Our Quarterly Magazine
A Sort of Newsletter: A Quarterly Magazine
The Trust publishes a quarterly magazine, each February, May, August and November, titled A Sort of Newsletter (ASON). Friends of the Trust receive free print copies as part of their membership. Each issue contains a rich mix of articles, reviews, correspondence and news. ASON is not intended to be an academic journal; there is something for everyone with an interest in the writer.
Rarely does a month go by without Graham Greene featuring in the news in some form or other. A Sort of Newsletter will keep you bang up to date with information about the latest Greene-related books, films, reviews and associated news from around the world.
The annual Graham Greene International Festival, held in September each year in Berkhamsted is the principal event in the Birthplace Trust’s calendar. Naturally, it features prominently in the pages of the newsletter with information about forthcoming festival appearing in the May and August issues followed by retrospectives on each event in the November issue.
So, if you are interested in Graham Greene, his life and his books and you are not currently a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust, then you are urged to turn to the Members’ page on this website which gives all the details about joining and receiving A Sort of Newsletter.
To give you a flavour of what to expect to find within the pages of the magazine, we are publishing some sample features from recent issues:
Issue 78 May 2019
Charles Henry Greene
ASON readers will remember the excellent article Prediction Fulfilled? in our February issue, in which the original Festival Director, Roger Watkins, told us all about the press interest generated by the inaugural event in 1998. One phrase in the article, about Graham Greene’s headmaster father Charles Henry Greene, produced a response from Graham’s nephew and Birthplace Trust Patron Nick Dennys, as follows:
‘I was very surprised to read his comment that Graham’s father was a “deeply unpopular headmaster”. It may be a bit much for a headmaster to be its opposite “popular” let alone “deeply”, but I had never heard such a characterisation of Charles Henry. Greatly respected and sometimes affectionately “the dear old turtle” [a phrase used about him by Peter Quennell] seemed more the mood.’
Nick followed this up with these observations about Graham’s father:
‘One memoirist said there was only one occasion when he saw him chastise a boy, who he clipped around the head in front of the school. The boy was then summoned to his study full of trepidation only to find himself being profusely apologised to. He had a reputation as a liberal headmaster. This included abolishing the right of senior boys to cane other boys. Quite unusual for the time. Though after he left it was probably reinstated fairly quickly and they were still caning when I was a boy there in the 1960s. Certainly there was never a whiff of habitual anger mentioned in the family.’
So, Nick enquired, what was the source of the phrase? Roger responded as follows:
‘This phrase occurs in the article by David Prest in The Independent newspaper of 28 September 1998. The full paragraph in which it occurs reads as follows:
‘ “The guide text for the Greene walking tour [of Berkhamsted] is the first volume of his autobiography A Sort of Life. The early chapters give an insight into what it was like growing up as the son of the deeply unpopular headmaster of Berkhamsted School, being cold shouldered and ignored by other boys and making several inept attempts at suicide before running away from school. This alienation and resentment of institutions stayed with Greene for the rest of his life, and inspired many of his characters, from the teenage thugs in Brighton Rock to the authoritarians of The Ministry of Fear.”’
The paragraph produced a reaction from Nick, who believed that Prest was fundamentally wrong in his judgements. Here are Nick’s fascinating thoughts on Prest’s idea:
‘Apart from anything else it alters the nature of Graham’s conflict. As he himself presented it, he was caught between the world of the Headmaster and his family on one side, beyond the green baize door, and the boys on the other side i.e. he was close to both. This led to novels where he found grounds for empathy in opposing places and viewpoints. This was certainly a deep embarrassment, but it enlarged his sympathies.
‘One where he was despised by boys but had to share their view of the “deeply unpopular” headmaster would have been a completely different balance of feeling. It would have produced much more bitter novels I suspect!’
