Family Britain: The Certainties of Place by David Kynaston (2009)

Two more massive ‘books’ contained in one hefty 700-page paperback describing Britain after the war, the first one – The Certainties of Place, under review here – covering the period 1951-5 in immense detail. The main historical events are:

  • The Festival of Britain (May – August 1951)
  • October 1951 the Conservatives just about win the general election, despite polling quarter of a million fewer votes than Labour
  • Death of George VI (6 February 1952) and accession of young Queen Elizabeth II
  • 3 October 1952 Britain explodes its first atom bomb (in Western Australia)
  • The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash on the morning of 8 October 1952 – 112 were killed and 340 injured – the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom
  • The North Sea flood on the night of Saturday 31 January / Sunday, 1 February
  • Rationing: tea came off the ration in October 1952 and sweets in February 1953, but sugar, butter, cooking fats, cheese, meat and eggs continued on the ration
  • 2 June 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • 27 July 1953 end of Korean War
  • 12 August 1953 Russia detonates its first hydrogen bomb

The book ends in January 1954, with a literary coincidence. On Monday 25 Lucky Jim, the comic novel which began the career of Kingsley Amis was published and that evening saw the BBC broadcast the brilliant play for voices Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who had in fact died two months earlier, on 9 November 1953.

Tumult of events and impressions

But reading Kynaston’s books is not to proceed logically through the key events of the period accompanied by political and economic and diplomatic analysis: it is to be plunged into the unceasing turbulent flow of day-to-day events, mixing the trivial with the serious, it’s to see the world from the point of view of a contemporary tabloid newspaper – the Mirror and the Express competing for the title of Britain’s best-selling newspaper – with the big political issues jostling for space with the winner of the Grand National and gossip about the stars of stage and radio – and above all, to read quotes from a thousand and one contemporary voices.

Without any preface or introduction, the text throws you straight into the hurly-burly of events, festooned with comments by an enormous casts of diarists, speech-makers, article-writers, commentators, eye-witnesses and so on.

Thus at the top of page one it is Saturday 28 April 1951 and King George VI is presenting the F.A. Cup to the winners, Newcastle. Three days later, on Tuesday 1 May 1951 he is at Earls Court for the British Industries Fair. On Thursday 3 he is on the South Bank to open the new Royal Festival Hall and inaugurate the five-month-long Festival of Britain – ‘a patriotic prank’, according to the song Noel Coward wrote about it, ‘madly educative and very tiring’, according to Kenneth Williams (25).

What makes Kynastons’s books hugely enjoyable is the vast cavalcade of people, from kings to coal miners, via a jungle of ordinary housewives, newspaper columnists, industrialists, famous or yet-to-be-famous writers, actors, civil servants and politicians.

a) They are fascinating on their own account b) Kynaston deploys them not just to discuss the big issues of the day but quotes them on day to day trivia, the appearance of London, the menu at posh clubs, the ups and downs of rationing, the tribulations of shopping in the High Street. The breadth of witnesses, and the range of activities they describe, helps to make the reader feel that you really have experienced living in this era.

Labour exhausted, Conservatives win

Overall, the big impression which comes across is the way the Labour Party had run out of ideas by 1951, and how this contributed to their defeat in the October 1951 general election. (It is fascinating to learn that they only held an election that October because the king told Attlee he was going on a prolonged tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 and would prefer there to be an election while he was still in the country. Attlee duly obliged, and Labour lost. Thus are the fates of nations decided). (There is, by the by, absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Commonwealth or the British Empire: this is a book solely about the home front and domestic experiences of Britain.)

Labour were reduced to opposition in which they seem to waste a lot of energy squabbling between the ‘Bevanites’ on the left of the party, and the larger mainstream represented by Hugh Gaitskell. The bitter feud stemmed from the decision by Gaitskell, when Chancellor, to introduce charges for ‘teeth and spectacles’ in order to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Korean War (started June 1950).

The quiet Labour leader, Clement Attlee, now in his 70s, was mainly motivated to stay on by his determination to prevent Herbert Morrison becoming leader.

The most important political fact of the period was that the Conservatives accepted almost every element of the welfare state and even of the nationalised industries which they inherited from Labour.

Experts are quoted from the 1980s saying that this was a great lost opportunity for capitalism i.e. the Conservatives failed to privatise coal or steel or railways, and failed to adjust the tax system so as to reintroduce incentives and make British industry more competitive. To these critics, the 1950s Conservatives acquiesced in the stagnation which led to Britain’s long decline.

Rebuilding and new towns

What the Conservatives did do was live up to their manifesto promise of building 300,000 new houses a year, even if the houses were significantly reduced in size from Labour’s specifications (much to the growling disapproval of Nye Bevan), and to push ahead with the scheme for building twelve New Towns.

I grew up on the edge of one of these New Towns, Bracknell, which I and all my friends considered a soulless dump, so I was fascinated to read Kynaston’s extended passages about the massive housing crisis of post-war Britain and the endless squabbles of experts and architects who claimed to be able to solve it.

To some extent reading this book has changed my attitude as a result of reading the scores and scores of personal accounts Kynaston quotes of the people who moved out of one-room, condemned slums in places like Stepney and Poplar and were transported to two bedroom houses with things they’d never see before – like a bathroom, their own sink, an indoor toilet!

It’s true that almost immediately there were complaints that the new towns or estates lacked facilities, no pubs, not enough shops, were too far from town centres with not enough public transport, and so on. But it is a real education to see how these concerns were secondary to the genuine happiness brought to hundreds of thousands of families who finally escaped from hard-core slum conditions and, after years and years and years of living in squalor, to suddenly be living in clean, dry, properly plumbed palaces of their own.

At the higher level of town planners, architects and what Kynaston calls ‘activators’, he chronicles the ongoing fights between a) exponents of moving urban populations out to new towns versus rehousing them in new inner city accomodation b) the core architectural fight between hard-line modernist architects, lackeys of Le Corbusier’s modernism, and various forms of watered-down softer, more human modernism.

It is a highly diffused argument because different architects deployed different styles and solutions to a wide range of new buildings on sites all over the UK, from Plymouth to Glasgow: but it is one of the central and most fascinating themes of the Kynaston books, and inspires you to want to go and visit these sites.

Education

The other main issue the Conservatives (and all right-thinking social commentators and progressives) were tackling after the war was Education. The theme recurs again and again as Kynaston picks up manifesto pledges, speeches, or the publication of key policy documents to bring out the arguments of the day. Basically we watch two key things happen:

  1. despite the bleeding obvious fact that the public schools were (and are) the central engine of class division, privilege and inequality in British society, no political party came up with any serious proposals to abolish them or even tamper with their status (a pathetic ineffectiveness which, of course, lasts to the present day)
  2. instead the argument was all about the structure of the state education system and, in Kynaston’s three books so far, we watch the Labour party, and the teachers’ unions, move from broad support for grammar schools in 1944, to becoming evermore fervently against the 11-plus by the early 1950s

Kynaston uses his sociological approach to quote the impact of passing – or failing – the 11-plus exam (the one which decides whether you will go to a grammar school or a secondary modern school) on a wide variety of children from the time, from John Prescott to Glenda Jackson.

Passing obviously helped propel lots of boys and girls from ‘ordinary’ working class backgrounds on to successful careers. But Kynaston also quotes liberally from the experiences of those who failed, were crushed with humiliation and, in some cases, never forgave society.

The following list serves two purposes:

  1. To give a sense of the huge number of people the reader encounters and hears quoted in Kynaston’s collage-style of social history
  2. To really bring out how the commanding heights of politics, the economy, the arts and so on were overwhelmingly ruled by people who went to public school, with a smattering of people succeeding thanks to their grammar school opportunity, and then a rump of people who became successful in their fields despite attending neither public nor grammar schools and, often, being forced to leave school at 16, 15, 14 or 13 years of age.

Public school

Politicians

  • Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford)
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Westminster and New College, Oxford)
  • Anthony Blunt (Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Guy Burgess (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Austen Butler (Marlborough and Cambridge)
  • Winston Churchill (Harrow then Royal Military College, Sandhurst)
  • Kim Cobbold (Governor of the Bank of England 49-61, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Stafford Cripps (Winchester College and University College London)
  • Anthony Crosland (Highbury and Oxford)
  • Richard Crossman (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Hugh Dalton (Eton and Cambridge)
  • Sir Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Michael Foot (Leighton Park School Reading and Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe ( George Watson’s College and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Gerald Kaufman (Leeds Grammar School [private] and Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Harold Macmillan (Eton)
  • Harold Nicholson (Wellington and Oxford)
  • Sir John Nott-Bower (Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tonbridge School then the Indian Police Service)
  • Kim Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Enoch Powell (King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • John Profumo (Harrow and Oxford)
  • Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Lindsay Anderson (film director, Saint Ronan’s School and Cheltenham College then Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Diana Athill (memoirist, Runton Hill School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • John Betjeman (poet, Marlborough and Oxford)
  • Cecil Beaton (photographer, Harrow and Cambridge)
  • John Berger (art critic, St Edward’s School, Oxford and Chelsea School of Art)
  • Michael Billington (theatre critic, Warwick School and Oxford)
  • Raymond Chandler (novelist, Dulwich College, then journalism)
  • Bruce Chatwin (travel writer, Marlborough)
  • Dr Alex Comfort (popular science author, Highgate School, Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Davenport-Hynes (historian, St Paul’s and Selwyn College, Cambridge)
  • Robin Day (BBC interviewer, Bembridge and Oxford)
  • Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill School then the Richmond and Twickenham Times)
  • Richard Eyre (theatre director, Sherborne School and Peterhouse Cambridge)
  • Ian Fleming (novelist, Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst)
  • John Fowles (novelist, Bedford School and Oxford)
  • Michael Frayn (novelist, Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge)
  • Alan Garner (novelist, Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Graham Greene (novelist, Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Joyce Grenfell (Francis Holland School and Mlle Ozanne’s finishing school in Paris)
  • Alec Guinness (actor, Fettes College)
  • Frank Richards (writer for popular comics, Thorn House School in Ealing then freelance writing)
  • Christopher Hill (Marxist historian, St Peter’s School, York and Balliol College, University of Oxford)
  • David Hockney (artist, Bradford Grammar School [private], Bradford College of Art, Royal College of Art)
  • Ludovic Kennedy (BBC, Eton then Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Gavin Lambert (film critic, Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Humphrey Lyttelton (Eton, Grenadier Guards, Camberwell Art College)
  • David Kynaston (historian, Wellington College and New College, Oxford)
  • Kingsley Martin (editor of New StatesmanMill Hill School and Magdalene College, Cambridge)
  • Frances Partridge (Bloomsbury writer, Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge)
  • Raymond Postgate (founder of Good Food Guide, St John’s College, Oxford)
  • V.S. Pritchett (novelist, Alleyn’s School, and Dulwich College)
  • Barbara Pym (novelist, Queen’s Park School Oswestry and Oxford)
  • William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times 1967-81, Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Richard Rogers (architect, St Johns School, Leatherhead then the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London)
  • Anthony Sampson (social analyst, Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Raphael Samuel (Marxist historian, Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Maggie Smith (actress, Oxford High School, then the Oxford Playhouse)
  • David Storey (novelist, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield then Slade School of Fine Art)
  • AJP Taylor (left wing historian, Bootham School in York then Oriel College, Oxford)
  • E.P. Thompson (Marxist historian, Kingswood School Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Alan Turing (computer pioneer, Sherborne and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Kenneth Tynan (theatre critic, King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Chad Varah (founder of Samaritans, Worksop College [private] Nottinghamshire then Keble College, Oxford)
  • Angus Wilson (novelist, Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford)
  • Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, Felsted School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Laurence Olivier (actor, prep school and choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Grammar school

Politicians

  • Barbara Castle (Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and and St Hugh’s College, Oxford)
  • Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Margaret Thatcher (Grantham Girls’ School and Oxford)
  • Harold Wilson (Royds Hall Grammar School and Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Paul Bailey (novelist, Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School For Boys, Battersea and the Central School of Speech and Drama)
  • Joan Bakewell (BBC, Stockport High School for Girls and Cambridge)
  • Stan Barstow (novelist, Ossett Grammar School then an engineering firm)
  • Alan Bennett (playwright, Leeds Modern School and Exeter College, Oxford)
  • Michael Caine (actor, Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, left at 16 to become a runner for a film company)
  • David Cannadine (historian, King Edward VI Five Ways School and Clare College, Cambridge)
  • Noel Coward (dance academy)
  • Terence Davies (film director, left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk)
  • A.L. Halsey (sociologist, Kettering Grammar School then London School of Economics)
  • Sheila Hancock (actress, Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
  • Tony Harrison (poet, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University)
  • Noddy Holder (musician, Walsall Grammar school until it closed, then T. P. Riley Comprehensive School)
  • Ted Hughes (poet, Mexborough Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge)
  • Lynda Lee-Potter (columnist, Leigh Girls’ Grammar School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Roy Porter (historian, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell then Christ’s College, Cambridge)
  • Terence Stamp (actor, Plaistow County Grammar School then advertising)
  • John Sutherland (English professor, University of Leicester)
  • Dylan Thomas (poet, Swansea Grammar School)
  • Dame Sybil Thorndike (actress, Rochester Grammar School for Girls then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Philip Toynbee (communist writer, Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Colin Welland (actor, Newton-le-Willows Grammar School then Goldsmiths College)
  • Kenneth Williams (actor, Lyulph Stanley Boys’ Central Council School)
  • Raymond Williams (Marxist social critic, King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and Trinity College, Cambridge)

Secondary modern / left school early

  • Alice Bacon (Labour MP in favour of comprehensive schools, Normanton Girls’ High School and Stockwell Teachers’ Training College)
  • Raymond Baxter (BBC presenter, Ilford County High School, expelled after being caught smoking)
  • Aneurin Bevan (major figure in the Labour Party, left school at 13)
  • Jim Callaghan (Labour Prime Minister 1976-79, Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, left school at 17)
  • Ossie Clarke (fashion designer, Beamont Secondary Technical School then Regional College of Art in Manchester)
  • Hugh Cudlipp (Howard Gardens High School for boys, left at 14)
  • Ian Jack (Dunfermline High School, left to become a journalist)
  • Clive Jenkins (left school at 14, Port Talbot County Boys’ School)
  • Stanley Matthews (cricketer, left school at 14 to play football)
  • Herbert Morrison (St Andrew’s Church of England School, left at 14 to become an errand boy)
  • Joe Orton (playwright, Clark’s College in Leicester)
  • John Osborne (playwright, Belmont College, expelled aged 16)
  • John Prescott (failed 11 plus, Grange Secondary Modern School and Hull University)
  • Alan Sillitoe (novelist, left school at 14)

Sociology

There are definitely more sociologists quoted in this book than in the previous two, especially in the very long central section devoted to class, which seems to have been the central obsession of sociologists in that era. Kynaston quotes what seems to be hundreds but is probably only scores of sociologists who produced a flood of reports throughout the 1940s and 50s, as they went off to live with miners or dockers or housewives, produced in-depth studies of the social attitudes of East End slums, the industrial north, towns in Wales or Scotland, and so on and so on.

