The Plains of Cement by Patrick Hamilton

Tags:  general-fiction, favorite-fiction,

The Plains of Cement is the third and final book in Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky collection, which follows three down-and-out characters through the streets of London in the fall and early winter of 1929.

Book one, The Midnight Bell, follows the waiter, Bob, as he falls in love with prostitute Jenny Maples. Book two, The Siege of Pleasure, picks up with Jennie’s story just days after book one leaves off. Most of it is a flashback to events three years earlier that led Jennie into prostitution.

Book three follows Bob’s coworker, the barmaid Ella Dawson, who is quietly in love with Bob. Ella’s defining characteristics seem to be her plainness and lack of personality. At twenty-eight, she’s never had a boyfriend, or even a date. She banters with the drunks she serves, but doesn’t ever seem to have anything original to say.

Imagine her surprise, then, when one of the pub’s semi-regular customers, Mr. Ernest Eccles, clumsily invites her out to a West End play. Eccles, in his mid-fifties, is more than twenty years her senior. He has money but no sense. He’s clueless, self-important, self-absorbed and condescending.

Their seemingly endless first date–which includes a play, tea, dinner and several walks–has to be one of the most awkward in history. Ella, flattered to have finally been noticed by someone and too inexperienced to know how awful this date really is, tries her best to be accommodating to the bumbling, arrogant, self-centered Eccles, who desperately needs someone to tell him he’s an idiot.

Seven hours into the date, the infinitely patient Ella begins to wonder:

[W]hy should he have pounced upon her, of all the millions of other girls in London, as the unique object of his interest? And what staying power he had! If he only knew how tired she was. He must be nearly twice her age, and yet he had theatred, and walked and dined her off her feet, and was now as cheerful and resilient as a two-year-old.

A third of the way into the book, I thought this was going to be the weakest of the trilogy. A writer can get a lot of comic mileage out of a pompous fool whose accommodating sidekick eggs him on simply by not telling him to shut up. But it is awkward, and it is tiring, and like Ella herself, the reader has had more than enough of it by the end of the date.

The insufferable Eccles continues to press his clumsy courtship, and Ella goes along, wavering all the time between trying to convince herself that he’s not so bad and trying to figure out how to end it politely. Ella really doesn’t have much of a personality or much of self until Eccles' badgering forces her to develop both.

People don’t develop until they’re challenged, and challenges are almost always uncomfortable. For many, the first positive steps toward establishing an identity come from saying NO to the identity others try to foist on them.

Much of the discomfort of the first third of the book comes from Ella being too kind, too sympathetic, too accommodating to say no to a man no one else would tolerate. When Eccles leads her into a dark corner of Regent’s Park for their first kiss, she finds herself “feeling like someone just about to have a tooth drawn and bracing herself to go through with it.”

The pleasure of the last two thirds of the book lies in watching Ella develop a backbone, learning to assert herself and say no while still being kind, sympathetic and good-hearted. As Ella begins to get her first and only suitor in perspective, the reader fears less for her impressionable innocence and has the pleasure of seeing Eccles through her more awakened eyes.

On one date, after Ella reveals that her step-father may be dying, Eccles is “duly solemn for about two minutes concerning her relative’s illness” before turning the conversation back to his favorite topic, himself.

He had been going on for a long while about one of his Funny Little Habits. She was stalely familiar with the Funny Little Habits Series, the discussion of each Funny Little Habit forming, as it were, exercises in the Short Elementary Course in Eccelsry he was giving her. There was his Funny Little Habit of Getting His Own Way, there was his Funny Little Habit of Speaking the Truth, there was his Funny Little Habit of Returning other people’s rudeness with Interest; there were his Funny Little Habits of Summing People up on the Quiet, of Making Decisions Quickly, of Knowing his Own Mind, of Gently but Firmly putting others in their Place, of not Saying much but thinking a Lot, and so on indefinitely.

Over time, Ella realizes to her chagrin that if Eccles didn’t have money, she wouldn’t tolerate him at all. What does that say about her, she wonders? Is she such a gold-digger?

She works a hard job, six days a week, lives in a solitary room above a pub, has no education, no savings, and no prospect for a better life. In that, her lot is similar to those of Bob and Jennie. Is it truly a moral failing to want to escape the hopeless grind of a desperately grim existence? To pin your hopes on something when the alternative is nothing?

Poverty is a central theme in all three books of Hamilton’s trilogy, as is the toxic effect of social class disparity in romantic relationships. Both Ella and Eccles are acutely conscious of the power imbalance between them. Their daily concerns are miles apart. Ella can’t plan more than a week into the future because she doesn’t have the means to guarantee a future beyond that horizon. While she focuses on mere survival, counting every penny of her meager earnings and denying herself even the smallest indulgence, Eccles rages when his servant is a few minutes late with lunch.

How can two people like this ever see eye to eye? They’re not of the same world.

The preoccupation with survival turns even those at the bottom of London’s economy against each other, as they’re all fighting for the same few scraps. When Ella goes to a wealthy neighborhood to interview for a position as nanny, she feels profoundly insecure, out of her element, wondering what kind of impression she’ll make. She rings the bell of the wealthy house, and waits for someone to answer.

A silent, beastly moment if ever there was one, and not much improved by the opening of the door–this by a fellow wage-slave, dressed in the neat insignia of wage-slavery, a cap and apron, but not very friendly or understanding in her manners. Hidden rivalry and circumspection, rather than fellow-feeling, most often exists between wage-slave and wage-slave in circumstances such as these, possibly because of 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.

While The Plains of Cement isn’t a coming-of-age story, it is one of subtle awakening and exceptionally well-drawn character development. It’s Ella, not Eccles, who says little and thinks a lot. She comes to know herself, and to get a clear understanding of her position in the world by examining the various prospects laid out before her in the waning months of a dark and waning decade. The story that started off with such awkward, cringeworthy humor ends up being a fitting and deeply moving end to a rich trilogy.

Book One: The Midnight Bell

Book Two: The Siege of Pleasure