Moreover, Nick later added,
‘One of the things that has always seemed indicative to me, is that we all knew Graham was rapidly responsive, both in comprehension and emotionally, to situations and people. He felt things markedly. Both his younger brother Hugh and older, Raymond, no slouches themselves, were at Berkhamsted also and, though Hugh, I seem to remember, didn’t like being at school, neither of them experienced it as hellish nor even remarked much on the situation of being the headmaster’s son. They seem to have both been confident students – “successful students” someone called them. It was only Graham who felt the divide of the green baize door markedly. It gave him divided loyalties and so [he was] bullyable, as it were, by Carter, and perhaps a nervous breakdown, whatever that means. For Graham much began in Berkhamsted and he quoted Conrad for the epigram of The Human Factor, certainly about divided loyalty, “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul”. My understanding is that it never had anything much to do with the character of Charles Henry. It was a situation that Graham was sensitive to in a way that the others were less so, it seems. He felt a tie, perhaps, on both sides of the green baize door.’
Fundamentally, Nick knew from his ‘own recollection from the family’ that Prest was wrong, and believed that Prest had misinterpreted Greene’s own writing in A Sort of Life:
‘There is nothing in A Sort of Life from my recollection other than a certain wariness of Graham towards a father he only understood later when he was one himself. I think David Prest must have just had a blip and interpreted the intimate bullying of Carter towards Graham as caused by the character of CH rather than by the character of Carter.’
To substantiate his view of Prest’s misreading of A Sort of Life, Nick offered examples from the book giving insights into Charles Greene’s character, and his son’s relationship to him. For readers who wish to follow up the full references, I have included Nick’s own page references:
‘(p.43) The story of the gardener who let the heater die in the greenhouse and destroyed the orchids and Greene’s response.
‘(p.46) GG’s comment that his father, unlike his mother, was “quite without social prejudice”.
‘(p.72) His reason for not siding with the boys against his father and brother Raymond, by then head of house, was the desire not to betray them. It was a balanced conflict not a one-sided one against authority.
‘(p.90) After being brought home from his flight to the common, “…. my father sitting on the bed and interrogating me seriously and tenderly,..”
‘(p.111-114) There is a rather nice description of his father’s teaching by GG, Cockburn and Quennell from CH’s habit of talking while lying on his back with his mortarboard over his eyes. Their shared love of Browning, GG’s favourite poet.’
To give further substance to his argument, Nick then quoted from several other sources on Charles Henry Greene:
From Richard Greene, A Life in Letters:
‘(p. 121) GG to his mother on CH’s death: “I can’t write about how sorry and sad I feel: he was a very good person in a way we don’t seem to be able to produce in our generation…”
‘(p.123) Letter to Raymond on CH’s death “… his rather noble old liberalism was always inclined to make one bring out one’s cynicism stronger than need have been.”
‘(p.386) Letter to Road Dahl on reading the horrors of school reported in Boy: “I was shocked too by all the beatings and I realize now even more what an advanced man my father was as Headmaster of Berkhamsted. No prefects or fagging there.”’ Nick re-emphasises, on this point: ‘Charles got rid of these on taking over but these practices were immediately restored by the next headmaster in 1927 and fagging and beatings by prefects were still in place when I was there from 1963 to 1969.’
From Michael Tracey, A Variety of Lives:
‘(p.10): Cecil Parrott on Berkhamsted School – criticising CH’s unworldly innocence (also commented on by Raymond), “It was supposed to be an extremely clean school – the whole atmosphere was a very gentle one. The tone of the school was extremely good compared with other public schools and in a way I do not think one was encouraged to wake up to the facts of life … at least I was not.” ’
From Jeremy Lewis, Shades of Greene:
‘(p.35) Reports Hugh’s recollection of a misunderstanding which was the only occasion his father, “a kind and liberal though often, I think, bewildered man, ever beat me.”
‘Chapter 4 gives a wonderful view of the character of CH and several views by Cockburn (there is a fuller picture of CH in Cockburn’s autobiography I Claud), Quennell and others and is perhaps the clearest antidote to the view that he was “deeply unpopular”.
‘Lewis’s anthology of views is on the powerful idiosyncrasy of CH is corroborated by the Patrick Cockburn piece [referred to in ASON 77, February 2019, with a link on the Trust website].’
