Lost Soul of Sheringham – the life and death of Patrick Hamilton
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. 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. 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.
After the war, in 1946, Bruce and Patrick spent a week in Holt, trolling around the countryside in Hamilton’s Ford. They revisited Overy Staith where Bruce was amused that Patrick did not want to be recognised – had he embarrassed himself one time too many in the local there? They played golf at the clifftop links at Sheringham, perhaps it was then he took a shine to the town?
Hamilton returned to North Norfolk for good in 1958. Having previously rented houses at Long Acre in Cley; and in Blakeney itself, at Highfield House, for ten bob a week. He described looking south from the latter, ‘an absolutely unspoiled view of miles of the most rural part of Norfolk – a garden big enough to turn into a miniature golf course, which I’ve done’. He later spurned golf, as the drinking further kicked in.
Hamilton had divorced first wife Lois in 1953. His second wife Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot, another minor novelist, known affectionately as ‘La’, obtained somewhere permanent for them to live in Norfolk. He later provided this description of the solace he took from living in Sheringham, in a letter to Bruce, who had decamped to Barbados,
‘… a sort of suburban house with a garden….divided into four flats. You can see the sea from it, about five hundred yards away, and the golf course can be cut into (dodging the Club House) by walking for about three minutes. I’m very attached to it and don’t want to ever leave it. But I expect that sooner or later I’ll have to, or want to’.
That house was rambling Martincross, on the corner of Boulevard and St Nicholas Place, in Sheringham. Architecturally it was reminiscent of Hamilton’s Sussex birthplace. Spiritually ‘the rural recluse of Sheringham was no longer the man who had walked 20,000 streets of London’ as Nigel Jones put it in his Hamilton biography, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’. Within a short space of time, Patrick suffered a series of bereavements causing him to morosely observe, ‘one feels like a surviving player for Manchester United,’ a reference to the recent Munich ‘Busby Babes’ air crash.
In 1960, Bruce paid his last visit. He liked Martincross but noted how cold the flat was, with gas fires on almost permanently. When La went away, Patrick gave up his bedroom for his brother and took the spare. Bruce tried not to be critical of his brother’s drinking but it must have been hard to watch. The housekeeper, Mrs Cooper, would try and coax Patrick to eat, but it was a liquid diet he wanted. ‘Death in life’, Bruce called it. Interestingly, Patrick cut his brother out of his will. All would go to La and first wife, Lois. Bruce was understandably bitter with that outcome
Whether he wished to or not, Patrick never did leave Sheringham. He died there on 23rd September, 1962. By then, it was Guinness for breakfast, gin through the day and a bottle of scotch to top it off. The local doctor, Dr Geldard, became a regular visitor, but to no avail. Cirrhosis of the liver and organ failure did for Patrick Hamilton. He was just fifty-eight and one can only guess at the misery that drove him to such an end. His writing, mirroring his life, confronts us with loneliness and futility. The sheer absurdity of being human. La’s journal describes his demise poignantly,
‘I got into a dressing gown, listened to P’s breathing, then went into the kitchen, snatched a biscuit and cheese, washed up the tea, too tense to sit and do nothing, then went to listen to P. again – there was silence.’ She called it ‘the silence of snow’.
This underrated writer, whom Doris Lessing described as a ’marvellous novelist…grossly neglected’, was no more. His wish was to be cremated. To a small handful of mourners, La read a passage from Shelley’s ‘Lines written in Dejection at Naples’. Patrick’s ashes were scattered at Blakeney flats – a suitably desolate and isolated spot.
An odd postscript to Hamilton’s residence at Martincross, is that there is now a blue plaque attached to the house. Hamilton would have smiled wryly, for it is not dedicated to him but to an earlier resident, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who wrote ‘Sea Symphony’ there in 1919.
Those wishing to read more about Patrick Hamilton could try:
Patrick Hamilton – A Life – by Sean French
Through a Glass, Darkly – The Life of Patrick Hamilton – by Nigel Jones
The Light Went Out – by Bruce Hamilton