The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton

October 30, 2020
The Man Who Was Norris: The Life of Gerald Hamilton

Immortalised in Christopher Isherwood's classic novel Mr NorrisChanges Trains, Gerald Hamilton was the real-life model for theseedy but beguiling Mr Norris. Isherwood put him on the literarymap but he was on other maps already, including those of policeforces across Europe, and he was interned in Brixton prison duringboth world wars as a threat to national security. A Communist agentin the Thirties, Hamilton later drifted to the right and put hisfaith in the 'sacred cause' of absolute monarchy. Despite hissomewhat grotesque appearance he had a fruity charm, and he kneweveryone from the last Tsar and Guy Burgess to Sir Oswald Mosleyand Aleister Crowley, who kept tabs on him for the Special Branchwhen they shared a flat in Weimar Berlin. Hamilton never lost hisimpeccable Edwardian manners or his love of wine and food, whateverlife threw at him in the way of personal and global crises. 'Welive in stirring times,' he liked to say, 'tea-stirring times.'Written in the 1970s, the late Tom Cullen's biography of thislouche and dubious character was long thought lost, but themanuscript has been traced by Phil Baker, biographer of DennisWheatley and Austin Osman Spare, who contributes an introduction,'The Importance of Being Gerald'. 'With a cast of characters thatincludes Roger Casement, Edmund Backhouse, Aleister Crowley, AlfredDouglas, Rudolf Hess, W.H.Auden, Diana Mosley, Brian Howard and GuyBurgess, Cullen could scarcely go wrong. Still, The Man Who WasNorris proves hilarious and worrying on every page. It is joyfullyincredible, campily anarchic - and crying out to be turned into anopera.'Richard Canning in The Literary ReviewCullen's book is among other things a kind of alternativeaccount of the 20th century viewed through the distorted prism ofhis subject's monstrous but engaging character. Well researched,properly sceptical, written in a nicely relaxed style, and oftenuproariously funny, this is absolutely the biography Hamilton bothneeded and deserves.Peter Parker in The Spectator'Cullen is good, too, at conveying the charisma his subjectwielded to dupe otherwise discerning people - a charisma whichenlivens these pages already rife with titillation and scandal.Matt Sturrock in The Times Literary Supplement