Finally, Nick refers to A History of Berkhamsted School by Basil Garnons Williams (Nick’s own headmaster when he was there) and its ’thorough chapter on Greene’:
‘There is no hint of the “deeply unpopular” and his summary of the years of the 1st WW is: “… he emerged from the nightmare years with enhanced reputation. No one thought of him now as Fry’s hardly adequate successor. He was very much in charge of things, an object to many of affection, to everybody of respect”. He quotes an ex-schoolboy’s memoir that “liberalism was his outstanding characteristic …. His conception of government in a school was to reduce regulations to a minimum – to rule by personality, example, and the creation of ‘tone’.” ’
Williams’s summary of Charles Greene at the end of the chapter is, Nick pointed out, ‘incompatible with a deeply unpopular figure’:
‘ “He was a competent administrator; … he was an effective leader; … but as a teacher he was much more. He was inspiring and inspired … R.S. Stanier [a former pupil under CH] remarked … ‘Through his learning, taste, insight and enthusiasm he opened doors to us, and invited, not compelled us to pass through.’ ” ’
Many thanks to Nick Dennys for getting in touch, for his insights, and for his conscientious research on Charles Henry Greene.
Issue 77 February 2019
Graham Greene’s The Third Man has over the years generated many spin-oﬀs, and we have one such here. Hollins College in Virginia (now called Hollins University) published the following literary spoof in its magazine The Hollins Critic in March 1975. Many thanks to Hollins for granting permission to reprint it here, and to the children of Lewis O. Thompson for permission to include the original illustration. Thanks too to Colin Garrett for drawing the article to my (Magazine Editor) attention.
‘The Critic’ has been publishing continuously and can be found on this websitehttps://www.hollins.edu/who-we-are/news-media/hollins-critic/
The Fictions of Holly Martins
Holly Martins has at last delivered himself of his long-awaited ‘big book,’ and a truly big book it is too. Over 250,000 words in length, more than 500 pages in extent, fully 8” by 15” in size, in excess of seven inches in width, more than twelve dollars in price, The Abilene Snake-Charmer is by every major critical standard a huge work. It is more. It is an enormous work, a monument to the imagination, a monolith of American literature, a monograph on American history – it is all these and still more.
Surely by now, to every truly literate reader – I mean, that is, every truly literate reader, or at least every truly literate reader – the name of Holly Martins must be as familiar as those of Grey or Ernest Haycox as one of the major influences which have transformed the once despised and enormously popular ‘pulp’ western into a respectable genre of literature enjoying the same high degree of respect and attention as other contemporary American literature. Millions of readers read the cheap softcover editions of his three novels, The Oklahoma Kid (1941), Death at Double-X Ranch (1941), and The Lone Rider of Santa Fe (1941), as nothing more than thrilling adventure stories, which, of course, they were. But to those few discerning readers who possess one of the precious remaining copies of the early Martins (the publisher, Wow Publications of Lompoc, Cal., unforgivably shredded its entire unsold stock of Martins in 1967 when it shifted its focus to hard-core pornography) have found in them a gripping allegory of American history and morals. That Martins intended to stress these themes – lost innocence, conflict with the self, the closing of the range, the dangers of smoking loco weed – is demonstrated by the fact that all three novels tell the same story: the story of a man who hunts down a corrupt sheriﬀ victimizing his best friend.
The point is even more strongly made by the fact that in all three novels Martins employs the same characters and settings. Perhaps his most subtle and inventive trick was the device of employing in all three novels, with insignificant typographical variations, the same wording throughout. And though some obtuse critics have protested that the result is simply the same novel under three diﬀerent names (notably Norman Podhoretz, in his essay, ‘What Kind of Dumb Ripoﬀ is Going on Here, Anyway?’ Commentary), truly discerning readers have in recent years come to see that the result is actually a trilogy which expands our perception of fiction by showing that the same story, printed in diﬀerent typefaces and with diﬀerent margin widths, can be an entirely diﬀerent experience.
The Abilene Snake-Charmer (Tarzana, Zip Publications, 537pp., $12.95) carries on Martins’ earlier experiments in point of view. The book tells the story of the last day on earth of an itinerant herpetologist and pistolero named Cigarro Garcia y Vega, who is unjustly hanged as a horsethief by a vigilante group in Abilene on a hot Sunday in 1877. A detailed plot summary is impossible. Suﬃce it to say that in the tortured, feeble brain of Cigarro as he mounts the scaﬀold, we are given a panorama of the American people and land at the end of the era of westward exploration.
