A talk at the Berkhamsted Festival, 30/9/2013
A few days ago I came upon this unpublished letter, from Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius. The date is 1951, the location Paris:
“So, Graham Greene rang up in his surprising way and said come and lunch at Véfour. He always does it on arrival in France and it’s always an enormous success… We came home after a lunch of oysters and beef and a dish of such richness that never again can I think too hard about it. Tranche de foie gras hidden in frothy cream sauce – wonderful, but it took 2 days of discomfort and calomel pills, salts, and bed, AND Veganin, to get on top of, and then rid of it.”
The feast which David Pearce has laid on for us this weekend in Graham Greene’s honour is, I have a hunch, every bit as bountiful as that banquet in Paris – but hopefully not as rich.
I want to begin by holding up one of my dearest possessions, which has hung for the past 25 years on a wall opposite my desk. It’s a framed telegram – from the days when we had telegrams – that was sent to me in June 1988, in London, and represents the first and last telegram I ever received. It reads in capital letters:
COULD YOU RING ME AT ANTIBES. GRAHAM GREENE.
To explain the background of his urgent message, I must briefly go back, as Greene would insist – since he believed that everything which matters to a writer occurs then – to my childhood.
I was 16 when I discovered Graham Greene. The novel was The Honorary Consul, about a British diplomat in Argentina who is kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas in the border town of Corrientes. The novel struck home in the way of another novel I cherish, Love in the Time of Cholera. With how many others, I wondered, did I share its promise that it called uniquely to me, that I alone understood it – wherever in the world there are readers, no doubt. As the Russian President Michel Gorbachev said on meeting Greene: “I feel I’ve known you a long time.” That is Greene’s intimate gift. He gives the sense that he speaks for each one of us in a way that we feel understood and represented. He has been dead more than 20 years, but his novels have a resonance and a relevance, both for those who live in the places he writes about, and for those who don’t. He excites, he beguiles, he moves, he’s funny – and he’s a cracking story-teller. He reminds us how little we really count, how anonymous we all are, at the same time how the least worthy of us may be sparked with the capacity for grace; even, in some cases, divinity. He connects us not only to each other, enlarging our sympathies, especially for those who stumble. He also connects us in a vibrant way to the wider world outside our drawing-rooms. He is, in my opinion, the tranche de foie gras. Another writer I admire, John Le Carré, has said of Greene: “There’s a case for saying he actually carries the torch of English literature almost alone.”
Up until the age of 16, he had been a small speck on the windscreen, always there but not really noticed.
My grandfather SPB Mais had been a writer too, and, like Greene, had lived in Oxford and Brighton, where Greene had made a pilgrimage to see him. A scourge of old fogies, S.P.B. had been kind to Greene when he was a young novelist and Greene felt genuine gratitude – which he acknowledged with a touch of irony by using my grandfather’s name for a character in Brighton Rock: “See that man going to the Gents’? That’s Mais. The brewer. He’s worth a hundred thousand nicker.”
My grandfather on the contrary was worth nothing of the sort. The author of more than 200 books (the exact tally is uncertain), he died in his ninetieth year, bankrupt and heartbroken, six months after my grandmother, aged 68 and his partner of half a century, ran off with a man who had first proposed to her when she was 17. My grandfather was the first author I ever knew, also the reason why for a long time I never wanted to be a writer myself.
My father, too, had followed in Greene’s early footsteps, joining the Times as a sub-editor and then as a foreign correspondent, and latterly becoming a diplomat – rather as Greene at one stage wished to have been a consul in the Levant, like the poet Flecker. I don’t know what sins my father has committed, but after a posting in Paris he was sent to a series of capitals on the fringes of the world, usually in the throes of a bloody revolution. What these places also tended to have in common was that Graham Greene had already set a novel there.
