Shades of Greene: Graham and his siblings

Filled with espionage, political intrigue and derring do, a new biography of the Greene clan has many striking parallels with the fictional works of the family's most famous literary son.

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Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family
Jeremy Lewis
Jonathan Cape

It sounds like the dramatis personae from one of those enthralling novels about a large English family – a world-famous writer; a mountaineer turned doctor; a sister who was a spy; a ne'er-do-well who also dabbled in espionage; a journalist who became director general of the BBC; a restless searcher who founded a spiritual retreat in the southern Californian mountains; and a political activist who was swept up in the political currents of the 1930s.

But this is a real- life cast of characters. The writer was, of course, Graham Greene, the most renowned of the Greene clan, whose branches are the subject of Jeremy Lewis's crowded group portrait.

This solidly upper-middle-class family from the English country town of Berkhamsted had two distinct wings. Graham's side, the "School House Greenes", were the children – six in all – of Charles Greene, a public-school headmaster. Charles's children would distinguish themselves in several pursuits: in addition to Graham, there was Hugh (born in 1910), a correspondent in Nazi Germany and later director-general of the BBC, while the doctor and mountaineer Raymond (born in 1901) attempted to conquer Everest in 1933.

It wasn't just the boys who did interesting things: Elisabeth Greene worked for MI6 in the Second World War, and brought Graham into the spy game. (He would maintain his connection to MI6 throughout the Cold War, combining his famed travels with intelligence work on the side). The black sheep of the School House side was Herbert (born in 1898). He, too, dabbled in spying, though ineffectually and for the Japanese (espionage, it seems, was the family vocation) and ran up huge debts, forever importuning his parents to bail him out.

The other side of the family were known as the "Hall Greenes", after the stately residence where they spent their youth. Another sextet, they were the progeny of Charles's younger brother, a coffee broker. Relations between the two wings were distant, even chilly at times. Felix (born in 1909) of the Hall Greenes also worked for the BBC; in the 1930s, he made pioneering radio documentaries but his restless yearnings led him to California, where he met Christopher Isherwood and studied Eastern spirituality. His brother, the towering Ben (who stood at six feet seven inches tall), had a more troubled career. Active in left-wing politics between the wars and an ardent pacifist, his search for peace with Germany led him into Britain's far right, a journey that only brought him grief and a controversial spell in prison.

Lewis has assembled a vast trove of Greene family lore, drawing on letters, diaries, memoirs, and recollections of those who knew Graham and co. At times, his pages swirl with a dizzying excess of fact and supporting characters, which slow down the narrative. Still, Shades of Greene maintains the jaunty tone of a very long gossip column for some 500 pages.

Among other things, the book is a kind of sociology of the British literary and political intelligentsia in the decades leading up to the Second World War. It pries into several exclusive institutions and pastimes of British life - the public school; Oxford, where Graham (Balliol), Raymond (Pembroke), and Hugh (Merton) studied; the cult of mountaineering; and the clubbish, tightly knit worlds of secret intelligence and the media.

For all the attention Graham received during his life and after – he is the subject of a recent three-volume doorstop by Norman Sherry – one might assume that he would dominate Lewis's book. It's a pleasure to report that this is not the case. While Lewis gives Graham his due, recounting the apprentice years as a sub-editor on The Times and his first, fumbling attempts at novel writing, it is the other Greenes, chiefly Raymond and Hugh, and their cousins Ben and Felix, who emerge as the most fully realised individuals. It is their life stories, writes Lewis, which "illuminate and embody many of the political, cultural, literary and social complexities of the times they lived in."

Lewis doesn't push too many psychological hobbyhorses on the reader. He distinguishes the "warmer, less cerebral" Hall Greenes from their "harder-headed cousins". Another distinction can be made: with the exception Herbert, Graham and his siblings were all highly capable types who combined a worldly edge with can-do grit. By contrast, Felix and especially Ben fell afoul of their beliefs, and could never harness their idealism to a stable vocation.

Whatever Graham's obsession with seedy, broken down men and dodgy dealers (Herbert's misadventures provided him rich fodder) he was a gifted professional who managed his literary affairs with skill. Raymond was innovator in both his medical and mountaineering pursuits. He made valuable studies of the effects of frostbite and anoxia on his expeditions; he also helped to establish endocrinology as a legitimate medical discipline. As a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, Hugh filed harrowing dispatches about Kristallnacht and the Night of the Long Knives. During the war, he set up a German service for the BBC, which led him on to greater success after the war as director-general. (Germany is a key thread to many of the Greene's lives: the Hall Greenes were born to a German mother, Eva Sturzer. A daughter, Barbara Greene, married a German count with many contacts in anti-Hitler circles, and lived in Germany during the war).

Such achievements are in contrast to the more erratic pursuits of Ben and Felix. A yearning for some kind of total solution to modern man's ills drove Felix. "What I am trying to do, if needs be against the cynicism of the whole world," he told a friend, "is to find a faith that can be pitted against the common despair: a belief – in God if you will – with which I can meet the stubborn unbelief of modern man."

He abandoned his budding career with the BBC to work with the Quakers. During the war, he fell under the spell of Krishnamurti's teachings, which led him to California and Isherwood. (Still, he did not abandon his hedonistic side: in the 1930s a friend observed how he would agonise about the unemployed "and then had to go and have cocktails"). After the war, Felix discovered China, which became his new passion. "I love the Chinese," he wrote to his wife in 1957. "Why didn't I ever realise how beautiful and gentle and kind they are? Why have we such an utterly erroneous idea of them?"

Where Graham dealt with politics on a detached metaphoric and symbolic level, that is, on the level of art, Felix and Ben confronted the world with a disabling earnestness. In the case of Ben, who emerges as perhaps the most fascinating of all the Greenes, this tendency led him on a complex ideological journey that was part fantastic, part grotesque. A mover in Labour Party circles in the 1930s, Ben's pacifism took him into the peace-at-all-costs movement, which attracted a hodge-podge of activists left and right, and then into British fascism. Reflecting on his associations, Ben mused in 1940 that he was "prepared to meet anybody who was prepared to work for peace and this led me into extraordinarily strange company, a good deal of which I did not desire." He certainly found himself in unsavoury society; a motley assortment of isolationists and Nazi sympathisers. While he found things to admire in National Socialism, Ben had also worked on behalf of Jewish refugees.

Yet poor judgment and badly timed statements about the inevitability of British defeat put him firmly in the sights of the British government. He was placed under surveillance and followed by agents posing as German sympathisers, who tried to get him to make incriminating statements against himself. (A female MI5 agent even tried to seduce Ben, to no avail.) In fact, the whole episode, which proved an embarrassment for the government, was rather like the plot of a thriller by a certain literary relation.

Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

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