‘He needed whiskey as a car needs petrol’ - The rise and fall of Patrick Hamilton
PUBLISHED: 11:45 25 June 2019 | UPDATED: 14:42 25 June 2019
Patrick Hamilton, one of the most gifted and admired writers of his generation, found his final home in north Norfolk. In the first piece of a two-part series, ALAN TUTT from Cromer Museum traces his rise and fall.
Few people are aware that novelist and dramatist, Patrick Hamilton, spent his final years on the North Norfolk coast.
His writing is mainly associated with the seedier sides of Brighton and London in the 1930s and '40s, rather than the open spaces and seascapes of Norfolk. However, after literary success, his life had entered a downward spiral.
His books had fallen out of fashion, he'd suffered a disfiguring injury when hit by a car, and he had a rapidly escalating alcohol problem. JB Priestley saw him as 'an unhappy man who needed whiskey as a car needs petrol'.
It is easy to imagine Hamilton's weltschmerz - his world weariness - being assuaged by the sweet melancholia of simply staring at the North Sea.
His troubled soul soothed by the rhythmic surge of surf beating on sand.
Hamilton was born in Hassocks, Sussex in 1904, but he spent his childhood living in boarding houses in Chiswick and Hove. His father, Bernard, was a failed novelist, an alcoholic with an impecunious lifestyle.
Sound familiar? After a brief career as an actor, Patrick turned to writing. His first novels, Monday Morning, Craven House and Twopence Coloured, caused barely a publishing ripple. His breakthrough came in 1929 with the play, Rope, which Alfred Hitchcock later made into a film with James Stewart; and, that same year, the novel, The Midnight Bell.
This was the first part of a successful trilogy - The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement followed - entitled Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky It was later dramatized by the BBC, relating the same story from three different viewpoints. Bob, a sailor turned bar waiter; Jenny, a prostitute whom Bob becomes obsessed with; and Ella, the barmaid at the pub who is secretly in love with Bob.
Hangover Square, 1941, is often judged his most accomplished work.
It opens with protagonist George Harvey Bone walking on the cliffs in Hunstanton; inhabits the pubs and lowlife milieu of Earls Court, where Hamilton himself lived, then Brighton. It deals with boozing and sexual obsession - Bone is in turn captivated and humiliated by the alluring, manipulative Netta - a reflection of events in Hamilton's own life.
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There is a dark undercurrent of the pre-war rise of fascism, all wrapped up in Hamilton's acerbic black humour. Grahame Greene eulogised it as the best book written about Brighton, even though he had himself written the unforgettable Brighton Rock.
Hangover Square also became a film, a noir-ish thriller set in London, with an evocative Bernard Hermann score. As did another Hamilton play, Gas Light, with its star-studded cast of Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, Angela Lansbury and Ingrid Bergman - for which she received Best Actress Oscar.
Gaslight was performed in 2002 by the Sheringham Players - a suitable homage to a latter-day local.
In Hamilton's writing, a misanthropic authorial voice grew which became increasingly disillusioned, more cynical and darkly bleak. This is notable in Slaves of Solitude, and his Gorse Trilogy - The West Pier, Mr Simpson and Mr Gorse, and Unknown Assailant. These three novels feature a devious sexual predator and conman. It morphed into LWT's The Charmer, softened for the screen by the smooth suaveness of Nigel Havers.
Hamilton's first brush with the county of Norfolk came in 1930. Lois Martin, his first wife, rented a cottage at Burnham Overy Staithe.
It was called Harbour View; the middle one of three in a row, one occupied by their helpful landlady, Mrs Bird.
It was draughty, primitive and riddled with spiders; no running water, just a pump, and an outdoor lavatory, few utensils and brutally cold in winter. But Hamilton took comfort in the seclusion, the bleak marshy landscape; 'sombre flatness' he called it.
London became a place to do business, see old chums, Overy Staithe his refuge; the simple life in a small, tightknit fishing community - the sailing bods and charabancs banished for winter. The isolation, an inspiration to write, often lacking in the teeming metropolis. His brother. Bruce, another aspiring novelist, visited and rented an adjoining cottage. They enjoyed long walks and fireside chats; lunch of Bradenham ham, port-treated Stilton with Bath Oliver biscuits.
But the boozing remained undiminished. During this time his wife banned him from the local pub - The Hero, which was close to their cottage - but she did allow him occasional pints in The Lord Nelson at Burnham Thorpe and The Ostrich at South Creake.
By the end of the '30s he fell out of love with the village. New places, new people, beckoned and war was looming.
- Interested in local history? Cromer Museum is running guided history and archaeology walks. Saturday, July 20 at 1.45pm is Salthouse Prehistoric Barrows and St Nicholas Church with landscape historian, Ian Groves. Saturday, September 14 at 1.45pm is Brampton Roman Town again with Ian.
- There are two Ghosts and Legends walks, on Sunday, August 4 at 6.45pm, and on Sunday, October 27 at 3.30pm, with Rebecca Lusher and Anna Crane; two Cromer at War walks on Sunday, July 21 at 12.45pm and Sunday, August 25 at 12.45pm with Alan Tutt; and two Cromer History walks with Cromer Museum curator, Alistair Murphy, on Sunday, August 18 at 12.45pm Sunday, September 15 at 12.45pm. For bookings and more details call 01263 513543 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Walks cost £4 for 1.5/2 hours.