The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Always look on the bleak side of life

Rule one is that, in modern photography, it is forbidden to smile. Photographing anyone smiling instantly leads to your cameras being confiscated. Photographing anyone laughing leads to instant banishment.

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel ClarkeGrifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Photography is a serious business. Life is all about being isolated and alienated. A tragic affair. None of the sitters in the 57 photographic portraits on show in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 is smiling, let alone laughing. Most have expressions of mute despair, sullen passivity, stare plaintively at the camera or mournfully off into the distance.

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Remember that awful movie, Dumb and Dumber. This is a display of Serious and Seriouser.

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Teenagers are good, because they come with built-in sulkiness (which, as the owner of two teenagers, I know only too well).

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

A number of the sitters are actually crying, this guy because he’s just been given a beating in a kids’ boxing competition. Yes, life is a tragic business.

Runner Up from the series Double Jab ABC Show by Sawm Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

Runner Up from the series ‘Double Jab ABC Show’ by Sam Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

I wonder if anyone submits photos of people smiling, laughing, joking or having fun, and the judges systematically weed them all out to produce this uniformly glum set of portraits. Or whether clued-up entrants know from their photography courses (by far the majority of snappers in the competition have degrees in photography) that happiness is not art.

Africa

It’s a shame the selection on display makes such a cumulatively negative and depressing impact because, taken individually, there are lots of absolutely brilliant photos here.

And the locations, ages and types of sitter are pretty varied and interesting. It’s true that, as last year, there is a heavy bias towards British photographers (over half) and Americans (about 10 out of 57). But they get around a lot – especially to Africa, which was the setting for a brilliant couple of photos by Joey Lawrence.

Portrait of 'Strong' Joe Smart from, the series Tombo's Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

Portrait of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart from the series Tombo’s Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

This portrait won third prize. Another image which drew me further in the more I looked, was of a teenager called Sarah in Uganda, photographed by Dan Nelken.

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series the Women of Rutal Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series The Women of Rural Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

In fact, the winning photo was one of a series by Alice Mann taken of drum majorettes in South Africa.

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

About 24 of the 64 or so sitters featured in the photos are black. Precisely 32, half the sitters, are white.

Stories

The three photos above, and the suggestive titles of the series which they’re from, raises the matter of the stories behind the photos.

Because the exhibition doesn’t just show 57 photos cold – each one comes with two wall labels, one telling us quite a bit of biography about each photographer (like the fact that most of them are British and most of them have studied photography at university or art college).

And another, often quite lengthy label, telling us about the sitter and the circumstances behind the photo. In some cases these stories are more interesting and thought-provoking than the photos themselves. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can say as much or more than a picture.

Take the first of the three black kids, above: we learn that the photo of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart was made in the remote village of Tombohuaun in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone where Joey Lawrence (Canadian b.1989, self taught) was working with the charity WaterAid. It interested me to learn that Joe had made this mask while playing with his mates, and in between shots mucked about and giggled. It says a lot for the aesthetic of modern photography that no photos were taken of these high spirits. Instead he is depicted like a Victorian angel staring sensitively and seriously into the philosophical distance.

The photo of Keisha Ncube, a nine-year-old drum majorette, is by Alice Mann (b.1991 South Africa, studied photography at the University of Cape Town). It’s one of a set of four on show here (from a much bigger series) all of which are composed beautifully and taken with pin-point digital clarity. The wall label explains how many of these girls come from very poor backgrounds but how saving up for, or making, the costumes, and taking part in the activities gives them a strong sense of dignity and self worth.

Similarly, the photo of Sarah, aged 13, carrying a five-gallon jerrycan of water on her head is a strong image to begin with but gains immeasurably from learning more about the village and her background. The photographer, Dan Nelkin, was born in 1949 in New York.

Unsmiling kids

I counted 64 people in the 57 photos, of whom 31 are children (plus two babies).

Kids give you instant pathos. Especially if you tell them to stop smiling, laughing and fooling around, stand still and look mournful. The wall label explains that Lo Pò (b.1979 studied photography at the London College of Communication) had spent a long frustrating day trying to photograph a racehorse in Sardinia, packed it in and went for a meal at a local pizzeria. Coming out he spotted this pale freckled girl playing with friends. He asked her parents if he could photograph her and placed her against the warm plaster wall which brings out the tones in her skin and hair. It’s an amazing and striking photograph. But it did make me laugh that the first thing the photographer did was stop her playing with her friends. Now, now, none of that laughing and smiling: this is art! Instead she is carefully posed in the soulful, intense, rather numb expression which is the visual style of our age.

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Charlie Forgham-Bailey (b.1989, based London, studied French and Philosophy at uni) is represented by a set of four photos of boy footballers, who were taking part in the Danone World Cup four unsmiling, stern looking young dudes.

Ditto this photo of ‘Rishai’, snapped by Meredith Andrews, sitting sternly unsmiling on his bike. ‘Don’t smile kid – this is art!’

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Two particular photos of kids take the art of seriousness to new levels; by Richard Ansett (b.1966), they are from two series, one titled After the Attack (The Manchester bombing) showing a teenager in her bedroom who witnessed the bombing and has had difficulty leaving her house, since; and one titled Children of Grenfell, whose subject matter you can probably guess.

Old people

But it isn’t just kids who can look grim and unsmiling. Images of old people, the more vulnerable the better, can always be relied on for instant pathos.