The central social fact of the era was that about 70% of the British population belonged to the manual working class. And therefore, for me, the obvious political question was and is: why did this country, which was 70% ‘working class’, vote for Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964? What did Labour do wrong, in order to lose the votes of what should – on paper – have been its natural constituency?

This central question is nowhere asked or answered. Instead I found myself being frequently distracted by the extreme obviousness of some of the sociologists’ conclusions. Lengthy fieldwork and detailed statistical analysis result in conclusions like such as the working class are marked off from the ‘middle class’ by:

  • lower income
  • by taking wages rather than a salary
  • their jobs are often precarious
  • they are more likely to belong to trade unions
  • have distinctive accents
  • wear distinctive types of clothes (e.g. the cloth cap)
  • have poorer education
  • have distinct manners and linguistic usages (for example calling the mid-day meal dinner instead of lunch)

Other revelations include that the children of working class parents did less well at school than children of middle-class parents, and were less likely to pass the 11-plus, that rugby league is a northern working class sport compared with the middle-class sport of rugby union, that cricket was mostly a middle and upper middle class interest while football was followed obsessively by the proles, that the proles read the News of the World and the People rather than the Times and Telegraph.

As to the great British institution of the pub, in the words of the Truman’s website:

Saloon bars were sit-down affairs for the middle class, carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats and slightly more expensive drinks. You were served at the table and expected to dress smart for the occasion. You would also pay a premium on the drinks for this and usually there would be some entertainment be it singing, dancing, drama or comedy. You would generally be served bitter and in half pints.

Public bars, or tap rooms, remained for the working class. Bare wooden floorboards with sawdust on the floor, hard bench seats and cheap beer were on offer. You didn’t have to change out of your work wear so this was generally were the working class would go for after work and drink in pints, generally of mild.

Altogether this central section about class in all its forms takes some 150 pages of this 350-page book – it is a seriously extended analysis or overview of class in early 1950s Britain drawing on a multitude of studies and surveys (it’s almost alarming to see how very, very many studies were carried out by academic sociologists during this period, alongside the regular Mass-Observation surveys, plus ad hoc commercial surveys by Gallup and a number of less well-known pollsters).

And yet almost nothing from this vast body of work comes as a surprise: Most kids in grammar schools were upper-middle or middle class i.e. it’s a myth to say grammar schools help the working and lower working classes. IQ tests can be fixed by intensive coaching. The working classes liked football. The most popular hobbies (by a long way) were gardening for men, and knitting for women. Pubs were a place of comforting familiarity, where you would find familiar friends and familiar drinks and familiar conversations in familiar surroundings.

Compared to all the effort put into these studies, there is remarkably little that comes out of them.

Some of the sociologists mentioned or discussed in the text

  • Kenneth Allsop reported on Ebbw Vale
  • Michael Banton, author of numerous studies of race and ethnic relations
  • LSE sociologist Norman Birnbaum, criticising positive interpretations of the Coronation
  • Betting in Britain 1951 report by The Social Survey
  • Maurice Broady, sociologist who studied Coronation Day street parties (p.305)
  • Joanna Bourke, socialist feminist historian
  • Katherine Box, author of a 1946 study of cinema-going
  • British Institute of Public Opinion survey
  • Professor of cultural history, Robert Colls, author of When We Lived In Communities
  • Coal is our Life sociologial study of Featherstone in Yorkshire by Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter
  • Mark Clapson, historian of suburbia and Milton Keynes
  • David Glass author of Social Mobility in Britain (1954)
  • Geoffrey Gorer 1950-51 People survey of what class people saw themselves as belonging to
  • historian Richard Holt writing about football
  • 1949 Hulton Survey on smoking
  • Roy Lewis and Angus Maude authors of The English Middle Classes (1949)
  • F.M. Martin’s 1952 survey of parental attitudes to education in Hertfordshire
  • Mass-Observation 1949 survey, The Press and Its Readers
  • Mass-Observation survey 1947-8 on drinking habits
  • Mass-Observation survey 1951 on drunkenness in Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester and Salford
  • Peter Townsend, social researcher (p.118)
  • Margaret Stacy studied Banbury (p.136)
  • T.H. Pear author of English Social Differences (1955)
  • Hilde Himmelweit study of four grammar schools in London
  • Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) which reminisces about working class Hunslet
  • sociologist Madeline Kerr’s five-year study The People of Ship Street in Liverpool (1958)
  • Tony Mason, football historian
  • Leo Kuper vox pops from Houghton in Coventry
  • John Barron Mays’ study of inner-city Liverpool in the early 1950s
  • Ross McKibbin author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1955
  • Gavin Mellor research into football crowds in the north-west 1946-62
  • Peter Miskell’s study of the cimema in Wales
  • John Mogey, author of a study of the Jolly Waterman pub in St Ebbe’s, a suburb of Oxford
  • Alison Ravetz, author if a study of the model Quarry Hill estate in Leeds
  • Doris Rich authored a study of working men’s clubs in Coseley
  • James Robb, author of a study of Bethnal Green in the late 1940s
  • Elizabeth Robert conducted extensive interviews in north-west England into education (p.161)
  • Robert Roberts, author of The Classic Slum (1971) about Salford either side of the war
  • Rowntree and Lavers, author of the study English Life and Leisure
  • Alice Russell, historian of occupational welfare
  • sociologist Mike Savage (pp.148, 159)
  • American sociologist Edward Shils
  • Brian Simon, communist teacher then at Leicester University
  • Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside interviewed 200 servicemen just as the war ended about education
  • 1953 report on Southamptons’s housing estates
  • Peter Stead, author of a study of Barry in south Wales
  • Avram Taylor, historian of working class credit
  • Philip Vernon, professor of Educational Psychology at London University’s Institute of Education
  • John Walton, historian of Blackpool landladies
  • Michael Young, author of Is This the Classless Society (1951) among many others
  • Ferdynand Zweig, wide-ranging sociological investigator of the post war years

As far as I could see all of these studies were focused on the working class, their hobbies, activities, beliefs and attitudes – as well as an extended consideration of what ‘community’ meant to them. This latter was meant to help the town planners who agonised so much about trying to create new ‘communities’ in the new estates and the new towns, and so on – but two things are glaringly absent from the list of topics.

One is sex. Not one of the researchers mentioned above appears to have made any enquiries into the sex lives of their subjects. Given our modern (2019) obsession with sex and bodies, it is a startling omission which, in itself, speaks volumes about the constrained, conservative and essentially private character of the time.

(There are several mentions of homosexuality, brought into the public domain by several high-profile prosecutions of gays for soliciting in public toilets, which prompted a) righteous indignation from the right-wing press but b) soul searching among liberal politicians and some of the regular diarists Kynaston features, along the lines of: why should people be prosecuted by the law for the way God made them?)

Secondly, why just the working class? OK, so they made up some 70% of the population, but why are there no studies about the behaviour and belief systems of, say, architects and town planners? Kynaston quotes critics pointing out what a small, inbred world of self-congratulatory back-scratchers this was – but there appears to be no study of their educational backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices – or of any other middle-class milieu.

And this goes even more for the upper classes. What about all those cabinet ministers who went to Eton and Harrow and Westminster? Did no one do a sociological study of private schools, or of the Westminster village or of the posh London clubs? Apparently not. Why not?

And this tells you something, maybe, about sociology as a discipline: that it consists of generally left-wing, middle-class intellectuals and academics making forays into working class territory, expeditions into working class lives as if the working class were remote tribes in deepest New Guinea. The rhetoric of adventure and exploration which accompanies some of the studies is quite comic, if you read it in this way. As is the way they then report back their findings in prestigious journals and articles and books and win prizes for their bravery as if they’ve just come back from climbing Everest, instead of spending a couple of weeks in Middlesborough chatting to miners.

It’s only right at the end of the 150 or so pages of non-stop sociological analysis of ‘the working classes’ that you finally get some sociologists conceding that they are not the solid communities of socialist heroes of the revolution that so many of these left wingers wanted them to be: that in fact, many ‘working class’ communities were riven by jealousies, petty feuds and a crushing sense of snobbery. Umpteen housewives are quoted as saying that so-and-so thought she was ‘too good’ for the rest of us, was hoity-toity, told her children not to play with our kids etc. other mums told researchers they instructed their children not to play with the rough types from down the road.

People turned out to be acutely aware of even slight differences of behaviour or speech and drew divisive conclusions accordingly. The myth of one homogenous ‘working class’ with common interest turns out to be just that, a myth. THis goes some way to answering my question about why 70% of the population did not all vote for the workers’ party, far from it.

Above all, what comes over very strongly in the voices of ordinary people, is the wish to be left alone, to live and let live, and for privacy – to be allowed to live in what Geoffrey Gorer summed up as ‘distant cordiality’ with their neighbours.

‘You don’t get any privacy in flats,’ declared Mrs Essex from number 7 Battersea Church Road  (p.339).

Contrary to the ‘urbanists’, like Michael Young, who wanted to help working class communities remain in their city centres, large numbers of the ‘working classes’ were about to find themselves forced (by the ‘dispersionists’, the generation of high-minded, left-wing planners and architects who Kynaston quotes so extensively and devastatingly, p.340) to move into windy new estates miles from anywhere with no shops or even schools. Those that did remain near their old communities found themselves forced into high-rise blocks of flats with paper-thin walls and ‘shared facilities’ next to new ‘community centres’ which nobody wanted and nobody used and were quickly vandalised. It is a bleak picture.

Love/hate

Lindsay Anderson (b.1923) was ‘a British feature film, theatre and documentary director, film critic, and leading light of the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave’ (Wikipedia).

But in Kynaston’s opinion, Anderson’s 10-minute film O Dreamland, shot in the Margate amusement park of the same name, ‘marked the start of a new, increasingly high-profile phase in the long, difficult, love-hate relationship of the left-leaning cultural elite with the poor old working class, just going about its business and thinking its own private, inscrutable thoughts (p.220).

Here it is, disapproval and condescension dripping from every frame.

Lady authors

For some reason women authors seem more prominent in the era than male authors. It was easy to compile a list of names which recurred and whose works I really ought to make an effort to familiarise myself with.

  • Jean Rhys b.1890 (private school and RADA)
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 (home schooled by her father, a house-master at Harrow School)
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 (private school and art school)
  • Catherine Cookson b.1906 (left school at 14 to take a job as a laundress at a workhouse)
  • Barbara Pym b.1913 (private school and Oxford)
  • Doris Lessing b.1919 (private school till she left home at 15)
  • Lorna Sage b.1943 (grammar school and Durham)
  • Sue Townshend b.1946 (secondary modern South Wigston High School, left school at 14)

Links

Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

Related links

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

‘We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession.’
(A policeman, talking to the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Syme)

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

Having just read four novels by H.G. Wells I am well aware that one of their shortcomings is the way the humans in them are often pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least I thought so until I read these two novels of Chesterton’s. Wells’s characters have Shakespearian depth compared to Chesterton’s.

Chesterton’s characters are names attached to attitudes, or positions, and a great deal of the interchanges between these entities are really the cut and thrust of opposing ideas in a debating society.

I find Wells’s characters endearing because, by comparison, they do have real back stories and histories – for example, Wells goes to maybe silly lengths to give a realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s agility with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which comes in handy later in his adventures in the novel, The War In the Air.

Chesterton’s characters, by contrast, are almost all the same. They all give clever speeches. They are all fond of paradoxes. And very fond of generalising about human nature, about God, the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels solely to make the reader feel suicidal by blackening human nature at every opportunity…

Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.

We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.

In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

… Chesterton does it solely to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox. The introductions to The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday confidently extract from them certain ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’; but the experience of actually reading them is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult books: I sensed that a ‘message’ was being propounded, I just couldn’t work out what it was.

Chesterton’s characters are, in fact, so featureless and interchangeable that they often interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel and more a fantasy entirely concerned with false identities and secret sides, and characters who flip, in a moment, from being on the side of darkness to being on the side of light – or vice-versa.

The plot

The novel is set in the present-day, Edwardian era, where we find two poets in the garden of an artist’s colony in a fictional new model town, named Saffron Park.

Mr Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, is holding court. All the young ladies of the town flock to admire him and his daringly ‘anarchistic’ sentiments. On this evening he is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts his commitment.

Gregory argues that poetry is anarchy and breaking the rules. This makes the young ladies swoon with excitement. Syme counters that poetry is law and gives as an example the wonderful poetry of the London Underground, were you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry.

Angered, Gregory is waiting for him outside the ground of his house at the end of the little party, and in a feverish conversation reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both swear to keep each other’s secrets. You see how Chesterton’s taste for symmetry and paradox overcomes any attempt at ‘realism’.

Gregory promptly takes Syme along to a pub which contains a secret table which – in a James Bond manoeuvre – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This is the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme takes this all with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this ‘chapter’. There are seven anarchist groups, each ruled by someone given the codename of a day of the week. Head of the entire Anarchist Movement is a mysterious man named Sunday.

As it happens the man named ‘Thursday’, who was leader of this section, recently passed away and tonight they are voting for his successor. Everyone expects Gregory to be elected Thursday, but he is suddenly overcome by worry that, making them all sound too dangerous will prompt Syme to denounce them all to his police colleagues. So Gregory makes a surprisingly tame speech, which is met with disappointment. At which Syme leaps to his feet and makes a startlingly violent speech, denouncing Gregory’s pacifism, and he is elected by an overwhelming majority. Humorous paradox, and ironic reversal.

Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and led off down a secret passage which opens onto the Thames where a steam boat is waiting, leaving Gregory seething with anger and impotence. It is, to say the least, odd to the modern reader that Gregory keeps his promise not to expose his rival, but the entire novel is odd, and is really a psychological fantasia more than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

Thursday is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists. Sunday has a theory that if you loudly announce to everyone that you are an anarchist no-one will believe you. Thus they make their plans to blow up kings and emperors in the open air while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists, who do like their little jokes.

Syme is greeted as the new Thursday and introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. After a survey of the other anarchists, Sunday calls them back inside to a locked room, and here he announces that one among them is a traitor!! This is a scene I’ve seen in so many James Bond and other spy adventure movies, I wonder if it originated with Chesterton. Probably not, in which case I wonder if an origin can be found, or whether it’s as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the spy, and Syme is just about to stand up and confess that it is he when, to his amazement, a scraggy-haired Polish anarchist does just that – stands up and confesses to being a policeman, throwing his blue police card onto the table. Sunday is incomprehensibly magnanimous, and asks him to go now and promise not to tell their plans to anyone (!).

Then he gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris, after which the group break up and go their separate ways. There is then a pretty convincing sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor among the other anarchists, has followed him,. He gets up, walks through Covent Garden and stops in a pub… only to find the Professor sitting at a table, Syme storms out and runs along to St Pauls, shimmering as night falls and with it a shower of snow and hears, in the snowdrift quietness… the sound of the Professor pottering along behind him. Gripped by a kind of panic fear Syme runs on through the black London streets, down to the docks and ducks into a rough pub. Where the Professor walks through the door straight after him.

Sequences like this fully justify the novel’s sub-title, ‘A Nightmare’. There is something fully nightmareish, something creepily uncanny, about this unstoppable pursuit.

Anyway, the Professor now confronts Syme, asking whether he is a policeman, which Syme furiously denies. ‘Shame,’ replies the Professor’, because I am,’ and he tosses onto the table the same type of blue police identity card that the Pole had done earlier, at the same time ripping off the mask which makes him look like a senile old man, to reveal a fresh-faced young chap! So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen!

Double identities, symmetries and paradox!!

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens is that Symes and the Professor then track down the other three members of the group and discover, one by one, that they are all policemen masquerading as anarchists.

Unmasking the last one requires the assembled policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris, the last of the unmasked anarchists, a French aristocrat named the Marquis de Saint Eustache.

This turns into a really compelling and weird fantasia of a sequence as our man Syme, ends up fighting an elaborately staged duel with the Marquis, under the misapprehension that he is truly a baddy. During the duel (with fencing swords) Syme repeatedly sticks his point into the Marquis with no apparent result. Exactly as in a nightmare where, whatever you do to stop it, the monster keeps getting back up.

The answer, revealed at the climax of the contest, is that the Marquis is wearing an early type of bullet-proof vest.

Anyway, the Marquis has no sooner revealed that he, like all the others, is in fact a policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was aiming to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station. To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of anarchists swarm out of it, all wearing Keystone Cops-style black masks over the tops of their faces, and led by none other than the ‘secretary’ who had led Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square.

The chase is on! Our chaps run through woods with the gang of black-masked figures gaining on them. They arrive at a farm the marquis knows, where the kindly old owner lends them horses. But the anarchists are gaining on them. They are horrified to hear the sounds of horse galloping after them and to recognise the kindly old man among them. He is one of the Enemy. They gallop onto another house where a friend of the Marquis’s lends them cars and off they zoom. But one breaks down and they hear… motor cars chasing them, look up and see the friend among them. The whole world is against them.

This nightmare sense becomes overwhelming when they arrive at a fishing village on the coast and… the entire place rises up against them, into a mob, joined by the horse riders and the car drivers, an enormous crowd of black-masked anarchists and villagers and fishermen who surround them and chase them down onto a pier, further and further out till they reach the end and have nowhere to turn.

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly the impact of the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist, nihilist thinking which swept over Europe in the 1890s and 1900s. All these trends were materialist, denying the existence of a ‘soul’ or God, insisting on the purely material view of life as constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found this a great assault on his values and all the things he loved in life. The Man Who Was Thursday is thus a kind of ecstasy of horror, a vision of a world borne down in a great black tide of nihilism. As he explained: ‘It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date.’

At this, its hysterical climax, Syme rebels and runs straight at the crowd and the ‘secretary’ who is leading them, and accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order of life.

At which point the ‘secretary’ steps back, tears off his mask and announces ‘I arrest you in the name of the law.’ ‘The law?’ screams Syme. ‘But you’re anarchists.’ ‘No you’re the anarchists,’ says the secretary. ‘I am a policeman and these are my deputies, and we have dressed up as anarchists as a disguise, to try and mix in with you.’

The crowd which has been chasing them all this time was doing so because they had been told they were dangerous anarchists. But they aren’t anarchists at all. The entire thing has been a mistake and a misunderstanding.

‘There is some mistake,’ [the Secretary] said. ‘Mr. Syme, I hardly think you understand your position. I arrest you in the name of the law.’
‘Of the law?’ said Syme, and dropped his stick.
‘Certainly!’ said the Secretary. ‘I am a detective from Scotland Yard,’ and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
‘And what do you suppose we are?’ asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
‘You,’ said the Secretary stiffly, ‘are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council. Disguised as one of you, I – ‘
Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
‘There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,’ he said. ‘We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,’ he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. ‘Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.’

Note this last little speech. Bull is one of the anarchists-who-is-really-a-policeman and here he expresses one of Chesterton’s shibboleths. It is the intellectuals who we should be worried about, the intellectuals who are promoting anarchy and socialism and nihilism, the intellectuals who are attacking everything good and sweet and clean. By contrast, the so-called common people have never lost touch with the real values of life, with country lanes and Anglican churches and pints of good old English ale.

Who is Sunday?

So all the six anarchists named after days of the week, who are now all revealed to be policemen in disguise, catch the ferry and train back to London and all troop off to Leicester Square to confront big black-suited Sunday, who is still eating on the balcony overlooking the square. To be honest I didn’t understand the ending at all. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

Sunday reveals that setting them against each other was all part of his Master Plan. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives.

Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

So the crux of the thing seems to be that Gregory – spokesman for the real anarchists – says that the opinions of Syme and all the rest are not valid because they have never suffered. Only Gregory and his kind have suffered, and their terrorism is justified by their suffering.

But Symes denies this. He and others like him have suffered. The anarchists don’t have a monopoly of suffering. Syme shouts:

‘No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”‘

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens and is walking along a country lane in a little epiphany of the kind of values, images and ideas which Chesterton values: the countryside, tradition, good fellowship and leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women he had started the novel chatting to in the garden in Saffron Park.

As [Syme] gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’

* * *

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme’s experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through.

For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.

Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Sunday’s parting question as the nightmare collapses – ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39. It is a challenge to Syme and maybe to the reader, asking whether they have the ‘commitment’ to follow in Jesus’ footsteps… Maybe this makes sense to a Christian but within the context of the novel it is difficult to… pin down, to really understand.

Metaphysical landscapes

At its most intense – in the sequence where Syme is followed by the spooky Professor across London, and in the delirious chase scene across the French countryside – The Man Who Was Thursday becomes a really effective spine-chiller.

And throughout there is an otherworldly sensibility at work, Chesterton’s is a mind which doesn’t flow toward the concrete but naturally leads him off into rather apocalyptic theological and symbolical landscapes. Here he is summing up Syme’s first impression of the other anarchists sitting round the conference table.

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again.

Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something – say a tree – that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself – a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

‘An ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.’ That is where a lot of Chesterton’s imagination is always tending. He is always moving from the actual towards the metaphysical, but the metaphysical with an Edwardian twist. The strangeness of some of these visions reminds me of the weird otherworldly landscapes conjured up in C.S. Lewis’s great science fiction trilogy, or even in Wyndham Lewis’s very peculiar theological science fiction novel, The Childermass.

London landscapes

However, the parts of the book I liked most were when Chesterton’s natural taste for the fantastical is tied, anchored, embedded in naturalistic descriptions of Edwardian London. For example, on the tugboat journey from the secret basement where Syme is elected ‘Thursday’ to a mooring at the Embankment near Charing Cross, where he first meets the ‘Secretary’ and is escorted to Leicester Square.

Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.

But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him – the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol [which he has brought from the anarchists meeting] – took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed.

The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque.

So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.

The tug was worked by two men, and with much toil went comparatively slowly. The clear moon that had lit up Chiswick had gone down by the time that they passed Battersea, and when they came under the enormous bulk of Westminster day had already begun to break. It broke like the splitting of great bars of lead, showing bars of silver; and these had brightened like white fire when the tug, changing its onward course, turned inward to a large landing stage rather beyond Charing Cross.

The great stones of the Embankment seemed equally dark and gigantic as Syme looked up at them. They were big and black against the huge white dawn. They made him feel that he was landing on the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace; and, indeed, the thing suited his mood, for he was, in his own mind, mounting to attack the solid thrones of horrible and heathen kings. He leapt out of the boat on to one slimy step, and stood, a dark and slender figure, amid the enormous masonry. The two men in the tug put her off again and turned up stream. They had never spoken a word.

Chesterton’s point in the middle of the passage is a conservative, Christian one, that even the little things in our life are illuminated and somehow redeemed by repeating older, more noble ‘figures’ and archetypes. Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no denying the majesty of his description of day breaking like the splitting of great bars of lead, nor the power of his description of Syme leaping onto the slimy steps of a quay, a slender figure dwarfed by the enormous stones of the Embankment.

For Chesterton that physical description is the basis for his theological points; but for me the physical description is the metaphysical. The depiction of the actual world around us – whether in well-chosen phrases or in lines of pen or charcoal – are, for me, the height of artistic achievement.

The seven days of the week

Monday He was the Secretary of the Council, and his twisted smile was regarded with more terror than anything, except the President’s horrible, happy laughter. But now that Syme had more space and light to observe him, there were other touches. His fine face was so emaciated, that Syme thought it must be wasted with some disease; yet somehow the very distress of his dark eyes denied this. It was no physical ill that troubled him. His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.

The man’s name, it seemed, was Gogol; he was a Pole, and in this circle of days he was called Tuesday. His soul and speech were incurably tragic; he could not force himself to play the prosperous and frivolous part demanded of him by President Sunday… Gogol, or Tuesday, had his simplicity well symbolised by a dress designed upon the division of the waters, a dress that separated upon his forehead and fell to his feet, grey and silver, like a sheet of rain

Wednesday, a certain Marquis de St. Eustache, a sufficiently characteristic figure. The first few glances found nothing unusual about him, except that he was the only man at table who wore the fashionable clothes as if they were really his own. He had a black French beard cut square and a black English frock-coat cut even squarer. But Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe. With this went a sense of his being clad, not in lighter colours, but in softer materials; his black seemed richer and warmer than the black shades about him, as if it were compounded of profound colour. His black coat looked as if it were only black by being too dense a purple. His black beard looked as if it were only black by being too deep a blue. And in the gloom and thickness of the beard his dark red mouth showed sensual and scornful. Whatever he was he was not a Frenchman; he might be a Jew; he might be something deeper yet in the dark heart of the East. In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel, crimson lips.

Next a very old man, Professor de Worms, who still kept the chair of Friday, though every day it was expected that his death would leave it empty. Save for his intellect, he was in the last dissolution of senile decay. His face was as grey as his long grey beard, his forehead was lifted and fixed finally in a furrow of mild despair. In no other case, not even that of Gogol, did the bridegroom brilliancy of the morning dress express a more painful contrast. For the red flower in his button-hole showed up against a face that was literally discoloured like lead; the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse. When he rose or sat down, which was with long labour and peril, something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.

Right at the end sat the man called Saturday, the simplest and the most baffling of all. He was a short, square man with a dark, square face clean-shaven, a medical practitioner going by the name of Bull. He had that combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness which is not uncommon in young doctors. He carried his fine clothes with confidence rather than ease, and he mostly wore a set smile. There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme’s eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.

Sunday At the nearest end of the balcony, blocking up a great part of the perspective, was the back of a great mountain of a man. When Syme had seen him, his first thought was that the weight of him must break down the balcony of stone. His vastness did not lie only in the fact that he was abnormally tall and quite incredibly fat. This man was planned enormously in his original proportions, like a statue carved deliberately as colossal. His head, crowned with white hair, as seen from behind looked bigger than a head ought to be. The ears that stood out from it looked larger than human ears. He was enlarged terribly to scale; and this sense of size was so staggering, that when Syme saw him all the other figures seemed quite suddenly to dwindle and become dwarfish.


Related links

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The Captain and The Enemy by Graham Greene (1988)

Of the Captain I have heard nothing for years, and Liza, whom I left of my own accord, I see only from time to time, always with a sense of guilt. It’s not because of any love I feel for them. It is as though I had taken them quite coldbloodedly as fictional characters to satisfy this passionate desire of mine to write. (p.51)

Part one

12-year-old Victor Baxter is in the playground at his boarding school (sounding suspiciously similar to Greene’s own boarding school, Berkhamsted) when a man arrives with a letter from his father, giving him permission to take Victor out for the afternoon. The man asks to be called ‘the Captain’ and they stroll down towards what sounds like Berkhamsted castle to a pub beside what sounds like Berkhamsted canal, where the Captain wangles lunch and a few drinks off the publican before leaving without paying. Aha. He is a swindler, a con man. And instead of taking Victor back to school the Captain takes him to Berkhamsted train station where they catch the next train to London. ‘You see, Victor,’ he explains, ‘I won you from your father over a game of backgammon.’ Oh,’ thinks Victor.

In London the Captain takes him along to a rundown house which is managed by young Liza. The Captain asks Victor to call her ‘Mum’. Liza and the Captain decide to call him Jim, a much nicer name. Jim is taking all this in his stride, chooses an empty room in the rackety old house to be his bedroom, then settles into life being fed and watered by Liza and getting used to the Captain’s long disappearances and mysterious reappearances.

One day the Captain hands a newspaper to Liza, highlighting an article. Later Jim reads it and it describes how a smartly dressed con man entered a jewellers shop after it was closed and, while the door was open, a gang barged in and stole the man’s stock. It gives the con man’s name as one the Captain has mentioned. Aha. That’s what he does for a living. Jim is sublimely untroubled by being removed from school: he hated it, he was bullied by the other boys, his mother died years previously and his father rarely came to see him; outside of term time he had to stay with an aunt who he hated. He nicknames his father the Devil.

