Louis MacNeice, it was sometimes said, was always in the pub but never really of it. Much the same could be said of Patrick Hamilton, who was best known in his lifetime for his stage chillers Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938), but is mostly remembered for the expert depictions of joyless interwar boozing in Hangover Square (1941) and the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky (1929-34). ‘If ever a man knew the atmosphere and life and ethics of these places,’ he boasted in 1928, when he first had the idea of setting a novel in a pub, ‘it’s me.’ Yet he didn’t inherit a tradition of pub-going – his father did his drinking in gentlemen’s clubs – and held on to an idea of himself as a participant-observer gathering material from an exotic social scene long after he became a full-time alcoholic. Taciturn, shy, convinced of his ugliness, he figures in most accounts as an inconspicuous customer sharpening what Claud Cockburn called his ‘bat’s wing ear’ for dialogue. According to Cockburn, who often drank with him during the war, this caused him to startle violently at unexpected moments. ‘My God,’ he would say, abruptly tuned in to someone standing eight feet away with his back to them, ‘don’t you see the sort of thing he is up to? God help us.’
If he wasn’t of the pub, though, where did he fit in? Hamilton never found a satisfactory answer to this question. Born in 1904 into a downwardly mobile, fitfully ‘creative’ upper-middle-class family, he wrote knowledgably and scornfully about decayed rentier types, as he learned to think of them when he became a Marxist during the 1930s, without forging himself much of an alternative identity beyond the one provided by his high-end, Somerset Maugham-like notion of the writing life. He wore ‘perfectly made’ suits and, when taxed about his drinking, could always name three bigger pissheads among his fellow members of the Savile Club. During the war he acquired a Raffles-style flat in the Albany. Although he dabbled in Freud and Nietzsche during the 1920s, he was suspicious of highbrows: he had more connections in the West End than in universities or journalism and little feeling for most writing done after about 1918. Eliot, Huxley, Lawrence and Joyce were too ‘painfully subjective’, he wrote in 1939, giving their work ‘the character of meaningless masturbation’. Auden was no good either, and Hamilton’s contact with the circles that came to dominate the received story of the 1930s was limited to one or two peripheral figures.
As a result, and thanks also to the inconvenient range of his professional activities, Hamilton didn’t get filed under any particular decade or literary-historical heading when he died of liver failure in 1962. His reputation had been guttering since the early 1950s, when even close friends began to describe his output as ‘slight’ and ‘peevishly overstated’, and if Rope hadn’t been filmed by Hitchcock, the usual post-mortem downgrading might have snuffed out his name for good. And yet his novels have survived, thanks to the efforts of such admirers as J.B. Priestley, Doris Lessing and Michael Holroyd, and to the biographical enterprise set in train by his older brother, Bruce, whose memoir of Patrick, The Light Went Out (1972), prompted the first Hamilton mini-revival. Bruce was upfront about his brother’s drinking: his book is the source of the much quoted calculation that Hamilton’s postwar whisky intake rarely fell ‘below the equivalent of three bottles a day’. But he also made it possible to see his brother as an interestingly troubled victim of their father, Bernard, who emerges in the memoir as one of the great Edwardian monster-dads.
‘The author and barrister Bernard Hamilton’, as he styled himself, began to generate a considerable body of anecdote on his 21st birthday, when he inherited £100,000 (perhaps £7 million in today’s money). ‘The day was also made memorable,’ Bruce writes, ‘by his first meeting, in the promenade of the old Empire Theatre, with the prostitute whom he was to marry and attempt to reclaim.’ This relationship ended a few years later when ‘the unfortunate woman threw herself in front of a train at Wimbledon Station, leaving behind a letter exculpating her husband as the only good thing in her life.’ Bernard then married Ellen Day, the snobbish daughter of ‘a fashionable London dentist’. Their children grew up in a big house in Hove while Bernard slept off hangovers in his London chambers, spent time with his French mistress and did a spot of writing. His first novel, The Light? (1898), ‘had to do with ancient Egypt, reincarnation and contemporary life’; Coronation (1902) ‘was distinguished by the most alliterative opening sentences I have ever read’. (‘Boom! went the bell of St Botolph’s, bidding her boys from book and board. Clang! came the curfew of Carfax, calling the citizens from counter and cloth-yard.’) From time to time Bernard would show up in Sussex and bark orders in ‘his military voice’ – he had others – or claim to be the rightful heir to the Scottish throne.