First stop was Cambodia in the first days of the Vietnam War. It’s almost my earliest memory, arriving by boat in Saigon and staying at the Hotel Continental, where Greene had famously stayed, until American military “advisers” gave the all clear for us to drive our Ford Zephyr to Phnom Penh. The road was safe for three hours in the morning – this was 1963 – and we drove fast. I remember villages surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, but it was
quite peaceful because the Viet Cong only emerged from their tunnels late in the day.
Another posting was Argentina. It was here that I picked up my father’s hardback of a recently published novel called The Honorary Consul.
That book held a personal significance and not only because it was the first Graham Greene I’d read. My family had arrived in Buenos Aires in its year of publication (1973), and the novel touched on many elements of the situation in which we found ourselves. It was the start of the period that became known as The Dirty War, with people being kidnapped every day, and since my father was judged to be a target – he was Consul-General, with responsibility for the British Community – he was protected by six ex-SAS bodyguards in a round-the-clock state of alert.
The novel had a further resonance because I was about to work for several months as a sore-assed cowhand near the town of Corrientes, where the action is set, on an estancia much like that owned by Greene’s ramshackle Honorary Consul, Charlie Fortnum. Twenty years later, I would finish a novel in Victoria Ocampo’s wooden house in Mar del Plata where she often invited writers like Greene to stay, and where Greene, it turned out, had commenced writing his novel. Read at sixteen, The Honorary Consul made an impact that only now have I come to appreciate – as well as why Greene should believe that this was, as he put it, “perhaps the novel that I prefer to all the others.”
Five years after Buenos Aires, my father was posted to Lisbon. It was here that I met Graham Greene for the first time.
I was invited to tea by “Pistol Mary”, a racy old Catholic who had got to know him in Kenya at the time of the Mau-Mau uprising. She lived on a hill-top in Cintra, and every year Greene and his friend Father Leopold Duran would drive across the Spanish border and say a Mass in the same small drawing-room where she kept an ivory-handled revolver – I can see it now on the sideboard – with which one of her husbands was rumoured to have shot himself. Greene had been staying with her in Kenya when one night she woke him up, brandishing the self-same pistol. “I’m worried they’re moving in this direction.” As well she might have been, Greene told me later. “The General commanding the Mau-Mau was her former cook.”
I was too tongue-tied to recall in detail that first meeting. The person who shook my hand was a tall, thin figure with a flat face and watery blue eyes as if he’d just walked out of a gale. He was based at the time in Antibes and talked about missing English sausages and strawberries. When the drinks tray appeared he made a lunge for a whisky bottle, joking that in France they called this brand “Vatican soixante-neuf.”
I’m fairly certain that I talked about my grandfather SPB Mais, and about Argentina during the Dirty War, and how as a 15 year-old I had read aloud, like, it seemed, practically every visitor to Buenos Aires, to the blind writer Borges, whose work Greene said he liked. It was either then or later that he told me that as a young writer he never wrote to people he admired. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing to Conrad.” Would he like to have met Conrad? “Not particularly,” he said. “I think we should be left in solitude.” He believed that every one of us, but writers especially, should have a copyright on their own lives.
One fragment of our conversation I do remember vividly. I asked which of his books he considered the best. “The Heart of the Matter,” he said, “but I hated the hero.” And his favourite? He answered without hesitation. “The Honorary Consul – because the characters change and that is very difficult to do.”
I took his statement and held it. His reply delighted me.
I met him half a dozen times more. In London: where he gave the first Borges Lecture, simply by answering questions. I also saw him in the Ritz where I interviewed him on tape for a documentary on Evelyn Waugh, persuading Greene to read in his guttural voice the heart-crushing scene in Brideshead where Julia meets Charles Ryder in the shadow of the staircase to say goodbye. Greene told me that when he heard of Waugh’s death, on the toilet, reaching up to pull the chain, he felt as though his commanding officer was dead.
And I met him twice in Antibes, pushing the bell that led to his fourth four flat, his name sandwiched between Archer, Mountleigh, and Matter. On the first occasion, I retain a vivid image of Greene on his balcony, pointing out Khashoggi’s yacht, which French police had recently impounded, and the green grass, now used as a parking space, where 30 years before, when Greene first visited Antibes, the sea came lapping to a jetty on to which he had disembarked from Alexander Korda’s yacht.
