In 1980 Graham Greene received a letter from a teacher at Cwmtawe Comprehensive School, Swansea named H. Hallesy, asking him to recommend some books for his class of 17-18 year olds. Greene generously responded, suggesting the following:
The Turn of the Screw Henry James
The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad
The Simpkins Plot George A. Birmingham
The Great Victorian Collection Brian Moore
The History of Mr. Polly H.G. Wells
The Disaster Area K. (J) G. Ballard
Most of the selection is predictable reflecting Greene’s well-known personal tastes. One name stands out however – George A. Birmingham. Far less known nowadays in comparison with the others, George Birmingham [below left] was the pen-name of James Owen Hannay (1865-1950). Hannay was a Protestant Clergyman, Gaelic Leaguer and a prolific novelist with over 65 works to his name, published between the 1920s and the 1940s. Interestingly, the enigmatic title of Greene’s last novel The Captain and the Enemy is attributable to a quote by Birmingham, ‘Will you be sure to know the good side from the bad, the Captain from the enemy?’ The lyrical phrasing of that quotation clearly betrays Hannay’s Irish roots.
H. Hallesy’s letter [below right] is currently offered for auction. It is part of a ‘Lot’ which also includes a fine copy of the US first edition of Brighton Rock, complete with its strange, hallucinatory dust-jacket illustration. The UK first edition cover, suggesting a pink and white stick of rock, might be thought to be more appropriate. However, it is claimed that the public found the pink of the British wrapper clashed with the red cloth cover and discarded it. This may well account for the fact that a UK first edition of Brighton Rock, with its very rare dust-jacket, commands an astronomically high price in rare books shops or at auction.