Sunday, 23 February 2014

Literary Car Wrecks: Causality in Two Curious Cases of Gynæphobia and Beetlemania

Denton Welch                             Patrick Hamilton

Can one inciting incident in a feted writer’s life warp his emotional responses such that they tend towards misogyny or, as critically, towards mechanophobia? 

Well, yes. If the causal agent in the causal chain is a careless motor car driver and the writer suffers a near-fatal collision and, moreover, the motor car driver is a woman or a drunk, or both.

In the early 1930s two writers met such a misfortune, playwright and novelist, Patrick Hamilton, and artist and pseudoautobiographical novelist, Denton Welch, a misfortune that left both men emotionally and bodily scarred, their imaginations tormented by the reality of shattered self-image, dashed hopes and impaired physical integrity. 

In January 1932, while out for a walk in Earls Court, Hamilton was hit by a motor car steered by a drunk driver, and dragged through the street. Hamilton suffered severe facial disfigurement and injuries to his limbs, which were to leave him profoundly self-conscious, lamed and insecure. This event hastened the heavy drinking that would end in the chronic melancholic alcoholism that destroyed him before he reached old age.

Three years after Hamilton’s catastrophe, on June 9th, 1935, a Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, Welch – aged twenty – was also hit by a motor car. A careless woman driver. He was thrown from his bicycle. His spine was fractured and he never fully recovered from the injury, enduring recurring, agonising pain, from which he would suffer until his early death, at the age of thirty-three.

Burroughsian sticky white milk oozing from wounded trees?

William Burroughs was not alone in admiring the literary art that sprang from Denton’s precocious pen, perforce held by an invalid’s hand . . . Edith Sitwell and EM Forster were early fans. It’s easy to see why.
But Burroughsian? Certainly, the sensuality of Denton’s descriptions and hallucinatory tight focus on surface texture recall exhibits brought back from LSD trips by explorers of inner space; q.v. an hallucinatory drug-induced freakout I can vouchsafe is the real article; see

Consider this self portrait, after Denton bathes in a river, for instance. (I have rendered the passage from In Youth is Pleasure in the first person.)
At last I dragged myself out and lay down on the bank in the sun. I took off my coat and looked with interest at the Greek sculpture effect which had been caused by my thin wet shirt clinging to my ribs and pectoral muscles. I admired myself. My body looked stronger and bigger, half revealed through folds of clammy cotton. My nipples showed like little icicle points, or tiny mountains on a wide rolling plain.
It’s true. Cut-ups from The Naked Lunch are not dissimilar from glittering fragments a thieving magpie might snatch from Welch’s solipsistic observational art. And choice phrases of his would not seem out of place in drug-fuelled chronicles from the Summer of Love had they been penned some three decades later.

Yet, regrettably, in Welch’s epicene effusions we cannot escape from noticing a peculiar gaucherie that pervades the bildungsroman exuberances; a preciosity overcome by jejunity.  A specific fixation emerges, as a bi-product of arrested development that is the necessary concomitant of invalidism in youth, as these passages from Maiden Voyage (1943) and In Youth is Pleasure (1944) demonstrate. More worryingly, they are hyperphobic in their intensity:
I did not like to see the rubber trees bleeding their milk into little tins strapped to their trunks. It made me remember a nightmare.
    I once found myself in a narrow, squalid street where people jostled me and threw their filth into the gutters. Suddenly I came upon a woman lying on the pavement, her head propped against a wall. She was crying hopelessly and whining and groaning through her tears.