We went inside and he sat in a bamboo chair on a green cushion. I can’t flatter myself that he told me anything fresh or original; he was busy protecting his copyright. But I took down every word as though it was something out of the ordinary.
Among other fragments, I remember him saying that he’d been to Tomsk in Siberia as a guest of the No 2 in the Politburo, and considered it one of the most beautiful cities he’d visited. While in Russia, he’d met a cosmonaut who had taken a copy of Our Man in Havana with him into space, ticking the places he’d known in Cuba as he orbited earth. Greene said: “He must have taken it with him to improve his English.” The man, healthy and vivacious and sane, had been stunned to meet Greene: “To think I went up there and read you and you are now here.” He had insisted on giving the Greene the tatty paperback, which Greene had put cellotape around.
As well in Moscow, he’d caught up with his old friend the defector Kim Philby. He said that Philby’s first words were: “Please, no questions.” Greene had replied: “The only question I’m going to ask is: how’s your Russian?” Not that good apparently, despite Philby having a Russian wife. “But he was happy,” Greene said.
The second time I went to Antibes was to interview him for what would be his last novel, The Captain and The Enemy. His mood seemed more unsettled. There was something on his mind but it was unclear what this was. His close friend and neighbour Gillian Sutro knew him as well as anyone and observed that he could behave, quote, “like a primadonna having her period when he was bored or his private life was going wrong.” He admitted in the course of the day that he regretted a great many things. “My treatment of a number of people I was fond of. If I could have it passed back, I would have changed my behaviour. I would have behaved very differently.” Not that he wanted to live his life again. The idea of going through all that anger, he said, was appalling.
When I asked him why he refused to do television or be filmed, he said he thought he wouldn’t be very good at it. “Also, I don’t want to be stopped in the streets. It would stop you doing your job. It’s bad for a writer to be recognised. It destroyed Betjeman and Muggeridge, though Muggeridge wasn’t a good writer to begin with.” And he believed that television was in danger of destroying a rival Catholic writer who lived along the same coastline: Anthony Burgess.
A few weeks later I was back at my desk at the Daily Telegraph when I received out of the blue that telegram from Antibes asking me to ring him.
He wanted some help. It was about Burgess, who had taken to sounding off about Greene on French television, “putting words into my mouth that I had to look up in a dictionary.” Greene wanted to dictate to me two letters that he had composed to Burgess. He hoped I might be able to pass them around.
Down the line from Antibes, I transcribed his words.
“My dear Anthony Burgess,
“I hear you have been attacking me rather severely on the French television programme Apostrophes because of my great age & in the French magazine Lire because of my correspondence with my friend Kim Philby.
“I know how difficult to it is to avoid inaccuracies when one becomes involved in journalism, but as you thought it relevant to attack me because of my age (I don’t see the point) you should have checked your facts. I happen to be 83 not 86 & trust that you will safely reach that age too.
“In Lire you seem to have been quoted as writing that I had been in almost daily correspondence with Philby before his death. In fact I received ten letters from him in the course of nearly 20 years. You must be very naïf if you believe our letters were clandestine on either side. Were you misinformed or have you caught the common disease in journalism of dramatizing at the cost of truth?
“Never mind. I admired your three earliest novels & I remember with pleasure your essay on my work in your collection Urgent Copy, your article on me last May in the Sunday Telegraph [which I had commissioned] & the novel (not one of your best) which you dedicated to me.
“Yours, Graham Greene.”
He had written the second letter later that same day. It was very short.
“I have now received another cutting in which you claim I told you of an aggrieved husband shouting through my window (difficult as I live on the fourth floor). You are either a liar or you are unbalanced and should see a doctor. I prefer to think that.
