Is there an archive for the failed siblings of neglected minor writers? If so, get in touch now

However happy I'm feeling, however sure I am that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, there is one person who has the unfailing capacity to make me feel gloomy: Bruce Hamilton.

Who he? Well, that's part of the problem. A few years ago, I wrote a biography of Patrick Hamilton. He was a neglected writer before I wrote the book, and he remained a neglected writer after I had finished it, so I always have to explain that he was the author of the highly successful plays Rope and Gaslight, as well as some remarkable novels (such as Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude).

But he wasn't neglected the way his older brother Bruce was neglected. Bruce also wrote novels which were published, but none of them was much of a success and they aren't all that good (I'm the only person in the world who's read them all). His career in education in Barbados was something to take pride in but, because I've read his letters and diaries, I know that he didn't take much pride in it. He wanted to be a successful writer, like Patrick, but he never quite had the nerve to give up his career to devote himself to his own books. However, he did make his wife have an abortion because, he once wrote in a private journal, Patrick had told him that children were a distraction for a writer.

On his retirement, he planned to commit himself to authorship but the novel and the short biography (of Keats) he produced were both turned down by publishers. His one success, and much his best book, was a memoir of his brother. Bruce didn't have much money in his last years and the final blow came when, in a mixture of incompetence and chicanery, Patrick's posthumous royalties ended up going not to his brother but to the wealthy aristocrat who was the nephew of Patrick's second wife. Then he died of lung cancer.

When Bruce's widow, Aileen, died in the early nineties, there were no living Hamilton relatives. All Bruce's papers ended up with a woman who had given her a hand in her final years. When I asked if I could have a look at them, she just said: "Take them all." So for the past five years I have had in my attic three bulging suitcases and two cardboard boxes full of every piece of paper, photograph, document that Bruce Hamilton kept (except for the letters from Patrick, which Aileen gave to an earlier Hamilton biographer, Nigel Jones).

It seems the latest in Bruce's run of bad luck that his archive, if this ragbag can be called that, has ended up with me. Now I'm moving out of London and facing the question of what on earth to do with it. Among those people whose opinions I've canvassed, responses have varied wildly. Chuck it on the nearest skip, one responded. Another said it would be vandalism to destroy this "unpublished work".

Obviously there does seem something wrong in throwing away the unique typescript of an unpublished novel or biography. Think of all the great works that have been destroyed. You don't need to go all the way back to Greek and Latin literature, which only survived in fragments, by chance. When Byron was alive, his friend John Cam Hobhouse had tried to persuade him to suppress parts of Don Juan because they would damage his reputation. When Byron died, Hobhouse vowed that he would help, as he saw it, to preserve his friend's fame by destroying his memoirs before they could be published. And so, in the parlour of John Murray's publishing house, the manuscript was ripped up and burned, page by page.

If in doubt, keep it, we would now say. But in whose attic? Of course, every rubbish dump in the world is full of "unpublished manuscripts", just as all cities are built on the wreckage of earlier cities. It is good to have one Pompeii, but we couldn't afford too many because we need places to live. Preservation and memory are important, but so is forgetting, throwing away, knocking down. I say this with feeling because I have spent much of the past few weeks looking through the cupboards and drawers stuffed with things about which, at some point, I have thought: "Oh, this is interesting, I should keep this." Sometimes I have read through an entire magazine trying and failing to recall what it was I didn't want to forget. It's all in bin bags now.

People tell me that a university library would be interested. Really? Are there universities that are interested in the papers and unpublished works of failed novelists? Is there an archive for the siblings of neglected minor writers? If there are, they can get in touch. Or anybody else. And send a van, not a bike messenger.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again