The book includes a number of vivid vignettes illustrating the personalities of leading figures of American history at the time, including James G. Blaine, General Lew Wallace, P.T. Barnum, Booker T. Washington, Abner Doubleday, and many others. These segments in particular show the results of Martins’ painstaking research, for, since they are imagined by Cigarro, who has never met any of them, they are inaccurate in every detail. I, for one, will often think of the outlaw’s imagined meeting with the great Samuel J. Tilden, in which the famous Democrat appears in a green moustache and pince-nez, and intones in a sepulchral voice, ‘Labor, like His road, has many sorrows. Its women weep for their fallen, and they lament for the future of the children of the race. It ill behooves one who has supped at Labor’s table, and who has been sheltered in Labor’s house, to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality, both Labor and its adversary when they become locked in deadly embrace.’
Though the landscape drawn by Martins is a bleak one, it is not without the promise of grace and redemption. These themes are contained in the description of Dr. Harry Lime, a flamboyant, semi-miraculous patent medicine peddler who, like God himself, may or may not be a product of Cigarro’s wishful thinking. Lime, who travels with a raven and a four-hundred pound Samoan attorney named Dr. Gonzo, neatly exemplifies the central religious, social, and literary concerns of the American imagination. These themes are brilliantly summed up in his brief appearance, in a dream or vision which Cigarro experiences during his pre-lynching siesta: ‘Call me Fishmeal. Call me Rosebud. Call me irresponsible, but don’t call me late for dinner. The Gods look down at us and laugh. This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach. If I owned hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell. Honk if you know Jesus. I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you I must be going.’
What more can be said about this rollicking huge masterpiece? Very little. Buy it if you must, rent it if you choose, steal it if you can, but read Holly Martins. Only thus can a great new addition to our heritage be saved from the shredder.
ISSUE 76 November 2018
Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro’s Cuba; London, Oneworld Publications, 2018.
The job title ‘BBC Foreign Correspondent’ still evokes a romantic yet totally outdated image: a crackling voice intermittently audible over the ether as a world-changing event unfolds in a far distant corner of the globe. The 21st Century reality of instant communication is quite different, of course. But the joys and frustrations of distilling both the important and the trivial to give those at home a flavour of a very different culture in the course of a ten minute report or even shorter ‘soundbite’ must have remained unaltered.
As Sarah Rainsford was about to make her first broadcast from Cuba, her continuity presenter announced, ‘Now it’s over to Sarah Rainsford, Our Woman in Havana’ – and apparently, ‘the label stuck’. The reference to Graham Greene’s 1958 novel establishes an important theme in this account of the correspondent’s four year tenure on the island between 2011-2014 and her subsequent research visits to Cuba. Rainsford claims that she was ‘guided’ by Greene’s novel as she sought to discover what had changed in the intervening six decades since Our Man in Havana was first published.
Rainsford covers a host of different aspects of Cuban society in her quest to portray the effects of Fidel Castro’s lengthy socialist experiment carried out in the face of intense economic and political pressure from its giant capitalist neighbour just ninety miles away across the Florida Straits. Her findings, for supporters of the Communist ideal, are often depressingly negative. Rainsford recounts the poverty, the decaying infrastructure, the scramble to leave the island, the shortage of essential goods and the constant fear of speaking out against the regime. Against that, she rightly balances the high standard of education, the health service and the underlying equality within Cuban society. Above all, there is the unquenchable joie de vivre of the islanders which has remained uncrushed down the years, typified by a love of music and dance. This spirit shines through, as does the insistence of the older generation who have stayed the course that life is so much better than under the cruelly repressive dictator Fulgencio Batista who the revolutionaries finally ousted in 1959.
Greene first knew Havana in its hedonistic, pre-revolutionary days when it was the playground for a principally American clientele drawn by the tropical sun, the daiquiris and a city where ‘every vice was permissible’. The writer always claimed that the setting of Our Man in Havana was inconsequential and it is accepted that the novel is principally a ‘sly dig’ at his old employers, the Special Intelligence Service. Nevertheless, his unswerving eye for detail and factual accuracy are still evident as Rainsford traces his footsteps with the aid of his novel and his unpublished journals. She makes significant discoveries: the site of Wormold’s shop and Milly’s school (she even finds a nun who was educated there), as well those bars and hotels which featured in the novel and in the film and have survived.