A few weeks later his father in fact knocks on the door. ‘Tut tut,’ says the Devil, ‘so this is where you are’ – not at all outraged or upset by his abduction. We gather from his conversation with Liza that the two were once lovers, but he got her pregnant and paid for a back-street abortion which was bungled, leaving her ill for a long time and unable to have children. That’s when the Captain met her, looked after her and nursed her back to health, hence their connection. After some chat, the Devil leaves, making no effort to take Jim with him.

On another occasion the Devil arrives with the awful aunt, Muriel, who complains about the boy’s lack of schooling. This prompts the Captain to make an effort at home schooling, though this mainly takes the form of telling the impressionable boy tall tales about being shot down and taken prisoner in Germany during the war, before escaping across occupied France into neutral Spain.

The Captain’s absences get longer and longer, and during these long periods Victor finds himself forced to go to the local state school, and growing more independent of the increasingly sad Liza.

Part two

Greene was always interested in time shifts in a narrative. Sometimes a section of text embeds not one but several flashbacks, sometimes reverting from one period to another with next to no warning. Part two opens by announcing that all of part one is a fragment (of autobiography? of fiction?) which the older, mature Victor found among the boxes of Liza’s flat, when he came to go through it, after – years later – she was seriously injured in a car accident. Now – we learn – he is a journalist with years of experience behind, him, a grown adult.

He finds the fragment in a box of old letters in the basement of the house which is now identified as being in Camden. He reads old letters the Captain wrote to Liza, vague promises that he’ll make his fortune, latterly from south America. In fact one arrives during these days, post-marked Panama, including a check ‘payable to bearer’ and details of the flight Liza should catch to go out and join the Captain. This prompts Victor to contact his dad, who invites him to lunch at the Reform Club (posh) where they discuss the morality of cashing a check obviously intended for Liza. Jim discusses it at length, then does it anyway, packs in his journalism job and makes arrangements to fly to Panama. Oh and he brings the fragment up to date, thus writing the text we have seen in the previous two sections…

Part three

Victor flies to Panama and is met by Mr Quigly, a tall, thin man who claims to be a British journalist but speaks with an American twang. He takes him to the stylish hotel where the Captain has arranged a room and a bodyguard for Jim. A bodyguard? Apparently arranged by a certain Colonel Martínez who ‘looks after’ the Captain. If this seems vague that is because it is left deliberately vague: right to the end of the book we (and Jim) are not sure whether the Captain is working for the Colonel, or just given some kind of protection, just as we never completely learn what Quigly is doing. But it does lend the narrative a spurious sense of threat and edge.

After a few days, the Captain appears and Victor, when it comes to it, can’t bring himself to reveal that Liza is dead. This leads him into a series of lies, explaining her lack of letters etc with evermore elaborate excuses. To me, this simply seemed a pretext to allow the narrator to feel Guilt about his Betrayal of the Captain, or Liza, or both.

At various points the bodyguard or Quigly or the Captain take Victor out for drinks and meals. On one occasion the Captain – whose birth name, we learn, is Brown, but who is currently calling himself Smith – takes Victor out to the second hand airplane he keeps. He was a flyer during the war, remember. Maybe the dodgy activities he’s involved in include drug smuggling. It is striking how boring Greene manages to make the description of a small plane flight over the south American jungle. It’s mostly an opportunity for Victor to feel Guilty.

Finally, provoked after too many drinks, Victor tells the Captain that Liza is dead. Obviously I don’t give a damn about these shallow puppets, but I was interested in the choice of words, in the description of the scene:

He took a step towards me and I thought he was preparing to strike me. I backed towards the door and threw the truth at him like a glass of vitriol. ‘There’s no one to go back to. Liza’s dead.’ (p.153)

Isn’t this a scene from a Victorian melodrama? Isn’t ‘vitriol’ an old, almost obsolete word. Why not ‘acid’? And ‘strike’ – the Captain could have been advancing to hit, slap or punch Victor; but no, Greene chooses the most generic term, the one with literary or even biblical overtones, also, somehow, the emptiest.

Jim walks straight out and goes to see Mr Quigly who, based on Jim’s experience as a journalist back in England, offers him a job as a stringer ie a freelance journalist, providing ‘information’. But Jim is savvy enough to realise Quigly is some kinds of agent, probably for the Americans who run the American Zone and the Panama Canal.

Having done this deal, Jim goes back to the hotel room to sleep but is woken and requested to attend a meeting with the sinister Colonel Martínez. In fact the Colonel – something in the National Guard – turns out to be a tubby affable man. He asks Jim if he knows his father’s whereabouts? Jim says no. The Colonel tells him to avoid Quigly and ends the interview. He doesn’t tell us what the relationship is between him and the Captain nor what Quigly’s role is. It is all left deliberately vague and menacing.

Back at the hotel room Jim finds a last letter the Captain has written him, upset that he didn’t tell him Liza was dead immediately on arriving, saying Jim has Betrayed him, telling him to go back to England, and declaring that, now he (the Captain) is free of all duties and responsibility, he can do what he wants. Funnily enough a letter had arrived just today addressed to the Captain at the hotel and Jim had pocketed it. Now he opens it to discovers it is from Liza, written just before she died, knowing she’s dying, telling the Captain how much she Loved him. Ie it is created and positioned in the narrative to create the maximum sense of pathos in the reader, and the maximum sense of Guilt in Jim.

Then comes the sudden ending of the whole Captain narrative. Quigly phones, then comes to the hotel in person to tell Jim the Captain is dead. He uses an odd phrase – he Captain flew ‘in the wrong direction’ – a phrase repeated half a dozen times, as if it will gain symbolism or pathos, but doesn’t really. Soon afterwards the Colonel requests another meeting, and sends Pablo the bodyguard to fetch him. The Colonel informs Jim that the Captain flew his plane packed with explosives into the mountainside home of the Nicaraguan dictator Somosa. But Somosa wasn’t there, so all the Captain managed was to kill himself and shatter windows in a nearby hotel. It is a typically Greene ending for a character and a final image of complete futility.

Jim/Victor announces he is concluding this narrative, a failed attempt to create sense or meaning out of his lifelong association with a man and his beloved for whom, in the end, he felt nothing at all. He’s throwing it in the waste bin and drawing a line under this whole part of his life. He’s taking the money and setting off to start anew.

Part four

This last short section marks a complete departure in the text. It is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the scene where Colonel Martínez calls in Quigly and asks him about Jim’s whereabouts and the meaning of this long mysterious narrative they found in the waste paper basket in his hotel room.

(They are discussing the long narrative Jim had written about his association with the Captain and which we saw/heard/read him planning to throw in the hotel waste paper basket. It is grimly, blackly funny that the Panama intelligence are taking Jim’s completely personal text as some kind of set of instructions or hidden messages).

The Colonel asks Quigly: what does it mean? Is it written in code? Obviously Quigly doesn’t know so then the Colonel tells Quigly that Jim has caught a plane to Chile: has he been sent by his masters to spy on Pinochet? Does he work for the Americans? Again, we get no answers to these questions but they powerfully suggest the milieu the Captain inhabited in this country, somehow involved in running, what? guns, munitions, in his plane, though we never learn why or for who.

Martinez tells Quigly to pack in his espionage activities and quietly go to the American Zone before an ‘accident’ befalls him.

Then, in the last few pages, the Colonel orders Jim’s narrative to be translated into Spanish so he can read it and puzzle out its meaning and the light it sheds on the murky espionage activities of the man they called the Captain. Who knows, one day it might even be published and win literary prizes, ha ha ha. The phone rings, the Colonel listens then replaces the handset, turning to tell the translator, Alas the son has gone the same way as the father, killed in an ‘accident’ on the way to the airport.

Greene’s epilogues

At the end of two of his greatest novels, The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, the point of view pulls away in the last few pages to reveal the point of view of people previously outside the magic circle of the Greene’s fraught narrative: to describe bystanders in a hotel near the prison where the whisky priest is being executed in Power and – devastatingly, in Heart – to reveal that Scobie’s wife and colleagues knew he was having an affair all along; his agonised decisions, his terrible suicide, were pointless.

Greene creates a similar effect here – the last few pages pull the rug out from everything which had gone before, making the Captain and his suburban devotion to the uneducated Liza look pathetic, and strangely pointless Jim’s efforts, revived at various points, to write his and their story in the preceding narrative, knowing it will all end up in a waste bin, and then be retrieved to be pawed over by army officers with no sympathy or understanding for what Jim was trying to achieve.

It’s a kind of knickerbocker glory of futility – adding to the futility of the Captain’s death and the futility of Jim’s death, an added layer of futility by explaining how Jim’s carefully worked narrative has fallen into the hands of people uniquely qualified never to understand a word of it. A bright red cherry of pointlessness sitting on top of the whole depressed concoction.


Style

The story is told in Greene’s later style, which is settled and formal and old-fashioned. These last books often feel as if the prose is tired out after the hysterical scenes of the middle period. It feels drained, calm, resigned, the morning after a wild party or a big emotional scene.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was free from school. Liza was out buying bread and for once she left me alone with my lesson books. Then the bell rang. It wasn’t the Captain’s code, nor was it my father’s. This was a ring, quiet, reassuring, even friendly. The ringer waited what seemed to be a polite time before he rang again, and the ring still remained unurgent, undemanding. (p.75)

It is always well-behaved and minds its manners, after all he went to a good public school and Oxford, you know. If it does go on a bit about despair and guilt, at least it’s wearing the right tie and knows which knife and fork to use for the fish course.

I had heard of Liza’s grave state in hospital from the police and so I came to what I still reluctantly called my home to do all the tiresome things which are required when one prepares for the death of a parent. There was no real next of kin to whom I could pass the disagreeable task. (p.83)

‘when one prepares…’ ‘to whom I could pass’. You can almost hear the knees creaking, see the liver spots on the hands of this prose, nice old gent prose, prose from a bygone era. Safe, correct, dull as ditchwater.

A message came. I went to the hospital. Liza had lapsed into a coma and she died the next day. There was nothing left to do but bury her. She had left no will: if she had money it was in some unknown account. (p.105)

Greene was never a prose stylist: Evelyn Waugh said it best when he commented that Greene’s prose treats words as if they have no history or overtones. He writes with a complete lack of poetry or colour. Greene’s prose is as cold and fishlike as his pale eyes in the countless black and white photos of him.

When they told me at the hospital that she was dead I felt no more emotion than when I had left her behind after a weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion it was the emotion of relief, of duty finished. (p.133)

‘passionate desire’ – he would rather use clichés than colour. Greene’s prose makes its impact in his entertainments and the Catholic thrillers, not by his stylish deployment of language, but by the obsessive repetition of a handful of key ideas and key words – sin, fear, despair, doubt, betrayal etc, a shopping list of teenage angst dressed up – in the ‘serious’ novels – in Catholic voodoo. Mercifully, Catholic melodrama is mostly absent from this work of his old age but his buzz words, his weasel words, still litter the text:

I refuse to feel guilt at leaving her (79)… a letter which… near her death gave me a passing sense of guilt at having left her (83)… I had no sense of guilt (87)… I had a certain sense of guilt [about cashing someone else’s check] (102)… I was afraid of him, but I felt no guilt at all (153)…

Having just read his first novel, The Man Within, an over-the-top historical melodrama, the word ‘fear’ is still ringing in my ears, as it appears on every page of that novel, conveying the panic-stricken cowardice of the protagonist – so I was surprised to find it cropping up here, 60 years later, to describe the relationship between the Captain and Liza, and then increasingly throughout the text:

What remained afterwards was shyness in both of them and a kind of fear. (p.38)

Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked, but they were both beyond my understanding at the age I was then, and how can I be sure that I really understand them even now? (p.39)

Love, it was quite clear to me now, meant fear, and I suppose it was the same fear which made Liza go out every Thursday morning… (p.51)

(Are love and fear really inextricably linked? It sounds good, it sounds profound: but I think that’s all it is, empty rhetoric, part of the pretentious rhetoric of Greeneland which, on closer examination, evaporates.)

In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily. (p.105)

In previous reviews I’ve suspected Greene had a notebook in which he wrote down these ‘wonderful’ aperçus and insights, and then waited to insert them into appropriate places in his stories which, since they are always about betrayal guilt and despair, was easy to do.

A closely observed world captured in careful and deft phrases is what you do NOT get in Greene. What you get is incidents, often pretty banal and mundane incidents, just enough to justify his mind leaping to his comfort zone – to large, portentous abstract nouns, to flights of pseudo-profundity, to bucket psychology; to the same mental slums, the unhealthy territory the wretched man inhabited all his life, of fear and despair and futility.

I could remember… how she once told me with a kind of despair, ‘He writes such a lot of rubbish.’ (p.88)

Despair? Really? Is that the appropriate description of such an everyday remark? How about ‘a kind of affection’ or ‘exasperation’ or ‘impatience’ or ‘indignation’ or ‘peevishness’ or ‘pique’? No? No, because these are wide-ranging words, words which would open the text up to the chaotic diversity of the real world and to real unpredictable people and would require a completely different, wide-ranging and open imagination, and an open, adventurous and interesting vocabulary to match it.

Whereas, in Greeneland, there are always only three or four people, trapped in doomed relationships, who think love is cognate with fear because being in love is always followed by harming the one you love, and who only have a clutch of the same negative dull emotions – fear, despair, guilt.

I get frightened when I think that one day I may harm you too like I’ve harmed the others. (p.92)

Despite the mellow story and the old man style, a surprising number of these sentiments could have come from Greene’s preposterous first novel: the sense of self pity, the claustrophobic feeling of a tiny emotional world, above all the fundamentally unhappy, grey, depressed and negative view of life, is never far below the surface.

‘Where’s the Captain?’ I asked.
‘How would I know?’ Liza said in a tone which, when I think of it now, comes back to me as almost a cry of despair. (p.68)

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Related links

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.

