A Sort of Life, p.1Graham Greene
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Graham Greene
About the Book
Graham Greene’s ‘long journey through time’ began in 1904, when he was born into a tribe of Greenes based in Berkhamstead at the public school where his father was headmaster. In A Sort of Life Greene recalls schooldays and Oxford, adolescent encounters with psychoanalysis and Russian roulette, his marriage and conversion to Catholicism, and how he rashly resigned from The Times when his first novel, The Man Within was published in 1929. A Sort of Life reveals, brilliantly and compellingly, a life lived and an art obsessed by ‘the dangerous edge of things’.
About the Author
Graham Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography – A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously) – two of biography and four books for children. He also contributed hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour. He died in April 1991.
ALSO BY GRAHAM GREENE
The Man Within
It’s a Battlefield
A Gun for Sale
The Confidential Agent
The Ministry of Fear
The Third Man
The End of the Affair
The Quiet American
A Burnt-out Case
Dr Fischer of Geneva or
The Bomb Party
The Tenth Man
England Made Me
The Power and the Glory
The Heart of the Matter
The Fallen Idol
Loser Takes All
Our Man in Havana
The Human Factor
The Honorary Consul
The Captain and the Enemy
The Last Word and Other Stories
May We Borrow Your Husband?
Journey Without Maps
The Lawless Roads
In Search of a Character
Getting to Know the General
Mornings in the Dark
Ways of Escape
Fragments of an Autobiography
A World of my Own
Lord Rochester’s Monkey
An Impossible Woman
The Little Train
The Little Horse-Bus
The Little Steamroller
The Little Fire Engine
A Sort of Life
For the survivors,
Raymond Greene, Hugh Greene
and Elisabeth Dennys
Only robbers and gypsies say that one
must never return where one has once been.
AN autobiography is only ‘a sort of life’ – it may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity even more selective: it begins later and it ends prematurely. If one cannot close a book of memories on the deathbed, any conclusion must be arbitrary, and I have preferred to finish this essay with the years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel. Failure too is a kind of death: the furniture sold, the drawers emptied, the removal van waiting like a hearse in the lane to take one to a less expensive destination. In another sense too a book like this can only be ‘a sort of life’, for in the course of sixty-six years I have spent almost as much time with imaginary characters as with real men and women. Indeed, though I have been fortunate in the number of my friends, I can remember no anecdotes of the famous or the notorious – the only stories which I faintly remember are the stories I have written.
And the motive for recording these scraps of the past? It is much the same motive that has made me a novelist: a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity. We cannot love others, so the theologians teach, unless in some degree we can love ourselves, and curiosity too begins at home.
There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony. It is a legitimate method of self-defence. ‘Look how absurd I was when I was young’ forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when we felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age? I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then, without irony.
IF I had known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. The High Street was wide as many a market square, but its broad dignity was abused after the first great war by the New Cinema under a green Moorish dome, tiny enough but it seemed to us then the height of pretentious luxury and dubious taste. My father, who was by that time headmaster of Berkhamsted School, once allowed his senior boys to go there for a special performance of the first Tarzan movie, under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion. The High Street contained at ‘our end’ a half-timbered Tudor photographer’s shop (from the windows the faces of the locals looked out in wedding groups, bouqueted and bemused like prize oxen) and the great flinty Norman church where the helmet of some old Duke of Cornwall hung unremarked on a pillar like a bowler hat in a hall. Below lay the Grand Junction canal with slow-moving painted barges and remote gypsy children, the watercress beds, the hillocks of the old castle surrounded by a dry moat full of cow-parsley (it had been built, so they said, by Chaucer, and in the reign of King Henry III it was besieged successfully by the French). The faint agreeable smell of coal dust blew up from the railway, and everywhere were those curious individual Berkhamsted faces which I feel I could recognize now anywhe
And then there remains to be set reluctantly on my personal map the School – part rosy Tudor, part hideous modern brick the colour of dolls’-house plaster hams – where the misery of life started, and the burial ground, long disused, which lay opposite our windows, separated from our flower-beds by an invisible line, so that every year the gardener would turn up a few scraps of human bone in remaking the herbaceous border. Further off to the north, on the green spaces of a map empty as Africa, lay the wastes of gorse and bracken of the great Common which extended to Ashridge Park, and to the south the small Brickhill Common and the park of Ashlyns, where I once saw a Jack in the Green covered with spring leaves, dancing cumbrously among his attendants like the devils I met later in Liberia.
Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse. One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses as from the lines of the hand; one’s evasions and deceits took their form from those other sly faces and from the hiding places in the garden, on the Common, in the hedgerows. Here in Berkhamsted was the first mould of which the shape was to be endlessly reproduced. For twenty years it was to be almost the only scene of happiness, misery, first love, the attempt to write, and I feel it would be strange if, through the workings of coincidence, through the unconscious sources of action, through folly or wisdom, I were not brought back to die there in the place where everything was born.
At the far end of the long High Street was the village of Northchurch and an old inn, the Crooked Billet. The name, perhaps because of some event which had happened there and had left an ambiguous impression in my mind from veiled adult conversation, always had for me a sinister ring (in the inn I was sure travellers had been done to death), and this gave the whole Northchurch village an atmosphere of standing outside the pale: a region of danger where nightmare might easily become reality. We were never taken there for walks, though this could well have had a natural explanation, for why should any nurse endure the two-mile trudge along the High Street, past the town hall, past the new King’s Road, up and down which the commuters streamed twice a day to the station with their little attaché cases, past Mrs Figg’s toy-shop where the children would certainly want to linger, past the sinister stained-glass windows of the dentist, along the market gardens, with everywhere that odd gritty smell blowing up from the coal yards and the coal barges?
There was another walk too which we never took when we were in charge of our old crotchety nurse or the nursemaid, and that was the walk along the towing path by the canal. If a sinister atmosphere lay in my mind around the Crooked Billet, a sense of immediate danger was conveyed by the canal – the menace of insulting words from strange brutal canal workers with blackened faces like miners, with their gypsy wives and ragged children, at the sight of middle-class children carefully dressed and shepherded, and the danger too, as I believed, of death from drowning. The Berkhamsted Gazette and Hemel Hempstead Observer periodically printed the reports of inquests on those found drowned in the canal; the casualties among the barge children were reputed to be high, and the story that anyone who fell into a lock was beyond rescue was not contradicted in our imaginations by the lifebelt which hung on the wall of each lock-house. I cannot to this day peer down into a lock, down the sheer wet walls, without a sense of trepidation, and many of my early dreams were of death by drowning, of being drawn magnetically towards the water’s edge. (So strong did these dreams become in my adolescent years that they affected my waking life, and the margin of a pond or a river would attract my feet, just as a fast car can hypnotize a pedestrian on an otherwise empty road.)
The first thing I remember is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet. It was close by the fields which were later to become, thanks to the beneficence of my rich Uncle Edward – known for mysterious reasons as Eppy – the playing-fields of Berkhamsted School, for even the geography of the little town was influenced by the two big families of Greenes (seventeen Greenes resident in one small place would seem even today an unduly high proportion of the population, and at holiday times the Greenes could nearly reach a quarter of a century). The dog, as I know now, was a pug owned by my elder sister. It had been run over – by a horse-carriage? – and killed and the nurse thought it convenient to bring the cadaver home this way. The memory may well be a true one, as my mother once told me how surprised she had been months later by some reference which I made to the ‘poor dog’; they were almost the first words I had spoken.
