Obituary: Gerald Hanley

Gerald Hanley, writer, born 17 February 1916, died Dun Laoghaire Co Dublin 7 September 1992.

THROUGHOUT his career as a writer Gerald Hanley suffered from the fact that it was his first novel, The Consul at Sunset, published in 1951, which garnered the critical plaudits. Nothing after seemed to them to indicate progress or a new dimension. There is no doubt that Hanley's writing stemmed from his own experiences. He left Ireland for East Africa at the age of 19; he saw Kenya at its colonial best and worst, and Somaliland falling prey to Italian invasion; he fought during the Second World War in Africa and Burma (his first book, Monsoon Victory, 1946, was an account of that 1944 Burma campaign, seen through the eyes of a war correspondent); he was greatly influenced by Indian philosophy and religion, and by a strong conviction that so-called Western 'civilisers' often brought insensitivity and arrogance in their well-meaning luggage.

After the war, Hanley worked for a time for the J. Arthur Rank film organisation in India and Pakistan, and for the World Service of the BBC, but he disliked the discipline of regular employment. Publication of The Consul at Sunset, a brilliant picture of a colonial outpost in Ethiopia and of a man of integrity seeking an honourable course between justice and expediency, changed his life.

Subsequent novels, The Year of the Lion (1954), Drinkers of Darkness (1955), The Journey Homeward (1961) and Gilligan's Last Elephant (1962), three set in Africa and one India, continued to dwell on the mysteries and fantasies of the colonial world.

Warriors and Strangers (1971), perhaps his best book, was something different. A mixture of autobiography, travel writing and polemic, it offers a vivid and inevitably harsh picture of the old Africa which Hanley knew at first hand, but of an unchanging Africa, where the tragedies of famine and drought are impervious to Western aid. After Warriors and Strangers, Hanley became involved in the film world, writing several screenplays, including The Blue Max (1966) and a life of Gandhi (1964). His last novel, Noble Descents (1982), is set in a princely state six years after India's independence and its plot centres on the friendship between the Maharajah and an enigmatic English colonel. Though it is full of comedy, its tone is essentially elegiac, and it sums up all Hanley's divided feelings about the imperial twilight.

Gerald Hanley was, like many Irish writers, fascinated by the influence of the British in the most distant parts of the world, by the mixture of missionary and conqueror, of good intentions vitiated by pettiness and futile squabbles. He was fascinated too, by the arcane rituals of the British Army. An unfinished novel presents a terrifying picture of an NC0, battered by war and alcohol, whose every sentence is peppered with four-letter expletives. He is a deplorable man in every way, and yet Hanley presents him with great sympathy, so that he becomes tragic and therefore credible. Hanley himself, in his later years, looked very battered indeed. His face was so devoid of colour that he seemed hardly alive. His surprising diffidence and shyness were only rarely lightened by wonderful anecdotes and snatches of personal history. There were occasional flashes of the old wit, but his money and health problems seemed overpowering. A strong man, who must have looked almost leonine in his youth, seemed to wither and disintegrate.

Hanley's stature as a writer is difficult to assess. Once thought of as a successor to Conrad, he never escaped the inevitable comparisons with Paul Scott. The difference was that Scott became a household name, though only after his death, with the television adaptation of The Raj Quartet and with the award of the Booker Prize for Staying On.

Gerald Hanley was not a winner of prizes, his books were not adapted for the screen, he was less highly regarded than his brother James. It is, however, possible to claim for him an unrivalled appreciation of the various hearts of darkness in the British Empire, and of the flawed minor proconsuls who did their best.

(Photograph and drawing omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing