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.

The Thirties was a time for that sort of thing, but Hamilton as usual never quite achieved it in any pure and devastating form, the form of Good Morning, Midnight or Voyage au Bout de la Nuit. He became a Communist, though characteristically without joining the Party; it seems to have been the pathos of a private gesture, like his many swearings off the bottle. In a curious way he shows up the writers of the time who plunged into rage, indignation and protest and found them highly useful for literature, while remaining themselves, like Dr Johnson’s patriotic butcher, without any ‘uneasy sensation’. He makes a contrast, too, with writers nearer our own time who may strike us as themselves basically innocent of the horrors they dispense: writers who deal in the showmanship of the extreme without seeming in any sense to embody it. As his biography direly shows, Hamilton lived his books: even lived, in a sense, his two highly successful and stagey melodramas, Rope and Gaslight. Like Dickens, he was obviously excited by his own lurid invention, which gives it a creepy authenticity. Like the youthful author of Sketches by Boz, he feared and detested the London that was also his burrow home. But while Dickens overcame angst by thinking of Mr Pickwick and by the hard slog and regular hours typical of his time, Hamilton merely floated out into what was then the endless genteel futility of Earls Court, and ordered another double.

Indeed it is astonishing that he created as much as he did, and at his best can move us as he does. The Midnight Bell, first novel of the trilogy that became Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, appeared soon after the runaway success in the theatre of Rope had made him for the moment a comparatively rich man. The simple story concerns three Londoners, each of whom is the principal character in one novel in the sequence. Jenny, a maid who becomes a prostitute, is pursued in the second volume by Bob, a young waiter with literary aspirations who works in a Mayfair pub. He in turn is loved by the barmaid Ella, whose sad story is told in the last of the series. There is a large cast of pub-goers and eccentrics, but the most telling moments have an oddly detached and timeless innocence. Ella looks with love at the laborious pencil underlinings made by Bob in his second-hand copy of Macaulay; and after Bob has abandoned his hopeless attachment to Jenny and gone off to sea the new waiter at the pub hears with indifference, as he goes to bed, the barmaid weeping in her room. Hamilton’s peculiar style and manner seem devoid of protest or patronage. Whatever social message or indignation may be implicit, of the kind his friend J.B. Priestley was putting into Angel Pavement at about the same time, they are ignored both by the way the story is told and the kind of impression it makes.

What with his success in the theatre and the suc·cès d'es·time of his novels the ball at this point of the Thirties seemed to have landed at Hamilton’s feet. After various hopeless passions, of the kind that Bob in his trilogy feels for the prostitute Jenny, he had unexpectedly married a sensible girl called Lois, a few years older than himself, the daughter of a Cardiff doctor. Sex with Lois was a failure for both of them, as Hamilton reported with the habitual candour he employed in letters to his elder brother Bruce: but he was deeply grateful to her for looking after him and gently restraining him from drinking more than a little too much. They were walking just off Lexham Gardens with his sister when he was struck by a car driven fast round the corner by the sort of young man who frequented his own style of Kensington saloon bar. Injuries were severe, and though he got over them and bore the consequences with stoicism, he was never again to be at a moment of inspirational initiative, when he might have discovered a complete literary self and exploited its full powers. A Céline or a Jean Rhys might have been fulfilled by this sort of setback, but it is somehow characteristic of Hamilton that crisis blurred his creativity. That may be why in his later books the abjections of habit blur the outlines of the people he writes about, so that they never achieve even the status of outsiders, of the damned, or of the insulted and injured.

‘He lacked the faith that underpins Brighton Rock,’ observes Hamilton’s biographer. That is a just point, though it might also be said that Greene’s novels exhibit not so much faith as the successful exploitation of faith for literary purposes. It is both the strength and weakness of Hamilton that he had nothing similar to exploit: certainly not his zeal for Communism, which was sincere enough in terms of the spirit of the age (Sylvia Townsend Warner was an equally incongruous convert) but which offered to Hamilton’s inner creativity nothing in the way of an alternative world. In his time he was a genuine odd man out, rather in the sense in which his admirers, Anthony Powell and Angus Wilson, were to be in theirs. At this distance we can see how dependent on a faith most of the ‘black’ novels of the Thirties – whether by comedians like Waugh or gloom merchants like Greene and Mauriac – really were. Both frivolity and despair implied the transcendental. In Hamilton there is no trace of it. The post-war Gorse trilogy, about a Brighton con-man and murderer, might have been written to embody Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil. It begins promisingly, with the author probably inspired by contemporary criminals like Arthur Haigh and Neville George Heath: but quite apart from the drink problem that was steadily overwhelming him, Hamilton had no way to keep up the interest in his ‘hero’, an interest not needed in the melodramatic circumstances of Rope, or the even more successful Gaslight. Running down or discontinuation is peculiarly suited to the Hamiltonian vision of things, rather than any sense of an ending. His villains, like his heroes, tend simply to give up, though anti-heroines, like the appalling Netta in Hangover Square, are more durable. And it is significant that Twenty Thousand Streets, the near masterpiece, does not depend on saloon bar evil and banality, but on a triangle of characters who, though wholly ordinary, are convincingly rather good than bad. George Harvey Bone, in Hangover Square, has his pure and innocent moments, as when he manages to break seventy on the links (Hamilton was unexpectedly a golfing man), and such moments come to rest in the destiny of Miss Roach of The Slaves of Solitude, the novel he wrote at the end of the war and his second best.

Considering how downhill and depressingly low-key Hamilton’s life on the whole was, it is remarkable that his biographer has made it so absorbing to read about, and so indicative of a place, a time and a culture. When he was himself living in Brighton, Nigel Jones happened to meet the widow of the writer’s elder brother Bruce, who gave him access to a mass of letters the siblings had exchanged over the years. As one might expect, the atmosphere of the Hamilton household was decidedly incestuous: father a hard-drinking show-off prone to schemes for losing his money, mother pathetic and possessive; sons and daughters locked in a relation at once close and nightmarishly unstable. Bruce, a successful schoolmaster, came virtually to live for Patrick, who battened on him as if absent-mindedly, and who was still cordially detested in retrospect by Bruce’s widow. Wives were never allowed to disturb the intimacy of the pair: the biography offers plenty of ammunition to those who wish to look back in anger on an age and on a society in which the services of women as wives, mistresses or mothers were very much taken for granted.

Hamilton indeed ended up virtually with two wives, for although Lois and he divorced he continued to live with her much of the time while in flight from his second wife ‘La’, who had been born Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot, a descendant of Shakespeare’s Talbot of the Hundred Years War. Although Nigel Jones makes rather a thing of regarding her as a femme fatale, and Patrick as an abject snob for wanting to marry her, it sounds more innocent and harmless than that, just as ‘La’ herself seems to have been. Married twice before to more aristocratic suitors, one of them a cousin who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a rare paralytic disease, she probably took an interest in Patrick both as a successful and voguish writer – she herself had literary ambitions – and as a reform and repair job. Of neurotic disposition and with no obvious physical attractions, La might have seemed an unsuitable choice for a fretful alcoholic in search of sex and love in a spouse, but the former at least seems to have been a success, the lady accommodating herself without demur to what seem to have been the mildly bizarre fixations of a lonely, shy and inhibited man. Hitchcock, something of a sexual misfit himself, exploited these in his brilliant film version of Rope, which flopped, while Hollywood made its usual travesty of Gaslight.

Sex as a fascinating but sinister undercurrent, redirected rather than suppressed by bourgeois society, is as important in the Hamiltonian time-warp as is the confrontation of Communist and Fascist ‘values’, and the film stars like Paulette Godard and Geraldine Fitzgerald after whom, like many others, Patrick yearned, and whom he came to know through his theatre successes. The singular thing about all his books, and no doubt a reason for their continuing and disquieting vitality, is the way he combines in them an almost stifling sense of the period with a curious knowledge that this was what the past would seem like to a later reader, even as he wrote them. They anticipate, as it were, their own datedness. The era of whisky and cigarettes rises from them like a miasma, and perhaps in Rosamond Guest Houses up and down the country lonely people still exchange postcards on which they have written coy incantations like ‘ “Isle of View” – I love you.’