Gilbert, Stephen (1912–2010), writer and businessman, was born on 22 July 1912 in Newcastle, Co. Down, eldest of five children (two sons and three daughters) of William Gilbert (1862–1935), director of Samuel McCausland and Co. tea and seed merchants (founded 1825), and his second wife Evelyn Helen (née Haig). The Gilberts were originally farmers from Aghagallon, Co. Antrim; Stephen's grandfather had joined McCausland's as a salesman and married a relative of W. D. Killen (qv). Through his mother Gilbert descended from William Orr (qv). Both parents were devout presbyterians (Evelyn intended to become a missionary before her marriage), and Gilbert's childhood was coloured by literalist evangelicalism tinged with apocalyptic prophecies.
Gilbert's parents wished him to become a presbyterian minister. At considerable financial sacrifice they sent him to British public schools (after attending local primary schools), such as the Leas preparatory school in the Wirral (1922–5). He was dismayed to discover that other boys regarded him as a 'Sinn Féiner', and acquired and retained an English accent. His experience of Loretto School at Musselburgh near Edinburgh (1925–30) was profoundly unpleasant: he suffered extensive bullying, found his physical and sexual development traumatic, rejected Biblical literalism and became an agnostic. He developed literary ambitions, and ran a handwritten school magazine, the Broadcaster.
After failing to secure any formal qualification, Gilbert became an apprentice reporter on the Belfast Northern Whig (1931–3), and was profoundly shocked by exposure to depression-era poverty and reporting on sectarian riots. He then joined McCausland's as a seedsman and clerical employee. After prospering during the war, McCausland's had become a limited company in 1918, with William Gilbert acquiring the majority of the shares. The firm then declined, and in the mid 1920s narrowly survived an attempt by a combine of rivals to put it out of business. Stephen grew up with an awareness that the family's circumstances were precarious. After his father's death (January 1935), his shares were sold, under the terms of his will, to the senior partner, and the Gilberts' circumstances moved from the comfortable east Belfast suburb of Belmont to a smaller and shabbier dwelling on the Antrim Road. Stephen was made a director and company secretary, though his position was largely nominal. While William Gilbert had a paternalist attitude towards his staff, Stephen convinced the senior partner to make drastic cutbacks; the tea department was closed and senior staff made redundant. The following years saw a struggle for influence over the erratic senior partner between Gilbert and a senior director who aspired to run the firm himself.
In 1931, at Belmont Tennis Club, Gilbert had made the acquaintance of the writer Forrest Reid (qv), who became a mentor; they shared agnosticism, a combination of misanthropy and love of animals, a penchant for literary fantasy, and a sense of déclassé and threatened bourgeois refinement. Gilbert regularly visited Reid's home for tea and discussions of art and each other's writings; they took annual summer holidays together at Greencastle, Co. Donegal. Reid supplied Gilbert with the equivalent of a university education, teaching him French and tutoring him to appreciate the modern novel; he later acted as Gilbert's literary agent and typed his manuscripts. Persuading Gilbert to write about what he knew – his school experiences – Reid extensively revised Gilbert's resulting first novel, 'The assailants' (completed in 1936), and tried unsuccessfully to get it published using his literary contacts. Reid did, however, succeed in securing publication of short stories by Gilbert in Everyman and the Saturday Review in 1940, and helped bring about the publication of Gilbert's well-received novel The landslide (1943) (dedicated to Reid), which depicts confusion among the (mostly) superstitious inhabitants of a remote area of Donegal when a landslide uncovers prehistoric animals. Reid memorialised their friendship in one of his most successful novels, Brian Westby (1934), and the family in Reid's novel The retreat (1936) is based on Gilbert's. Reid saw himself as a Socratic figure combining the roles of father, intellectual mentor and chaste platonic lover to the younger man. Without Reid, it is virtually certain that Gilbert would never have acquired the discipline and techniques to develop his talent.