Although he had given up journalism, partly as a result of this episode I was able to persuade him to write what turned out to be his last two book reviews. The first was about Norman Lewis’ book The Missionaries, in which he made Norman’s year by saying that he had no hesitation in calling Lewis one of the greatest writers of the century. I was even more chuffed when Greene agreed to review the latest edition of The South American Handbook, which had been his indispensable guide and mine during the years when I lived in Latin America.
I was in touch once more to try and make Greene change his mind about being filmed. I asked if he would consider letting me film him speaking his own obituary and epitaph; a long interview which the BBC would broadcast only after his death, when hopefully he would no longer have to worry about any loss of anonymity. He said he thought it an amusing idea, but declined.
When he died a year later, my editor Max Hastings ordered me to track down Anthony Burgess, who happened to be in London, and get him to write Greene’s obituary for the Telegraph, which Burgess hammered out that same afternoon on his hotel typewriter.
All writers have a certain smell which is theirs alone. You could say, the better the writer the more unmistakeable and distinctive their scent. If I had to describe Greene’s, I would call it the smell of something being taken off a clothes line after being battered by the wind. Something clean, outdoors, kinetic.
I remember from Burgess’ obituary a line in which he observed that Greene sought in his writing “a kind of verbal transparency which refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right.” Greene’s voice is the driest of any great writer, drier than bone. You can’t imagine him writing a single sentence with an exclamation mark. His sentences are lean and lucid, free of the “beastly” adverb; free too of authorial comment and moral judgement. They’re difficult to quote, not being epigrammatic like his friend and fellow Catholic, Evelyn Waugh; nor easy to parody, like Ernest Hemingway. (Greene only placed second in a New Statesman competition to parody himself). But it takes Greene rarely more than three of his sentences to situate you in the landscape he has popularised as Greeneland, a place so humid in its moral temperature that it would wring sweat out of a fridge.
What is Greeneland? It’s “a region of the mind,” as he called the Congo. It’s commonly a frontier zone in the back of beyond where the pervading smell is the police-station; the usual time of day, the pink-gin hour; the only hard certainties those possessed by children. High up over the border posts, God and the Devil wheel like vultures, while down on the ground an extremely rickety fence separates the good man from the bad.
This is the frontier zone to which Greene was attracted like a bluebottle. He wrote that “the novelist’s station is on the border between the just and the unjust, between doubt and clarity,” and into that tender gap he buzzed.
Greene’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste. Anthony Powell thought Greeneland the province of a third-rate detective writer. David Cecil characterized its formula as: “plenty of religion, plenty of sex.’” Burgess objected that he used the material of Catholic theology for sensational effects, while George Orwell notoriously likened Greene’s Hell to a high-class nightclub, entry to which was reserved for Catholics only; Catholics, moreover, who had distinguished themselves as men enough to be damned.
Certainly, Haiti’s Dr Duvalier damned Greene as, quote, “a liar, a cretin, a stood-pigeon, a spy, a drug addict, a torturer, an unbalanced, sadistic and perverted ignoramus.” Duvalier was even driven to write a pamphlet on him called Demasqué: Gram Grin, as Greene’s name was pronounced in French, in which Duvalier slips on the mask of literary critic: “In The Comedians, [Greene] satisfies his sadistic instincts, he vomits his Negrophobia; and at same time satisfies his bank account.” Greene’s reaction? “I think it’s the greatest honour I’ve ever received.” At least – that was until the Sun newspaper declared in an editorial that Graham Greene should be dumped in the Mediterranean, along with all his books.
A novelist is only as good as he dares to be bad, and Greene, as Papa Doc suggests, could be very bad indeed.
Some of his similes are terrible.
Their mouths clung like bivalves
A revolver drooped like a parched flower to the pavement.
In his worst writing, Greene is haunted by what he calls the distorted ghost of Conrad. But also from Conrad he learned the trick of comparing something abstract to something concrete (“silence like a thin rain”, a brothel madam’s kindness mislaid like a pair of spectacles). If we remember anything of his prose it is likely to be one of these images.