After 1915, when he landed an administrative job in France with the Royal Horse Artillery, Bernard’s military pretensions intensified. But he began to feel cash-strapped during the postwar slump. The house in Hove was sold and the family entered the dilapidated sub-world of boarding houses and hotels that became Patrick’s second favourite setting for his novels. Meanwhile, Bernard began to take an interest in politics. He broke with the Fabians after only one meeting, then switched allegiance to the National Citizens’ Union, a middle-class Fascist pressure group, and became a fan of Mussolini, to whom he sent a signed copy of The Giant (1926), his fictionalised life of Danton. ‘As a puff preliminary,’ he informed the book’s publishers in a late-life flash of his earlier manner, ‘you may say that this is the greatest novel ever written – which indeed it is.’ By then, though, the drink had taken its toll, and he died in 1930. His last decline began with a nasty fall, which took place while he was being ejected from the Trocadero restaurant after making anti-semitic comments about the Lyons company, which owned it, when asked to put out his pipe.
As young men, the Hamilton brothers were determinedly arch about ‘the author of The Light?’, as they liked to call him. Patrick, a frequenter and memorialist of Lyons tea houses, often gave the bullies and bores in his novels a few of Bernard’s more understated mannerisms. As Bruce saw things, a need for a more reliable father-figure explained his brother’s long-term admiration for Stalin as well as his propensity to fall under the sway of older or intellectually more confident friends. Yet Hamilton often showed Bernard-like tendencies, most obviously by becoming infatuated with Lily Connolly, a young woman working as a prostitute whom he met in a London pub in the late 1920s. Post-Suez, he became a Marxisant Tory-voter. His lifelong, ‘almost pathological hatred of the Labour Party’ had congealed, he explained, into ‘a genuine contempt for what largely supports it, the British Working Class’, which had ‘proved itself despicably incapable of what might have been its historic task’ by hoisting TV aerials instead of the Red Flag. And of course there was the drinking.
Bruce died in 1974. After an interval, his widow gave his papers to Nigel Jones, whose 1991 biography of Hamilton was followed two years later by a less substantial Life written by Sean French. Between them, these biographers raised their subject to his current position as the go-to guy for shabby-genteel, pub-dwelling pre-colour seediness. (Julian Maclaren-Ross, his main competition these days, is associated with a slightly later period and a more confident bohemianism.) Jones had one or two revelations about Hamilton’s pitiable sex life, which was often confined to paying women to let him tie them up. But both biographies make most impact simply by adding detail to the train-wreck sketched in The Light Went Out, using Hamilton’s unfinished ‘Memoirs of a Heavy Drinking Man’ as well as Bruce’s haul of letters.
Hamilton, it turned out, was inclined to blame his unhappiness on the cruelty of the nannies who didn’t finish the stories they told him. ‘The odd thing about all this,’ he wrote at the end of a catalogue of Bernard’s excesses, which included leaping onto the furniture to perform Shakespearean speeches and attacking the boys’ bedroom door with a sabre in a drunken rage, ‘is that he was not in the smallest way insane.’ Jones thinks that Ellen made up for her husband’s deficiencies by giving the children massive doses of affection, followed by tearful, guilt-inducing withdrawals. Whatever the explanation, relationships with women were difficult for Hamilton, who first started to drink heavily during the long and unsuccessful pursuit of Lily that gave him the material for The Midnight Bell (1929), the opening book of the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy. In 1930, he tried to straighten out his love life by marrying Lois Martin, a woman he’d met at one of Priestley’s Hampstead drinks parties. He was, he told his mother as he broke the news by post, ‘incredibly happy – touch wood’. But the newlyweds soon agreed that they were ‘sexually incompatible’, and Lois took on a managerial role in his life. Hamilton went back to visiting prostitutes while drunk.
Further reasons to hit the bottle soon presented themselves, finding their place in due course in his novels. A drunk driver ploughed into him in 1932, scarring his face and causing a spell of depression. Later on in the decade he did some stalking of actresses; Geraldine Fitzgerald, a future Hollywood star whom he met at a showbiz party, moved out of her flat in response to his attentions. Then, in 1948, drunk and embittered after attending a screening of the miscast Hitchcock version of Rope, he reactivated a shadowy earlier affair with Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot, a novelist under the name ‘Laura Talbot’ who was generally known as ‘La’. Lois finally withdrew her moderately stabilising influence, divorcing him in 1953, and his marriage to La a year later was not a successful fresh start. In 1956, he underwent ECT for alcoholic depression. A friendly medical student inspired his desultory last writings on the causes of his ‘heavy drinking’ (his preferred term). His last few years were lived out in a spectral fashion in a flat in Sheringham on the Norfolk coast: Guinness for breakfast, gin until lunch, whisky until passing-out time.