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn't Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn’t Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Even famous old people. There’s a dazzling photo of Hollywood legend Christopher Walken (although can anyone name a movie he’s been in since the Deer Hunter?) Against a jet black background, his aged haunted face looms pale and haunted. It’s fascinating to learn that the session took only a few minutes, the photographer Anoush Abrar (b.1976 Tehran, masters degree in photography) setting up, just the two of them in the room, the photos taking just moments to take.

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Katherine Hamnett is featured. Who? The fashion designer who hit the headlines way back in 1984 when she was invited to meet the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and wore a white t-shirt of her down design emblazoned with the words ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ referring to Ronald Reagan’s siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. Ah, I remember it well. So I was a little surprised to see that she’s still alive, not so surprised to learn that she’s spent a lot of the intervening 34 years making more t-shirts with ‘political’ slogans on them, and not in the slightest bit surprised that the latest one is anti-Brexit photo by Pedro Alvarez (b.1972 took a degree in photography at Blackpool Uni).

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Ordinary adults

But most people aren’t babies, kids, teenagers or pensioners. Most people belong to the age range 18 to 65. But this age group, what you might call ordinary everyday people, the kind you go into a work environment and see, or see on the Tube at rush hour.

In contrast to serious children, sensitive artists and sad old people I liked some of the photos of blokes. Here’s a geezer, Conor, with his dog Levi, snapped by Tom Cockram (b.1986, BS Hons in photography from Manchester Metropolitan University).

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

The more I looked at this, the more I liked it, though it took a while to figure out why. First, the subject does not fill the frame (compare and contrast with all the images, above). He is set in a landscape, which just makes it visually more interesting. And the landscape itself is intriguing, the way the heavy mist obscures the trees on the horizon, and teases you to try and decipher the types of buildings behind them – hotel, council estate, I think that’s a petrol station on the right. And then there’s the visual relation between one man and his dog, the way the sloped back of the politely sitting dog makes a line which, if you extended it, would touch the man’s head, in other words together they form a triangle, hidden, concealed in the photo, but which, I think, subtly gives it a unity of composition.

Also featuring a bit more background than usual, and an intriguing one at that, is this photo of a ‘guest at a graduation party’ by Adam Hinton (b.1965).

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

The wall label tells us that Hinton had travelled to Plovdiv in Bulgaria to document the largest Roma community in Europe and came across a party celebrating the graduation of several young women from the local university.

I liked this photo because it is not of a serious-looking child, nor of a frail and vulnerable old lady, nor of a high-minded liberal fashionista. It captures the spirit and culture of the huge number of people across Europe, who aren’t educated, don’t read new novels, go to the opera or art galleries, who just make a living trading horses, dealing in scrap metal, working as seasonal labourers, fixing up cars, running second hand TV shops, men who try to do the best for their wives and kids, and on special occasions dress up in bling and greased hair.

It reminded me of some of the photos I’ve seen at the Calvert 22 Foundation, which focuses on art and photography from East European countries, or the absolutely brilliant photos of men and landscapes around the Black Sea taken by Vanessa Winship and featured in a recent exhibition at the Barbican.

I liked all these because they are unusual.

By contrast when I read that one of the photographers on display here had set off on a 1,000 mile roadtrip round America on a Harley Davidson bike, photographing the weird and eccentric people she met, my heart sank. If I never see another black and white photo of weird and kooky, provincial, backwoods, redneck characters from America, it will be soon.

Rinko Kawauchi

There is absolutely no requirement for the exhibition as a whole to be representative of everything. I just like counting, noting data sets, trends, numbers. My day job is a data analyst for a government agency.

Thus I couldn’t help noticing the complete absence of images from India or China which, between them, have 2.7 billion people, 38% of the world’s population. Also because I’m still savouring the exhibition of works by Vasantha Yogananthan at the Photographers’ Gallery. It’s a big country, India. Lots of people. Very colourful. Not here at all (there is one photo of a British Sikh).

I wonder why. Don’t Indians apply? Do Westerners not go looking for colourful subjects in India any more (as they obviously still do in Africa, from the evidence here)?

A country which was specifically represented was Japan, in the form of a special feature – a wall of eleven works by Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Kawauchi’s work came to prominence with the simultaneous publication of three books: Hanako (a documentary of a young girl of the same name), Hanabi (which translates as ‘fireworks’) and Utatane (a Japanese word that describes the state between wakefulness and sleep. In 2002 Kawauchi was awarded the Kimura-Ihei-Prize, Japan’s most important emerging talent photography prize, following the publication of her first photobooks.

Her photos are about delicacy. She shoots in a way which lets in so much light that the photos are almost over-exposed, have a milky misty quality. And her subject appears to be the everyday life of her family – ‘small events glimpsed in passing’ – including a couple of striking images of adults holding a tiny, tiny baby.

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

The Life of Graham Greene volume II 1939-1955 by Norman Sherry (1994)

It’s lucky I have a masochistic trend and a feeling for squalor. (p.114)
I do seem to muck up everyone I love. (p.406)

The three volumes of Professor Norman Sherry’s epic life of Graham Greene were published in 1989, 1994, and 2004. This volume, number two, covers the period 1939 to 1955, which saw the publication of the three novels which constitute Greene’s claim to greatness: The Power and The Glory (1940), The Heart of The Matter (1948), The End of The Affair (1951).

Sherry spent 28 years on his biography, travelling to all the places Greene visited, interviewing everyone who’d ever known him, and the man himself. Critics have mentioned Sherry’s occasional odd phrasing or uneven attitude towards his subject, but any faults pale into insignificance beside the scale of the achievement and thoroughness of his detective work. This volume is a fascinating and detailed insight into Graham Greene, a wretched, miserable man who had the gift of making everyone close to him wretched and miserable while becoming widely revered by the world of letters for producing a stream of novels about wretched, miserable men.