The 1959 film was shot shortly after the successful revolution and Rainsford recounts that although the presence of heavily armed, bearded revolutionaries added a piquancy, the filming was allowed to proceed without interruption in those liberal, early years of the revolution when Castro sought cooperation rather than confrontation with a suspicious Capitalist world.
Sarah Rainsford’s narrative, gleaned from her personal notebooks, is delivered in a distinctly journalistic style. Indeed, her economy of language and acute powers of description are mindful of Greene himself. Her research on the writer is both thorough and exemplary. The way in which she weaves references to the novel with her own observations of modern-day life makes Our Woman in Cuba immensely readable. Despite being a thoroughly objective and professional account of a bureaucratic, contradictory and often secretive society, one detects a deep affection for this tragic yet comedic island and its long-suffering and beguiling people. One can see why Graham Greene was drawn to it.
ISSUE 75 AUGUST 2018
Trouble in Mind
Graham Greene, aged 4½, and the violent genesis of a Brighton shocker?
In Graham Greene’s volume of autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), he recalls a vivid memory from Castle Street, Berkhamsted, when he was about five years old. He is with his nurse walking past old alms houses near the canal. There is a crowd of people. A man, threatening to commit suicide, runs into a house. Greene can’t remember what happens next, but his brother, Raymond, suggests that he may (or may not) have seen the man cut his throat in a window on the first floor.
Greene suggests the facts of the story might be found in The Berkhamsted Gazette. His biographer, Norman Sherry, scoured four years’ worth without coming across the relevant article. Or it may be that he saw it and discounted it because it did not quite fit Greene’s story. Either way, I sympathise with Sherry. Reading four years of the Gazette (there is still no digital copy) might cause a scholar to contemplate suicide themselves. Today there are happier alternatives.
The Bucks Herald, Saturday 03 April 1909. ‘BERKHAMSTED. ALLEGED ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.’, the headline screamed, cautiously. This was not quite the story that Greene remembered, but it involved:
- a kerfuffle in Castle Street
- a razor
- reports in The Bucks Herald and (I could now call up the hard copy with the correct date) The Berkhamsted Gazette.
Albert Thorn, an army pensioner, of Berkhamsted was charged with attempting to commit suicide in the town on March 31st 1909. My story shapes the news reports into a single narrative which is supported by army, census and other records in the public domain. Albert Thorn was 42 at the time of the events described and he had been lodging with his brother’s family in Shrublands Avenue for about eight months whilst he looked for a job. Brother John worked at the Mantle Factory in Lower Kings Road. Mantles were a type of ladies’ cloak popular at the time. Officially called the Bulbourne Factory, it manufactured various lines in the ‘Ladies’ Coat, Costume, Dress, Showerproof’ trade and at the height of production between the wars would employ a thousand people.
The Thorn brothers had been born in the East End of London to John Thorn, a labourer from London, and Mary, from Cork, Ireland. In the East End, the rag trade was king. Albert himself had operated a boot press when he was 14 years old. He had decided that manufacturing was not for him and joined the army. It is not too difficult to imagine that his parental heritage influenced his choice of regiment, The Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Now he had retired after 18 years, 190 days service. His conduct had been ‘exemplary’ – as John told the magistrate in his brother’s defence – and his references excellent: ‘Specially suited for caretaker. Most reliable and dependable man’. But there are always fewer caretaker posts than old soldiers. Certainly, John thought, it was Albert’s lack of employment that was the chief cause of his depression.
The day before the attempted suicide, there had been a commotion at the Thorn household in Shrublands Avenue to which the police were called. It seems John Thorn’s wife, Clara, had got fed up with her brother-in-law and thrown him out of the house. Albert was threatening to kill her. A policeman found temporary lodgings for the old soldier at the Fish in Mill Street, opposite the south eastern corner of the Moor, one of a handful of pubs tied to the small Rodwells Brewery in Tring.
