Magazine article The Spectator

'The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton', by Tom Cullen - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton', by Tom Cullen - Review

Article excerpt

The Man Who Was Norris: The life of Gerald Hamilton Tom Cullen

Daedalus, pp.338, £11.99, ISBN: 9781909232433

In his time, Gerald Hamilton (1890-1970) was an almost legendary figure, but he is now remembered -- if at all -- as the model for the genial conman in Christopher Isherwood's novel Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). 'There are some incidents in my career, as you doubtless know, which are very easily capable of misinterpretation,' Arthur Norris tells the book's narrator, and Hamilton affected to be deeply shocked by the assorted vices attributed to his fictional alter ego. He nevertheless exploited the connection throughout his long and disgraceful life.

When Isherwood met him, Hamilton (né Souter) was employed in Berlin by the Times as its German sales representative. He also moonlighted as a fixer for Willi Münzenberg, 'the notorious communist, who presides in Berlin on behalf of Moscow over the doings of the League Against Imperialism and Friends of Soviet Russia', as British Intelligence described him. Though it sounds too good to be true, Hamilton was lured into sharing accommodation with 'the Great Beast', Aleister Crowley, who took time out from practising the black arts to report back to Special Branch in London on his flatmate's Comintern activities. The two men were well matched, because Hamilton himself spent much of his time spying on people and selling information, and although he did not quite acquire Crowley's public reputation as the embodiment of evil, he was at one time described as 'the wickedest man in Europe'.

Opinions vary as to quite how wicked Hamilton really was. Isherwood portrayed Norris as a lovable rogue, though he would later admit that 'beneath his amiable surface', he was 'an icy cynic' whose misdeeds were 'tiresome rather than amusing'. Stephen Spender regarded Hamilton as genuinely evil, responsible for driving to suicide a young man he was blackmailing. John Lehmann was also repelled, complaining that Isherwood didn't care in the least whether the people he befriended were 'good or evil, destructive and corrupt or life-enhancing. All he wants is that they should be good Isherwood copy.' One of the extraordinary things about Hamilton is that even those he treated shabbily or worse nevertheless felt that their lives had been enhanced by knowing him, and thus forgave him.

Although Isherwood lent a hand, Hamilton was the principal creator of his own legend. Discovering the truth behind the tall stories is a fraught undertaking, not least because Hamilton wrote three autobiographies -- As Young as Sophocles (1937), Mr Norris and I (1956) and The Way It Was With Me (1969) -- which give wholly different versions of even the most basic biographical information. Other accounts of Hamilton's life provide further strategic obfuscation: Robin Maugham's five-part 'exposé' in the People newspaper was in fact concocted in collusion with Hamilton, while John Symonds's splendid Conversations with Gerald (1974) allowed the old reprobate to spin yet more yarns.

Now comes The Man Who Was Norris by the late Tom Cullen, a book blocked during the author's lifetime for legal reasons -- in part by Maugham, for whom Hamilton apparently procured boys. …

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