Let me first of all say that this is not a biographical essay, nor one in the spirit of literary criticism. I know nothing at all about Douglas Hayes, and there is little or no information about him on the internet. What I’m writing is simply a response to finding a grubby and tattered old copy of a 1962 paperback edition of his novel, The Comedy Man, in a charity shop. I bought it and thought it one of the funniest and most pleasurable novels I’ve read for a long time.

“Pleasurable”? Ah, now that’s a word likely to upset those who feel the need to look for significance or seriousness in anything they read. Some years ago, 1990 to be precise, there was an anthology, published by the magazine, Antaeus, under the title “Literature as Pleasure,” in which a number of well-known writers talked about the pleasure they got from reading. There is, of course, a great deal of pleasure to be gained from reading widely, and Madison Smartt Bell is quoted as saying: “Reading, say, the latest Elmore Leonard gives me pleasure. Reading Dostoevsky gives me pleasure too. Is there a qualitative difference between these two experiences?”

The collection was also prefaced with a number of quotations, one of which was William Carlos Williams’s, “If it ain’t a pleasure it ain’t a poem,” something that often came to mind during my fifty years reviewing poetry. I also liked Doris Lessing’s view that, “There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you”. I once met a man who claimed to have started at “A” in the fiction shelves of Aberdeen Public Library and worked his way through the alphabet, stopping reading if a book lost his attention. He reckoned to have read quite a few interesting books, and abandoned a lot of dull ones.

Doris Lessing’ advice is worth taking note of, and a policy I worked out for myself years ago, and why I ignore hyperbole about this prize or that award, and the latest fashionable young novelist, and prefer to wander around bookshops, old and new, where they still exist, and disturb the dust in charity shops.

But to return to Douglas Hayes. It seems obvious that he had worked extensively in the theatre in a number of positions, including stage management and acting. The Comedy Man (it was, incidentally, made into a film with Kenneth More in 1963) is about the lives and misadventures of actors who seem to spend most of their time “resting” between engagements which are often only too brief and usually poorly paid. Hayes wasn’t writing about successful actors, though he sometimes brings in characters who had known their five minutes of fame and then faded from sight due to a variety of problems, ranging from drink to a failure to make the right decisions regarding career moves. They’re now reduced to queuing with the rest in an effort to persuade a shady agent to find them a couple of days work as a film extra, or a walk-on part in a second-rate play in a third-rate theatre.

It’s obvious that Hayes had lived the life of an obscure and struggling actor. After reading The Comedy Man, I tracked down some of his other books, such as The Shy Young Man, Quite a Good Address, and A Player’s Hide, working on my normal basis of finding them where I can and never paying too much for them. I’m not a collector wanting pristine copies complete with dustjackets. Paperback or hardback, beer-stained or with a shopping list or telephone numbers scribbled on a blank page, I’m happy provided all the pages are there for me to read.

The Comedy Man is probably the best of Hayes’s books, or at least the best of those I’ve read. Perhaps I should say that it’s the one that gave me most pleasure. But that isn’t to say that the others don’t have a lot to offer. They’re lively and the details they provide about working on a film set, with its endless disruptions, doing commentaries for inane TV commercials, providing the voice of a parrot for a play where the parrot on stage can’t be relied on to talk when necessary, and trying to persuade fumbling amateur actors in a local theatre group to play to the audience and not each other, ring true. They also refer to the sort of jobs, like working in a chocolate-biscuit factory, that “resting” actors have to take to make ends meet. A bit-part actor I knew told me that the only speaking part he ever had (“There’s a gentleman to see you, sir”) was left on the cutting room floor when the film was released. He also pointed me to a large-scale historical film in which he was one of a group of cowled monks wending their way into an abbey. “I’m the third from the front on the left,” he said, “the one whose candle is shaking. There was a bar on the set and the leading players, several well-known actors, weren’t stand-offish and insisted we drank with them”. I think Douglas Hayes would have recognised his experiences.

If the books are at least semi-autobiographical, The Shy Young Man comes early in the account as the hero leaves home, and after some early experiences, is hired by “Harry Sparks and the Sparklers: Your Family Concert Party”, working in the North, and doing a bit of everything, on-stage and off. A  move to London, and then another trip North for “A Season of weekly Repertory” finds the young theatrical in digs with a widow who has an attractive eighteen-year old daughter. The inevitable happens, and the daughter gets pregnant. What complicates matters is that he’s been sleeping with the mother, too, and she’s also pregnant. References to Chamberlain and Munich place the story in context and the “shy young man” is relieved of responsibility for his actions by the start of the war in 1939. He’s due to be conscripted and the women have, in the meantime, each met men who, though aware of their condition, are interested in marrying them.

It’s not my intention to summarise the plots of the Hayes novels I’ve read. They’re probably what might best be described as “picaresque” in the sense that they have a sequence of events that don’t necessarily add up to some important conclusion. Things happen, characters come and go, the humour in situations is exploited, even when it might verge on the tragic. Taking pity on a decrepit old actor down on his luck, the young actor in Quite a Good Address, allows him to stay in his lodgings. He eventually has to force him to leave, his habits and behaviour being dirty and disruptive, but as the old man points out to him, there might come a time when he’ll get too old for most parts in plays, he won’t have clean clothes to go for an interview, or his memory will begin to fail him and he won’t be able to remember his lines. Beneath the entertaining veneer of bohemianism there’s an underlying feeling that theatrical life is precarious, and poverty a presence even when times appear to be good.

Shabby bedsits, pubs with coal fires, dole offices, pawnshops, old army greatcoats worn to keep warm. It’s a world that has long gone, or mostly so. The dole office and pawnshops still exist, though with different names to describe them. But I suspect that the kind of life, and the sort of circumstances, Hayes was writing about didn’t seem too relevant as the 1960s developed and the increasing affluence of the 1970s began to change tastes. I don’t think “Harry Sparks and the Sparklers” would have been in great demand anymore. And a lot of theatres in the provinces were beginning to go out of business. So, perhaps all the social changes that became evident from the 1960s on were partly responsible for Hayes slipping from fashion as a writer and so being “forgotten”.

As I said earlier, I know very little about Douglas Hayes, and I’m not even sure when his last book was published (the early 1970s?) or when he died. I’d be interested if someone came up with a little information about him, but it’s not essential to have it. A writer is known by his work, and I’ve read enough of Douglas Hayes’s to know that he wrote some good books, and that reading them has given me a great deal of pleasure.        

Jim Burns

see also http://pursewardenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/douglas-hayes.html