Although Gilbert initially took all Reid said as gospel, the relationship rapidly acquired darker undertones; Reid found Gilbert enigmatic and sometimes complained of ingratitude, while Gilbert later described Reid as an 'incubus' and accused him of wishing to dominate and remould him without regard for his individuality. Gilbert claimed in retrospect that many of his expressions of affection for Reid were insincere, and that he used Reid's physical attraction to him to manipulate him. Reid was highly upset when Gilbert became engaged to a distant relative, Jacqueline Mary Stevenson, in 1937. (Jacqueline broke off their engagement in February 1940, to Gilbert's considerable distress. He subsequently corresponded with her sister Kathryn, who had a distinguished wartime record in the WAAF, and married her in September 1945; they had two sons and two daughters.) Reid and Gilbert remained in contact until Reid's death in 1947. 'No-one will love me as he has loved me', Gilbert recalled. 'If he had loved me less I would have liked him more' ('Rag bag', iii, 363–4 (QUB, uncatalogued Gilbert papers)).
Gilbert became Reid's heir and literary executor (inheriting Reid's papers), delivered a radio talk on him, and joined Reid's friends E. M. Forster and Walter de la Mare in organising a commemorative committee, which placed plaques on two houses where Reid had lived. Gilbert's speech at the unveiling in October 1952 emphasises Reid's role in the cultural maturation of Belfast (compared, somewhat fancifully, to classical Athens or renaissance Florence) and his benign influence on friends and fellow writers. Gilbert's ambivalence about Reid was more freely expressed in his novel The Burnaby experiments (1952), which parodies Reid's novel Uncle Stephen (1931) and depicts an older telepath destroying the life of a younger man by subjecting him to his own obsessions. A 1977 critical assessment of Reid that Gilbert published in the Belfast literary magazine Threshold displays a similarly disconcerting combination of praise and belittlement.
On 19 May 1939, Gilbert joined the Supplementary Reserve after reading Mein Kampf and becoming convinced that Nazism must be deterred if possible and fought if not. On the outbreak of war, he was mobilised in the 3rd (Ulster) Searchlight Regiment, RA, and sent to northern France in December as a lance-bombardier; he was promoted bombardier before participating in the May 1940 French campaign and retreat to Dunkirk, and received the Military Medal for burning down a bridge under enemy fire. He narrowly escaped death when the ship evacuating him across the Channel was bombed. These experiences are lightly fictionalised in Gilbert's novel Bombardier (1944). In later life Gilbert always emphasised that he had fought because he considered the cause to be just, not because of 'king and country' patriotism. In September 1940 he was discharged from his unit and commissioned second lieutenant; there followed a monotonous period in which he was transferred among various bases, working on air defence near Eastbourne and running the soldiers' mess in Retford.
Gilbert returned to Belfast on 18 September 1941, after being demobilised on the grounds that he could best serve the war effort as managing director of McCausland's. His rival was finally sacked in August 1942. Gilbert had already begun to acquire a small shareholding in the firm, becoming senior partner in 1953 and eventually the largest shareholder. His military experience had given him new self-confidence and a sense of having proved himself.
He continued to dream of eventually resigning from the firm to become a full-time professional writer, but this ambition was stymied by the disappointing sales of The Burnaby experiments and of his third published novel, Monkeyface (1948), in which an intelligent ape-boy brought up in captivity in the Belfast suburbs attends school, discovers himself to be one of a newly created species more intelligent and humane than mankind, and eventually returns to his Edenic native jungle. Gilbert continued to write regularly in the evenings after work but published only one further novel in his lifetime. He remained, however, a presence on the Belfast literary scene, contributing to local journals and giving occasional radio talks on literary matters.
In business, Gilbert displayed considerable skills and built McCausland's into one of the leading firms in the British and Irish seed trade through judicious research and development and mergers with traditional Ulster rivals such as Lytle's, Morton's, and Coburn's of Banbridge. He also accomplished mergers with British and southern Irish firms: Bell's of Liverpool and Leith; Bennett's, which gave access to the eastern counties of England; and Doyle's of New Ross, Co. Wexford (a large central facility was later built at Horse and Jockey, Co. Tipperary). The group operated through the holding companies British Seed Holdings and Germinal Holdings, and adopted the Germinal brand for all its divisions in 2012.