For all his weak points, Greene would agree with Somerset Maugham that a writer deserves to be judged by his best work. And Greene’s best, I would argue, is up there with the tops.
Greene said this about the central character in The Honorary Consul: “The writer builds on the foundations of his own deficiencies: a deficiency is often a blessing. The honorary consul, despite his defects, succeeds in loving. He succeeds thanks to his failings.” The same is true of Greene. “What mattered for him,” said his partner of 32 years, Yvonne Clouetta, “was the human factor.” The truth that Greene spent his life trying to wrestle with and put down on paper was that slippery and contradictory “human factor”. Or what he calls in The Heart of The Matter: “the pain inevitable in any human relationship, pain suffered and pain inflicted”
As for his readability, it’s easy to understand the buzz that the publicity girl at Heinemann felt when his first novel came in. “It was quite different from any other book,” she said. “My goodness what a wonderful book – you couldn’t get away from it.” His prose might have the clarity of a pane of glass, but it creates a suffocating airlessness, an air of menace, which intensifies the excitement. In an age of diminishing faith, he uses Catholic parables in a way that lend them a power beyond their Biblical origins – mining the Gospels rather as John Le Carré, his closest successor, has mined the Cold War. You can read and digest The Honorary Consul in a single sitting, so that it takes the experience back to the unitary power of drama. The strength of Greene lies in his crispness and precision. His novels run to the same length, about 80,000 words. When he reached his daily output of 500 words, he would stop – even in mid sentence. With his background as a film critic – even though none of his books made good films – he learned the economy of delivering a story which the nineteenth-century greats didn’t have. Dickens feels wordy now; Scott Fitzgerald addresses a by-gone era; one can’t muster the old excitement for John Fowles. But Greene still feels modern and prescient. (The journalist Richard West said of Greene’s portrait of Vietnam in The Quiet American: “he understood things that nobody else understood even decades afterwards, when there are think- tanks.”) When you read a Graham Greene passage you are there in the situation, all in the space of a page; plus you feel the emotional bottom of his characters. His voice is purest in his “entertainments” and thrillers, but to dismiss these as “entertainment” is unfair. It’s a way of getting his message across. “An exited audience is never depressed,” he wrote. “If you excite your audience first, you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth.” The Honorary Consul has these qualities in spades.
The first time I read The Honorary Consul, something about Greene’s Argentine narrative took me back to a Sunday service in Oxford when I was 11, and a sermon in which the school vicar told a fable about Leonardo da Vinci.
The story concerned Leonardo’s painting in Milan of the Last Supper. For many years the work lay unfinished. Leonardo had painted the faces of all the disciples – just one blank: the portrait of Judas. Decades went by while Leonardo searched everywhere for a model with the right expression. But no. There the fresco stood – chastising and incomplete. Leonardo had all but given up hope when, on visiting prison, he found the face he had been seeking, with the right lineaments of despair, betrayal and sin. He had the criminal released, dragged him back to his studio and set to work. But when he next looked up, his model was weeping.
“What’s the matter?”
The man lifted his head and stared at him. “A long time ago I sat in this chair. But then I was your model for Jesus.”
The sinner, the saint, the double: these are the leading characters in Greene’s novels. If I were asked to select a typical sentence that these characters utter, I would chose a line from The Honorary Consul in which the guerrilla priest Father Rivas says: “I believe in the evil of God.”
Greene said in a conversation about The Honorary Consul: “For me the sinner and the saint can meet; there is no discontinuity, no rupture. I believe in reversibility… The basic element I admire in Christianity is its sense of moral failure. That is its very foundation. For once you’re conscious of personal failure, then perhaps in future you become a little less fallible. In The Honorary Consul I did suggest this idea, through the guerrilla priest, that God and the devil were actually one and the same person – God had a day-time and a night-time face, but that He evolved, as Christ tended to prove, towards His day-time face – absolute goodness – thanks to each positive act of men.”
It did not surprise me very much to read that one of Greene’s last positive acts was to divide the Spanish royalties of his final novel between a Trappist monastery in Spain and the Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.
