In his play Rope (1929) Patrick Hamilton presented a very distinctive war poet. ‘Enormously affected’ and ‘infinitely weary’, war has damaged him both in mind and body, and has destroyed his confidence in the usual values of society. Yet he is the one who realises that his two hosts are murderers, and stands up with them. Hamilton contrasts his hard-earned disillusion with the trivial hedonism of the two young killers.
In the novel Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953) Hamilton creates a very different war poet, a wonderfully ludicrous one. We meet him in The Friar, the Reading pub in which many of the novel’s key moments are set:
The military-looking man had in fact been a military man. He had joined the army during the 1914-1918 War and had risen to the rank of Major. He was known, and liked to be known, as Major Parry.
That is the first of Hamilton’s scornful digs at the character. He is reminding readers that it was considered bad form for a man who had been an officer only for the duration to use his military rank afterwards. The novel is set ten years after the Armistice, but the Major (who never actually left England during the conflict) clings to his rank, perhaps because it is the only interesting thing about him. Hamilton presents him as a rather silly man who at the age of fifty-five was undergoing a male menopause: ‘he drank and thought and talked about women in a silly way too much’.
In the pub, the Major took out pencil and paper, and ‘began to scribble and think deeply, and then scribble, and think deeply again.’
Hamilton reveals that theree years earlier he ‘had had the bad luck of having an Armistice Day poem accepted, and spectacularly printed, on the front page, and in a black frame, by a Reading newspaper’
This success has left him desperate to repeat his achievement, and he therefore obsessively keeps trying to perfect another piece for November 11th, 1928. The results are wonderfully appalling:
They are gone, they are gone, they are gone.
Is it worth, then thinking on
Those who anguished as they shone
On Flanders Field?
So taken is he with the repetitive first line of the stanza that he repeats it with variations.
They are fallen, they are fallen
Gives him rhyming problems, and he comes up with such possibilities as :
The slaughter really was, you know, appallin’
‘On sticky wicket – there they were – stonewallin’
The novel has a terrific page where the Major considers a plenitude of rhymes for ‘field’ – every single one of them a sentimental cliché.
Were I teaching the A-Level First World War syllabus, this is a chapter I should photocopy for my students, to get them to analyse what makes the Major such a terrible poet (and to understand why a gush of emotion is not enough to make a good war poem).
The novel is the second in Hamilton’s Gorse Trilogy. The anti-hero of the series is Ernest Ralph Gorse, a sadistic bully who makes his living by cheating women. He is utterly amoral. In the first novel of the series (The West Pier, 1951) he latches on to a vulnerable shop assistant, and swindles her out of all her savings. In Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, he ruins the life of a pretentious widow. In the last book, Unknown Assailant (1955) he more crudely robs a barmaid. In each case the humiliation of the woman is in excess of the need for mere monetary gain; it is cruelty that Gorse finds satisfying.
The First World War is a minor theme running through the novels. The first one begins by imagining the kind of soldier who deliberately returns home unannounced, in order to unsettle his wife, and explains that that was the kind of man Gorse was. Early chapters describe Gorse’s boyhood, and there is a short description of a 1914 incident when ‘something almost resembling a scene, or even a disturbance or riot’ took place at the County Cricket Ground:
About a dozen men, wearing uniforms and blowing through brass instruments, began to march around the outer path encircling the seats and the stands[….] This blowing through military brass was being directed against the flanneled fool still at the wicket while his country was in peril.
Hamilton describes the incident as an ‘entirely unnecessary, gratuitous and largely bestial assault upon the players (curiously akin in atmosphere to the smashing-up of a small store by the henchmen of a gangster)’ and its significance in the novel is that one of the group of small boys following the band is Gorse. While other youths were enjoying a sentimental wallow in patriotic feeling, Gorse was delighted by the bullying, and thrilled by ‘the distant aroma of universal evil’.
Even in the last of the trilogy, Hamilton takes care to set the scene of Gorse’s betrayal of his barmaid in a park just by a War Memorial. To set Gorse’s evil in a context of wider evil? To contrast pious sentimentality with his deliberate cruelty? Both?
The third book is less satisfactory than the others, perhaps because Hamilton was fairly ravaged by alcoholism by 1955. Or rather, it’s gripping enough as a standalone story, but does not conclude the trilogy very well. There have been hints throughout that Gorse, led on to murder, will get his come-uppance, but he doesn’t. He just goes off to cheat and swindle again. I found this disappointing, not because I’d want to see him punished, but because I should like to see how he copes with punishment. Hamilton could have written a stunning condemned-cell scene, but chose not to, alas.