Greene’s character

Suicidal Surely Greene was the most suicidally depressed of all significant British authors. A shy, sensitive boy, he was bullied at school and made a series of suicide attempts before his parents sent him to a psychoanalyst. But thoughts of suicide stayed with him all his life and much of his behaviour can be interpreted as (to quote the title of his autobiography) ‘ways of escape’ from an existence he routinely found unbearable. (I am struck by the fact the one way of escape Greene didn’t consider was physical exercise: walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, jogging, tennis or team sports? Nope, not a glimpse, not a mention. Drinking, feeling sorry for himself and writing about misery were his main occupations. And sex with prostitutes and adultery.)

Part Five of the biography, covering his travels to the Far East during the period of the Malaya Emergency and the Vietnam Insurgency, is titled The Death Seeker. Again and again he hopes his plane will crash or he will be kidnapped, shot or blown up by the rebels in the countries he visited. Libby Getz is quoted as saying Greene’s deepest wish was to be ‘crucified on an anthill in a third world country.’ (p.385)

Longed for death to come here with an ambush, on this coloured evening. (p.386)

Selfish He was a monster of selfishness and egotism whose biography can be reduced to a fairly simple, and familiar, formula. 1. He was profoundly depressive and suicidal since adolescence. 2. He could only escape these moods by writing, drinking or being ‘in love’ – in a small way, going with prostitutes, in a bigger way, having love affairs. Thus: He was unfaithful to his wife Vivien, with Dorothy Glover, for some 8 years; then he dumped her when he ‘fell in love with’ the married American woman, Catherine Walston. These tangled relationships, and the permanent sense of self-pitying guilt he felt about them, gave Greene the material for Heart of The Matter and End of The Affair.

Now, millions of people have had affairs, got divorced, got on with their lives (for example most of the classic American male novelists). They have a tough-minded practical approach. But not Greene. On page 288 Sherry says Greene confessed, while discussing his affairs, to his own moral cowardice. This is the key to the man and the works. He was psychologically sensitive and weak enough to fully imagine the pain and hurt he was causing his loved ones by betraying them; but he lacked the character, the morality, the backbone, simply not to do it: not to have affairs; not to hurt the ones he loved. The trap in which Scobie and to some extent Bendrix find themselves isn’t a sophisticated moral and theological predicament – as it is blown up to be in the books. It is a trap entirely of their own making and caused entirely by their own feebleness.

A few priests and Catholic friends modestly suggested he not have affairs but stay true to his marriage vows, faithful to his wife and religion. On page 278 he goes to confession with an unfamilair priest. The priest listens to the whole sorry saga and suggests he return to his wife, give up his adultery, and stop seeing his lover. Quite rational practical advice. It is entertaining to read how outraged Greene was. ‘You’ve never heard anything so fantastic,’ he writes to Catherine about the experience, and he storms out of the confessional, saying, ‘Father, I have to find another confessor’. Ie one who will acquiesce in his immorality, unfaithfulness and sinning. That is the picture of Roman Catholicism that emerges from this book: you can pick and choose the rules you want to obey, and shop around for a priest who will indulge your sins, all the time feeling smugly superior to those ignorant atheists who know nothing of the majesty of your suffering.

There’s no doubt Greene was miserable as sin a lot of the time; but also that he kind of reveled and glories in this specialness this gave him.

When his long-suffering wife confronts him with his adultery and reminds him of his marriage vows and a father’s responsibility to his children, Greene resorts to emotional blackmail and threatens to kill himself (p.286). It beggars belief that his fans hold up this selfish, hypocritical weakling as a moral or spiritual guide to the times.

Love of destruction When War came and Greene was in London during the Blitz, he revelled in it. He wasn’t the only man to see war as a potential solution to his intractable personal problems, not least the dilemma of choosing between wife or mistress. The Wikipedia article on the Blitz states: ‘Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.’ Though horrified on a human level at the suffering he witnessed, on an imaginative level, Greene loved it.

Greene appeared to relish destruction and death: indeed, he seemed to believe that the world deserved it. (p.52)

This is one version of the ‘trahison des clercs‘: wanting to see the whole world punished for what, in the end, were his own very personal misery (suicidal depression), intellectual confusion (twisted Catholicism) and squalid deception (affair with Dorothy Glover). Malcolm Muggeridge knew Greene well throughout this period ‘and I remember the longing he had for a bomb to fall on him.’ (p.53) an attitude repeated in the fiction.

Death never mattered at those times – in the early years I even used to pray for it. (The End of The Affair, p.70)

Just possibly plenty of other Londoners didn’t relish the Blitz, being blown to pieces, killed and maimed and seeing their City destroyed. But wherever he went, the world and all the people in it were, for Greene, just an incidental backdrop and bit part players in the melodrama of his personal anguish.

Writing machine

Greene was a writing machine. Fear of returning to the absolute poverty he and his wife had experienced in the early 1930s drove him on to accept all the work he was offered, and he was continually pitching ideas for articles, reviews, series, features, short stories, pamphlets and so on, to his agent, newspapers, magazines and publishers. His output is formidable.

