the hotel with him. There’s a repeated image of the cat’s sharpening its claws as like ‘playing the piano’. This is so original and endearing and resonant, and it comes straight from George’s own imagination:
…This purring, this surrender of its being to a rhythmic and externally audible throbbing, in its turn seemed to induce in the cat a sort of frenzy, a frenzy manifesting itself mainly in its front paws, which, in an agony of restless pleasure, stretched and relaxed, the right paw stretching while the left relaxed, and the other way about, in eager alternation. George called this ‘playing the piano’.
For me, these interludes with the cat sit in vital contrast to all that’s cruel inside this perfect book – of which there’s plenty. Including of course real violence.
Let’s just leave George here, then, for now. Where he belongs? Safe. Resting. And at least enjoying an image of resonance…
He lifted up the bedclothes so that the cat could come in. The cat, hesitating, came half in, and began to paddle and purr.
‘Come on, pussy,’ he said. ‘Stop playing the piano and go to sleep.’
But the cat went on paddling and purring and he still had to keep the bedclothes held open for it.
Finally the cat dived down under, and turned round laboriously, and went on purring, but stopped paddling.
‘Come on. Let’s go to sleep, pussy,’ he said.
The cat purred, and he began to breathe heavily…
Pink packets of silver pins, bottles of gin, pound notes, golf clubs, Netta, his ‘dead’ moods, cloak-room tickets, Paddington… It was all too much for him.
The cat, warm against his side, suddenly stopped purring and slept. The warmth of the cat beat up against his side, beat up against the pins and the pound notes, and George Harvey Bone slept too.