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John Hampson: Saturday Night at the Greyhound

Hampson’s first and best-known work, though called a novel and a hundred sixty pages long, could be considered as a long short story (novella), conforming as it does to the classic unities, set in the same place and during a short time period, a Saturday night. It is a fascinating work, with a very tight structure and written almost like a Greek tragedy but with a setting and story written in a fairly realist tradition. The action takes place in a pub in a Derbyshire mining village not far from Matlock. There is a relatively small cast of characters whom we only meet as regards their contact with the pub. Hampson introduces us to them all one by one.

The first one we meet is Mrs. Tapin. We later learn that her name is Mary Ann. She is, according to Hampson, interested in only four things – money, gossip, thinking and Clara. She works as the cook at the Greyhound but has a somewhat chequered past. Her daughter, Clara, was fathered by Squire Groveton. When she became pregnant, he offered her a choice of four men as a husband. She chose Asa Tapin, the oldest of them all, hoping that he would soon die and she would inherit his tied cottage and pension. Unfortunately for her, he lived a long time but, at the start of this novel, is long since dead. She is highly critical of the pub landlord, Fred Flack, as, indeed she is critical of his thirteen predecessors, all of whom she has seen come and go and all of whom failed to make a go of running the pub. She is waiting for him to fail, as well. She is not averse to a bit of petty theft. Her main hope is for her daughter and she is somewhat concerned that Tom Oakley seems to be interested in Clara.

Tom Oakley, who is the next one we meet, is a decent man. He and his sister, Ivy, inherited some money from their parents, who were publicans and who died within a couple of days of one another. Tom went off to London and worked in the Bristol Hotel. Ivy met and married Fred Flack. Tom has never had a girlfriend. There is some indication that he is gay but he also seems to be in love with his sister and jealous of her relationship with Flack. Flack was and still is highly irresponsible but Ivy still loves him. He fritters money away, drinks and chases women. Finally Ivy used her inheritance to buy the pub and Tom immediately left his job in London to come and work in the pub. He realises, like Mrs. Tapin, that the venture is doomed to failure, not least because Flack drinks away the profits and gives away too much beer. When we meet Ivy, we realise that she is aware of the problems, though not aware how much they are in debt, but she cannot bring herself to abandon Flack, whom she still loves. Flack himself likes the good life. When, as a young man, he inherited some money from an aunt, he spent it all on having a good time in London with a girlfriend. He enjoys drinking, gambling and chasing women – he is currently having an affair with Clara, who works in the pub as a barmaid – and is totally irresponsible. Clara herself is ambitious, wanting to marry a rich man. She is having a good time with Flack but hopes to get some money out of him – she has already managed to get some expensive presents – and leave the area.

Two other characters come in later. They are Roy Grovedon, son of the squire, and a woman he has picked up in a hotel in Matlock, Ruth Dorme. Once the scene has been set – and it takes a good portion of the early part of the novel – we watch the characters as they are clearly heading towards some crisis and possible tragedy. Tom is eager to get Ivy to leave Fred and for them to set up somewhere else but Ivy is having none of it, as she is still devoted to Fred, despite his faults. Fred just wants to have a good time, having his friends in to gamble (unaware that they are cheating him) and to drink. He is having his fun with Clara but he is about to drop her. Clara and her mother are both up to their plotting while Ruth and Roy just want a good time and will act mainly as witnesses to the crisis.

It is a short novel but exceptionally well told, with Hampson keeping very much to the point in hand and not wasting effort on anything unnecessary. However, he manages in that short time to draw convincing characters who seem all dragged into an evolving crisis which, for better or worse – probably worse – will change their lives. It is a pity that this novel is out of print and not better known. Like other writers of the period – William Gerhardie is an obvious example – he seems to have slipped through the cracks.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by Hogarth Press