The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene (1939)

That, I think, was the day I began to hate the Mexicans. (p.48)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.


If you read much about Greene you quickly learn that he was the son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted private school and that he never really recovered. There was a door in his father’s study which was the border between school and home. At home, nice smells, warmth and love; across the ‘border’ a world of sadistic masters, hateful boys farting and bullying each other. You are immediately in a Greeneland characterised by a) obsession with the seedy and sordid and disappointing aspects of life b) hyperbole and melodrama.

In the Prologue to this book he revisits Berkhamsted and is appalled. The new buildings don’t have the ‘authenticity’ of the old; newspaper stories about a couple who lay down on the railway line to die, a pregnant chav where the father might be up to 14 local men, cheap houses, divorces, what he flashily calls ‘Metroland loneliness’. So far, so unremitting a focus on the squalid and a complete blindness to the comfortable homes being built for the poor and middle class, for the beauty of the woods in autumn etc. What makes it especially Greeneish is the absurd melodrama. The nasty masters aren’t just unpleasant, they are ‘evil’; the sad stories which you can easily find in any local paper are a) misleadingly taken to be typical of the entire town b) blown up to become symbols of a vast, universal evil and horror.

Hate is quite as powerful a tie…  one met for the first time characters, adult and adolescent, who bore about them the genuine quality of evil… from these heights evil declined towards Parlow… Hell lay about them in their infancy. There lay the horror and the fascination… One became aware of God… I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell…  the appalling mysteries of love moving through a ravaged world… something one associated with misery, violence, evil… It was a place without law… ‘Why, this is hell, Mephistopheles told Dr Faustus, ‘nor am I out of it.’… the Irish servant girls making their assignations for a ditch…

The last sentence encapsulates Greene’s fantastic snobbery and disgust at his fellow human beings, and the entire remarkable prologue openly shows how his fastidious repugnance at humanity formed the basis for his vicious Catholic ‘faith’ (Anglicanism just isn’t extreme enough for the  violence of his hatreds), a Catholic faith which derives ultimately from his sense that school was hell, his masters demons and disgusting humanity like the vile Irish servant girls are everywhere, unredeemable serfs spawning in ditches.

Berkhamsted is a small school, defined by the confines of Berkhamsted high street, canal, puffing railway and ruined castle. Greene was brought into closer contact than his peers at more isolated public schools with the oiks and proles and – gasp! – ordinary people who didn’t have his privileges, and he was appalled to find them badly educated plebs, the young men preening themselves, greasing their hair and driving flash motors, the girls overmade-up and tarty, smoking fags and having underage sex.

It is the key to Greene’s mindset, belief and all his fiction that his faith is founded not on mercy or forgiveness or heaven, but on an intimate and detailed disgust brought about by prisonment among disgusting teenage boys, reinforced by his vision of the hopeless abandonment of the proles in his home town.

It is staggering that he wrote and published such a revealing passage, and an indictment of his seriousness as a writer/commentator that he then takes this adolescent disgust and uses it as the yardstick with which he flies to Mexico and measures another country, another politics, another people. Does he end up admiring and respecting them, any of htem? Nope, Mexico immeasurably deepens Greene’s sense of disgust and horror at humanity; he ends up hating Mexico and the Mexicans.


It would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t so pathetic that Greene includes in his list of the appalling degradations of his times and the vile depths to which human nature has sunk, that he includes in his list of the damned, of the suicides on the train track, the mother with umpteen fathers, the divorcees etc etc, the newfangled game called ‘Monopoly’, in which players compete to buy properties and then extract rent from other players who land on them. My God! The world is coming to an end! Hell is all about is! Why, this is hell nor am I out of it. Help. Help! HELP!!


Greene mistakes knowing more about disgust than anybody else with knowing more than anybody else. Just because he’s an expert in self-loathing doesn’t make him an expert at anything else. But it does inform the relentlessly superior tone he adopts to everything, to entire nations like the US (naive), to anybody who’s happy or sings (fools) or tells jokes (imbeciles), to the Mexicans (shambolic).

Obviously he didn’t speak any Spanish when he went to Mexico, but why should he bother to understand what anybody has to say to him when he already knows everything there is to know about loathesome humanity, about ‘misery, violence, evil’ – he went to Berkhamsted school, people! There were people there as beastly as ‘Collifax, who practised torments with dividers; Mr Cranden with three grim chins, a dusty gown, a kind of demoniac sensuality.’ (p.14)

All the beastliness Mexico can offer is mere footnotes to having gone to a school where there were ‘lavatories without locks’ – without locks! a world of ‘stone stairs and cracked bells ringing early [where] one was aware of fear and hate, a kind of lawlessness – appalling cruelties could be practised without a second thought.’