A modest and mercurial man, then, of loyalty, courage and frankness (“I write what I think”), who knew better than anyone his own flaws and regretted them. As he wrote to his friend of more than 50 years, John Sutro, rushing to his side after Sutro had tried to swallow 500 codeine pills: “For goodness sake stop flaggelating yourself. We all make mistakes, we all make people we love suffer in one way or another – c’est la vie, & luckily people don’t love us for our virtues or we’d be in a bad way.”
For all his own demons and contradictions, Greene had an extraordinary sensitivity for people, how things were for them. His sympathy was for the ruled, not for the rulers; for the outcast and the tormented. He understood as few novelists do the dark side of the soul. As I said at the start: people all over the world feel that he speaks for them and their suffering. You don’t have to be a Catholic: you merely have to have a soul.
I’d like to conclude by sharing with you two largely unknown examples of Greene’s sympathy; one for a country with a rickety border, the other for a woman who had led a rickety existence in Occupied France.
The first story was told me by a family friend, the diplomat John Leahy who in the mid 1970s served as Under Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. After one particularly bloody atrocity, Greene wrote from Antibes to the Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees to say how shocked he was and how he felt moved to offer whatever help he could. Surely there was something that Greene, as a converted Catholic, could do?
Rees handed the letter to Leahy and told him to get in touch with Greene.
The two men met in London for lunch at Lockets in Marsham Street, which itself had been subjected to an IRA bomb attack. Greene told Leahy that he’d been to Northern Ireland only once, during the Second World War, on a convoy from Liverpool to West Africa. The convoy made a preliminary stop at Belfast and Greene was allowed ashore for a few hours. It was a Sunday and the voyage ahead was potentially dangerous, so Greene decided to find a priest to whom he could make confession. It was lunchtime by the time he found the right place and knocked on the door. After a long wait, a slatternly woman opened it, but refused to let him in – “not on your life, not in the dinner hour.” Before she could close the door, a priest appeared behind her and allowed him to enter. Having heard what Greene had to say, Father Murphy agreed to hear his confession in the front parlour. It began in the conventional way, but quite soon Greene started to realise that the man of God by his side was asking some rather pointed and detailed questions about the size and make-up of the convoy, the number of ships, their speed etc, and the penny dropped. Without further delay, Greene sprang to his feet and saw himself out. He told Leahy: “That’s my only experience of Northern Ireland.”
Greene then began to expound on his idea to bring sanity to the present conflict. One way of extracting the poison from traditional popular prejudice might be to have a sort of travelling brains-trust debating the issues in a civilized way up and down the province. The speakers he had in mind for the job were himself, John Betjeman as a notable Protestant, and Sean O’Faolain the Irish writer and republican activist.
Leahy thought this a crackpot idea, but offered to arrange a second visit to Northern Ireland. Greene’s cover was to write an article for the Telegraph magazine. Leahy organised a three-day visit to parts of the province, after which Greene would come to dinner at Leahy’s house in Belfast and report his reactions.
On his arrival in Belfast, Greene was met by Jerry Fitt the SDLP leader, and a notorious drinker. The upshot was that Leahy lost touch with Greene for 48 hours. When Greene finally turned up at Leahy’s house, looking shattered, he confessed that he had been taken on what amounted to a two-day pub-crawl across the province, and was as a result a wiser and sadder man. He no longer had a single illusion about the impact he could personally make, or about the usefulness of literary debates in solving deep-seated political problems.
The second “positive act” concerns my aunt Priscilla, who was my mother’s sister and SPB Mais’s eldest daughter.
I want to tell you this story in part to plug my book about Priscilla, which comes out next month. But also because it’s a nice illustration, I think, of Greene’s interests and of his unsung acts of kindness to those with broken wings.
To give you some background. Priscilla was the lifelong friend of Gillian Sutro, Greene’s neighbour on the Cote D’Azur during his last years. My aunt and Gillian had grown up in Paris before the war and they were, in Priscilla’s phrase, closer than sisters. In 1938, Gillian had been the witness to Priscilla’s marriage to a French Vicomte. To marry him Priscilla had agreed to become a Catholic. On their wedding night she discovered the Vicomte was impotent.
