Obituary: Gerald Hanley

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson
Friday 02 October 1992 23:02

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)

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