    As I looked down my eyes focused on a great steel hat-pin. A shock of horror ran through me. The hat-pin pierced her left breast, the head and point appearing on each side of the globe of flesh. At her slightest movement milk spurted from the wounds, splashing her clothes and falling on her skin in white bubbles. I passed on, too dazed to think until I had reached the end of the road.
    Now in the rubber plantation at Singapore I remembered this dream again. I turned away from the sticky white milk oozing into the cups from the wounded trees. I waited in the car for the others, and when they had seen enough we drove over the red roads to the hotel where we were going to have lunch.
. . .
At the far end of the cave a low passage seemed to lead still deeper into the heart of the rock. Orvil went up and stood staring into the narrow tunnel. Tremors passed through him. He gulped, and gave a small involuntary skip of excitement. He began to walk down the tunnel as delicately as if great danger waited for him at the other end. Gently he turned the handle of another, much smaller door, then blazed his torch into the darkness beyond. 
    At first he did not take in fully what he saw. There, just opposite him, lying on a carved stone couch against the wall, were Charles and Aphra. Aphra’s dress had slipped down and one of her full breasts lay outside, cushioned on the folds of midnight velvet. Charles had his lips to the large coral nipple. He lay utterly relaxed against Aphra, his arms stretched out above his head to encircle her neck. Their eyes were shut; they seemed wonderfully peaceful and oblivious. 
    But it was only for a moment that Orvil saw them like this. The next instant Aphra sat up and blinked her eyes in fear and surprise. Her hand darted to her dress. Charles turned savagely and shook back his hair. He was about to spring to his feet.
    This brought Orvil to his senses. He flicked off the torch at once, then turned and ran.
. . .
He slowed down to a gentle pace and reconstructed the extraordinary scene in the inner grotto. Again he saw Charles and Aphra lying together on the stone couch. He blamed Aphra severely for not finding someone better to lie withsome very fine man . . .
    Suddenly the extraordinary idea came to him that Aphr
a had been feeding Charles, pretending that he was her baby. Once having imagined this, Orvil could not rid his mind of the grotesque picture. It hung before his eyes, growing and fading, and growing again. He saw Charles’s lips and Aphra’s breasts swelling and diminishing, like rubber objects first filled with air and then deflated. He saw jets of milk, and fountains pouring down.
    As usual, when any thought gnawed at him, he shook his head violently; but nothing changed. The frightening vignette, like something seen through a keyhole, still hung in the air.
. . . 
[Later, swimming . . .] As she came up gasping and spluttering, her eyes shut, Orvil saw the greenish shadowed valley between her big white breasts. The sight shocked him. He thought of Aphra in the grotto. He saw a hairless white camel in the desert. He was riding on its back, between the humps. They were not really humps but Constance’s breasts, or miniature volcanoes with holes at the top, out of which poured clouds of milky-white smoke, and sometimes long, thin, shivering tongues of fire. . . .
Incurable gynæphobia, indeed. Yet to me, more poignantly, the following lush, painterly recollection (from Maiden Voyage) contains a subliminal heartache, an elegiac hankering for the carefree days of able-bodied youth, a youth snatched from him on that inauspicious day in 1935, as he bicycled ‘. . . along a straight wide road, keeping close to the kerb, not looking behind or bothering about the traffic at all . . .’ and rode ‘. . . into a great cloud of agony and sickness.’ (A Voice Through a Cloud.)
Blue napkins, blue china and deep blue glass made me half expect blue food. But the caviare, from Siberia, was as black and glistening and as like oiled ball-bearings as ever.
The pathos of this description can perhaps be appreciated most only by an inveterate bicyclist of Denton’s generation whose dedicated maintenance routines included regular oil-baths for bearings-assemblies such as a bike’s axle hubs and steering column.   

As to the homoerotic subtext detected in Welch’s overwrought themes, I record here an extract from a keynote episode, composed in the sensuous prose for which he is justly celebrated (When I Was Thirteen, 1944). 
I kept very still, and he tied it [the neck-tie] tightly and rapidly with his hands. He gave the bows a little expert jerk and pat. His eyes had a very concentrated, almost crossed look and I felt him breathing down on my face. All down the front our bodies touched featherily; little points of warmth came together. The hard boiled shirts were warmed dinner-plates.
(Incidentally, when as a teenager I attended Brighton General Hospital as an outpatient, the brown-coated porter, who would wheel in the tea-urn trolley before the nurses’ shift began, happened to be Eric Oliver, the lover of Denton Welch and executor of his literary estate; Eric was regarded as quite a colourful character by the nurses.) 

In rereading Welch’s fictionalised autobiographical writings, I am struck by a singular thought: In Denton, semi-paralysed in arrested adolescence, have we found the Ur-Holden Caulfield, do you suppose? Just consider the thematic similarities: the menacing locker-room rituals of exclusive private schools (Repton versus Pencey Prep); the running away from crass schoolboy bullying as a callow act of rebellion; the encounters with red-light low-life; the hypersensitivity to ‘phoneyness’ . . . I could go on.

Certainly, British English literature can claim Denton as a precursor of the WASP adolescent sensibility – never mind that some questionable writings of his remain fey and effete and, for many admirers, his candour will be lauded as the authentic voice of teenage angst and, it must be added, lauded as the more authentic for its being rendered in a voice that never broke.

Hamilton’s Beetlemania – the Land of Coleoptera.

Another Sitwell patron/littérateur figures in the parallel lives of Welch and Hamilton, insofar as Osbert Sitwell, the brother of poetess Edith, was Patrick’s pal, and a baronet who never concealed his curiosity for the mores of Patrick’s early family life observed from the upper middle class gentility of a terraced mansion in Hove.

