Mikey Cleary is a bright boy from a working class, Anglo-Irish family who lives in a confusion of worlds, each with its own senseless rules and bizarre inhabitants.
Why does police sergeant ‘Killer’ Wells chase Jim the Bookie and never catch him? Why won’t Mikey’s father talk about the War? The streets around Mikey’s house were flattened by the German bombers just twenty years before and everyone is obsessed with the War, but Mikey’s dad won’t talk about it; he won’t even tell his son how he won his gold medal.
Hamlet & Me is a darkly comic story in which young Mikey faces crises at home, at his new school and at the Old Vic theatre where Peter O’Toole is playing a reluctant Hamlet under the irascible direction of Laurence Olivier. The novel is set in London in October 1963, during a week in which Mikey’s granny dies, the National Theatre is born and Mikey learns important lessons in tolerance, understanding and loyalty from the characters he meets in the streets surrounding his home, the local street market and the theatre.
Mikey’s encounters with his friends and neighbours and with the actors at the Old Vic shape his growing understanding of his world.
Includes free short story – ‘The Fall and Rise of my Sainted Granny’!
Mikey a wonderfully believable character takes the reader on a rarely explored journey through 1960s London, exploring the streets and people that populated the real London of that time. Once I had started reading, I couldn’t put it down. It was great fun and I wish I could give it more than five stars.
Excellent tales from the sixties!
Presents a view of real working class immigrant life in London fifty years ago: Mr Hogan can write and gives a previously rare view of urban life in the last century. Strongly recommended and a good introduction to a drole but essentially affectionate chronicler who was there.
David W. Edwards (Somerset UK)
I found this book to be a great fun read. It was also a wonderful trip down memory lane being set in 1960’s London particularly the personalities who make appearances like Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Sid James and many more. The central character Mikey is very believable torn between his family, the church and lots of shady goings on with his mates.
I highly recommend Hamlet and Me and hope there is a sequel with further adventures of Mikey.
Witty, poignant & entertaining.
[Hamlet and me] transported me to a different time. I found plenty of moments to chuckle both at the ingenious Mikey and at the capers he is involved in, but I also found that the book touched on some important historical and emotional points that were important both to the character’s development and to me, the reader. In one particular scene I felt I was standing with Mikey trying to take in the moment, as it was quite tragic. But more often the book is bright, and witty – with many guest appearances done quite well.
The Luck of the Irish
London, October 1963
I heard a fast patter on the stairs and looked up as my bedroom door opened an inch. I saw an eye; it winked.
I slid the naughty magazine I’d been reading under my blanket as the door opened and a bulky man in a long, grey double-breasted coat and black Macmillan hat slipped inside and gently closed the door.
“Hi, Jim,” I said.
“Hey, ho, young Mikey.” He turned to the door. “Oy, what happened to the lock?”
“Mam took it off. She doesn’t want me up to no good with the door locked.”
Jim strode to my bed and shoved a wad of papers under my pillow. He opened the window with a shrill screech from the rollers, threw me a two-bob coin, shouted “Geronimo!” and leapt out.
I dropped the coin into the breast pocket of my pyjamas as I heard a thunder on the stairs and a young policeman burst in. He ran past my bed and stuck his head out of the window. An older copper appeared in my bedroom doorway. He eased off his helmet, ducked into the room and leaned against the open door. He was a pale man with a long scar on his left cheek, a broken nose and the build of the Police heavyweight-boxing champion he had been just after the War. He filled my bedroom with dark-blue serge and barely restrained menace.
“Hello, Mikey,” he said with a cheery smile. “Having a lie-in?”
“We nearly had him that time, Bill,” the young copper said, puffing hard. “He’s through the back gate and hoofing it towards Waterloo Station. Shall I jump down and follow him?”
Sergeant ‘Killer’ Wells shook his head. “Nah, we’ll get him next time.”
He stepped to my bed and loomed over me in a cloud of tobacco fumes and Old Spice aftershave. “He didn’t leave anything with you, did he, Mikey? A bundle of betting slips maybe? You’ve not got them under your pillow, have you?”