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene (1982)

‘Your glass, monsignor.’
‘I have asked you not to call me monsignor.’
‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’
‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades. I don’t mind calling you friend. Friends are less apt to kill each other.’
‘Isn’t friend going a little bit far between a Catholic priest and a Marxist?’
‘You said a few hours back that we must have something in common.’
‘Perhaps what we have in common is this manchegan wine, friend.’
They both had a sense of growing comfort as the dark deepened and they teased each other. (p.51)

Father Quixote is a good-natured Catholic priest in the sleepy town of El Toboso in the sleepy province of La Mancha in south-central Spain, jokily aware of his fictional predecessor, the great Don Quixote, who was supposed to have lived in the same area 400 years earlier.

One day he helps out an Italian bishop whose car has broken down on the main road to Madrid, giving him lunch and wine before sending him on his way. A few weeks later he is astonished to receive a letter declaring that the same bishop (back in Rome) has recommended Quixote be promoted to monsignor. His own Spanish bishop (who has never liked him much) is taking advantage of this surprise development to suggest the new monsignor Quixote is despatched to preach to a wider congregation (ie to get rid of him).

Around the same time the communist mayor of El Toboso is voted out of office and rendered unemployed. Though named Enrique Zancas, Father Quixote jokingly calls him Sancho. Over a drink or two they commiserate being ejected from their respective cosy jobs and hit on the idea of taking a prolonged holiday and going touring in Quixote’s battered old Seat 600 which he jokingly refers to as ‘Rocinante’ (after the fictional Don Quixote’s donkey).

Thus this unlikely pair find themselves motoring around rural Spain, bickering about Catholicism and communism (‘What about Stalin?’ ‘What about the Inquisition?’) and quite closely echoing the adventures of their famous fictional forebears.

Spain as land of archetypes

Greene wasn’t the first or last writer to come from a complex, industrialised, north European country and fall in love with the ‘simplicity’ of arid, backward Spain. The novel was published seven years after General Franco – the Fascist dictator who devoted his life to preserving Spain’s peasant Catholic culture – had died and little had changed. The ideological opposites of communism and Catholicism still had the kind of primeval power they enjoyed during the Civil War (1936-39) and Greene’s novel is appropriately simplistic, pitching the two mid-century ideologies against each other in a terrain denuded of most other people (apart from monks and religious processions) and almost every indication of messy, mundane 20th century life – reminiscent sometimes of the stripped-back landscapes of a Samuel Beckett play.

The impact of the modern world with its package holidays, tourist buses, industrial estates, roaring 747s, flashy sports cars, with its schools and offices and newspapers – none of that is in evidence here. Instead Sancho and Quixote drive around a Spain of the mind, visiting shrines, sleeping in the fields or cheap hotels or monasteries, all the time carrying out a kind of fifth form debate about the rights and wrongs of communism and Catholicism:

Is it better to live with faith or doubt? Is honest disbelief better than shallow faith – or vice versa? Was Torquemada worse than Stalin? Is Das Kapital a better guide to living than The Dark Night of The Soul? Is it better to read Lenin or Marx? Was it insulting of Our Lord to refer to his human flock as ‘sheep’? Was Marx a prophet like Isaiah? And, because it’s a novel about Catholicism, there are, inevitably, some rather sordid conversations about Catholic teaching on birth control (coitus interruptus versus the Rhythm Method… God these Catholics and their genitals, what a lifelong obsession: who knew there were so many activities which come under the category of ‘onanism’?) And so, charmingly, ramblingly, on…

‘Oh, you can’t beat those moral theologians. They get the better of you every time with their quibbles.’  -Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas (p.84)

‘Among the reflections and resolutions it is good to make use of colloquies, and speak sometimes to our Lord, sometimes to the Angels, to the Saints and to oneself, to one’s own heart, to sinners, and even to inanimate creatures…’ -St Francis de Sale, as read by Monsignor Quixote just before he goes to sleep.  (p.106)

‘How happy you must be with your complete belief. There’s only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’ -Quixote (p.112)

‘”There is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty which whispers in the ears of the believer. Who knows? Without this uncertainty how could we live?”‘ -Sancho, quoting Unamuno (p.112)

Occasionally Quixote in particular is prey to the kind of religiose self-pity which Greene made his own throughout his career:

‘I don’t pity him. I never pity the dead. I envy them.’ -Quixote (p.120)

Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules – [the theologian] Father Heribert Jone, his bishop, even the Pope. Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling… (p.134) -Quixote

How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? There is no virtue in such a prayer… O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference. (p.141) -Quixote

He felt as though he had been touched by the wing-tip of the worst sin of all, despair. (p.182)

I believe what I told her… I believe it, of course, but how is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief? (p.197) -Quixote

The true voice of the most depressive of English writers, the poet laureate of failed suicides, ruminating on his imperfect faith at interminable length.

Part one

Sancho and Quixote’s peregrinations are modelled on those of their fictional forebears. The book is in two parts: in part one, after being introduced to the couple, we motor off with them towards Madrid, then visit:

  • General Franco’s extraordinary tomb at Valle de los Caídos
  • the city of Valladolid
  • the city of Salamanca and the tomb of Unamuno

But as they do so a snowball of trouble grows around them. They are parked by the roadside enjoying cheese and wine and, for a joke, Quixote passes Sancho his clerical collar to try on at the precise moment some officious Guardia approach and note that the monsignor is lending a communist his Clothes. Later, at a loss while they wait for old Rocinante to be fixed at a garage, Sancho takes the innocent Quixote to the cinema for the first time. Quixote chooses to see The Maiden’s Dream, neither of them realising it is a porn film. As they emerge Sancho cracks a joke and Quixote is seen laughing and joking emerging from a porn cinema. Lastly and by far the worst, the pair are stopped again by a Guardia who warns them about a robber who’s just done a bank robbery with a gun and is in the neighbourhood. Quixote is oddly shifty and when the Guardia is gone, shows Sancho that he had encountered the robber five minutes earlier who assured him it was all a mistake. Now the robber does in fact pull a gun, makes Quixote give him his shoes and forces them to drive him to the nearby town where he disappears into the crowd. Sancho takes Quixote to a shoe shop to buy new shoes where the shop assistant notices his clerical garb and, it turns out, informs the police. By this time they have captured the robber who tells them he was helped to get away by Quixote. Late that night, after they have drunk a lot of wine and fallen asleep under the stars after their usual bicker about Stalin or Torquemada, or Faith versus Doubt, Sancho wakes up to find Quixote gone.

Part two

Quixote wakes up back in his priest’s house in El Tobaso. He has been kidnapped by the town doctor, acting under the instructions of his officious young replacement Father Herrera, himself acting under orders from Quixote’s bishop. All of them are trying to contain the scandal of a priest seen coming out of a porn cinema then helping a bank robber. Quixote is so indignant at being kidnapped then held prisoner he gets angry and insulting which confirms the priest and doctor’s belief he has gone mad. They lock him in his room. Soon Sancho turns up and with the help of Quixote’s outraged housekeeper liberate him, they clamber into Rocinante and set off on part two of their adventures.

The highlight of this is coming to a region in Galicia inhabited by lots of natives who emigrated to Mexico, made a lot of money, and have come back to dominate the countryside. Quixote is outraged at the money-grabbing corruption they have introduced to the region and interrupts a Catholic procession where the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been covered in dollar, franc and peseta bills, pulling it crashing to the ground. Sancho drags him away, bundles him into Rocinante and they drive full pelt for the Trappist monastery of Osera.

Just as they arrive some Guardias ambush them, pulling guns and shooting the tyres of Rocinante so she skids and crashes into the monastery wall. Sancho is mildly injured but Quixote is concussed. He is carried to bed by the outraged monks and treated by a local doctor who turn on the poor Guardias who were only obeying orders to stop the now-thought-to-be-deranged escaped priest, bank robber-protector, and religious processions attacker.

In the final scene Quixote rises from his bed in a dream, sleepwalks to the altar of the cathedral and carries out a sleepwalking Mass, witnessed by a devout monk, a sceptical visiting American academic, and Sancho, torn between love and respect for his old friend and his ancient disbelief.

Quixote places a dream Host on Sancho’s tongue, followed by dream wine, then collapses and dies. The last words describe Sancho, left haunted by his experience and (Greene the Catholic makes sure) oppressed by the dawning of the True, Deep and Terrible idea of Faith.

Why is it that the hate of man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end? (p.256)

None of this rings true for me. Greene’s popularity seems to come out of the murk of the late 1930s, then the film noir 1940s and on into the Cold War of the 1950s, and his stricken landscape of flawed men aspiring to nobility and religious faith, only to be clawed down by their own weakness or the fickle hand of fate, seem very much part of the black-and-white existentialist 1940s and 50s. He is from the world of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux, an intensely serious world which can’t take a joke. To his fans he was one of the great writers of the 20th century who described the angst of the human condition in a world threatened with annihilation.

In fact the agonising over the stereotypical alternatives of Doubt or Faith which take centre stage in almost every Greene novel make me think of him as the Last Victorian, carrying the earnestness of his father, the headmaster’s, sermons forward from his Edwardian childhood into the twentieth century. ‘Doubt’ is the great Victorian theme, the core, for example, of that age’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Greene is his sex-obsessed, adulterous, despairing heir.

Looking back

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the Eastern bloc countries 25 years ago, almost everything written about Marx, Lenin and their great achievements became irrelevant overnight. Bang goes Sancho’s part of the couple’s numerous discussions… And almost all the Catholic side of the conversations boils down to one question, repeated in a thousand variations: Is it alright to be a bit of a doubting Catholic? Seen from 2015, both ‘sides’ of this 250-page long debate seem dustily irrelevant.

In fact, looking back from 2015 – with the planet threatened by global warming, Europe racked by what might become a permanent refugee crisis, the Middle East collapsing into chaos and spawning an endless threat of terrorist atrocities, worried by the end of the 20-year-long China boom, anxious about the fragility of the global banking system, and uneasy that everything we say, write and do is being recorded on vast, secret databanks, while the seas are poisoned, the coral reefs die out and infectious diseases develop immunity to antibiotics – these undemanding chats about two almost vanished value systems seem as remote as a pamphlet about repealing the Corn Laws. A charming memento of a lost age.

It is an odd, distinctively Greene affect that he has to put a stab or sting into even his most charming novels (as he did, unnecessarily with the equally entertaining Travels With My Aunt) as if aware of his Time magazine status as ‘writer of the century’, as if afraid of providing simple entertainment, as if conscious his fans expect some ‘deep’, ‘religious’, ‘philosophical’ message. It mars all his books. Now that the Victorian earnestness of that whole existentialist world has disappeared, it is like having a gang rape at the end of an episode of Dad’s Army. It seems wilful and inappropriate.

The movie

Greene collaborated on turning the novel into a TV movie, directed by Rodney Bennett, starring Sir Alec Guinness and Leo McKern and broadcast in 1985. This clip, from YouTube, appears to be from a VHS copy of a version dubbed into gutteral Spanish.

Related links

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.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene (1980)

They all drank. I could tell they were more than a little intoxicated – it was only I who seemed hopelessly condemned to the sadness of sobriety however much I drank. I left my glass empty. I was determined to drink no more before I was at home alone and I could drink myself to death if I chose. (p.123)

A novella (140 pages) from Greene’s old age (he was 76 when it was published) showing he was just as miserable and suicidal in his seventies as in his teens.

The plot

A first-person narrative by Alfred Jones, fifty-something clerk and translator who works for a chocolate company in Geneva and who, despite having only one hand (having lost his left one as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz) falls in love with beautiful, young, high-spirited Anna-Luise Fischer. She is the daughter of the notorious Dr Fischer, a self-made millionaire whose fortune is based on a phenomenally successful toothpaste (Dentophil Bouquet).

A miserly misanthrope Dr F domineered over his wife, ridiculing her love of music and, when he discovered she was spending time with a lowly clerk who shared her love of classical music, he got the clerk sacked and his wife went into a decline. Anna-Luise tells Alfred how her mother told her all this, emphasising what a swine her father is. No love lost.

Compelled by good manners, Jones reluctantly goes along to tell Dr F that he’s marrying his daughter, experiencing the millionaire’s big house by the lake, his rude and surly butler, and encountering one of his regular guests in the waiting room. Dr F himself is abrupt and rude and not remotely interested in his daughter’s marriage, grateful to have her off his hands.

Shopping for records in a record store, Alfred and Anna-Luise encounter her mother’s confidente, the one who got into trouble and was sacked for playing classical music with her at their secret trysts, a sad man named Steiner. In fact Steiner faints at the sight of Anna-Luise so much does she look like her mother. They see him restored to health, at which point he fills in a bit more detail about what a swine Fischer is…

Back in their love nest, Anna-Luise explains to Alfred that Dr F has gathered round him a motley crew of sycophants and toadies. In her imperfect English she calls them the Toads. Funny thing is they’re not poor, they’re rich. But Dr F believes it’s only the rich who are truly greedy, and so he invites them to parties to ritually humiliate them before handing out (luxurious) presents.

The Toads

When a card arrives inviting Alfred to one of these parties he and Anna-Luise argue about it, she warning him off, he saying he’s curious. In the event he witnesses Dr Fischer’s guests more or less grovelling in order to earn their luxury gifts, on this occasion being forced to eat cold porridge while the Doctor enjoys fine caviar. Alfred alone refuses to eat and is not to be bought, unlike the other Toads: wealthy blue-rinse Mrs Montgomery, alcoholic movie star Richard Deane, the Divisionnaire – a retired Swiss military officer – Belmont a lugubrious tax accountant, and Mr Kips, a wizened old man bent almost double.

Anna-Luisa recounts how her father humiliated Kips by commissioning a children’s story writer to write a story about Mr Kips in Search of A Dollar with plenty of illustrations showing Mr Kips as he actually appears, and which Fischer got placed in every bookshop in Geneva at Christmas. Since he had just made Kips his lawyer on a healthy retainer the deformed old man had to put up with this appalling humiliation.

Anna-Luisa dies

Christmas approaches and Alfred takes Anna-Luisa to one of her favourite skiiing locations for her to have a morning’s exercise while he – too old and never learned to ski – waits in the cafe below. When an ambulance is called and a figure brought down on a stretcher he has a bad feeling and indeed it is Anna-Luise who swerved to avoid a boy on the piste and went head-first into a tree. Ambulance to hospital. Kindly doctors. Emergency operation. She dies under anaesthetic. Alfred goes back to their flat numbed.