The following day, seeing his brother outside the police station, Albert, already several sheets to the wind, kissed him goodbye and told him he was going to throw himself under an L&NW express. John did not believe his brother’s threats because, he said, he’d heard them all before. However, he appears to have had second thoughts and set off in pursuit having enlisted the help of two policemen.
Turning down Castle Street, Albert apparently found time to enter a pub – presumably the Railway Hotel at the bottom of the street near the mill stream (and like the cottages and the Fish, since demolished) – before resuming his plan.
By the time John Thorn and the two policeman reach the bottom of Castle Street a small crowd has formed which includes a four-and-a-half year old writer and his nurse. Someone directs the police to the railway (just beyond the canal) where they apprehend Albert ‘between the fast down rails’ and, on searching him, find a new ‘Splendid’ razor in his pocket. Albert Thorn is charged with attempting to commit suicide and held on remand to stand trial at the next Assizes in Hertford.
Before looking more closely at the differences between Greene’s account and the newspapers’, I wondered if there was anything in Thorn’s army career in India and South Africa that made him particularly vulnerable to depression? He had returned to home service (at Naas, just outside Dublin) in 1898, a year before the Boer War, in which his regiment fought. Could survivor guilt have contributed to his employment woes, homelessness and alcoholism?
Before South Africa, he had served in Bombay (Mumbai) during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1896. The authorities viewed the plague as not only a public health disaster, but a potential threat to British rule. Soldiers were tasked with house to house searches. Anyone found with a fever could be stripped and searched for bubos (swollen lymph glands) in the groin and armpits. Victims would be removed to hospital and their families herded into camps, having first watched all their worldly goods tipped into the street and burnt, and their houses doused with disinfectant and lime-washed. Sometimes the houses were de-roofed or demolished altogether.
Clearly this was a catastrophe for the families but it is hard to imagine it not having a detrimental effect on the soldiers’ mental health, quite apart from the not unreasonable fear of catching plague themselves, and dying horribly, five thousand miles away from their own nearest and dearest.
If Albert’s gloom dated from his army service in India, he was not alone. I wondered if watching a colleague hanged also preyed on his mind? The regimental historian writes:
‘A tragic event took place at Deesa [in Gujarat] in the spring of 1897. Private Mooney, suffering from a fit of morbid depression, became obsessed with the idea that one of his best friends, Private Flood, was going to the bad. To save the latter’s soul, as he declared, Mooney shot him dead in his barrack-room. He was condemned to be hanged by sentence of a General Court-Martial, and, as Deesa was more than the stipulated distance from any place where the execution could have been professionally carried into effect, the gruesome duty fell on the staff officer (now Lieutenant-General Sir James Wilcox) and the officers of the detachment.’
Perhaps the gloom is mine as much as Albert’s. He after all maintained that he was just drunk and foolish and very sorry. He had no intention of taking his own life and the fact that he lived until February 1936 seems to bear this out. Though the fact that he died in the hospital wing of Hemel workhouse suggests that he may never quite have found his feet in civilian life.
On 2 June 1909 Albert Thorn appeared at Hertford Assizes accused of ‘Unlawfully attempting, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, to kill and murder himself, at Great Berkhampstead, on the 31st March, 1909.’
One feels the language alone could kill a sensitive man. Happily for Albert, the judge accepted the defence claim that he intended no such thing. What’s more the judge suggested that, even if he did, intention was not, of itself, an offence. The jury agreed and Albert walked out of court a free man.
Perhaps Albert’s story is of marginal interest to Greene scholars. But the incident itself was clearly a vivid memory for the writer. He refers to it directly in six works – seven if you count, as Sherry did, unpublished material. It might be argued that the influence of the event reverberates, transformed, throughout his work. Was a middle-aged Pinkie with his razor and vitriol bottle running amok in Castle Street in 1909?
Why the difference between Greene’s version of the story and the newspaper account?
