Interest in Patrick Hamilton’s work is growing, to judge by the attendance at Brighton’s Jubilee library on a cold March evening. A panel, consisting of Richard Crane , former resident dramatist at the National Theatre, Peter Gutteridge, the Observer’s crime fiction critic, and Laura Wilson, the Observer’s crime fiction critic, and chaired by Faynia Williams, , discussed his work following free screenings of Gaslight and Rope earlier in the week. In her introduction Williams referred to Doris Lessing’s, Grahame Greene’s and Hitchcock’s’ admiration of Hamilton. Why then, she asked, is he not taught in schools?
It is impossible to discuss Hamilton without also discussing drink, sex and Marxism. While the evening covered the first two thoroughly, I shall say more about the last below. Richard Crane spoke on the themes of drama and drink in Hamilton. For Hamilton, drinking itself was an art form, he defined four stages of drunkenness: plain drunk, fighting drunk, blind drunk and dead drunk.
Crane pointed out one of the remarkable things about Hamilton, his ability to work in several genres: novels, plays in the theatre, on radio and television and in film. He began as an actor and Assistant Stage Manager, though without great talent. Rope appeared in 1929, first at the Strand, and then at the Ambassadors, when Hamilton was in his mid-twenties. After less successful efforts, such as John Brown’s Body, of which only one line survives, the Duke in Darkness, the Governess, the Procurator of Judea and the Man Upstairs, he wrote Gaslight which had its premiere in 1938. Val Gielgud produced a radio play, and Dennis Price appeared in a television adaptation of Rope.
Hamilton was rightly ashamed of the film treatments of his work. There was an English version of Gaslight, but MGM sought out and destroyed all the prints when planning the American version with Ingrid Bergman. Hangover Square is, as has been discussed on this blog before, awful, makes George Harvey Bone, for no good reason, into a composer, changes the period of the novel to the late nineteenth century and manages, Crane reminded us, to show a Hangover Square in which nobody drinks. He quoted James Agate’s description of the film as, “the worst betrayal of a first-class novel that I can remember”.
There is also a strong dramatic element in the fiction, and Crane reminded us of Tuppence Coloured and the pantomime scene in Slaves of Solitude, concluding by reading a famously cringe-making passage in the Slaves of Solitude in which Mr Thwaites torments Miss Roach with his, “I Hay ma Doots ... as the Scotsman said ... Of Yore”.
Peter Gutteridge wanted to talk about locations and suspense in Hamilton. The fiction, set in boarding houses, hotels and pubs, draws on Hamilton’s own childhood experience of cheap hotels and boarding houses, as well as considerable experience of pubs and acute ear for the banalities of tipsy conversation. Gutteridge still hears pub conversations of the same timbre in the pubs of the Lanes. As for suspense, he felt that, while the novels were less suspenseful, the plays were much more so. He reminded us that the plays mention very contemporary issues such as stalking and telephone harassment.
Laura Wilson spoke about women in Hamilton. Writers, she said, plunder other people’s pain. He was one of the few writers of his time to give equal weight to men and women. Hamilton’s father was a failed author of embarrassing “eye-wateringly bad” historical novels. His sister was an alcoholic, who became the scapegoat for the rest of the family, none of them abstainers, and the young Hamilton grew up infatuated with his mother. His two unsuccessful marriages, his affairs, particularly with Geraldine Fitzgerald, the model for Netta in Hangover Square, his relations with prostitutes, and his complex about his appearance after a disfiguring car crash, all contributed to a desire to punish good looking women, comparable to Dickens’s revenge on women who rejected him. As for sado-masochism, she reminded us of the comic element in masochistic practices, evident in Gorse. She felt some of the speculation about Hamilton’s sex life, the bondage and the prostitutes, was implausible, given his alcohol consumption, and that his love was reserved for the bottle.. She read us the end of Slaves of Solitude.
Williams asked the panel what it is about Hamilton that inspires or affects their own writing. Laura Wilson felt that he was the best example of British noir and as good as Dickens, with his vision of the cramped irritation of city life. Peter Gutteridge, as well as the Brighton settings, enjoyed the mood and tone. Richard Crane thought him the missing link between Dostoevsky and Pinter. Someone made a comparison with Lowry, though this was disputed.
Questions covered his relationship with his brother Bruce, Laura Wilson pointing out that Hamilton knew that his was the greater talent, his verse, of which there is little, why there should be a revival of interest in Hamilton now, which was attributed to his very modern style (someone said he was born a generation too early), whether he could be called a romantic, Laura Wilson saying he could not, (though I slightly disagree), views on the television treatment of Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, whether the character of Gorse could have been based on Neville Clevely Heath and the relationship between Gorse and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley.
The only mentions of Hamilton’s politics were dismissive, as if his beliefs were as quaint as the nonsense that W .B Yeats believed. Someone said, “of course, our beliefs will look strange to people in fifty years time,” as if Hamilton’s seem strange to us in 2007. I disagree. Not only is there nothing odd about Hamilton’s Marxism, either for its time or in hindsight, it is integral to his art. No writer has better described the fascist mind-set, whether the Blackshirt sympathisers of Netta’s set in Hangover Square, or the awful Thwaites.
There is no scholarly bibliography of Hamilton. The two lives by Nigel Jones and Sean French are well worth reading. The experimental BBC programme database also has some interesting results for a search for Patrick Hamilton.