Thames Valley Blues

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Patrick Hamilton, now best known for his novel Hangover Square and the play Gaslight, was a troubled man who is often seen as the court poet of shabby alcoholics and wandering drunkards. He is, however, also the bard of a particular area west of London, that part of the Thames valley that extends from just beyond Slough to Reading, where his characters often go to seek refuge from the excesses of the city. This is a strange hinterland of pretty villages and small towns occupied largely by people who work in London, places that are eerily quiet during the week (apart from the air traffic from Heathrow, which of course Hamilton knew nothing about) and yet vitally attached to the metropolis. I know this area well because it’s where I grew up – a train ride away from London and yet irredeemably, parochially South Bucks.

Hamilton’s bitter-sweet wartime novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947) expresses the semi-detached insularity of these places better than any other book I know. The fictional town in which the book is set, Thames Lockdon – how close that word is to ‘lockdown’ – is based on Henley, the quintessential Thames valley river town. It is a measure of the slow pace of progress in such a place that Hamilton cites as the most glamorous local nightclub Skindles in Maidenhead, a real-life venue also beloved of Evelyn Waugh that was still open and alluring in the mid-1980s when I attended a twelfth birthday party there. Hamilton’s heroine Enid Roach, a 39-year-old spinster always known as Miss Roach, has moved to Thames Lockdon to avoid the Blitz, but she travels back to her publishing job in London every day. The opening passage of the book expresses beautifully and brutally the interdependence of city and suburb, and makes clear Miss Roach’s
plight:

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

You would think that Thames Lockdon would represent an escape, and Hamilton does present its prettiness, the beauty of its surrounding countryside and

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About the contributor

Chris Saunders is managing director of the antiquarian bookseller Henry Sotheran Ltd. He also writes and runs his own blog, SpeaksVolumes.

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