It seems to me that Greene’s memory is accurate – as far as it goes. It bears all the hallmarks of what Esther Salaman calls ‘involuntary memory’ – a memory from a very young age of a traumatic experience. ‘It seems,’ argues Salaman, ‘we do not lay down memories when the stream of our lives runs smoothly.’ Involuntary memories are episodic in nature and often characterised by a sequence of concrete images. Greene’s memory seems to fit this description. He remembers the alms houses, the canal, a crowd, a man running into a house …
Sherry not unreasonably looked for some literary development in Greene’s various revisitings, but the defining quality of such a memory is that it leads nowhere. It is an ‘island in a sea of oblivion’ in Salaman’s phrase – a closed loop, a kind of mental tick. As Greene himself observed of his early memories, ‘the fragments remain fragments.’
The problem for historians (an autobiography – even a sort of one – makes a claim to historical fact) is not the memory per se but the author’s attempt to put it into context. Greene strains to stick facts to the memory – although not to the extent of checking the Gazette himself. But the facts don’t quite adhere. Beat at it as he may, there is nothing the other side of the door. Nothing and everything of course: the point at which his traumatic childhood memory fails is the birthplace of his creative imagination.
A couple of nice ironies occur to me. Firstly, the incident as it turned out, was not actually a suicide but rather the dramatic representation of suicidal thoughts: a description that might equally be applied to some of Greene’s literary output as well as his not infrequent journalistic incursions into harm’s way. The other irony is that even at age four-and-a-half, Greene’s world is informed by the printed word – in this case reported to him by adults. It is a conflation of experience and imagination.
Greene is often called ‘widely travelled’ – with good reason. But he was not unique in that respect a century ago, in an empire that straddled the globe. Albert Thorn had been to India and South Africa in the service of two British monarchs. He had not fought but he had witnessed sights, particularly in plague-ridden Bombay, that he would probably much rather have forgotten, including the judicial murder of a mentally troubled colleague.
Whatever the real driver of his agitation, the fact that Albert Thorn achieved his three score years and ten suggests that he managed to find at least some accommodation with the demons witnessed by a four-and-a-half year old writer in Berkhamsted on the last day of March, 1909.
I think Graham Greene would have enjoyed the unexpected poetry of the surnames in the historical record. Surely only a novelist with a religious frame of mind could have invented Private Flood, or poor old Albert Thorn, travelling to his own personal crucifixion – and resurrection – on the London & North Western Railway.
A Sort of Life, Graham Greene, London Penguin, 1974 (First published by the Bodley Head 1971)
‘Berkhamsted. Alleged Attempted Suicide.’ Bucks Herald. Saturday 03 April 1909. The British Newspaper Archive[https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000270/19090403/024/0006 visited 25.04.2018]
‘Army Pensioner’s Foolish Conduct’ Berkhamsted Gazette. Saturday 10 April 1909.
‘Berkhamsted Man Discharged’ Berkhamsted Gazette. Saturday 05 June 1909.
National Archives HO 140/272 – A Calendar Of Prisoners Tried At The Assizes
National Archives WO 97/6075 – Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913
Crown and Company The Records of The Second Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Major A.E. Mainwaring, 1911, London, A. L. Humphreys [ https://archive.org/details/crownandcompany00unkngoog visited 25.04.2018]
Room 000, Kalpish Ratna, London, Pan Macmillan India, 2015. A novel about the Bombay plague of 1896 written by two doctors.
Cedric Watts noted the appearance of ‘the despairing man who sought suicide at the almshouses by the humpbacked bridge’ in A Sort of Life, Journey Without Maps, The Lawless Roads, ‘The Innocent’, The Captain and the Enemy, and Reflections. (A Preface to Greene, Cedric Watts, Longman, London and New York, 1996.) Norman Sherry’s similar list does not include Captain, but does include an unpublished manuscript ‘Fanatic Arabia’. (The Life Of Graham Greene Volume 1: 1904-1939, Norman Sherry, London, Jonathan Cape, 1989-2004.)
” … our memory of a moment is not informed of everything that has happened since; this moment which it has registered endures still, lives still, and with it the person whose form is outlined in it.” Marcel Proust, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, quoted in A Collection of Moments A Study of Involuntary Memories, Esther Salaman, London, Longman, 1970. This was a study of her own memories of childhood in revolutionary Russia, and of writers (though not Greene) who wrote about their early childhood. I came across it in Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
© Richard Shepherd, 2018