20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton is a missing link of sorts between the social comedies of H. G. Wells (Kipps, The History of Mr Polly) and Orwell’s stories of creatively-inclined working stiffs (Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air). I really enjoyed it. If you’ve not read Patrick Hamilton before, I’d recommend his Hangover Square first but 20,000 Streets is rather smashing as well.
It’s a “plight of the working class” kind of book, stylishly told and with a dash of dark humour. It’s a trilogy of novels in which the three central characters’ strands interact and intertwine.
Each character has eyed the potential for escape (a sum of promised money, the support of resourceful people) and each escape is gradually undermined or foiled. It’s humorous but very much on the side of the working class; the pathos of what Hamilton once or twice refers to as “social destiny.”
Towards the end, there’s a moment in which Hamilton talks about “wage-slaves” (the hyphen is his) in a more analytical tone than elsewhere in the book. The analysis has been present all the way through, but by the end he really goes for it and speaks more directly to us through the page.
One of our three characters, a barmaid called Ella, reports to a posh house in Chiswick after hearing there might be a job for her as a nanny. It’s still a job but it’s well paid and she’s always wanted to work with children; it would also take her to India, which she finds exciting. She sees the prospect as an escape. First though, she must get to the interview:
It is in nearly all cases impossible for servants, or wage-slaves of any kind, to seek happier conditions free of charge, and the heavy tax of eightpence (fourpence there and back) was exacted by the Underground railway on her way to N. W. 3.
I’ve had similar experiences of fury. When you don’t have a lot of money, it really stings to invest some of it in simply having a chance at finding work. Which, of course, you don’t really want anyway.
When she finds the house of her prospective employers, she is almost too frightened to go in:
She found Number Five but was now in such a state of fright that she had to walk on a little way to collect herself–an affliction of the nerves common to wage-slaves, with only their labour power to sell, and the consciousness and their insignificance and powerlessness before their aloof and comfortable masters.
And when she rings the bell, a maid comes to the door. A house maid, one might imagine, would share a sense of solidarity with a barmaid but instead she is suspicious of Ella’s presence on the doorstep:
Hidden rivalry and circumspection, rather than fellow-feeling, most often exists between wage-slaves such as these, possibly because their sensitiveness to the dangerous surplus of willing wage-slaves on the market, and possibly because certain fortunate wage-slaves come to acquire some of the aloof and clannish airs of their lords above.
The interview doesn’t go very well. In fact, the lady of the house is more interested in the antics of her dog (“Bustah! Bustah! Get down, Bustah!”) than taking the opportunity that had been dangled before Ella in any way seriously.
It is a book of great insight, I think, into the life of wage slaves. To the library! You know, when they reopen next month.