Just off Lexham Gardens

John Bayley

  • Through a Glass Darkly: The life of Patrick Hamilton by Nigel Jones
    Scribner, 408 pp, £18.95, December 1991, ISBN 0 356 19701 8

Towards the end of his life (he died aged 58) Patrick Hamilton was taking the cure in some Metroland establishment while Malcolm Lowry was being dried out in another not far off. That was around l960, and the two writers never met; but both had become something of a cult. Hamilton died two years later in more than averagely gloomy circumstances, back on the bottle again; and most of his reputation went with him; but there were always the faithful who remembered and read him, and a few years ago his young man’s trilogy from the early Thirties, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, was republished.

Personality is important for a cult. The life must be close to the work, and almost but not quite a substitute for it, while the work itself is intimate with the writer’s lifestyle, never quite fulfilling promise, and never as it were challenging the life on its own separate terms. For this reason E.M. Forster, say, is not a cult writer, although he used to complain to people for whom ‘my works included me rather than I them’; and nor was Virginia Woolf. They have become themselves, whereas Corvo or Lowry, Hamilton or Conrad Aitken, and maybe poets like Dylan Thomas and John Berryman of more recent date, are celebrated inside their own time-warp, relished as creatures of their epoch. A disillusioned devotee is the worst that can happen to them; and although I enjoyed rereading Twenty Thousand Streets and reviewing it in these pages, I found its humour less absorbing than before. Even that blend of the banal and the appalling, to which Michael Holroyd rightly drew attention, was not as compulsive as it had been. The past was claiming its own.

Disillusion is in a sense completed by this biography: not, I hasten to say, the biographer’s fault, since he has made it as readable as Hamilton’s works used for me to be, but because all vestigial romance and curiosity about author and cult finally expire in the sad record not so much of dissipation as of an ever seedier, ever deepening banality. Hamilton was not only terrified of consciousness without the bottle but seems to have had the moral life of the man in the grubby raincoat. Like Baudelaire, he was a connoisseur of inner shabbiness and spleen, ‘the unwholesome floor’ inside, as Larkin calls it, with ‘a string of infected circles/Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate’. Larkin, who much admired Hamilton’s books, was another such furtive dandy: but both Larkin and Baudelaire, being poets (Hamilton was an early failed one), could turn their sense of the awfulness of things and of self into quietly aesthetic relish and enjoyment, or – in Baudelaire’s case – a resonant panache. Hamilton lacked even that compensatory refuge: no doubt because in his case a full transmutation into art, with all its paradoxical liberations and enjoyments, never quite took place. His work, like himself, remained obstinately trapped inside a horror of life without conviction or intensity, or anything to break the fearsome timidity of habit.

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