Wednesday 29 March 2017

Review: Shades of Greene by Jeremy Lewis

(Jonathan Cape £25)

Graham Greene was one of the great writers of the last century and a spy to boot. He was the most famous of the Greene tribe -- but he was not the only member of the family to live an extraordinary life. Several of his five siblings and six first cousins, who were all either born or brought up in the same small English town of Berkhamstead, did likewise.

Jeremy Lewis, the author of this fascinating book, calls Greene's family the 'Schoolhouse Greenes' because the father eventually became the head-master of the local minor public school.

At the other end of the town, in considerable splendour, lived Graham's uncle Edward with his wife and their six children -- Lewis calls these the 'Hall Greenes'. Edward ("Eppy") had trained in farming and had then gone "foreign" to participate in the Brazilian coffee trade, rising to become a partner in the firm. There he married a German woman before moving back to England.

Lewis draws his cast for this lengthy group portrait (over 500 pages) from just one generation of the Hall and the Schoolhouse Greenes. The combined progeny of seven boys and five girls would grow up to achieve much -- one would marry four times, another three, yet another twice; there would be nine monogamists among whom there was Graham the novelist, scriptwriter, publisher, copious letter-writer and seriously serial womaniser.

Inevitably it is the goatish Graham who features largest in Lewis's book but quite a few of his siblings and his cousins were high achievers too. Graham's brother Raymond became a famous mountaineer and later a celebrated medical doctor. Another brother, the much-married Hugh, starts out as the Daily Telegraph's man in Berlin as the Nazis came to power and goes on to become a liberal and creative director-general of the BBC in the Swinging Sixties.

Among Graham's cousins two stand out as typically British in interesting ways. Cousin Ben (Eppy's eldest son) was a notable pacifist and a kind of Quaker fellow-traveller who was deeply involved in famine relief in post-revolutionary Russia. During the late twenties and into the thirties he worked long and hard to democratise the British Labour Party, making the leadership more responsive to its constituency members.

In the latter part of the thirties, for odd reasons, he moved closer to the fascist views articulated by leader Oswald Mosley and, Lewis maintains with some justice, was "stitched up" by MI5 and briefly imprisoned after the outbreak of World War Two as a crypto-fascist and a threat to national security.

And then there was cousin Felix, the one with the conscience, the self-doubt and the mystical bent. Like many of those with his gifts and inhibitions he gravitated to southern California where he became a hippy (before the term was coined).

He would later become a starry-eyed apologist for both Ho Chi Minh and Chairman Mao and write a book with a memorably silly title, The Wall Has Two Sides.

The dictators' erstwhile friend, the redoubtable Pol Pot and his colleagues in Cambodia who had imbibed notions of revolutionary democracy from the bloody French Revolution, knew well enough that walls have two sides and that death squad victims could be lined up on both of these sides simultaneously.

Lewis does not record how Felix felt about such lethal efficiency.

There is yet another notable example of Britishness here too. A Greene niece ingeniously combined her voluntary Roman Catholicism with a virulent form of 'Empire Loyalism', a truly heady mix. She fiercely barracked Anthony Eden, the frazzled British prime minister, at a public meeting during the Suez Crisis, roundly attacking him for his failure to protect the British empire on which the sun was quickly setting. Imagine that -- two antagonistic imperialisms in the one head, at the same time!

But most of the Greenes could cope with contradictions, knew how to serve at least two masters, and string the mistresses along.

Lewis has written a group portrait of an emblematic British family, fascinating and repellent. An mbeidh a leitheid aris ann?

Gerry Dukes is a writer and critic

Buy 'Shades of Greene' from Eason

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