Jones’s suicide attempts

Greene, the patron saint of suicides, lets rip. Alfred mixes all the aspirin he owns into half a bottle of whiskey and drinks it all. Wakes 18 hours later with a hangover. Goes to work and considers jumping off the top of his building. Driving his car off the road. Throwing himself into Lake Leman, letting the freezing water numb him till he drowns. Gas from the cooker. Fumes from the car. Starvation? Yes, he will set out to starve himself to death.

Dr Fischer

Fischer invites Alfred to visit him and tells him he despises humanity and he enjoys humiliating the Toads. Alfred asks why he didn’t come to his own daughter’s funeral and tells him he hates him. ‘But you must come to my final party,’ says Dr F. It will be a very special party with very valuable gifts for those who endure and submit. Disgusted with himself, but with nothing to live for, a few days later Alfred posts an RSVP saying ‘Yes, he’ll come’.

The bomb party

Dr Fischer gives his grotesque parties names. Alfred (and we) witness the Porridge Party. (We hear about the Lobster Party and the Grouse Party). When the Toads and Alfred are assembled for the final party, to be held outside in the snow by the light of flares at a luxuriously appointed table, waited on by the butler, Dr F tells us it is to be a bomb party. In the tombola barrel are six little crackers. Five contain cheques for 2 million francs; one contains a small explosive, big enough to kill.

In the following few pages the various guests at first think he is joking then rush and push others out of the way to get at the barrel. Mrs Montgomery opens her first with no explosion: the very drunk actor Deane opens his ditto; Kips walks away refusing to play; Belmont swiftly opens his. At last it comes down to the military man who has picked his sachet but is standing paralysed with fear. Impatiently Alfred seizes and rips open his, the final, sachet – but there is no explosion, there was no bomb. They’ve all been fooled and humiliated. Again.

Dr Fischer commits suicide

Alfred walks down to the lakeside in a daze of disappointment and has only been there a few moments when Steiner comes sidling along the waterfront. He must have broken into the grounds somehow. He reaffirms his hatred of Fischer and there are some Greene-ish maxims and quotable thoughts about hate and spite and so on.

‘You hate him and I suppose I hate him too. But hate – it isn’t important. Hate isn’t contagious. It doesn’t spread. One can hate one man and leave it there. But when you begin to despise like Doctor Fischer, you end by despising the whole world.’ (p.141)

Steiner says he has come because he wants to spit in Fischer’s face for causing the death of the beautiful wife. Almost immediately this becomes possible as Dr Fischer walks down the pitch-black night-time lawn to join them at the lakeside. He complains to Alfred that he really has spoiled the party; he particularly wanted to see the cowardly Divisionnaire pull his own cracker. Oh well. ‘And you, Steiner, I shouldn’t have got you sacked, I should have got you a pay rise and left you and Anna to play all the Mozart records you wanted to.’ To the last casually toying with people’s lives… Oh well, ‘Time to sleep’, he says and strolls off along the lakeside. A minute later there is a loud report. Fischer has shot himself in the head.

That’s it.


Thoughts

This is a way to spend 3 hours or so as long as you suspend everything you know about human nature or behaviour and as long as you enjoy a simplified mental world full of extreme abstractions like Love, Hate, Guilt, Despair, Suicide, Nothingness and so on.

Like all Greene’s entertainments it seems to me cranky and wilful. Supposedly a satire on the Euro-rich it is in fact far too tame and simplistic. One suspects the Euro-rich are much more clever, complex and corrupt than this fairy story portrays. And the suicidal thoughts which follow the death of his lover and which also, it turns out, plague Dr F, are the same suicidal thoughts which followed Greene throughout his life and recur in the minds of so many, too many, of his protagonists.

If one were feeling harsh, one could describe it as melodramatic twaddle.


The movie

In 1985 the novel was made into a TV film, Dr. Fischer of Geneva, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring James Mason (in his last role) as Dr. Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred Jones, and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise. Doesn’t look like it’s available on DVD. A glance at this crude trailer, cut from the VHS version, suggests why.

Related links

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.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

He told himself that he was a free man, that he had no duties any longer and no obligations, but he had never felt such an extreme solitude as he felt now. (p.215)

Greene was 74 the year this novel was published. The pace of the book is slow and steady and unhurried, the opposite of, say, the helter-skelter of violent incidents in a thriller like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, published the same year. And the prose of this, Greene’s later period or style, is similarly cool and clear and unhurried, lucidly unfolding descriptions, events, thoughts, dialogue, in a measured, stately pace. You can open it at almost any page and immediately start enjoying the clear, declarative sentences, arranged in a logically advancing order in beautifully weighted and judged paragraphs.

Sample quote

Colonel Daintry had a two-roomed flat in St James’s Street which he had found through the agency of another member of the firm. During the war it had been used by MI6 as a rendezvous for interviewing possible recruits. There were only three apartments in the building, which was looked after by an old housekeeper, who lived in a room somewhere out of sight under the roof. Daintry was on the first floor above a restaurant (the noise of hilarity kept him awake until the small hours when the last taxi ground away). Over his head were a retired businessman who had once been connected with the rival wartime service SOE, and a retired general who had fought in the Western Desert. The general was too old now to be seen often on the stairs, but the businessman, who suffered from gout, used to get as far as the Carlton Club across the road. Daintry was no cook and he usually economised for one meal by buying cold chipolatas at Fortnum’s. He had never liked clubs; if he felt hungry, a rare event, there was Overton’s just below. His bedroom and his bathroom looked out on a tiny court containing a sundial and a silversmith. Few people who walked down St James’s Street knew of the court’s existence. It was a very discreet flat and not unsuitable for a lonely man. (pp.84-85 of the Penguin paperback edition)

Textual analysis

This, the opening paragraph of Part Three, Chapter 1, Section 2, is packed with information:

  • There is no physical description of Dainty. His physical appearance is of little or no concern.
  • Instead noscitur a socio – one is known by the company one keeps – and Daintry is firmly situated in a web of relationships which place him very solidly in the security wing of the military establishment. His flat was previously used by MI6; was passed on by a fellow security officer; his neighbours are an ex-SOE officer and ex-Army officer.
  • Geographically, he is located in the heart of London’s Establishment clubland, in St James’s Street, opposite the Carlton Club If you consult a map you’ll see this is just behind The Ritz, on the way down to St James’s Palace, and just round the corner from the Reform Club and the Travellers Club, which both feature in the novel.
  • An upper-class mindset which extends to his shopping habits: not Sainsbury’s, not Waitrose – Fortnum’s.
  • The one glimpse of what you might call real life – the noisy restaurant downstairs – is mostly there to emphasise his solitary, unclubbable nature, and to highlight the contrast with the sad final words of the paragraph – ‘a lonely man’.
  • But in among this litany of loneliness is a sliver of winter sunlight: the view from the bedroom onto the (inevitably small, this is central London) court which contains ‘a sundial and a silversmith’. This is an unusual splash of (admittedly wintry) alliteration from so cold and uncolourful a writer as Greene. And it has a subtle symbolism: the sundial evoking the inflexible passage of time and, by implication, the withered, near-retirement mentality of the unhappy Colonel, and somehow the second-rate, silver nature of his existence. (Elsewhere Greene describes the gold-rimmed glasses of his main South African interrogator and the gold ring the second, thuggish, interrogator has on his punching hand – from which he extrapolates that South Africa itself is a virile, sun-filled, golden country. But not cold, cramped England. The best we can hope for a thin parings of silver…)
  • Because the whole passage feels very English and Londony and cramped and confined and claustrophobic:
    • In terms of Daintry the man, we are told of his appallingly limited diet: he is rarely hungry and then only buys cold chipolatas, symbolising the notorious absence of gastronomic savoir faire in the public school-educated British upper classes so satirised by the French and Italians. (In other scenes there are a number of discussions about food, especially Lady Hargreaves’ famous steak and kidney pudding; the characters spend half a page contrasting steak and kidney pudding with steak and kidney pie.)
    • And the flat itself is such a cramped, inconvenient space: the noise of the restaurant below keeps him awake, the view is into a tiny court. Can you imagine an American security officer putting up with these Dickensian conditions for a minute?
  • Finally, if we reread the paragraph we can admire the logic and clarity with which the information unfolds, is set down in an orderly manner almost like an intelligence report except that, unlike a report, it has dots of imagery which convey the information in a different sort of way: the cold chipolatas sum up a lifetime of bad food; the noisy restaurant symbolises everything Daintry excludes himself from; the tiny courtyard offers a bleak, superficially impressive, but ultimately empty recompense for the life of secrets and evasions which Daintry has chosen, and which – we later learn – has resulted in his divorce and all-but-estrangement from his only child, a grown-up daughter.

There are similar amounts of precise information and imaginative wealth on almost every page of the novel, which is why I think it is so good.

The plot

Maurice Castle is an anxious, middle-aged man, living in a suburban house in Berkhampsted, commuting every day to his office in St James’s, bantering with his younger colleague Davis, wryly amused by the latter’s frustrated lust for their uninterested secretary, Cynthia. What makes him different is he works for MI6, in a department known as 6, his section is 6A, and he and Davis receive encrypted messages from a network of agents in southern Africa. Slowly, in his stately late-period prose, Greene paints a very realistic portrait of the little office with its daily frustrations, lunch at the pub, drinks after work at one of the London clubs.

Castle is called in to meet ‘C’, the head of the organisation, who we also see at his large country house, entertaining various other officers on ‘the firm’ on a pheasant shoot: Watson, Castle’s section chief, Percival, the sinister ‘doctor’ and senior adviser, and Daintry, who’s been called in to do a security review of Castle’s section. Because there is a leak. Some of the information about situations in south African nations is getting to the other side. We witness conversations between Daintry and C and between C and Percival where they speculate who the leak is; on the flimsy basis that Daintry caught Davis taking an office file in his briefcase out to read over lunch, and that Davis told Castle a white lie – that he was going to the dentist when he was in fact taking Cynthia on a lunch date – the finger of suspicion, in a very amateurish way, points towards Davis. Castle contributes his pennyworth by describing to C the way Davis is restless, unhappy and wants a foreign posting. Aha. Chap wants an easy escape once we rumble him, eh?

Indeed, the whole story is set in the world of ‘chaps’. They all went to public school, then knew each other or of each other, at Oxford or Cambridge, before going on to eminent careers in the law, medicine, in the Army, in government, in Whitehall – running the country. Daintry, a little outside these circles, provides an uneasy contrast when he attends the shooting weekend at C’s, finding it hard to read the code and manners of the English upper classes. The (completely innocent) suspect, Davis, is outside the magic circle altogether, having gone to a grammar school and Reading university, the poor fellow, part of the reason it’s so easy to dispense with him…

While this is going on, Castle reflects anxiously on his past, on his time as an MI6 agent in South Africa, how falling in love with a black woman broke SA’s race laws, resulting in him being called in for interrogation by South Africa’s police, and the oblique threats made by the intimidating BOSS interrogator against, not him, but his lover, Sarah. Released from questioning, Castle used his contacts in the anti-apartheid underground to spirit him and Sarah across the border to Mozambique, and on to England, where he married Sarah and, when she had her baby (by another, black, lover) was happy to adopt the boy – Sam – as his own son. She is the (colourful, foreign) love of  his life.

Now, in a grand irony, the very same BOSS officer who interrogated him seven years ago, has flown to England to be liaison between BOSS and MI6 on a new project, Operation Uncle Remus. It is explained to Castle (and the reader) that a capitalist South Africa is vital to Western interests, as the free world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and uranium. Threatened by Soviet-backed communist guerrilla forces in Namibia and Mozambique, Operation Uncle Remus plans to bring together intelligence from SA, the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies, to guarantee SA’s government. At its heart is the plan to develop tactical battlefield nuclear weapons which would be deployed against any communist forces invading from those countries… with obviously devastating consequences not only for the force targeted but all the nearby civilians.

Half way through the slow unfurling of this story, with its multiple characters, settings, strands and dynamics, two major events take place.

  1. We had previously witnessed the sinister Dr Percival discussing in a speculative way with Hargreaves and Daintry the various ways to poison or kill a man so as to leave no trace. To this reader’s surprise, he goes ahead and poisons Davis (one of their own operatives) with a natural fungal toxin, designed to build up, make someone ill and slowly die over a period of time with symptoms identical to liver failure. In fact, Davis dies unexpectedly quickly, within 24 hours. C flies back from Washington for the funeral, knows Percival murdered one of their own men, but is merely irritated. Colonel Daintry remembers the creepy conversations he’d had with Dr Percival and strongly suspects Percival murdered a man on little or no evidence and silently disapproves. Castle keeps his suspicions about Davis’s death to himself. But they all accept this murder of one of their own men which I find completely extraordinary.
  2. Not least because, in the major revelation of the book, we learn that Davis was completely innocent because it is the protagonist of the novel – Castle himself – who is the spy leaking information. Having been merely a harassed middle-aged office worked in part one, in the second half of the novel – once his secret is revealed – we delved deeper into the psychological motivation and and experience of being a double agent, a traitor. We witness Castle going to a safe house to meet his control, a Russian named Boris, and Greene fascinatingly explores the psychological dependency of the agent on his master. For Boris is the only person in the world who knows the complete truth about Castle and to whom he can be completely honest. Not to his wife, not to anyone else can he pour out his burdened soul. Their conversations are like therapy or (of course, this being Greene) like the Catholic confessional, from which he emerges purged and lighter in heart. In these scenes it is revealed that Castle’s treachery is not ideological – he liked some communists he met in SA but is not himself a believer – but due to simple gratitude: it was a communist, Carson, who was instrumental in smuggling Sarah to freedom when she was in danger of being arrested by BOSS. Castle owes him/the Party her life and all his subsequent happiness. His betrayal is based on love. Aha… It is the same psychodrama as fuels so many other Greene novels where it is the ‘finer feelings’ which lead us into squalid betrayals (cf Scobie’s pity for Helen Rolt which leads him into a love affair with her and then to break various police rules in order to help her, in The Heart of The Matter).