He spoke in the quiet, silky tone Father Rourke used in the confessional to winkle out the mortal sins you’d hidden away behind a dusty pile of little venal ones in a dark corner of your conscience.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sergeant,” I replied, retreating behind my Irish brogue. “Jim was in and out like a flash. I didn’t even have time to warn him about my horrible infectious condition.”
Sergeant Wells’ eyes narrowed. “You what?”
“It’s not a worry for you, sir. You’re a married man, with your children growing up, and healthy, thank God and the blessed saints. But the young fellah should stand well back if the doctors are to be listened to.”
Sergeant Wells smiled grimly. “What is it, then? Mumps? I had mumps when I was a nipper.”
“I didn’t,” said the young bobby, backing to the wall.
I put on a thinking expression. “What was it the specialist said? It’s some foreign disease with a funny name; German something, Japanese something. What side was Turkey on in the War? It doesn’t hurt much, thank the Lord, and I intend to live a life of prayer and penitence as a Carmelite monk, so shrivelled testicles don’t bother me: there’s not much call for testicles in that line of work.”
The young policeman went deathly pale.
“Go on down, Raymond. Wait for me outside,” Sergeant Wells said, staring hard at me.
I listened to the sound of the young copper’s boots thumping down the stairs to the street door. I heard it slam shut and I sweated in the silence.
I winced as Sergeant Wells reached into his pocket. Killer had landed in Normandy with the Royal Marine Commandos on D-Day-plus-one and his weapon of choice was the cheese-wire garrotte.
I readied myself to make him pay dearly for my young life. My Victor comic said that James Bond secret agents were trained to turn the most innocent household objects into deadly weapons. A cup and saucer lay on my bedside table with the dregs of the previous night’s cocoa; the apostle spoon sticking out of the cup had Killer’s left nostril written all over it.
He brought out, not a garrotte, but two pound notes, a ten-bob note and a half-crown. He put them on my bed.
“Bright Spark in the four-thirty, Mikey; two pound ten on the nose.”
I nodded weakly.
“Get well soon, son.”
He turned to go.
“Sergeant Wells?” I called. He stopped in the doorway.
“Why is it you chase Jim the Bookie and never catch him? If he darts into our house, it’s a cert he’s going to jump out the window onto the outhouse roof and make for Mooney’s or the Horse and Groom. You know that. Why didn’t you post that young bobby outside in our backyard? Why do you bother chasing him if you don’t make an effort to catch him?”
Killer smiled. “Jim’s got a lovely wife and four kids. He weighs twenty stone. If I didn’t chase him, he’d be dead of a heart attack in no time.”
He patted his belly. “Keeps me trim, too.”
He straightened and gave me a considering look. “Street betting’s against the law, Mikey. You’re a bright lad. What would happen if I didn’t chase Jim, eh? Think about that.”
My mam appeared at the door and I swept the money under my blanket.
She smiled up at Killer. “Sergeant Wells, how nice to see you. Have you time for a cup of tea?”
She saw me. “Mikey, you lazy whelp. Who do you think you are, wallowing in your bed at this hour? Get yourself up and help with the arrangements. Your gran’s funeral is at three o’clock and we’ve nothing done. The men from Russell’s will be here any minute, and I need your da. Fetch him.”
Sergeant Wells excused himself, put on his helmet and thumped down the stairs in his big policeman’s boots.
I thought about sneaking another ten minutes with my nudie magazine, or maybe my bike catalogue. The new bike I was drooling over was a Moulton with drop handlebars and suspension like a motorbike. But, even with Jim’s two-bob and Killer’s half-crown, I had just six shillings and sixpence to my name; hardly enough for a bike bell let alone a space age racing bike.
And Health and Efficiency, the nudie magazine I’d nicked from the bookstall at South Kensington Station, wasn’t up to much. They’d painted out all the hairy bits with pink blobs, so that just left the tits. I stared and stared at the photos of burly, naked women twirling Indian clubs and throwing medicine balls to each other, but I didn’t feel a single randy urge. At very nearly twelve years of age that was a worrying sign.
I unzipped the back of my teddy bear, put the magazine inside and hid the bear at the back of my wardrobe. I hurried out the door past the Dead Room where my gran was laid out in her bed and slipped into the bathroom. It wasn’t a bath day, so I washed with the flannel and the last sliver of Imperial Leather soap. The trick was to keep the little tab of paper on the soap as long as possible. If it came off you had bad luck all day, or at least until your next Mass.