That life, as has been well-documented, was darkened by the oppressive shadow of the chronic alcoholism that consumed Patrick’s tyrannical father, a serial adulterer and a fraud.

Patrick, too, fell prey to heavy drinking, a dependency that became more problematic following the injuries he received in 1932 . . . a traumatic event that damned him to a lifelong hatred of the motor car and coloured his writings in the years that followed.

His motor accident first appeared in his work after he added a mindless, drunken hit-and-run episode to his novel, The Siege of Pleasure, before its late 1932 publication (the middle segment of his trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, 1935). A reworking of this episode on the perils of driving under the influence may be discovered in his radio play, To the Public Danger, in which a fickle girl rejects her boyfriend for a drunken high-speed car-ride with a rogue heedless of the threat to life.

Thereafter, the obsessive nature of his hatred can be tracked through key extracts from his novels; particularly, Hangover Square, and the sociopathic heartlessness of Peter the Fascist, in a passage that blends a love of heavy drinking and a Marxist loathing of Fascism with a disgust for the motorist:
He [George Harvey Bone] sat there, smoking and drinking with them, and not saying a word. He knew they would be reconciled. He knew they all loved Chamberlain and fascism and Hitler, and that they would be reconciled. Finally they became maudlin . . .
   ‘Well, I think I’m right,’ said Peter. ‘I’ve been to jail for it, anyway!’ And he laughed in his nasty, moustachy way . . .
    ‘I have been in jail twice, to be precise,’ said Peter, lighting another cigarette, and suddenly employing a large, pompous professorial tone. ‘On one occasion for socking a certain left-winger a precise and well deserved sock in the middle of his solar plexus, and on the other for a minor spot of homicide with a motor-car . . . ’
Not surprisingly, then, it is to Patrick Hamilton we owe perhaps the most famous passage in English literature to prophesy the Age of the Car.

It is found in Hamilton’s Ralph Gorse Trilogy whose fleeing conman-killer protagonist drives unconsciously ‘. . . not into the middle of England – but into the middle of the Land of Coleoptera (the rather sinister name for beetles used by serious students of insects).’   

The concluding chapter of Hamilton’s novel (Part II of his trilogy) has been described as a new Book of Revelations and itemises, with the biblical sonorities of a seer, a roll-call of all marques from the grievous plague of automobiles that covers the face of the whole earth, so that the land is darkened  . . .
. . . There were large, stately, black beetles – small, red, dashing (almost flying) beetles – and medium-sized grey, blue, white, brown, yellow, green, orange, cream, maroon, and black, black, black and again black-beetles.
. . . And in such swarms they still got into frantic muddles and obstructed each other – Ford arguing with Hillman, Alfa-Romeo with Bentley, Swift with Sunbeam, Talbot with Wolseley, Alvis with Buick, Cadillac with Fiat, Essex with Chrysler, Hispano-Suiza with Citroën, Austin with Bean, Daimler with Hupmobile, Lagonda with Lincoln, Morris-Cowley with Humber, Morris-Oxford with Studebaker, Vauxhall with Triumph, Standard with Riley, Packard with Singer, Rover with Bugatti, Star with Beardmore, Rolls Royce with Armstrong Siddeley, and Peugot with Invicta – to say nothing of obscure conflicts between the Amilcar, Ansaldo, Arrol-Aster, Ascot, Ballot, Beverley Barnes, Brocklebank, Calthorpe, Charron, Chevrolet, Delage, Delahaye, Erskine, Excelsior, Franklin, Frazer Nash, Gillett, Gwynne, Hotchkiss, Hudson, Imperia, Italia, Jordan, Jowett, Lanchester, Lancia, Marmon, Mercedes, Opel, Overland-Whippet, Panhard-Levassor, Peerless, Renault, Rhode, Salmson, Stutz, Trojan, Turner, Unic, Vermorel, Vulcan, Waverley and Willys-Knight.
. . . In this nightmare of Coleoptera only two sorts of beetle retained any dignity or charm. These – the lumbering Omnibus and Lorry – were very large, very helpful and for the most part smooth-tempered. 
. . . (All the other beetles had begun to kill men, women and children at a furiously increasing pace – practically at random.)
‘Practically at random.’ It was the soulless randomness of their injuries, the pointlessness, the mechanised stupidity of the modern world that places lethal machines in the hands of the feckless, that Patrick Hamilton and Denton Welch never forgave.

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

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