Greeneland

1. Apothegms This is a very familiar Greene trope, one of his favourite paradoxes – love is more dangerous than hate – up there alongside ‘pity is more fatal than anger’ and ‘betrayal is the greatest form of fidelity’, and so on. There are typically grand-sounding Greene apothegms scattered through this text:

‘We are grateful to you, Maurice, but gratitude like love needs to be renewed daily or it’s liable to die away.’ (p.260)

I guess many of his devotees like these wise sayings and ‘profound insights into human nature’ which are always inserted at the appropriate moment in the appropriate place – but I don’t. They come too easy, they are too glib for my taste and, on examination, most of them turn out to be empty rhetoric – but in this novel there are not too many of them. There is more of the slow steady encrustation-of-detail type writing that I quoted above, writing which embodies its meaning via literary techniques – assonance, imagery, rhythm – rather than proclaims it in sound bites like t-shirt slogans.

2. Downbeat And, skimming back through the novel now, I realise a lot of the sections end on a miserable downbeat: Castle thinks that Davis, in death, is finally ‘free’; Sarah wonders if Castle will ever be ‘free’ to tell her the complete truth; Castle dreams of drifting down an African river to a mythical place called Peace of Mind; Castle’s secret sorrow is that he failed to protect his first wife, killed by a buzz bomb during the Blitz; steady drip-drip of images of misery…

He took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them carefully. It was as though he were removing the fingerprints of his despair. (p.211)

It sometimes seems as if books like this are written to make their middle-aged, menopausal, miserable male readers feel less wretchedly alone. Feminists of my generation talk glibly about how the world is run by men, by the worldwide Patriarchy who own, run and control everything. Why, then, are the older male characters in the novels of Greene, Le Carré, Len Deighton or the contemporaneous ‘comedies’ of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, so bloody miserable?

[Daintry] felt guilty of failure – a man in late middle age near to retirement – retirement from what? He would exchange one loneliness for another. (p.169)

[Halliday said] ‘It’s been a lonely life, I have to admit that.’ (p.219)

But what makes this one of Greene’s best novels – for me – is that he doesn’t belabour these points: there aren’t entire sections lecturing the reader about love and hate and betrayal and guilt and all the rest of Greene’s miserabilist worldview. The tangle of motivations are embodied in the story which, because of its slow, convincing accumulation of the details of the lived life of its numerous interlocking characters, are more emotionally and imaginatively powerful than the blunt lectures and fancy aphorisms which disfigure so many earlier Greene novels.

More plot

After Davis’s death, Castle writes his Russian control a letter saying he daren’t send any more information. If they now adopt radio silence it will persuade his firm that the innocent Davis was the leak and guarantee his – Castle’s – safety. However… He then has the interview with Muller, the man from South African security, who tells him about Operation Uncle Remus, including the possible use of atomic weapons which would, of course, slaughter large numbers of black civilians as well as any invading forces, were they to be deployed… And so, in a typical Greeneism, it is pity and concern which betray Castle into betraying himself, which prompt him to make one last communication with a control who might, for all he knows, have left the country, with a word-for-word copy of Muller’s notes which the BOSS man left for him at their meeting. Except that the BOSS man’s report was a trap, deliberately filled with standout phrases different from all other versions; if this one is leaked, the case against Castle will be conclusive.

And now Castle gives way to paranoia and the final 80 pages or so of the novel successfully convey his increasingly sickening feeling that his superiors are onto him. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother’s house, telling her to tell some cock-and-bull story that they’ve had a big row – but in fact because he wants to face whatever happens next alone. After waiting a tense day in the empty house he is visited by Daintry, himself a disillusioned loner, who chats about Davis’s death and his marital problems. Castle unwisely assures him Davis was innocent. Of course, he could only be sure of this if he knew someone else was guilty, and only be 100% certain of it if the guilty man was himself. Daintry drives off, stops at a pub and phones in a report to Percival and C, saying he strongly suspects Castle is the leak. Muller has already driven out to Sir Hargreaves’ country pile to tell him the same thing, based on his meeting with Castle. Ports and airports are alerted with copies of Castle’s photo. The net is closing in.

Then, as he sits sweating and panicking in his house, one of Castle’s contacts unexpectedly knocks on the door – not at all the man he was expecting  – an English communist party member of long standing, who drives him to a hotel near Heathrow while they debate the rights and wrongs of Soviet communism a bit half-heartedly. Here Castle is to wait for the next link in the escape chain but, most unfortunately, bumps into an acquaintance from America who insists on making a date for a drink at the bar. Once safe in his hotel room Castle has barely settled before another stranger knocks, identifies himself as the next link in the escape route, trims Castle’s hair and eyebrows, applies a thin fake moustache and gives him a white cane and fake passport. Castle is to pretend to be blind and catch the next bus to the airport and the next flight to Paris. In the lobby the American he met earlier runs up to castle as he walks by, recognising Castle’s outline – but then thrown by the strange face and white stick… He stands staring as Castle enters the bus…Will he call the authorities…?

The narrative switches to Sarah’s point of view as she arrives and stays with Castle’s unfriendly mother, and the unfriendly days pass and Sam doesn’t like his new school and Sarah has no-one to talk to and the reader is wondering whether the Yank tipped off the authorities and Castle is being held and interrogated.

None of Greene’s novels really strike me as thrillers because a thriller must grip and thrill with the excitement of fast-moving action. I’m not sure any of Greene’s novels do that; what he excels at is creating an atmosphere of dreadful anxiety and unease, with a growing feeling of suicidal despair.

The reader’s anxiety is laid to rest when the narrative switches back to Castle in Moscow. He has escaped. He is safe. We see him being introduced to his ‘luxury’ flat by a grumpy KGB officer (jealous because it has furniture), and to other exile English spies, a uniformly sad bunch. But all Castle wants is for Sarah and Sam to be brought out to him, to be reunited with his only love.

But history never repeats itself; there is no Carson to arrange her escape as in South Africa. And Greene twists the knife deep into the heart because Sam, the beloved son who he unquestioningly adopted and raised as his own, turns out to be the stumbling block. Sam is too young to have been put on Sarah’s passport. She could be smuggled out somehow, but neither officially nor unofficially would she make it with a young boy in tow, too obvious.

And so the novel ends with a heart-breaking phone call when, after weeks of frustration, Castle finally gets through to his mother’s number, Sarah answers the phone and they have a page declaring their love for each other and stuttering over how and when they will ever see each other again. Then, receiver still in hand, she realises the line to Moscow has been cut. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the strong implication is that they will never be reunited. All his secret work and betrayal was motivated by the one desire to keep them together and it has, instead, forever torn them apart. I, for one, had tears streaming down my face.

Related links

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

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.

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene (1973)

‘Contrary to common belief the truth is nearly always funny. It’s only tragedy which people bother to imagine or invent.’ (p.21)

Greene in the 1970s

Greene was 69 when this novel was published, entering his fifth decade of astonishing productivity – an output which included prize-winning novels, short stories, Oscar-winning film scripts and plays – and was widely seen as the greatest living English writer of the day.

He had done this in part by mining a narrow vein of themes with obsessive repetitiveness until they were completely identified with him and the phrase ‘Greeneland’ had been coined to describe the imaginary landscape where they met:

  • a gloomy despairing Roman Catholic faith which tortures its believers more than it consoles or uplifts
  • a nihilistic view of human life which leads the protagonists in his most famous novels to kill themselves or seek out death
  • adultery, ideally of the kind that makes the lovers miserable as sin
  • an unerring eye for the seedy or squalid or shabby details of failed lives and disappointed souls
  • a fondness for poverty-stricken war-torn foreign locations such as Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Congo and – in this novel – Argentina run by a military dictatorship

Therefore, part of the pleasure of reading Greene is not only for the prose and story, but in greeting all the familiar tropes which dominate his narratives: it is like saying hello to a gang of old lags: hello to the comfortably familiar pessimism, hello to the reassuringly predictable focus on the seedy side of life, a negativity so relentless that it risks becoming comic despite itself, a bit like Fraser’s cry, ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed,’ in Dad’s Army.

Hope creaked in his throat like a piece of rusty machinery. (p.23)

The Honorary Consul part 1

The Honorary Consul does not disappoint in its heartless depiction of disappointment. It is set in a remote city in northern Argentina, near the river border with Paraguay (still under the military rule of General Stroessner). The Latin American location immediately is painted vividly: from the horribleness of the military government – one of the characters has three fingers missing, cut off by his torturers under the eye of CIA ‘supervisors’, and the narrator casually mentions the bodies of political murderees washed up on the Argentine side of the river – to the heat which makes everyone sweaty and weary, the ubiquitous atmosphere of Latino slackness and corruption.

‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade.’ (p.57)

It opens with middle-aged Dr Plarr looking across the wide river at sunset and remembering how he was abandoned by his English father, who shipped him and his mother off to Buenos Aires while staying on in Paraguay to fight the junta. Failure disappointment disillusion. His mother has, of course, not worn well, instead becoming a querulous old lady fussing about her lost estates –

He felt the same sense of wasted time as when he visited his mother and she complained of headaches and loneliness while she sat before a plate heaped up with éclairs in the best teashop of Buenos Aires. (p.51)

– and it was partly to escape her that he chose to take up the medical appointment here at this remote outpost near the border. (How 1930s it sounds.)

Dr Plarr goes to meet the only other Brit in town, Humphries, at the local hotel where, of course, the food is disgusting, produced by a depressed Hungarian chef, the restaurant is empty, the solitary waiter can barely summon up the life to serve them. Plarr, inevitably, notices that the nicotine stains in Humphries’ thin white hair are the same colour as the goulash stains on his napkin. The entire sequence is a showroom display of Greene’s eagle eye for the seedy, shabby, dispiriting and defeated in human existence.

Almost the only institution the narrator mentions with enthusiasm is the brothel, whose madam, we are assured (twice) and with heavy irony, is the wealthiest woman in town.

Señora Sanchez was a very stout lady with a dimpled face and a welcoming smile from which kindliness was oddly lacking, as though it had been mislaid accidentally a moment before like a pair of spectacles. (p.55)

‘like a pair of spectacles’ – it is a characteristically crisp and effective simile, but also characteristically detached and with the note of slightly lofty Edwardian gentility which is the tone of the whole book.

The general air of incompetence, failure and collapse is racked up as the plot is now disclosed to us: the American ambassador has been visiting the city and a gang of ‘rebels’ and ‘freedom fighters’ has used information which Dr Plarr provided them with to ambush his car. Except that, through a sequence of mistakes, they pull over the wrong car and stop the one carrying Dr Plarr’s friend, the ageing, fat British alcoholic Charley Fortnum. Some while ago Fortnum was made Britain’s ‘honorary consul’ in the city and he had been roped in at the last minute to translate from the local Spanish for the US ambassador – and now finds himself ambushed, kidnapped, drugged and carried off to a mud hut in one of the city’s poorest barrios. Plarr is rung up by the rebels in the middle of the night to be informed of this disastrous mistake.

Adultery 1 It wouldn’t be a Greene novel without adultery, his favourite subject and one he was an enthusiastic practitioner of in real life (see the numerous biographies). Dr Plarr is, inevitably, having an affair with ‘his friend’ Charley Fortnum’s wife, Clara. As Plarr tells the police inspector:

‘Charley Fortnum is a friend of mine.’
‘Oh, a friend… It is usually a friend one betrays, isn’t it, in these cases?’ (p.89)

In fact, he was first attracted to her when he saw her working in Señora Sanchez’ brothel – she is a prostitute who Fortnum, with his own kind of ageing white male condescension, fancies he has ‘rescued’. Some time after the marriage, Plarr meets Clara at a chemists shop where she’s buying fancy sunglasses, one thing leads to another and she goes back to his apartment to sleep with him. He’s not very enthusiastic about the situation but keeps on seeing and sleeping with her until he eventually gets her pregnant – she claims she knows for certain, since Fortnum rarely has sex with her – thus creating numerous ‘ironic’ situations where Plarr has to congratulate Fortnum on the old chap’s good fortune ha ha.

Betrayal And not only has Plarr betrayed Fortnum by impregnating his wife, but now – albeit inadvertently – he finds himself instrumental in the absurd mistake of kidnapping him. It all came about because Plarr was approached one day at his surgery by the rebel leader, who he was at school with decades ago, and who persuades Plarr to pass on the timetable of the ambassador’s trip. The plan is to kidnap the American ambassador and hold him hostage until the General, ruler of Paraguay, releases 10 political prisoners there, including Plarr’s own long-separated father – that’s Plarr’s motivation for agreeing. But nobody knew Fortnum would be going along to interpret for the ambassador, and so the rebels intercept the first car driving the agreed route and it turns out to be the one Fortnum is travelling in, since the ambassador’s one was full and following a little way behind.

The plot 2

In the first half the plot is meandering and leisurely with loads of flashbacks to earlier encounters and conversations, which makes it occasionally confusing. From about page 180 the pace picks up as Plarr finds himself agreeing to go out to the mud hut where the rebels are hiding to treat Fortnum, who they injured when he made an escape attempt.

Once he is there, however, they refuse to let him leave. And for the remaining 50 pages of the novel the rebel leader-cum-failed priest and his common law wife Marta, loverboy Plarr, injured drunk Fortnum, and three other rebels, are all trapped in the two rooms of the mud hut, a setting which quickly becomes a kind of pressure cooker or incubator for a whole stream of increasingly programmatic discussions about Greene’s favourite things: adultery, sex, God, sin, despair, the meaning of life.

Presumably these final 50 pages are meant to be nerve-racking – a small cast of characters trapped in a static and hermetic setting, they read as if cannibalised from a particularly claustrophobic play – all with the looming threat of an army attack closing in even as the victims squabble among themselves.

I suppose in 1973 it was new territory to describe what it’s like to be kidnapped by revolutionary terrorists, and it is immensely to Greene’s credit that he escaped the parochial Aga sagas of middle class English fiction to set his novels in such a wide variety of exotic settings.

It is unfortunate, then, that what the squabbling and discussions feel so sixth-formish, like sessions at a theological college, a rather lurid rehash of the usual Greene themes. Maybe if this was the first Greene novel you ever read it would hit you like a thunderbolt, the dramatic setting, the life and death debates. But if you’ve read more than three or four, the effect is more like a rather weary sense of déjà lu.

Meandering

The first 180 pages or so have a very slow leisurely meandering pace. After the revelation in the first 20 pages or so that the rebels have got the wrong man, the text switches to a long series of flashbacks describing Plarr’s first encounter with Fortnum, companionable trips to the brothel, dinners with the tiresome local novelist, visits to his mother in Buenos Aires. Each scene has a point in illuminating the characters, but they are described in a languid easygoing manner which, more than the meaning of the words, convey a certain Latin American laziness to the whole text.

