Our man in Berkhamsted: author Graham Greene
PUBLISHED: 09:39 21 April 2016
A troubled Berkhamsted boy, Graham Greene went on to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. On the 25th anniversary of his death this month, Stephen Roberts celebrates his life and legacy
‘I had to find a religion to measure my evil against.’ So said novelist and playwright Graham Greene, who converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after he graduated from Oxford. He could have written this of the antihero of his 1938 novel Brighton Rock, boy-gangster, Pinkie, who is immersed in Brighton’s pre-war criminal underworld, Roman Catholic, yet dedicated to pursuing evil and damnation.
Henry Graham Greene, son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted Boys’ School, became one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, hugely influencing fellow writers and translating to cinema and theatre. Born in 1904 in Berkhamsted, the school where he boarded (in St John’s House) was an environment he was never happy in however, a situation that must have influenced the morbid, tragic writing that followed. After being bullied he ran away from school, toyed with suicide by playing Russian roulette and had to see a psychoanalyst while still a teen. Maybe this deep unhappiness is why Greene didn’t really do ‘goodies’. Everyone seemed to be a ‘baddie’ – only some were worse than others.
Greene’s analyst did change his direction though, for he encouraged him to write and introduced him to a literary circle. Greene returned to school, but as a day-boy, while playing truant to avoid bullies helped too, for Greene used the ‘spare’ time reading adventure stories – tales which deeply influenced his writing style to come.
Most writers would be happy with one acclaimed novel, but Greene far surpassed this. As well as his morality tale centred on the British south-coast mafia, there was 1940’s The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter (1948), The Third Man (1950), The End of the Affair (1951) and Our Man in Havana (1958), to name but five. Here was a great storyteller. Even his first novel, The Man Within (1929), came out to public and critical acclaim. It seems he was so good he didn’t require an apprenticeship.
Within these complex novels can be found everything Greene – thrilling plots, topical settings, corruption of innocence, betrayal, pursuit, justice and injustice, death and religion, which first surfaced in the brooding Brighton Rock. Don’t expect Greene to be a laugh a minute; there are not many belly-chortles in his treatment of human suffering and sin, particularly when the background is a seedy locale reeking of danger, decay and violence. Greene is a thrilling read when you’re tucked up in the safety and snugness of home; the trials and tribulations in his pages help you appreciate what you have all the more.
If Pinkie was a demonic gangster with spiritual undertones, Harry Lime, unveiled in The Third Man, was a consummate con-artist. Greene wrote the screenplay for the eponymous film, which introduced us to Orson Welles playing Lime, then wrote the novel. So, for once, it was cart before horse. The fact Greene wrote for the cinema undoubtedly influenced his novel writing. He said that describing a scene involved capturing it ‘with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer’s eye, which leaves it frozen.’ His dialogue takes some beating too for its realism.
Not all Greene’s work was moody and edgy. The Comedians (1966) is so different it might have been someone else’s inspiration. It is full of irony and comedy. Yet, true to form, he couldn’t omit the tragedy. But here’s a Greene book where you can chuckle.
Being able to write in different genres is the mark of a great writer and let’s not forget his film reviews, short stories, essays, ‘entertainments’ (similar to thrillers), respected journalism and travel books. As well as scribing five plays, almost all his novels ended up on the screen.
The man was larger than life, travelled widely (an influence on the many locations he used), was a member of MI6 during the Second World War and was a notorious womaniser. As Greene admitted, he was ‘a bad husband and a fickle lover.’ He allegedly declined an OBE and was diagnosed a manic depressive. He could be a character in one of his novels. Fact and fiction coalesce.
Greene was a lover of books, yet said it was in his youth in Berkhamsted that they had their greatest power: ‘Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives... telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller... they influence the future.’
Greene died 25 years ago in April 1991, aged 86. He lived in Switzerland towards the end of his life, where he settled up and reconciled himself to the God that influenced both his life and his writing.
I am sure he would be happy that the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust organises a yearly international festival in his honour in Berkhamsted. Seems only right and proper.
For information on the Graham Greene International Festival from September 22-25, and to download a walking guide to the writer’s links to Berkhamsted, go to grahamgreenebt.org