Hamilton maintained that English poetry died in the 19th century, and his narrative models were equally unfashionable for a writer of his generation. Dickens was an early influence, as was Theodore Dreiser, in whose novels he once claimed to take ‘an almost sensual, certainly abandoned’ pleasure. Unlike many of his more famous contemporaries, he had little interest in terse description, unexplicated dialogue, unstated emotion, unobtrusive narration or a circumscribed point of view. Early on, he could be careless about fitting language and social assumptions to character. In The Midnight Bell, for example, a prostitute flirts with Bob, the barman hero, by asking about his ‘girl’. ‘I ’speck she’s just the opposite of me,’ she says. The narrator transcribes Bob’s thoughts: ‘She was wonderfully cheeky – taking to herself sufficient of consequence to place herself in contradistinction to this hypothetical girl. But he liked it.’ Hamilton was also chastised by Priestley for excessive use of ‘Komic Kapitals’ (‘it had all been Very Satisfactory’ and so on), and there’s a weird strain of facetiousness even in some of his most effective writing, as if he’s amazed at his own cheek in offering up a pub or boarding house for scrutiny. Henry Green, another well-spoken alcoholic who had a sympathetic interest in goings-on below stairs, was in most respects his antitype.
In spite of his contempt for avant-gardism, however, Hamilton’s writerly compulsions and constraints can make his books seem like ritualised performances. ‘Where was there,’ the central figure wonders in Hangover Square, ‘apart from London and Brighton?’ His eventual answer is ‘Maidenhead’, and a few points in the Thames Valley or on the London-to-Brighton line are the only other locations to appear in Hamilton’s novels (with one exception). The postwar world is off-limits in the four books he wrote after 1945, and his mature novels use a strikingly restricted range of plots. In The Midnight Bell and Hangover Square, lonely men are brought to ruin by manipulative women whom they wish to take to Brighton. Lonely women are hounded by undesirable bores in The Plains of Cement and The Slaves of Solitude (1947). Finally, in the Gorse books – The West Pier (1951), Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953) and Unknown Assailant (1955) – lonely women are brought to ruin by a manipulative man. By then, towns like Hassocks and Burgess Hill have taken on an almost occult significance, as have alcohol, prostitution, the theatre, cheap accommodation, Fascism, golf, motor vehicles, moustaches, and the use of out-of-date slang.
Most readers’ first entry into this claustrophobic world is by way of Hangover Square, in which George Harvey Bone moons after Netta Longdon, an attractive yet incredibly unpleasant would-be actress. In addition to exploiting Bone’s small private income and tenuous showbiz connections, Netta unconsciously lusts after Hitler and occasionally goes to bed with her Fascist friend Peter, a nastily moustached man who’s served time in prison for fatally running over a pedestrian while drunk. Unknown to her, Bone has a split personality – a darkly humorous plot device that comes across as an exaggeration of a blackout-prone drinker’s ‘worst fears. In his “dead” moods’, of which he remembers nothing afterwards, he knows that he must kill her. After a series of near misses and grotesque humiliations culminating in a visit to the theatre in Brighton (‘It was funny that, on this night of all nights, he should be watching a farce’), he eventually murders Netta as war is declared on Germany, also dispatching Peter with a blow from a golf club. He then flees the Earls Court pubs for ever, heading for Maidenhead, a dreamed-of childhood idyll. There he kills himself: ‘He died in the early morning, and because of the interest then prevailing in the war, was given very little publicity by the press.’
Written quickly and, as he put it, ‘almost for “fun”’, this combination of expressionist political fable and self-pitying fantasy is Hamilton’s most arresting novel. The Slaves of Solitude, its follow-up, was assembled much more painfully. Hamilton finished it by taking to his bed in Henley early in 1946, not long after Bruce had worked out that he was spending £2000 a year on whisky. ‘I suspect,’ Bruce noted privately, ‘that the range of subjects he can effectively use in such a way as to exploit his full powers is steadily narrowing (though till I have read The Slaves of Solitude this can only be a provisional opinion).’ In the event, the book was widely praised, and Hamilton’s admirers have repeatedly tried to have it treated as a minor classic. Less solipsistic than Hangover Square, and more representative in some ways of what Hamilton was up to, it has had trouble staying in print. The current reissues follow in the footsteps of editions from Oxford (1982), Cardinal (1991) and Penguin Classics (1999).