Greene’s novels generally have complex time schemes which allow for plenty of hindsight and memory: The End of The Affair in particular has a cunning interweaving of scenes from multiple moments in the past, and this – for me – is the most impressive aspect of many of his novels, the construction of narratives which work at multiple moments, simultaneously.

But this one feels significantly slower than the others, more leisurely, the interweaving more of a meandering, most of the action having the quality almost of a dream.

There is no feeling that Dr Plarr – supposedly in his thirties – actually does any work. He wanders around the town, reading novels and chatting with the small group of characters in a supremely relaxed easygoing way. These first two-thirds of the novel have a pleasantly soporific effect.

Middle-aged male fantasy

This is not unconnected to the way it is tempting to read the whole novel as a kind of middle-aged male fantasy: you don’t do any work; you lie around all day reading; meet up with friends in the evening to enjoy a meal and a drink and a chat; nobody minds if you stroll round to the whorehouse which is full of attractive and compliant women; which one tonight, you wonder, as you puff on your cigar; or you may prefer to dally with one of your three or four mistresses. And all the time you can be mulling over your own sinfulness, tutting at the way you manipulate your women, elegantly toying with the psychology of sex and adultery and relationships and more sex.

Plarr looks at his devout secretary and wonders why he hasn’t slept with her yet. On the plane back from Buenos Aires he is buttonholed by one of his mistresses, a patient, which leads him to remember having sex with her at her home while her husband was in the room, though drunkenly asleep. He remembers bumping into this woman’s husband at the brothel where the husband was entertaining no fewer than four prostitutes. He remembers a number of other patients who became lovers. He wanders along to the brothel and has a girl and sizes up several others, including the future Mrs Fortnum. It’s in the same lazy inconsequential way that he starts the affair with Fortnum’s wife. After Fortnum is kidnapped he drives out to his house to comfort her, and again they have sex. When he chats to the chief of police they laugh and joke about the women they have both had affairs with. Ha ha ha. Everyone appears to be having sex with everyone else…

Apart from the descriptions of sex (on the whole mercifully brief) these many sexual situations allow Greene to write a lot about the psychology of sex in a man-of-the-world tone which many a modern woman might find offensive and I find rather complacent, but which appears to have appealed to lots of his male reviewers back in the 1970s. All his books contain these quotable quotes, sub-Wildean aphorisms, without the wit or the heart.

Secrecy, he thought, is part of the attraction in a sexual affair. An open affair has always a touch of absurdity. (p.90)

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself – everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger. Her body has been scrawled over by so many men that you can never decipher your own signature there. (p.90)

He began to comfort her with his hand as he would have comforted a frightened dog, and gently, without intention, they came together. He felt no lust, and when she moaned and tightened, he felt no sense of triumph. He wondered with sadness, why did I ever want this to happen? Why did I think it would be a victory? There seemed to be no point in playing the game since now he knew what moves he had to make to win. (p.97)

‘A husband is of great importance in a love affair. He is a way of escape when an affair begins to get boring.’ (p.174)

‘I’ve often noticed,’ Dr Plarr said, ‘when a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. Or is it that he hates his own failures? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy.’ (p.216)

And much, much more in the same worldly-wise, one man-of-the-world to another, vein. Maybe this depiction of characters with a very un-English, unashamed and liberal attitude to sex explains his popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Catholicism In a move which should surprise nobody it turns out the alcoholic honorary consul is a lapsed Catholic, much given to maudlin, drunken, religiose self-pity. Just, in fact, like scores of other Greene characters. To double the dose, the leader of the ‘rebels’ is a lapsed Catholic priest, too. And Plarr was of course raised a Catholic: a trinity of religion-obsessed characters! Which enables them, in the final 50 pages of the book, to have numerous discussions of Catholic ‘issues’ ie for Greene to drop into the text numerous Catholic one liners or paragraphs of bumf, of which he seems able to spin a literally endless amount.

Plarr said, ‘I doubt if her Confession will take very long.’
‘Those who have nothing to confess always take the longest,’ Léon Rivas said. ‘They want to please the priest and give him something to do.’ (p.102)

They always treated him with great courtesy, he noticed… Or was it perhaps the habitual courtesy which a prison warder is said to show even the most brutal murderer before his execution? People have the same awed respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger, however unwelcome he may be, who visits their town. (p.119)

‘People have the same respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger… who visits their town.’ That’s gibberish, isn’t it?

‘It is one of the duties of a father to provide.’
‘And God the Father, Léon? He doesn’t seem to provide much. I asked last night if you still believed in him. To me he has always seemed a bit of a swine. I would rather believe in Apollo. At least he was beautiful.’
‘The trouble is we have lost the power to believe in Apollo, Father Rivas said. ‘We have Jehovah in our blood. We can’t help it. After all these centuries Jehovah lives in our darkness like a worm in the intestines.’ (p.216)

It seems to me that Greene has the same attitude of amused complacency towards the Catholic faith as he does to sex, prostitution and infidelity: there is nothing genuinely threatening or disruptive in his description of either: you get the impression he could write hundreds and hundreds of pages of smoothly expressed truisms and bromides about sex or about religion, none of which are really true, none of which ever really making the reader sit up and think. They’re a sort of rhetorical accompaniment, pseudo-philosophical tinsel hung on the melodrama of the plot.

By the end the rebels, after much arguing, convince themselves they need to kill Fortnum if their demands are not met by the deadline they’ve set, otherwise this kind of kidnap will never be taken seriously, the revolution will never happen, justice will never be secured. Specifically, this leads to a series of debates between Plarr and the priest-turned-rebel, Father Rivas, which easily segue into colourful conversations about the character of God, which casually go off in all kinds of wild and imaginative directions.

‘When you shoot Fortnum in the back of the head, are you sure you won’t have a moment’s fear of old Jehovah and his anger? “Thou shalt not commit murder.”‘
‘If I kill it will be God’s fault as much as mine’
‘God’s fault.’
‘He made me what I am now. He will have loaded the gun and steadied my hand.’
‘I thought the Church teaches that he’s love.’
‘Was it love which sent six million Jews to the gas ovens? You are a doctor, you must often have seen intolerable pain – a child dying of meningitis – is that love? It was not love which cut off Aquino’s fingers. The police station where such things happen… He created them.’
‘I have never heard a priest blame God for things like that before.’
‘I don’t blame Him. I pity Him,’ Father Rivas said. (p.219)

Rubbing it in

In case anyone hadn’t realised Greene’s ultimately despairing view of the world, he rubs it in at the climax of the novel by having Dr Plarr killed as he tries to parley a truce with the surrounding military.

Fortnum is returned to his wife in one piece but, having discovered during his ordeal that the child she is carrying is really Plarr’s, his love, his happiness, is destroyed.

And, in a final bitter twist, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, in a hurry to get Fortnum off the payroll but keen to ensure his acquiescence, tells him they’re relieving him of the position of honorary consul but will be offering compensation in the form of a medal for services rendered to Queen and country, in fact the Order of the British Empire.

Ha, the futility. Oh the humanity.

The movie

The Honorary Consul was made into a British movie, released in 1983, directed by John Mackenzie and starring Michael Caine in sweaty, middle-aged alcoholic mode, along with Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Elpidia Carrillo.

Related links

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.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against aunt Agatha’s breast. ‘I have been happy,’ I said, ‘but I have been so bored for so long.’ (p.256)

This is quite a long (260 pages), slow, calm, easy-going comedy, very relaxed, very funny, very enjoyable.

Greene’s periods

Looking back over Greene’s career to date, it falls into roughly three periods:

  • the hyper-production of rackety thrillers and entertainments in the 1930s
  • the classic period from the Blitz to the mid-1950s when his tortuous private life and the refinement of his writing and structuring skills helped him write the Big Three: The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair (and his most successful films eg The Third Man)
  • and then, from the mid-1950s, a less intense, more comic tone begins to emerge: in the outright comedies Our Man In Havana and Loser Takes All, or mingled with tragic elements in A Burnt-Out Case and The Comedians

In this book you have the sense that the intense emotion and unhappiness and Catholic guilt which produced the tragedies of Matter and Affair have burnt themselves out leaving a kind of calmness and equableness, an acceptance of life’s absurdity and that – new for Greene – life might actually be for enjoying rather than an arena for tormenting oneself and others.

The plot

Henry Pulling is a middle-aged, retired bank manager. He never married, he has no children. He lives in a nice suburban house in Southwood, grows dahlias and attends the Conservative club every Tuesday night. At the funeral of  his agèd mother, into his life sweeps the powerhouse which is his unconventional Aunt Augusta. Immediately she reveals that Henry is not his mother’s son, he is the son of a woman his father impregnated but wouldn’t marry, but his ‘mother’ stepped in to marry his father and raise him. This shocking revelation is still sinking in as aunt Augusta takes Henry to her flat above a pub and introduces him to a large, virile black from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who he slowly realises is his aunt’s lover. How unconventional, how 1969, how very unlike the dull life of his own parents.

But aunt Augusta is bored and restless, subjecting Henry to an unstoppable torrent of stories about her outrageous escapades during a long eventful life. She drags him down to Brighton to look up an old friend Hatty with whom she proceeds to reminisce at length about their days in a traveling circus and then working for a fraudster who set up a church for dogs (!)

Aunt Agatha then conceives a grander scheme and commands Henry to accompany her on a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul. They meet a young American woman who bemoans her rich, indifferent parents and introduces Henry to the pleasures of ‘pot’. At the Italian stop aunt Augusta meets the son of the one great love of her life, Mr Visconti, before they continue on to Turkey where, to his astonishment, Henry realises his aunt has been smuggling gold bullion in her luggage, with a view to investing with crooks. Their hotel room is visited and searched by the ageing Colonel Hakim (maybe it’s a common name, but maybe this is an affectionate nod to the Colonel Hakim who appears in several of Eric Ambler’s classic pre-war thrillers). The police have uncovered the whole plan and are prosecuting the Turkish end but have no evidence against Agatha who stands up to their search and questioning with old-fashioned British sang-froid.

The Turkish authorities do, however, deport them on the next flight back to London. Henry doesn’t hear from his aunt for several months and settles back down into the peacefully watering his dahlias, chatting to the colonel next door, and wistfully remembering the one possible love of his life – Miss Keene, daughter of one of his best customers at the bank, who he came within an ace of proposing to 25 years earlier, and who still writes wanful letters to him from South Africa where she emigrated, with a permanent undertow of sadness at what might have been.

It’s as if he faces two alternative futures: replying to Miss Keene’s sad letters, inviting her to return to Southwood, to the sound of the bells of the local church, the dahlias, the annual fete; or his aunt’s amoral world of adventures, of foreign lovers, smuggling and criminal exploits, con-men, fraudsters and fun.

In Part Two of the novel he receives a letter from his aunt informing him she is in South America and never plans to return to England, commanding him to sell her flat and all its contents, apart from a handful of items including a framed picture, and fly to Buenos Aires. After a little hesitation he obeys, then finds a message to take a boat up the river to Asunçion in Paraguay.

All kinds of sinister characters are aboard the boat and Henry is astonished to meet Wordsworth, his aunt’s black lover, in the middle of nowhere: he is loyally following aunt Agatha but heart-broken that she has abandoned him for the Italian. For at Asunçion, Henry discovers that aunt Augusta has been reunited with the famous Signor Visconti, the great love of her life of whom she has told so many stories. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen on hard times and Agatha has spent all her money bailing him out. Initially Henry thinks this is a colossal mistake and that the crook Visconti has absconded with the money and left his aunt impoverished.

There is a flicker of trouble from an American named Tooley (who it slowly emerges is CIA) and who points out that Visconti was a war criminal, and a burst of definite trouble when Henry blows his nose on a scarf aunt Augusta lent him, a red scarf she’d given him to wear on the Paraguay national day, and it turns out he’s just blown his nose on a scarf of the national colour of the ruling party outside their party headquarters. He starts a small riot, is beaten up and is lucky to escape with his life, ending up in gaol. The CIA man Tooley visits Henry in gaol and fixes his release, in exchange for which he wants Henry to broker a meeting with aunt Augusta and Visconti.

At this meeting Visconti hands over a priceless sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which he nabbed during the War when he was working closely with the Gestapo to ‘export’ Italy’s art treasures. In exchange Tooley agrees to drop US harassment of him. At first deeply sceptical of Visconti, who is not at all the tall elegant man he’d imagined but a short fat bald man with bad teeth, Henry slowly comes to like him and, after his aunt and Visconti hold a grand party for everyone who is anyone in Asunçion – the chief of police, the head of customs, leaders of all the poliical parties – Henry realises that, with the right bribes to the right people, they can probably make a real success of the ‘export-import’ business they’ve been discussing ie smuggling whiskey and cigarettes at a massive profit.

The big house they’ve bought is now grandly furnished, aunt Augusta is happily in love, the money starts rolling in and Henry takes his place using his bank manager expertise as head accountant for the new crime syndicate. It is only a detail or afterthought that he finds the body of poor Wordsworth, Augusta’s abandoned black lover, in the large gardens, where he had (presumably) been bumped off by Visconti’s bodyguard. His death is unlamented, there is no mention of a funeral, even.

Right up to the end Henry has been hankering after returning to Southwood and domesticity. But in an abrupt paragraph on the last page we leap 6 months into the future, after the Grand Party, to discover that Henry has made his decision, choosing his aunt, adventure and Life!

Style

The hippy girl they meet on the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul and then on the hippy trail to Kathmandu, introduces Henry to pot and mentions acid. Back in England he hears Beatles songs drifting through open windows from radios.

But in fact the style of the first-person narrator, Henry Pulling, sets its face against 1969, and is deliberately staid, old fashioned and conventional.

Greene’s prose style is not great: it is nearly always concise and efficient but, if it occasionally rises to sudden aperçus, descriptive or psychological insights, it just as often appears a bit slapdash and clunky. His OK style of the 30s and 40s has lived on into another age, and I wonder if the germ of the plot came as much from the insight that his style was out of date, as the notion that his character was; as if the lead character is less a human being than an embodiment of old-fashioned grammar, syntax and vocabulary come to life.

Related links

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 1972 and dominated by an over-the-top performance from Maggie Smith, for some reason pretending to be Winston Churchill.

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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