In all these early years I an uncertain what is genuinely remembered. For example I think I can remember a toy motor-car, which now surely – a 1908 vintage toy – might be worthy of a sale at Sotheby’s, but since it appears in a photograph of myself and my brother Raymond, this may not be a true memory. My age then was about four, and I wore a pinafore and had fair curls falling around the neck. My elder brother with a proper masculine haircut, an adult of seven, stares fearlessly towards the box-camera, like a future mountaineer of Kamet and Everest, while I still have the ambiguity of undetermined sex.
As children we used to go down to the drawing-room for about an hour after tea, from 5.30 to 6.30, to play with our mother, and I remember the fear I felt that my mother would read us a story about some children who were sent into a forest by a wicked uncle to be murdered, but the murderer repented and left them to die of exposure and afterwards the birds covered their bodies with leaves. I dreaded the story because I was afraid of weeping. I would infinitely have preferred quick murder to the long drawn-out pathos of their end. My tear-ducts in childhood, and indeed for many years later, worked far too easily, and even today I sometimes slink shame-faced from a cinema at some happy ending that moves me by its incredibility. (Life isn’t like that. Of such courage and such fidelity we dream only, but in my distress I wish them true.)
As I approach school-age the memories thicken. One vivid memory (I was probably about five) was of passing with my nurse the old alms-houses which leant against each other near the Grand Junction canal. There was a crowd outside one of the little houses and a man broke away and ran into the house. I was told that he was going to cut his throat, nobody followed him, everybody, including my nurse and I, stood outside waiting, but I never learnt whether he succeeded. The Berkhamsted Gazette would have informed me, but I couldn’t yet read.1
Of all my first six years I have only such random memories as these and I cannot be sure of the time-sequence. They are significant for me because they remain, the stray symbols of a dream after the story has sunk back into the unconscious, and they cry for rescue like the survivors of a shipwreck.
There was a particular kind of wheaten biscuit with a very pale pure unsweetened flavour – I am reminded now of the Host – which only my mother had the right to eat. They were kept in a special biscuit-tin in her bedroom and sometimes as a favour I was given one to eat dipped in milk. I associate my mother with a remoteness, which I did not at all resent, and with a smell of eau-de-cologne. If I could have tasted her I am sure she would have tasted of wheaten biscuits. She paid occasional state visits to the nursery in the School House, a large confused room which looked out on the flint church and the old cemetery, with toy cupboards and bookshelves and a big wooden rocking-horse with wicked eyes and one large comfortable wicker-chair for the nurse beside the steel fireguard, and my mother gained in my eyes great dignity from her superintendence of the linen-cupboard, where a frightening witch lurked, but of that later. The wheaten biscuit remains for me a symbol of her cool puritan beauty – she seemed to eliminate all confusion, to recognize the good from the bad and choose the good, though where her family was concerned in later years she noticed only the good. If one of us had committed murder she would, I am sure, have blamed the victim. When she was in an untroubled coma before death and I was watching by her bed, her long white plantagenet face reminded me of a crusad
An unpleasant memory of those years is of a tin jerry full of blood: I was feeling horribly sick, for I had just had my adenoids out and my tonsils cut. The operation had been done at home. For thirty years after that the sight of blood worried and sickened me, so that sometimes I fainted at the mere description of an accident. In the blitz, before I encountered the first wounded, I was afraid of what my reaction might be until I found that fear and the necessity of action conquered the nausea.
Our home until I reached the age of six was a house called St John’s, one of the boarding-houses of Berkhamsted School. My father was housemaster there. When he became the headmaster in 1910 we removed to the School House, but I went back to St John’s as a boarder at thirteen and most of my memories of the house (and very unhappy ones they are) date back to that time. Before that first climacteric I remember of St John’s only the extra piece of garden we had across the road, where on special days in summer we would go and play with the exciting sense of travelling abroad. There was a summer-house there (no such thing existed on the every-day side), and the garden was built up high above the road so that I couldn’t see over the bushes to my home which might have been a hundred miles away. It was my first experience of foreign travel. Later I used to think of the two gardens as resembling England and France with the Channel between, although I had never been to France – England for every day and France for holidays.
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