Miss Roach, the novel’s heroine, is a 39-year-old woman who thinks of herself as having ‘the complexion of a farmer’s wife and the face of a bird’. Bombed out of her flat in London, where she works as a publisher’s assistant, she’s spending the winter of 1943 in Thames Lockdon, a suburban town modelled on Henley. The boarding house she’s staying in still goes by the name of its previous incarnation, the Rosamund Tea Rooms. (‘Why “Rosamund”?’ the narrator characteristically asks. ‘A ye-olde Rosamund’s Tea Bower, or what?’) A kind and thoughtful woman who has long since ‘given up “hope”’, Miss Roach plainly has it in her to tough out the boarding house, which Hamilton describes with a connoisseurial eye for signs of thrift and grudgingness: the lightbulbs unscrewed to save on electricity, the gratuitously depressing dining-room still laid out for the convenience of prewar daytrippers. But each meal is presided over by Mr Thwaites, a sixtysomething fellow boarder who has become, for Miss Roach, ‘president in hell’.
On one level, Thwaites is Hamilton’s ultimate bore. He uses dullness as a weapon, cowing the other guests with his bottomless supply of third-hand opinions and grindingly jocular small talk. Totally without conscious insight, he’s skilled nonetheless at detecting vulnerabilities:
In his large, flat, moustached face (with its slightly flattened nose, as though someone in the past had punched it), in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others . . . He had money of his own and he had lived, resounded through boarding houses and private hotels all his life. Such places, with the timid old women they contained, were hunting-grounds for his temperament – wonderfully suited and stimulating to his peculiar brand of loquacity and malevolence.
Ostensibly, Thwaites has it in for Miss Roach because he imagines that she’s pro-Soviet: she sometimes brings back ‘literary political weeklies from London’ – in his eyes ‘a diseased and obscurely Russian thing to do’. A Mail reader, and secretly ‘a hot disciple’ of Hitler, he’s made grumpier by the claim that the war is being fought for democracy. But his persecution of Miss Roach – which takes the form of incessant needling about her failure to find a husband as well as her imagined leftism – has a more primal side to it as well. He seems attracted by her freedom and vitality, qualities that both he and the war are bent on draining. And in spite of his age he exudes ‘a steady health and virility’, squatting over the house like an unkillable father: ‘There was not even any hope for Miss Roach that Mr Thwaites would ever die.’
After an opening chapter leading to Thwaites’s first appearance, one of the polite young American ‘Lootenants’ quartered next door invites Miss Roach to the pub. Soon they’re spending their evenings in the River Sun, where in ‘occult collusion with the gin and french’ her heart begins to glow; she lets him steer her to the park and kiss her. At this point, however, her friend Vicki Kugelmann appears on the scene. Vicki, a German who’s lived in England for most of her adult life, speaks with a slightly affected German accent, which causes unpleasant scenes in the ration queue. Miss Roach, who took her up after witnessing one such incident, reproaches herself for having mild forebodings when Vicki abruptly moves in to the Rosamund Tea Rooms. But her instincts are proved right: soon Vicki has got to work on the susceptible lieutenant and formed an alliance with Thwaites, who’s alarmingly smitten by her and redoubles his goading under her direction.
Hamilton sticks loosely to Miss Roach through all this, switching to other characters’ points of view when it suits him and indulging – or letting his narrator indulge – in digressions and bouts of analysis. The narrator rarely acts as a referee, a role that’s filled by Mr Prest, a retired comic actor whose ‘common’ demeanour makes him almost invisible to the other residents. Like his creator, Prest is a golfer and West End pub habitué; he admires and pities Miss Roach and looks on the boarding house ‘as a sort of zoo, containing easily recognised types of freak animals’. The narrator clearly has a similar attitude, but views the Rosamund Tea Rooms as their natural environment, sometimes theorising about the conditions which have shaped these creatures. One of the most grating things about Vicki is her obsession with outmoded slang, which gives her utterances a ‘faintly grotesque stamp of 1925’. On a larger scale, dead usages and attitudes weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living in ‘this dead-and-alive house’ in a ‘dead-and-alive little town’.