It is gratifying to discover that a lot of what he wrote was wrong, his predictions didn’t come true, that the book is generally thought to be unreliable. About Mexico, yes, of course; about Greene’s fastidious self-loathing and condescending superiority to all other human beings, it is an extremely accurate guide.

[Across the border] the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell, the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds… You get used in Mexico to disappointment… fake kindliness and superficial truth… There is so much weariness and disappointment in travel… The horror and the beauty of human life… the ivory tower has its own horror: the terrifying egoism of exclusion… all the beauty and the horror of the flesh… some horrifying human need for ugliness… There is no peace anywhere where there is human life… The horror… is an intrinsic part of human life in every place…  one came across others in Mexico like that, foreigners and Spaniards who had lost everything except despair… [The beggars] came up around the train on both sides like mangy animals in a neglected zoo… One will never exhaust these little storehouses of human cruelty… [Mexican men] remain for ever in a cruel anarchic adolescence… [Orozco’s murals] represent emotions of pity and hate that one can respect… All the monuments in Mexico are to violent deaths… one of those sudden inexplicable outbursts of brutality common in Mexico… [A 2 year-old girl with bangles] handcuffed to sophistication at birth – like goodness dying out in the  hot seaport… [At Villahermosa] One felt one was drawing close to the centre of something – if it was only of darkness and abandonment… The police were the lowest of the population… You gained an overwhelming sense of brutality and irresponsibility… the horrifing abundance of just life… without a memory and without a hope in the immense heat… No hope anywhere: I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate… in this hating and hateful country… Far below Tabasco spread out, the Godless state, the landscape of a hunted man’s terror and captivity… the dreary hopeless failure of love… the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico… I was overcome by a sense of disgust… I had found such a sense of hopelessness in Tabasco… ~I was overcome by a sense of disgust… there is something horribly imature in [Mexicans’] cheeriness: no sense of human responsibility; it is all one with the pistol-shot violence… that Mexican facade of bonhomie – the embrace, the spar, the joke – woth which they hide from themselves the cruelty and treachery of their life… I loathed Mexico… How one begins to hate these people… a country of disappointment and despair… the hatefulness of Mexico City… It is awful how things go on when you are not there… [Back in England] I tried to remember my hate… Perhaps we are in need of violence…

The book ends as the Munich Crisis looms and breaks in England, and with this note of sadness that this time round the Great Violence, the purifying cleansing fire of War, has not been unleashed on the sordid seedy suburban world he detests so much. This fascination with violence, the Catholic veneration of torture, and Greene’s hatred for bourgeois corruption and the wish for a cleansing war to sweep it all away – these are the roots of Fascism.

Greene’s Catholicism

In that short powerfully silly prologue, Greene reveals that his faith is based on his innate suicidal despair, itself based on revulsion at the littleness of life, the pettiness of peaceful provincial England. His admiration of Catholicism’s gaudy grandiosity is intimately linked with his vast condescension to l’autrui, the pitiful others, everyone else. Both are exemplified in this passage from later in the book.

I went into the Templo del Carmen, as the dark dropped, for Benediction. To a stranger like myself it was like going home – a language I could understand – ‘Ora pro nobis.’ The Virgin sat on an extraordinary silver cloud like a cabbage with the Infant in her arms above the altar; all along the walls horrifying statues with musty purple robes stood in glass coffins; and yet it was home. One knew what was going on. Old men came plodding in in dungarees on bare feet, tired out with work, and again I thought: how could one grudge them the gaudy splendour of the giltwork, the incense, the distant immaculate figure upon the cloud? The candles were lit, and suddenly little electric lights sprayed out all around the Virgin’s head. Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfilment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture. (p.49)

How easy, how typically condescending for the rich white tourist to think it better for poverty-stricken peasants to have the compensations of their gaudy religion – even if it’s not true – rather than a home, proper furniture, money and security in old age. Better picturesque poverty than banal comfort and security – as long as it’s for other people.

Related links

over of the hardback edition of The Lawless Roads

Cover of the hardback edition of The Lawless Roads

Greene’s books

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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