From life

Everything was grist to the mill. He recycled huge amounts of his own life into (often thinly-veiled) fiction. His big foreign trips to West Africa (1935) and Mexico (1938) were turned into travel books, but also formed the bases of the big novels, The Heart of The Matter and The Power and The Glory. His wartime experiences of the Blitz were recycled into The Ministry of Fear; his passionate affair with Catherine Walston provides the basis for The End of The Affair. His post-War visits to Vietnam provided the atmosphere and many of the characters of The Quiet American.

Libel worries In the latter book he admits in the Dedication giving a lead character (a call girl) the same name as one of his hosts, Phuong. Presumably she didn’t mind. However, copying real people directly into his fiction caused problems more than once:

  • Journey Without Maps was withdrawn soon after publication because the publishers, Heinemann, feared a libel case.
  • Greene was forced by his publishers to pay the costs of reprinting pages in his breakthrough novel, Stamboul Train, because JB Priestly thought the satirical figure of a contemporary Northern popular novelist was based on him.
  • The Power and the Glory had to be tweaked because the dentist figure, Mr Trench, who, rather incongruously, appears at the opening and end of the novel, was rather too obviously based on a dentist who Greene met in Mexico, one Mr Carter.
  • The End of The Affair is based on his own all-consuming affair with Catherine Walston, and while he manages to change her name to Sarah in the novel, Catherine’s husband’s name was Harry and the fictional Sarah’s husband’s name is Henry. Some of Henry Walston’s friends encouraged him to sue, not only about the name but the resemblance of aspects of his private life to the ficitonal Henry.

On the other hand, non-white people could be used at will. Scobie’s ‘boy’ in Heart of the Matter is named Ali, the name of Greene’s ‘boy’ in Freetown. He was unlikely to sue.

Spy

Greene’s uncle, Sir Graham Greene, was one of the founders of Naval Intelligence in the First War. His sister, Elizabeth, worked as secretary to the head of SIS in the Middle East, Cuthbert Bowley. She later married the head of SIS Cairo section, later in charge of Turkey. Working for the intelligence services was in the family.

  • Throughout 1941 he is canvassed by the Secret Information Service (SIS), precursor to MI6 and eventually recruited. October & November training at Oriel College, Oxford. December 1941 sails for West Africa. 3 January 1942 docked at Freetown, Sierra Leone. 13 January flies to Lagos. 8 March transfers back to Freetown. He is agent 59200, attached to Freetown CID. During his training Greene was managed by Kim Philby.
  • From Freetown he hired and paid agents to spy on the neighbouring colonies run by Vichy France, searching ships coming through Freetown for industrial diamonds vital for the German war effort, trying to identify and, if possible, ‘turn’ German agents in Sierra Leone.
  • By March 1943 he was back in Britain having argued with his immediate boss, been offered another position but resigned. He reported to SIS headquarters in St Albans where for a year he ran espionage operations in Portugal, a nest of intrigue, under the direction of Kim Philby. They regularly had lunch at the local pub in St James’s.
  • June 1944 resigns SIS and goes to work at the Politicial Intelligence Department, developing a propaganda pamphlet to be dropped on Vichy France. Greene later doubted it was ever dropped.

Sherry’s account of Greene’s spying career is absolutely fascinating and includes excerpts from contemporary training manuals and memos which explain the trade.

Though Greene’s formal and recorded work for SIS ceases there, towards the end of this volume spying returns in several forms.

  1. Greene makes two extensive visits to Vietnam in the early 1950s, travelling widely, including to the frontline, speaking to a number of the key players. Ostensibly he was being paid a tidy sum by Life magazine but Sherry speculates that he may have been passing information back to the ‘old firm’. The French authorities certainly thought so.
  2. On a side note it is interesting to learn that the British film producer Alexander Korda, who produced The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, was an MI6 spy. He was asked to leave Britain at the start of the War (for which he was heavily criticised in the Press) and set up film production offices in New York and Los Angeles to provide cover for British agents working in still-neutral America. He received a knighthood for his services.
  3. Greene became strikingly anti-American during these years: his light-hearted membeship of the Communist Party came back to haunt him in adult life when, under McCarthyism, the American authorities became very difficult about issuing him a visa and he experienced hassle at customs and was expelled from Puerto Rico. It is well-known that this anti-Americanism suffuses The Quiet American, which is an indictment of the naivete of US policy in Vietnam. Sherry speculates that Greene’s anti-American stance may have been an elaborate ‘cover’ which gave him closer access to anti-American movements aroud the world – information which could be fed back to ‘the old firm’.
  4. Lastly, there is Greene’s notorious loyalty to his friend Kim Philby, the charismatic and effective spymaster who nearly made it to head of MI6, and was revealed as a KGB double agent in 1963 when he fled to Moscow. He wrote articles defending Philby’s ‘loyalty’ to an idea, and wrote an introduction to Philby’s self-justifying autobiography, My Silent War. This caused a storm of criticism to fall on his head. Sherry makes the interesting speculation that this, also, was a ‘cover’; that Greene very clearly positioned himself as almost Philby’s only friend in the West- and thus kept a lifeline open to him if he had wanted, in any way, to feed information back to ‘the old firm’. Sounds unlikely. But once you’ve read enough true-life stories about espionage – about agents, double agents and triple agents – you realise stranger things have in fact happened.

To the extent that he established contact with Philby after his defection, Greene was helping his country’s intelligence services, and, in a larger sense, was patriotically defending its security. (p.496)

Films

Greene was spectacularly successful in getting his fictions turned into movies, generally very good ones. Sherry’s book contains fascinating insights into the amounts involved, the negotiations, and the process of turning novels into screenplays.

