Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hampson John

15 responses to “Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

  1. What a glutton for punishment you are -“perusing Kindle books” indeed. I just looked up John Hampson and he was very interesting – taken up by the Woolfs, Forster, and J.R. Ackerley among others. And he went to jail for shoplifting books, so he clearly had the right instincts. Sounds as if his books in general were pretty dark, and this one certainly sounds it.

    • To quote the Emperor Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon : “Klytus, I’m bored. What play thing can you offer me today?”

      Klytus: “An obscure body in the S-K System, Your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet Earth.”

  2. A hidden gem by the look of it

  3. This sounds like a great book.

    The animal cruelty that you mention would prevent me from reading it. I do not blame authors for depicting these things, on the contrary, these things should be depicted, but as you mention, there are some things that I would not have in my mind.

    • You often get a clue about the level of violence from the blurbs on the cover of crime books, but incidents with animals often just appear w/o warning–as in this case.

  4. I love this era, but your comments in the last two paragraphs lead me to think the I should probably pass on this book. The publisher is new to me, so I’ll take a look at their list.

    • I was drawn to the book for its setting (and the 30s) plus the author sounded very interesting. I thought the book was ‘ok’ but not much beyond that.

      Valancourt has a lot of gothic and obscure titles. many have appeared for the kindle at $2,99

  5. Sentimental as it may be, given I can read scenes of people getting killed without too much trouble, scenes of animal cruelty give me pause unless I’m confident the book will be worth it. As this one ultimately disappointed, it’s a pass for me. Interesting premise though.

    • Some books have animal cruelty as an everyday thing and while this book makes it clear that the incident it disgusting, that doesn’t make it any easier to read.

  6. This sounded very interesting until that bit about the animal cruelty. I can’t read that, so thanks for the warning.

  7. This one won’t add up to my TBR.

    The “going to the pub” culture is really something I associate with Great Britain and Ireland (I’ve yet to visit a significant European city that doesn’t have its “Irish pub”. Ours is named James Joyce)

    I wonder if someone has written a book about pubs’ names in England.

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