As I washed, I reassured the fellah in the mirror that he was getting better and better every day and that he was a winner in every way. Trouble was, the mirror me was a hard one to convince.
It said in the article in the Reader’s Digest that you had to take a personal inventory once a week. I looked at me with a critical eye. My face was all right. My ears weren’t sticking out like my best friend Colm’s, and, thank the Lord, I wasn’t riddled with acne like the Mulcahy brothers.
And I had lucky, greeny-grey eyes. My dad said green eyes gave nothing away; they were good poker eyes, were greeny-grey eyes. I grinned into the mirror and they didn’t brighten at all. Colm’s brown eyes shone like fog lamps when he laughed and my mate Marty’s blue eyes rolled up when he told a lie. That was awkward for him as he came from a family of expert thieves and professional receivers of stolen goods. No, I was happy with my eyes.
My eyelashes were another story. The family were seeing off my sister at Victoria bus station when I was a toddler — she was a novice then with the nuns in Liverpool — and another nun came along and cried that my long eyelashes would break some lucky girl’s heart one day. What a daft thing to say to a kid! I’d no desire to break anyone’s heart. Since that day, I had always trimmed my eyelashes once a week with nail scissors. If I twitched and blinded myself, it would be that nun’s fault entirely.
I went downstairs to the kitchen. No one was around to cook breakfast, so I made four slices of French toast and piled a pyramid of sugar on each. Brown bread wasn’t much good for French toast. The best was stale Irish soda bread, but Mam had been too busy with the arrangements to do the baking. I was already in trouble for my lie-in, so I didn’t bother with the washing up.
I put on my uniform: grey shorts and a black blazer with a mourning band around the sleeve. I knew I’d look like a right berk at the funeral in my school shorts, with everyone else in proper suits, but I’d no long trousers suit. I shrugged on my raincoat, stuck the betting slips and the money into the pockets and slipped out the back door into the alley.
My first port of call would be the Horse and Groom. I knew it well, as it had been Dad’s Saturday night local until they carpeted the Public Bar and put in a jukebox. Jim the Bookie favoured the Horse as it was just a hop, skip and a sprint across Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament. The coppers over the bridge in the City of Westminster were a proud bunch. They guarded the MPs and lords of the realm and directed tourists to 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square; they wouldn’t lower themselves by chasing down a bookie.
It was a ten-minute walk to the pub. I spent the time working out how much of my young life was wasted because I didn’t have a Moulton five-speed racing bike.
I stopped outside the pub and took a good look around for coppers. They said that in the Blitz Sergeant Wells had a nasty habit of lurking outside pubs and catching people doing black-market deals. He still nicked people sneaking into the Horse for an out-of-hours pint, fellahs doing the three-card trick in the street and drunks peeing against the walls. They say one drunken scumbag sprayed Killer Wells with urine as he was collared. I’d bet that fellah was singing treble for the heavenly choir.
The coast was clear, so I rang the bell and the cleaner, Mrs Levine, let me in. I found Jim sat at his corner table by a frosted glass window doing his books. He had the use of this corner and the phone from the landlord, Ricky Ricketts, who was a heavy better. My dad said that Ricky should stop chasing his losses, hand the pub takings to Jim at the end of each day and save himself a world of aggravation.
I sat opposite Jim. He nodded and continued to mark down numbers in a little book.
Jim was a big fellah in every way, except for his hands and feet. His hands were small and always on the move as he talked, counted money or leafed through slips. And his feet were tiny. I wouldn’t normally notice anyone’s feet. I didn’t know much about my own set, truth be told, but Jim’s were dancer’s feet. That Fred Astaire in the films had feet like Jim’s.
Mrs Levine brought me a cold cream soda and a packet of crisps. I was pleased to find that it was one of the rare ones with not one, but two of the little blue twists of salt. You emptied the salt packet over the crisps and gave the bag a good shake. Finding two packets of salt in one bag was dead lucky, but it was hard to prove without reliable witnesses.
Jim looked up and I offered him a crisp.