Few of the characters cope gracefully with the changing social order highlighted by the war and the American presence. Thwaites sees the world as being turned upside down, and even Miss Roach feels embarrassed and awkward when another American soldier shows up in the pub with a couple of shopgirls in tow. Pub-going middle-class women in general are seen as a ‘population’ that’s been ‘conjured into being’ by the times. So are crowds at the cinema and commuters, who merely ‘imagine they are going into London and coming out again more or less of their own free will’. Yet the forces at work on Hamilton’s people seem more like gods or mischievous spirits than anything drawn from his adventures in historical materialism. In his earlier novels, booze is sometimes pictured as containing ‘possessing devils’, ‘wild fiends’; The Slaves of Solitude extends this kind of thinking. Commuters are breathed in and out by London, a ‘crouching monster’ that sucks them up with its ‘respiratory apparatus of trains and termini’. And the war is everywhere, ‘snubbing and nagging’, ‘emptying the shelves of the shops’. If the warring nations seem surprisingly well represented in Thames Lockden, it’s because the war has ‘taken on the character of the inventor and proprietor of some awful low, cosmopolitan night-club’.
Hamilton’s final books, the Gorse novels, were meant to be a moral panorama of his generation. He initially spoke of a ‘whole series’, a ‘Human Comedy’ tracking Ernest Ralph Gorse, ‘a really wonderful monster of a villain’, from 1912 to the early 1950s. But his energies gave out as he dictated Unknown Assailant, the slim third and final volume of the sequence, leaving Gorse in the middle of his oddly ineffectual criminal career. As a result, the character isn’t shown becoming the postwar sex murderer Hamilton intended him to be.
A year older than Hamilton, and like him a product of private schools in Hove and London, Gorse is a con man who, ‘had he not been what he was, might have been a highly successful novelist’. As if avenging the sufferings of earlier Hamilton protagonists, he specialises in fleecing credulous women with the aid of alcohol and a superficially dashing manner. Esther Downes, his victim in The West Pier, works in a Brighton sweetshop. Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, in Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, is a colonel’s widow with a bogus Anglo-Indian demeanour living in what she calls ‘a pied-à-terre’ in Reading. Unknown Assailant finds Gorse targeting a West London barmaid, Ivy Barton, and her father, a ‘most reactionary’ working-class Tory. Gorse shows a certain satirical flair when equipping himself with grand relatives, winning over Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, for example, by hinting at the colonial massacres perpetrated by ‘General Gorse of Assandrava’. But his methods are unvarying – talking up a forthcoming windfall, securing and repaying small loans and so on – and his cash takings are not impressive: £500 lifted from Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce is his largest known haul, and after that, Hamilton says, his career started going downhill.
Although there are pointed references in the trilogy to a childhood episode in which he ‘tied a small girl to a cricket roller in an obscure shed’, Gorse’s ‘unusual sexual desires’ are rarely acted on. When he’s finally shown tying up an adult victim, the scene goes awkwardly for him: the girl is too dumbfounded to be frightened. The encounter ends with both parties thanking each other politely as he scuttles off with her cash. Hamilton takes the opportunity to explain that, as any ‘keeper or frequenter of brothels’ could tell you, Gorse’s ‘so-called perversion’ is only objectionable because of ‘the highly distasteful way in which he indulged it. But then Gorse exhibited bad taste in almost everything he did.’
Gorse has reddish hair and a gingery moustache that distracts the unwary from his permanent look of smelling something nasty on his upper lip. On the West End streets, he exercises a Dracula-like authority over the darker symbols of Hamilton’s world. He plies his victims with drink but has no taste for alcohol and is ‘always repelled by drunkenness’. Prostitutes – with whom he mixes ‘only socially’ – like and defer to him, and he’s good with cars, able to fix an engine and knowledgable about the motor trade, which usually plays an important part in his scams. At the same time, he gets his clubland mannerisms wrong, fails to keep his stories straight, and generally makes ‘absurd, seemingly totally inconsequent, blunders’. He’s practised in flippant ye olde-speak, as favoured by ‘very unwholesome minds’, and sometimes wears a monocle that makes him resemble ‘a curious, undistinguished mixture between Bertie Wooster and Satan’. Some of the props he uses to establish his bona fides are taken directly from Bernard Hamilton, who liked having things engraved with crests in line with his claimed ducal pedigree. While his snobbery is ‘deep and bitter’, however, Gorse takes little pleasure in the fantasies he spins or even the lifestyle perks they’re designed to attract.