  • In May 1942 the Hollywood movie version of A Gun For Hire was released as This Gun For Hire, directed by Frank Tuttle and starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
  • In December 1942 his short story The Lieutenant Died Last is converted into an impressive film, Went The Day Well, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and produced by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios.
  • Towards the end of 1942 he completed The Ministry of Fear in Sierra Leone (published in 1943) and his agents sold it to Parmount Studios for £3,250, leading to the movie version, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds, released in October 1944.
  • In June 1947 producer Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed contacted Greene about filming his short story, The Basement Room. Greene adapted his own story into a screenplay which was then shot the next year and the film released in September 1948 under the title The Fallen Idol.
  • Korda wanted to capture the strange atmosphere of post-War Vienna on film. He asked Greene if he had anything and Greene produced the famous sentence about having been present at a funeral and then months later seeing the buried man walk by him in the Strand. From this seed was born The Third Man, released to much acclaim in August 1949.
  • Greene did some work on the Hollywood version of his novel The End of The Affair, released in 1955, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Peter Cushing and John Mills.

Key events

  • 1940 – The Power and The Glory is published just as the War enters a new and more serious phase, thus ensuring bad sales.
  • 1940 – Greene packs his wife Vivien and children off to the country and promptly takes a mistresss, Dorothy Glover, a short, stocky, unprepossessing woman of strong character. As the War progresses Greene keeps putting Vivien off, cancelling visits to her and the kids. But it takes years and years of painful correspondence, arguments and tears before they confront the situation and arrange a separation in 1948. Despite Greene’s repeated threats to commit suicide, Vivien refuses to divorce him.
  • 1940-41 – Greene serves as an air raid warden during the Blitz, seeing terrible things and running great personal risks. The experience cements his relationship with Dorothy, who is with him throughout the dangerous times.
  • Works at the Ministry of Information from April to September 1940. Farcical bureaucracy, satirised in the short story, Men At Work.
  • By Spring 1941 he is running the arts section of The Spectator single-handed.
  • 1941 October & November SIS training at Oriel College, Oxford. December sails for West Africa.
  • March 1943 – June 1944 works for SIS in St Albans, then St James’s, London.
  • July 1944 leaves government service to work for publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode.
  • June-October 1945 weekly Book review slot for the Evening Standard.
  • 1947 and 48 collaborates with Carol Reed on the Fallen Idol and The Third Man.
  • October 1948 resigns as director of Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • 1948 – climax of his emotional life as he separates from his wife, splits from his lover of eight years, Dorothy, and commits to his American lover, Catherine Walston, who, however, torments him by her absences and by continuing to take other lovers, while all the time living with her husband (who himself has affairs). As you can tell from her behaviour she is, of course, a devout Roman Catholic.
  • 1948 – September: Publication of The Heart of The Matter, which becomes a bestseller and makes him world-famous.
  • 1949 – the movie The Third Man reinforces Greene’s celebrity. Now he is photographed and mobbed wherever he goes, has to give readings and signings and is bombarded with requests for interviews.
  • 1950-51 – travels to Malaya to observe the Emergency, then on to Vietnam to observe the communist insurgency against the French. All the time he is fleeing the unhappiness of his relationship with Catherine Walston who refuses to leave her husband to marry him. In Vietnam he smokes his first pipe of opium.
  • 1952 – back to Vietnam and witnesses real military action and the decay of the military-political situation.
  • 1952-3 – Greene writes and is heavily involved in the production of his first play, The Living Room – young Rose offers herself to Michael, her mother’s executor, they have a brief affair, but he can’t commit to her as his Catholic wife refuses a divorce. Sound familiar? The anguished Rose kills herself. The play was a success, but critics were getting used to Greene’s Catholic schtick. One wrote: the real protagonist was ‘the conscience of Mr Greene tying itself in knots and taking heavy punishment in the process’. Another described the play as: ‘An orgy of sin, suffering and tragedy in the true Graham Greene manner.’
  • Nobel Prize: the play was premiered in Stockholm in 1952 and was violently criticised by Artur Lindkvist, who hated Greene and hated Catholicism. Unfortunately for Greene, Lindkvist was chair of the body which decides Nobel Prizes and he went on record as saying Greene would get the Nobel Prize for literature over his dead body. And he never did.
  • Autumn 1953 – tours Kenya to observe the Mau Mau insurgency (all the while hoping to be killed).
  • August 1954 – first trip to Haiti, later to be the setting of his novel The Comedians.
  • October 1954 – the French officially withdraw their forces from Vietnam. Greene continues writing The Quiet American which is published December 1955, and whose anti-Americanism provokes a storm of anti-Greene criticism in the American press.

Main publications during this period

  • 1940 The Power and The Glory
  • 1943 The Ministry of Fear
  • 1948 The Heart of The Matter
  • 1951 The End of The Affair
  • 1953 The Living Room (play)
  • 1955 The Quiet American

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 Heart of The Matter by Graham Greene (1948)

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgiveable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation. (p.60)

Background

During World War II Greene was recruited by British Secret Intelligence (later MI6) and sent to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, from 1942 to 1943, to spy on Axis activity in the region. He used this location as the setting for what many people think is his ‘finest’ novel.

Overview

This book has a completely different feel from its immediate predecessor, the ‘entertainment’  or surrealist thriller, The Ministry of Fear (1943) which was, frankly, a shambles.

The Heart of The Matter moves slowly and realistically, building up our sympathy with a handful of carefully contructed characters through an accumulation of psychological insights, and depicting the reality of the humid African setting through an accumulation of perceptive details.