When the Germans invaded, Gillian fled to London, shortly afterwards meeting Greene’s Oxford contemporary the film producer John Sutro who at the time was working at Denham Studios with Alexander Korda. Within weeks, Gillian and John were married.
Meanwhile, in Occupied France, my aunt had been turned over by her French-in-laws to the Germans and sent to an internment camp for English women, in Besançon. I won’t tell you here what happened to Priscilla after she escaped, but it involved love affairs with both French and Germans. When, four years later, she managed to get out of Liberated Paris, rescued by Harold Acton on Gillian’s orders, she wanted a divorce from the Vicomte. In 1948, she married a mushroom farmer in Wittering called Raymond Thompson, who was a diehard atheist. And that’s when her spiritual troubles began.
Priscilla kept silent about her faith as over her years in France. What few people realised was that she was to the end of her life a devout Roman Catholic. And yet for a mysterious reason, Priscilla came to believe that by marrying Raymond when her first husband was still alive she had placed herself beyond the Catholic pale. Her adulterous relationship with Raymond constituted a mortal sin, and she faced eternal damnation.
Only to her best friend Gillian did Priscilla confess her dread.
Priscilla’s confession shocked Gillian, who up until this point had remained unaware what Priscilla’s Catholicism meant to her. But it was evident to Gillian that religion was ruining Priscilla’s life, not enhancing it. Gillian discussed the situation with John in December 1965, when they feared – correctly – that Priscilla was suffering a breakdown. “He thought a priest might sort it out and promised to see what he could do.”
In the event, the Sutros sought the assistance not of a priest, but of another Catholic convert who was also one of Priscilla’s favourite writers.
Out of the blue one evening at the Sutros’ flat in Belgrave Square, Graham Greene said: “The only thing I envy John is Gillian.” His remark sank in. “When I am feeling low I think of his words,” wrote Gillian. “Some people thought he was my lover, which was untrue. I was not his type. Ours was a platonic friendship, almost the only one I have had with a heterosexual. When in trouble I always turn to him.” She did so now over Priscilla, who had included Greene’s classic novel about mortal sin and adultery, The Heart of the Matter, on a list entitled “Books to be taken in case of shipwreck on desert island”.
Gillian had met Greene in 1947 in Rome, where John Sutro was producing “Her Favourite Husband”; yet their friendship took another decade to bloom. In April 1958, Greene arrived early at a cocktail party that the Sutros were throwing in London, but decided to leave before it started. “I was upset,” Gillian wrote. “He said he was in a nervous state and did not feel like meeting people. After brooding a minute or two, he said ‘I’ll stay if you let me spank you.’ I was wearing tight tangerine silk Gucci pants, which I suppose may have given him ideas. ‘OK,’ I said, turning around. ‘Spank!’ He gave me a couple of sharp wallops on my buttocks. ‘Now I feel better,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay.’ I knew Graham Greene’s moods and how to deal with them.”
In 1963, Greene dedicated his book of stories, A Sense of Reality, to the Sutros. He prized his friendship with them for their “shepherd’s pie evenings” at Belgrave Square. Right up until Greene left England in 1966, he walked over to their flat from his rooms in Albany, arriving on the stroke of 8pm and disappearing at 11pm. He refused the offer of any fourth guest, preferring the three of them. Gillian sensed that he appreciated the privacy and lack of fuss, so much of his life being spent in hotels. “He liked to be able to relax and talk openly about all sorts of things, which is not possible in a noisy restaurant, where he always thought he was being overheard.”
The ritual of these evenings did not vary. First the martini. He never enjoyed a starter, saying it blunted his appetite for the main dish. This was cooked by Gillian using lots of butter. Greene unfailingly took two big helpings. “He was dithyrambic over my shepherd’s pie. Other women would try and do the same, but he would say dolefully: ‘There’s nothing wrong with your pies, but they haven’t got the flavour of Gillian’s. Her’s is unique.”’
