‘The West Pier’ by Patrick Hamilton – reluctantly abandoned at 51%

I had high hopes for this book. Patrick Hamilton wrote the play ‘Rope’ that Hitchcock turned into a film and also wrote the film ‘Gaslight’ that we get the term gaslighting from, so I expected something good.

‘The West Pier is the. the first book of ‘The Gorse Trilogy’ following the life of the unpleasant Gorse, a sort of Ripley without the charm.

I read the opening and thought I was on to a good thing as I heard a strong, original authorial voice saying:

There is a sort of man – usually a lance-corporal or corporal and coming from the submerged classes – who, returning to England from military service in distant parts of the earth, does not announce his arrival to his relations. Instead of this he will tramp, or hitchhike, his way to his home, and in the early hours of the morning will be heard gently throwing pebbles up at his wife’s bedroom window. 

It is impossible to say whether he does this because he hopes to surprise his wife in some sinful attachment, or whether it has never occurred to him to use the telephone, the telegraph service, or the post. If the latter were the case one might suppose him to be merely unimaginative: but this type of person is actually far from being unimaginative. What concerns us here is that such a person certainly belongs to a type, rare but identifiable. There may exist only one in a hundred thousand, or more, people: but, by a shrewd observer, they can be discerned and classified without mistake. 

The main feature which characterizes these people is, of course, their silence – their almost complete dumbness and numbness amidst a busy and loquacious humanity. They are not, in fact, inarticulate: at certain times they will talk at great length. They are able, also, to laugh, though this is usually at a joke of a commonplace, cruel, or dirty nature. But although they are able to talk and laugh, they seem to do this only spasmodically and on the surface: beneath this surface they are dreaming, dully brooding, seeming incessantly and as it were somnambulistically to contemplate themselves and the prospects of their own advantage. 

They are almost exclusively a male species. Seventy-five per cent of them belong to the submerged classes: the remaining (and perhaps most interesting) twenty-five per cent are scattered amongst all kinds of higher strata. They all tend to drift into the Army. During wars, or in periods of social upheaval, they appear, as if vengefully, to come into their own, to gain ephemeral power and standing. 

As boys at school they are generally bullies, but quiet ones – twisters of wrists in distant corners. As adults, naturally, they can no longer behave in such a way, and some of them wear on their faces what may be a slow, pensive resentment at being thwarted in this matter. 

They use few gestures, and, like most great inner thinkers, they are great walkers, plodders of the streets in raincoats. 

They are conspicuously silent and odd in their behaviour with their wives or their women. In public houses, or in tea-shops, they are to be seen sitting with women without uttering a word to them, sometimes for as much as an hour on end.

Unfortunately, these are not just verbal pyrotechnics to hook the reader at the start, they are a fair sample of what all the text is like.

By the time I was a quarter of the way into the novel, the authorial voice that I’d at first found fascinating had begun to wear on me.

Hamilton described the behaviours and motivations of the characters with a cringe-making accuracy that is all insight and no empathy. 

It’s a relentless flow of ‘you-see-how-it-is?’ and ‘Of-course-we-are-not surprised-by-how-badly-this-is going.’ descriptions that seem powered by underlying anger and disgust with the world.

It was slow going. It was a little like drinking vinegar; even when it’s the best quality vinegar, it’s not something you look forward to doing more of.

I waded on to the middle of the book but it became a chore. The explanations of people’s thoughts and motives were laboured and clumsy. The authroial voice (which is almost never silent) was fueled by so much anger and disappointment in the world in general that it was like listening to Lenny Bruce reading his trial transcripts. It didn’t help that the story at the heart of this authorial bile seems to be nothing more than a twisted young man maliciously interfering in the lives of two nice but ordinary young people. 

By 51% I realised that I was picking up ‘The West Pier’ because I was supposed to finish it rather than because I want to read it so I reluctantly set it aside.

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