Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton is hands down the best book I’ve read this year, and I’m really sad that it has taken me so long to read it. Wasted years.
It’s actually a trilogy of short stories all revolving around a pub called The Midnight Bell and, spoiler alert, it’s really bleak. Anyone who has read this blog and monitored my reading habits will roll their eyes to hear that the first story in the trilogy was published in 1929, when Patrick was just 24. Two more stories followed in 1932 and 1934 and here they’re all bundled together – you’d never guess they weren’t originally published as one story – the mood and tone just flows so perfectly.
This is, perhaps, because it’s basically Patrick’s own story. The trilogy follows barman Bob, pub waitress Ella and ~~lady of the night~~ Jenny and while Patrick might not have been a barman, he was hopelessly in love with a prostitute and spent a lot of time loitering in Fiztrovia pubs observing life’s comings and goings – and getting his heart broken.
I’m not sure if it’s because I used to live in that area – and work in a pub there – but after about ten pages I became obsessed with the idea of a film adaptation of the books. My potential screenwriting career didn’t get very far though, because the BBC beat me to it. The TV adaptation was broadcast in 2005 with Bryan Dick as barman Bob, the beautiful Zoe Tapper as Jenny and Sally Hawkins as Ella.
I really urge you to read the book but you should also watch the adaptation beacause it’s absolutely brilliant and completely true to the original. By which I mean, again, it’s really bleak. On the plus side, the clothes are dead good – so here they are.
(First things first – the TV adaptation sees one of my favourite London pubs, The Yorkshire Grey, stand in for The Midnight Bell. Check it out above – and the beautiful Grange Langham Court opposite.)
Ella is my least favourite of the three characters because the tragic elements of her story feel a bit more her own fault, although I guess it’s down to her insecurities more than anything else. She’s played by Sally Hawkins in the adaptation which caused a bit of grumbling online – Ella is supposed to be quite unattractive; you understand why she has reached her late 20s and is single and sorry for herself, whereas Sally is obviously quite attractive. Here she is dolling herself up in the opening scenes, ready for a day in the bar.
But wait, what’s this? We pan out to see she has a glossy black bob. I didn’t really have Ella down as a flapper, despite the era. The fact she’s a bit dowdy and uncool definitely didn’t lead me to expect this snazzy hair, so interesting move BBC. All we get from the book is that she has short hair – “her hair was dark, and, to be ‘in fashion’, she had it shingled” – and that her regulars at the bar berate her for it. I kind of imagined her to have more of a frizzy helmet like this than something so sleek.
Pleased to see, however, that they hadn’t fallen down the Gatsby route of making her an all-caps FLAPPER with pearls and fringing and all that jazz. She’s wearing a lovely, non-fussy, 1930s dress with a relatively dowdy print and girlish lace collar. This is quite clearly not a sexy outfit, which I guess helps to mask some of Sally’s natural prettiness and make her more Ella-ish.
Uh-oh, it’s creepy Mr Eccles! I’m not going to spoiler this little plot device, but this dress that Ella wears on their visit to Lyons is another pretty, serviceable number…
… as is this one she wears on another visit. It’s almost tragic how girlish all of these dresses are – Ella’s a grown woman and all she wears is overgrown toddler outfits, all with lace collars and floppy bows. OH ELLA. I like the fact she’s wearing the same hat though; she’s supposed to be a fairly broke barmaid in a backstreet pub and yet she’s in a different dress every day. And it’s not like she’s the kind of gal who’s frivolous with her spending. Maybe she just invests in classic pieces like hats and coats and fills in the gaps with cheap and cheerful bits. Am I overthinking this?
Here’s Jenny before she goes off the rails. How presentable! Not too into her hat and weird collar coat, but that’s a personal thing – she certainly looks like a respectable 1920s young woman who doesn’t have a drink problem, doesn’t she? If I was the lovely old ladies who hired her as a maid, I’d be just as delighted as them with her cheery presence.
Life going wrong for Jenny step one; waking up in a strange man’s house. Still, she’s still in her old gear and looks quite at home and presentable in her red paisley dress – that sailor bow collar almost looks like something Ella would wear. See also (except you can’t in this picture, soz) her big drapey cardigan.
Fast forward a few months and Jenny is now working on the streets in London. On one of her first dates with Bob she wears this dead nice optical print snug-fitting jumper and a little hat. Note the difference in hair colour; peroxide = fallen woman, that’s how telly works.
Here’s Jenny and one of her mates winding up Bob in the pub. I am crazy about this outfit, which looks like something I’d like to wear right now; the tight-fitting gold top, the giant bracelets, the wavy blonde bob, the sulky face. Also into her mate’s pink dress and hat combo – exactly what I want to be wearing right now, as per my previous post.
I have less of a hard time with Jenny’s multiple outfits, fur coats and fancy hats; she often refers to clients buying her nice outfits so there’s none of the mystery of Ella’s giant wardrobe. This hat in particular is a dream, isn’t it? I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a bunch of grapes or what but it’s suitably attention-seeking regardless.
Bloody love Zoe Tapper as a bombshell blonde – here she is with natural hair. Babely, sure, but not such a knockout as with the peroxide barnet.
Sorry for the lack of focus on Bob; my lack of interest in menswear even extends to 1930s stuff.
Have you read Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky? Have you watched the TV series? I’d love to know your thoughts if so, my @furcoat bookclub might only exist online for now, but I’m all for discussion.