He stood quietly for a while breathing in the heavy smell of the sea. Within half a mile of him a whole convoy lay at anchor, but all he could detect were the long shadow of the depôt ship and a scatter of small red lights as though a street were up: he could hear nothing from the water but the water itself, slapping against the jetties. The magic of this place never failed him: here he kept his foothold on the very edge of a strange continent. (1983 Penguin paperback edition, p.37)

The Heart of The Matter

Major Henry Scobie, ‘a squat grey-haired man’, is Assistant Commissioner of Police in the capital of the unnamed West African country, has been been there for 15 long, hot, demoralising years. Honest and upright he is therefore the target of malicious gossip and criticism. He is hard on himself, with a permanent sense of guilt for having persuaded his wife – ‘poor Louise’ – to come to this hell-hole and then doing little or nothing to gain promotion and a move away.

Their only child, a daughter, died age nine back in England. People laugh at his wife behind her back, calling her ‘Literary Louise’ and she appears to be clinically depressed, unable to get out of bed, frequently weeping and needing constant reassurance from her beloved ‘Ticki’, her nickame for Scobie. She is desperate to escape, to go to her imagined El Dorado of South Africa. They love each other and hate each other and are stuck with each other.

This miserable marriage is painted with an abundance of psychologically acute detail.

A newcomer to the colony, podgy inexperienced Wilson almost immediately ‘falls in love’ with Louise and combines clumsy attempts to seduce her with a steadily growing hatred of Scobie, especially after the older man witnesses him in several compromising situations: Wilson can’t forgive Scobie for having seen him cry.

As the novel opens, the current Commissioner retires and Scobie is passed over for promotion, adding to his wife’s misery. Scobie tries to borrow money to pay his wife’s passage to South Africa, but the bank turn him down. And he breaks all the rules by taking pity on a Portuguese merchant captain who was hiding a letter to his daughter in Germany. Scobie finds it, confiscates it, should hand it in and report the captain: instead he burns it. Scobie’s decline is made of a series of small and forgiveable transgressions like this. The heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are each said to have one fatal flaw. Scobie’s is his sense of pity.

Eventually, out of pity for his miserable wife, Scobie borrows £200 from the slippery Syrian mechant, Yusef and is able to despatch Louise to South Africa. But the loan, of course, has consequences. There is a rival Syrian merchant Tallit, and soon his spies are spreading rumours that Scobie has accepted bribes. Yusef pulls the trick of telling Scobie Tallit is smuggling diamonds out on the next neutral ship. When the ship is searched the diamonds are found; but slowly it emerges that Yusef planted them in order to implicate his rival. The real result is that Tallit complains to the authorities and a Colonial Administrator comes to visit for what is, although everso British and polite, in effect an interrogation of Scobie about the affair. He robustly admits his friendship with Yusef, says he knows both are liars scheming against each other, neither has bribed him etc. But his integrity has, for the first time in  his career, been questioned.

The next act in this tragedy is Scobie being sent to the border with the neighbouring colony to receive the survivors of a merchant ship which has been sunk by Germans. It is a harrowing scene: they have been in an open boat for 40 days. Scobie finds himself having to pretend to be the father of a poor little boy who is on his death-bed, to give him some last moments of reassurance. Pity, again.

The whole book is like that. Although it’s about a simple adulterous affair, almost every scene seems to involve moments when the author can comment about the extremes of human experience, of life and death and pain and despair. One of the survivors is a young woman, Helen Rolt, newly married, whose husband was drowned. Once they’re shipped back to the capital Scobie makes a point of checking up on all of them but finds himself drawn to the young woman.

Book Two describes with a multitude of persuasive detail, how he slowly, painfully falls in love with this scrawny immature woman . On one visit she talks about her childhood and he finds himself speaking honestly about his feelings for the first time in years. Suddenly, without planning it, they are kissing. They sleep together. They are having an affair. So far so ordinary, so suburban.

What makes it Greene is that Scobie makes promises to look after her, to make her happy and he takes these promises with pathological seriousness. Of course the colony vultures are gathering in the shape of the jealous Wilson who, we discover, is actually some kind of spy sent out from London (a kind of ironic self-portrait by the author, who played this role in Freetown?).

The final parts of the tragedy slot into place when Scobie’s wife unexpectedly (and implausibly) announces she is returning from South Africa. She realises her mistakes, selfishness etc, things will be different this time. Well, they certainly will because instead of doing the sensible thing and chucking in the affair with Helen (which she actually suggests he do) – or splitting up with his wife and committing to Helen – he does neither and places himself in what you could call the Optimum Graham Greene position: a situation where he can revel in an orgy of despair because he has made promises to two people which he cannot keep.

Enter the Catholic Voodoo when Louise insists they celebrate her return by going to communion. Before which you must, as a Catholic, have had full and complete confession of your sins. But Scobie puts off going, then finds that he cannot properly repent. He (and the author) use the casuistry (‘a specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, especially in questions of morality’) that by breaking his promise to help Helen he will somehow be abandoning her to ‘despair’ and (pathetically) to the advances of various seedy single men in the colony. Hmm.

Either you accept that a man like Scobie feels bound by this rather silly promise even if it means his death; or you feel that Greene is contriving, just this side of plausibility, a scenario which has been designed solely to justify the very heavy freight of moralising which the last pages of the novel carry.