Gilbert served as managing director of the whole group (1981–3) before becoming chairman, and still held this position in 1998. The Northern Ireland group's central office and warehouses in Victoria Street, Belfast, were damaged by car-bombing and subject to loyalist racketeering during the troubles, and relocated to a modern plant at Mallusk, Co. Antrim. Gilbert and his wife also experienced problems from living in Dunmurry, Co. Antrim, in close proximity to nationalist areas and the residence of the Army GOC Northern Ireland. In the mid 1970s, after their children were grown up, they moved to Whiteabbey, where Katherine bred Shetland ponies on a 75-acre farm. In 1975 Gilbert published A short history of Samuel McCausland Limited 1825–1975; the uncatalogued section of the Gilbert papers at QUB contains an unpublished history (1998) of Germinal Holdings, which expands on the earlier history with remarkable frankness.
Gilbert's reminiscences of his business career emphasise his ruthlessness and Machiavellianism, but suggest underlying unease and a painful awareness of the consequences for those whom he sacked. In later life he worked as a volunteer for the Samaritans' telephone counselling service, and was a founding member of the Northern Ireland branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, serving as its secretary for two years. Like Reid, but with a darker, apocalyptic edge, he frequently predicted that humanity would destroy itself within a few generations and probably deserved it. He combined his business acumen with vaguely socialist sympathies, and a degree of respect for Ulster unionism with belief that Irish reunification was inevitable. From the early 1960s, Gilbert began to pray again, considering himself a Christian of a vague and sceptical kind, and attended presbyterian services. This did not prevent him from continuing to believe that Ireland had been profoundly damaged by organised religion and hoping for the growth of religious indifference.
Gilbert is best remembered for the last of the five novels to be published in his lifetime, Ratman's notebooks (1968), a first-person narrative by a social misfit who learns to communicate with the rats in the back garden of his decaying family villa. He trains the rats to assist him in criminal activities, at first for food, then to wreak revenge on his employer (who acquired the firm formerly owned by Ratman's father); after he betrays the rats, they turn on him. (Gilbert had been working on versions of this novel since the 1930s; early drafts unambiguously locate the plot in Belfast, but in the published novel the setting may be in Edinburgh.) The novel was adapted as a successful horror film, Willard (1971). A sequel, Ben (1972), featured a theme song of the same title performed by Michael Jackson. Willard was remade in 2003. Gilbert chose not to see these films or renegotiate his publishing contract after the success of the first film (which led to the novel reaching sales of one million, mostly paperback and under the title Willard, and being widely translated).
In 1970–71 Gilbert wrote a novel depicting the moral deterioration and commercial success of a Belfast businessman during the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles. Titled The bloody city, it was published posthumously in 2015 by Valancourt Books of Richmond, Virginia. At least two other unpublished Gilbert novels – a thriller and a black sex comedy – are set against the Northern Ireland troubles. Although Gilbert is analysed in John Wilson Foster's seminal Forces and themes in Ulster fiction (1974) as an anatomist of Belfast middle-class decline, he otherwise received little critical attention. He died in Whiteabbey, Co. Antrim, on 23 June 2010, believing that his career as a writer had been a failure and haunted by a sense of presbyterian guilt.
He was eulogised in an obituary by the critic Patricia Craig, and the novelist Glenn Patterson named Monkeyface as one of his ten favourite Belfast books (Guardian, 20 March 2012). However, the principal renewal of interest in Gilbert came from the availability of new research materials. In 2007 QUB library acquired a large deposit of Gilbert's papers (special collections, MS 45). An additional deposit was acquired from the Gilbert family in 2011; still uncatalogued in 2016, it includes an autobiographical journal, the lengthy novelised autobiography 'The rag bag', the Germinal history, and numerous drafts of unpublished novels, short stories and plays. Other material is still held by the family. A full reassessment will depend on further exploration of Gilbert's archive, but he deserves recognition as a minor but significant writer and a late, dark outgrowth of a certain fantastic Belfast Edwardian sensibility.
Stephen Gilbert should not be confused with the Scottish-born artist of the same name (1910–2007), active in the Dublin-based White Stag group during the 1940s.