The meal at which they discussed Priscilla was washed down with two bottles of 1950 Cheval Blanc which Greene had sent round the day before, so that any sediment could settle. In her diary, Gillian wrote: “When I think of Graham Greene certain words come to mind: escape, loneliness, impatience, guilt, kindness and unkindess, boredom, opium, Cheval Blanc.”
On that evening in December 1965, to their immense regret, Greene informed the Sutros of his decision to take up residence in France. He was leaving England early in the New Year. “We shall terribly miss our dear friend,” Gillian wrote.
After treating Greene to her raspberry fool, Gillian broached the subject of her other dear friend, Priscilla, who became, in absentia, the fourth at their table.
Gillian was confident of pricking Greene’s interest. “For years, I was the recipient of his love problems to which I listened with patience.” She intrigued him about Priscilla by saying: “She had a rather a rackety life during the Occupation.”
Although Greene had known Priscilla’s father, he had never met Priscilla, but no subject was dearer to his heart than her spiritual predicament as outlined by Gillian, who revealed that Priscilla had “become haunted by the idea that she is living in perpetual sin.” Greene was packing up Albany for his departure to France, but he promised to help find Priscilla a priest.
On 14 December, Gillian gave him a nudge: “Dearest Graham, You kindly said I was to remind you to let me know the name of the Jesuit priest who might perhaps be of help to my girl friend. You thought there was someone at Farm Street who would be just right for her.” Two days later, in one of his last acts before leaving England, Greene wrote to Father Dermot Mills at Stonyhurst.
“Dear Dermot, I have been asked to find a sympathetic priest at Farm Street for a rather difficult case and since your departure and Philip’s and the death of Martindale I know nobody. The case is of a young woman who married a Catholic and became a genuine Catholic as a result after the marriage.” Greene explained that Priscilla had since remarried a non-Catholic. “She is in a very melancholy and nervy condition. She is a friend of a friend and I don’t know her personally but I did explain to her friend that there was nothing that could be done to regularize her position, but I thought it might be of great help to her if she started once again going regularly to Mass and perhaps had a few conversations with a sympathetic priest – not from the point of view of getting anything done but from the point of view of simple encouragement to keep her foot in the door.
“Apparently her husband is very jealous of the church and this also causes difficulty. You would have been the ideal person to call on, but alas you are far away. I would be most grateful for any counsel which I could pass on to my friend.
The outcome of Greene’s intercession is unclear. Priscilla never spoke of it. Greene, too, preserved the secret of the confessional, not mentioning it when I spent those days with him in Antibes in 1988 – even though, unknown to me, Gillian was keeping an eye on us, asking Greene if we had talked about Priscilla (“does not recollect”) and writing to him on 29 September 1988: “He is the nephew of my late childhood friend Priscilla (the converted Catholic with 2 marriages [and a drink problem], I told you about her).”
But through Greene or Father Mills, Priscilla did meet a sympathetic clergyman. And his consolation had the miraculous effect of banishing her fear.
In June 1966, less than a year after her breakdown, Priscilla wrote to Raymond.
“Darling, As we are soon to celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary I wanted to tell you how happy you have made me over the years. You have such a capacity to cherish and protect and I will never forget the last few months. You have saved me from myself and I have taken on a new lease of life as you know. Thank you, I love you, Priscilla.”
As Greene had put it in his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy: “Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked.”
When it comes to writers’ smells, I’m not in the camp which believes that the best scent is no scent. On my last visit to Antibes to see Graham Greene, Yvonne told me that the perfumier Caron had recently produced an after-shave called The Third Man. When I tried to buy a small bottle of Le Troisieme Homme at the airport, the woman behind the counter immediately began to hum the famous zither tune.
“What does that mean to you?” I asked her.
“Orson Welles,” she said.
She looked at me and smiled. “Gram Grin – of course.”