For in the final 30 or 40 pages Greene revels in showing us a man ‘at the end of  his tether’, torn between two women to whom he has made what he regards as unbreakable vows, and forced (so he says) to lie to his God. This unleashes a torrent of ripe Greeniana:

When he came out of the [confession] box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair. (p.222)

Thus, not properly confessed, he allows his wife to take him to Mass and to take the wafer of bread and wine in the full knowledge that, according to Catholic theology, he is damning himself to eternal hellfire. This scene is an operatic farrago of self-pity, as Scobie insists that he stay loyal to his vow to Helen, taken out of pity for her, watches the priest’s skirts moving closer with horrified clarity, feels his mouth go dry, and then makes the fatal gestures etc.

In the last sections Greene rubs Scobie’s face in the dirt.

  • Out of the blue it is announced that he will be promoted to Commissioner after all ie it was all unecessary: it is what Louise wanted so he need never have sent her away, need never have been tempted and fallen with Helen etc.
  • Helen herself fails to understand the sacrifice he has made for her. She doesn’t at all believe his Catholic hoodoo, saying he is free to leave her any time (as he, of course, is). Helen becomes the mouthpiece, within the text, of the sceptical reader, allowing Greene to anticipate criticisms of the situation and rebut them via Scobie.
  • And finally, he comes to distrust his loyal houseboy of 15 years, Ali, and half-knowingly allows the slimy Yusef to arrange for him to be murdered in the dirty wharf at night. Finding his body drills in to Scobie’s mind the depths to which he has fallen, how evil he has become.

Oh God, he thought, I’ve killed you: you’ve served me all these years and I’ve killed you at the end of them. (p.247)

He becomes, in his own mind, an infection, a disease. (Exactly the metaphor frequently used by the protagonists of the early novels and especially by the whisky priest about himself in The Power and the Glory).

I’m carrying my corruption around with me. It’s the coating of my stomach… I can’t bear to see suffering, and I cause it all the time. I want to get out, get out. (pp.232-3)

He foresees only one end, the ultimate sin for a Catholic, the sin of despair and the unforgiveable act of self-murder. The last pages chronicle Scobie’s methodical way of going about faking the symptoms of angina, to the doctor, to his wife, to his boss and in the diary which he knows will be examined by the coroner and insurance investigator.

O God, he prayed, his hands dripping over the wheel, kill me now, now. My God, you’ll never have more complete contrition. What a mess I am. I carry suffering with me like a body smell. Kill me. Put an end to me. Vermin don’t have to exterminate themselves. Kill me. Now. Now. Now (p.252)

There follows the hallucinatory last day and hours and minutes of the suicide as he realises he is seeing everything, saying everything, smelling and touching and feeling everything, for the last time. He bids his wife goodnight, makes his last – deliberately unfinished – entry in  his diary, and takes the overdose of painkillers, collapses and dies.

Postscript

In a technique he experimented with in the early novels and perfected in The Power and The Glory, there is a postscript. And just as in Power its purpose is to undermine the protagonist’s tragedy; to set it back in the shabby everyday world; to highlight how pointless and futile it is to think that anybody can escape the relentless mundaneness of other people’s trite opinions, of our little lives.

The postscript has three quick scenes where we see:

  • Louise with Wilson, telling her he loves her. There is the bombshell revelation that she knew all about Scobie’s affair with Helen all along, in fact that’s why she came back from South Africa: the entire colony knew and one of the wives wrote and told her. Wilson reads Scobie’s diary and notices the way the remarks about sleeplessness – one of hte symptoms of angina – have been written in later in a different shade of ink. He floats the thought that Scobie might have committed suicide.
  • Helen with the cad, Bagster. Drunk, he tries to seduce her. Numb with loss, she lets him. In his twisted soliloquies Scobie had persuaded himself that continuing to love Helen saved her from emptiness and the attentions of the Bagsters of this world. If so, he has completely failed.
  • Louise with the priest Father Rank. She’s obviously shared Wilson’s suspicion that Scobie killed himself. They begin the debates which have continued in millions of readers’ minds, in reviews and scholarly articles and books for the past 66 years: Will God forgive Scobie? Does God’s mercy supercede the laws of the Church? Did he love either of his women? Did he only love himself? Did he truly love God?  and on and on, endlessly…

Critique

The Ministry of Fear was a laughable shambles of a novel: it was almost as if Greene deliberately threw together the most bizarrely surreal scenes he could conceive, along with great screeds about suicide and despair, and then set himself the challenge of pulling it all back into some shape by pretending it was a (wildly implausible) Nazi spy conspiracy thriller. It is a reckless satire on the thriller genre, with a whole vat of Catholic guilt thrown into the mix.

The Heart of The Matter is of a different order. It is a serious and sustained effort to portray contemporary characters in depth and detail. It is (rather grandly) divided, like a Victorian novel, into Books, themselves sub-divided into parts, themselves sub-divided into chapters, themselves sub-divided into short 3 or 4 page scenes. Pretty much every one of these scenes is written with thrilling power and accuracy. You could put the  book down after every single one of them to savour and admire their craft and force.

The first 120 pages, or Book One, are an immensely powerful portrait of an unhappy marriage, the Scobies’ marriage. The details are so perceptive and familiar to anyone whose marriage has been through rocky patches: the timeworn rituals, the midnight reassurances, the quiet lies to bolster each other’s confidence: the way two people can torture each other and yet stick to each other, is horribly convincing.