Nor does he take much pleasure in anything else, because Hamilton gives him no inner life to speak of. From the first page of The West Pier, he’s seen as belonging to a ‘rare but identifiable’ type, one the narrator has studied in unconventional detail. Some of the information on these nameless ones is quantitative. ‘Seventy-five per cent of them belong to the submerged classes,’ with the rest scattered among ‘all kinds of higher strata’. But the main emphasis is on fieldwork. They plod the streets wearing raincoats, behave strangely in tea shops and tend to drift into the army. Though taciturn, they’re capable of talking at great length. Above all, it’s ‘extremely difficult to guess what goes on beneath the surface of their minds. It is only from their surface behaviour, and surface utterances, that the depths can be dimly understood or estimated.’ The narrator, who presents himself as a ‘social botanist’, makes good on this manifesto, disdaining speculation about Gorse’s motives and coining hydraulic metaphors for his doings. The furthest he’s prepared to go is that Gorse’s kind, like Thwaites’s, act ‘somnambulistically’, living ‘a sort of dream-life’ and nosing out people’s weaknesses through robotic procedures that only look intuitive.
And if Gorse belongs to a type, so do all the other characters. Hamilton throws in extensive disquisitions on retired colonels (either seedy or self-consciously choleric), their wives (disagreeable), servants (often crueller than their masters) and the ‘vindictively moustached middle class and proletariat’ of Gorse’s boyhood. There are further displays of arcane statistical knowledge: Ivy’s father is said not to have beaten her in early life ‘much more than an average gamekeeper beats his daughter’. Edwardian mating rituals are viewed with detached astonishment. ‘It is intensely difficult,’ Hamilton writes in The West Pier as Gorse trades laboured puns with Esther, ‘to believe that sane young people ever talked liked this. They did, however.’ The pier itself, where the meeting takes place, is described as a ‘sex-battleship’. Glen Alan, the unexalted Plumleigh-Bruce residence, looks ‘as though the builder had had some sort of infantile seaside mania for shingled beaches, and that, to indulge this passion, he had, having covered the external walls with thick glue, used some extraordinary machine with which to spray them densely with small pebbles’.
There’s obviously limited comic mileage to be had here, and Hamilton exhausts it before the end of the second Gorse book. (As even he half-acknowledged, Unknown Assailant is a drunken fiasco.) There are funny scenes in all three novels, but the elaborate impersonation of a bemused social scientist mostly serves as a reminder that Hamilton, by this stage, really was as out of it as his narrator pretends to be in order to sneer at pebbledash pieds-à-terre. While the sinister touches help, The West Pier’s comedy of mortified adolescent self-consciousness sours into routine mockery of slow-moving targets; the Komic Kapitals come back with a vengeance. When not laying into bourgeois grotesques, Hamilton expresses particular disappointment with the working-class characters’ aesthetic insensitivity as well as their lack of revolutionary spirit. Ivy’s father is ashamed of his pleasantly old-fashioned furniture and takes pride in ‘his large wireless set – in fact the only abomination in the room’. The very poor, ‘alas, do not do not usually behave at all wisely’ after a run-in with someone like Gorse. If they don’t sink into apathy, they ‘insist too much upon their rights, thus displeasing those who are trying to help them . . . Inheritors of such blood are unlikely to fight boldly against a cheat or oppressor.’
Hamilton takes these musings quite seriously, and there are other, more poignant traces here and there of his ambitions for the Gorse novels as a measure of his times. The sleepwalking villain, it’s occasionally hinted, has something to do with the First World War, during which he ‘inhaled unconsciously the distant aroma of universal evil and was made happy’. Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse ends with an unexpected fantasia depicting Gorse as both a product and a deluded victim of the motor car and technological civilisation in general. But the main impression is of a despairing, heavily deterministic vision of interwar society as a Heath Robinson contraption, with railway porters, housemaids, estate agents, widows, psychopathic fraudsters and retired military men all puffing and spinning away to no well-defined end. ‘Cogs,’ a Plumleigh-Bruce hanger-on slurs towards the end of a night out with Gorse. ‘We’re all Cogs in a Great Machine, you know. Aren’t we?’ Yes, Gorse replies imperturbably, ‘that’s all we are.’ It comes across as a fair approximation of where Hamilton’s thinking ended up, though it might be better to remember him with the more generous line that closes The Slaves of Solitude, echoing this lifelong atheist’s hoarse words in the pub: ‘God help us . . . every one, all of us.’