9:00am Monday 5th March 2012
By Adam Trimingham
Graham Greene said The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton was the best book ever written about Brighton.
Coming from the author of Brighton Rock, that is no mean compliment and Hamilton’s many admirers will say it is well-deserved.
The story concerns a conman called Gorse and it covers much the same seedy but compelling territory as Greene’s more famous novel.
While Greene liked Brighton he never lived in the resort, unlike Hamilton who was brought up in Hove.
Hamilton was also admired by John Betjeman, who went on to become Poet Laureate, and by the well-regarded contemporary novelist David Lodge, who has compared him to Dickens.
JB Priestley described its setting as a “kind of no-man’s land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet.”
Born in Hassocks in 1904, Hamilton lived in boarding houses in Hove, frequently changing address because of his father’s poverty caused by alcoholism.
It gave him a lasting dislike of Hove, which occasionally shows itself in his writing, but then Hamilton was a good hater.
The only address at which he stayed more than a few months was in First Avenue and there is a plaque to him on a house. A Brighton and Hove bus is also named after him.
Much later he wrote a typically gloomy piece about his childhood in Hove, although he was rather gentler about Hassocks.
He wrote of “grey, drab, tall, treeless houses” leading down to the sea that conveyed no social or historical message to him.
His own success came early with a play called Rope, which made him a rich man. It was turned into a film, as was another work by him called Gaslight.
This followed a brief and unsuccessful period as an actor, which still managed to provide material for his plays.
He also wrote a number of novels including two follow-ups to The West Pier, but these were not set in Brighton. Although dark and brooding, they contain some dark humour. Together they are known as the Gorse trilogy.
An earlier work called Twopence Coloured also had a background in Hove before moving on to West London, where Hamilton lived in later life. But it was not well received and was out of print for many years before a recent revival.
It tells the story of 19-year-old Jackie Mortimer, who leaves Hove in search of a life on the London stage, only to become entangled in provincial theatre and complex affairs of the heart.
He wrote a semi-autobiographical book called 20,000 Streets Under The Sky in 1935. But the best known of his novels is Hangover Square, written in 1941. It deals both with heavy drinking and the rise of Fascism.
Hamilton had an abiding hatred of cars after he was knocked down and seriously injured by one in the 1920s.
It caused lasting pain and disfigurement.
He was in no way put off drink by the example of his father and became an alcoholic while still a young man.
His heavy drinking led to a deterioration of his literary ability and he published little of note after the Gorse trilogy in the 1950s. He died 50 years ago this year of cirrhosis.
At that time his reputation was low but it has slowly revived ever since, and two biographies were written about him in the early 1990s.
He was married twice but his depression and alcoholism did not make him a good husband and in many ways he was a loner.
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