And the creation of Wilson as the immature outsider who naively thinks he’s fallen in love with Louise Scobie, and in effect becomes a witness to the outside appearance of these details, these pained looks and furtive deceits, is masterful. And outside this three the ring of ‘others’, the various officers and officials of the colony and their bitchy wives, and the claustrophic sense of being tightly cocooned by ever-present watchful eyes and malicious gossip, are wonderfully conveyed.

And the character of the slimy merchant Yusef who offers Scobie the bait of a loan of £200 which Scobie, with nowhere else to turn, accepts, in order to pay for his so-miserable wife to be despatched to sunny South Africa. Every scene between the knowing Scobie and the infinitely subtle Yusef are gold. In fact, scene after scene is written with tremendous psychological insight, with a terrifying precision of scene and setting, tone of voice, detail and dialogue.

Whether you accept the final conclusion to the tragedy – whether you intellectually and emotionally accept the premises which lead Scobie to his suicide – will vary from reader to reader, and from mood to mood. If you are a more emotional person or in an emotionally labile mood, then I think you will come away feeling this is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Many critics have claimed it as such.

I am a more detached, intellectual (and older) reader and, while I praise the craftmenship of many of the novel’s individual scenes, in the end I felt too manipulated to give in to the novel’s spell. Either you are ‘inside’ the fiction and feel the author’s relentless comments about pain and despair are truly telling you something about the Human Condition. Or, like me, you are ‘outside’ the fiction, can admire the professionalism and expertise of its assembly, but are immune to its emotional and psychological manipulations.


The Heart of The Matter feels like a truly great novel. Nonetheless, it still reveals certain enduring aspects of Greene’s approach.

The plotlessness of GreeneWorld

As discussed in my previous posts about Greene, his mental landscape is one of unrelieved gloom, depression fermenting into suicidal thoughts. Freud diagnosed many mental illnesses as being essentially repetitive: the unconscious making repeated attempts to break into the conscious mind, the conscious mind erecting defences against it, a permanent gridlock which results in obsessive and compulsive patterns of behaviour or thought.

Applied to Greene’s fiction, this helps explain why his plots are so thin. His novels don’t really have plots they have predicaments – the whisky priest’s story in The Power and The Glory isn’t really a story at all, it’s a plight. Or even if one of his books does have a plot of sorts, you don’t have any sense of progress or movement by the end of the book. Everyone is still trapped. Maybe a bit trappeder. A Beckett-level of inanition and futility.

Although a plot can be extracted from Heart ie a sequence of events which propel the protagonist to his final disaster, viewed from another angle, the plight of the colonists remains much the same at the ending as it did at the start. Greene’s all-encompassing worldview of despair doesn’t really budge. On page one Wilson feels ‘intolerably lonely’. Towards the end of  Scobie’s life, ‘It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before.’ (p.235) Stasis.

The developing world is an ideal setting

As with revolutionary Mexico inThe Power and The Glory, the poverty and degradation of Africa here allow Greene free rein to his gift for finding seediness, shabbiness, moral squalor and decay at every turn. Could it be that his best novels are set in the developing world because there he could indulge to the full his personal obsessions with the (to him) terrifying futility of human existence?

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst. (p.36)

Not only do developing countries set Greene’s imagination free but his melodramatic existentialist crisis-stricken protagonists somehow seem more plausible in faraway exotic lands than they do in, say, London. They just seem rather ridiculous in a London where they take their place among the millions of people we know who just get on with their lives, most of whom are right at home in the world, thank you very much, and completely oblivious to Greene’s brand of Catholic Despair.

In Mexico, Africa, post-war Austria, Vietnam, Haiti and so on, the setting itself has very conveniently justified a sense of poverty, corruption, easy death and despair before the author even lifts a finger to create a character.

Related links

The movie

Greene was phenomenally successful in getting his novels converted into films. The Heart of the Matter took 5 years, appearing in 1953, directed by George More O’Ferrall and starring Trevor Howard and Elizabeth Allan with sterling support from young Maria Schell as Helen, creepy Denholm Elliott as Wilson, slippery Gérard Oury as Yusef, and handsome Peter Finch as father Rank.

It is an astonishingly wooden film. The blurb claims Howard gives the performance of his career but this seems to mainly consist of pushing his cap up his forehead and rolling his eyes.

As usual the medium of film strips away all the subtlety and interest of a text and omits scores of the incidental scenes which help build up the plausibility of the novel. Thus reduced to its bare bones it’s hard to see why Scobie either ends up in love with two women or is so incapable of dealing with the situation like a rational adult.

But if the first hour and a half of the movie are a woodenly directed sketch of the novel, the last five minutes are a complete travesty: in the novel one of Scobie’s last and filthiest betrayals was telling Yusef that he thought Ali, his loyal boy, was spying on him and then acquiescing in what he half knew would happen, Yusef arranging for Ali to be murdered. He then proceeds to overdose on the painkillers he’s been carefully hoarding, passes out, collapses and dies.

In the movie, in a completely different ending, Scobie drives down to the docks to shoot himself but, while he cradles his loaded revolver pondering the whys and the wherefores, hears the screams of the usual night-time fights among the ‘wharf rats’ and goes running off to break it up. He is himself set upon and shot just as his faithful Ali comes running up to him. His good and faithful servant cradles Howard in his lap as he delivers the film’s last line: ‘Tell Mrs Scobie God make it alright.’ Roll credits, not a dry eye in the house.

It is a staggering indictment of the inability of film to bear witness to its literary sources or to make even the most modest gesture towards seriousness and difficulty.

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

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.
%d bloggers like this: