About 100 years ago two brothers settled in the same small English town and raised 12 children. Charles Greene was a scholar, destined for the Bar, who blundered into schoolmastering while eating his dinners at the Inner Temple and later became headmaster of Berkhamsted School. His younger brother, Edward (known as ‘Eppy’), declined to go to university and blundered into the coffee trade in Brazil. Having made a fortune, he returned to England and bought a large house in the same town. Shades of Greene is the story of those two families and of what happened to eight of the more interesting children. They included the novelist Graham Greene, whose life occupies the largest part of this account.
Graham had three brothers. Hugh, who, after Lord Reith, became the BBC’s only other outstanding Director General, Raymond who became a successful Lon- don surgeon and one of the pioneers of endocrinology, and the oldest child, Herbert, who became a drunk, a confidence trickster and remittance man. There was also the youngest of the six, Elisabeth, who joined MI6, worked for ‘C’, Sir Stuart Menzies, and was one of the few women recruited into the secret service before the outbreak of the second world war.
Since these four were the children of Charles they were known in the family as the ‘School House’ Greenes and regarded as the intellectuals. The wealthy and frivolous ‘Hall’ Greenes, living in the big house on the edge of town, had a German mother. They included Ben, who played a prominent role in both the ILP (International Labour Party) and the mainstream Labour Party in the 1930s, and worked with Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee. Felix was the BBC’s first North American correspondent and became a renowned documentary filmmaker. Their sister Barbara was an unfulfilled writer who trekked through Africa with her cousin Graham, wrote a fine account of their adventure and then married a German. She spent the second world war in Berlin.
Although the 12 Greenes were first cousins and many of the boys attended Berkhamsted School, they do not seem to have spent a lot of time together. They may have been a generation but they did not form one family, and several actively disliked each other. The energy that drove some of the cousins was identified by Felix when he said, ‘What a family! I see myself in every one of them … I see the set-up clearly, and I hate it.’ Two of the exotic Anglo-German Brazilians, Eva and Barbara, were admired by their male cousins, but what really united the two families was a solid streak of business acumen.
The Greenes had started to make money in the 18th century as East Anglian brewers (Greene King). They invested in sugar estates in the West Indies, fiercely opposed the abolition of slavery and recovered from this setback to acquire land and influence. One of the sugar planters — described by Jeremy Lewis as being ‘blessed with a very affectionate nature’ — left 13 illegitimate children in St Kitts. Another Greene, a country squire, beat a tenant farmer for poisoning foxes. A third, Sir Graham, uncle to the novelist, was the Samuel Pepys of Edwardian England, running the Admiralty, constructing Dreadnoughts and moving them round the empire. He was known as ‘the octopus of Whitehall’ — a sort of bureaucratic Peter Mandelson — and died in 1950 aged 93. Perhaps he had a fit of apoplexy after seeing an early proof of The End of the Affair.
Among the Berkhamsted generation, it was the intellectual cousins who, unexpectedly, lived the most practically successful lives. Raymond was a prominent member of his profession. He tried and failed to climb Mount Everest, met Einstein — who made a pass at him — and succeeded in diagnosing Guy the Gorilla’s under-active thyroid. Hugh was a formidable national figure who made his mark as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Hitler’s Germany, was then the director of the BBC’s wartime German service, and played a significant role in the post-war Malayan Emergency, before his appointment in 1959 as Director General. He married four times. Graham too had a notable head for business, as this account makes clear.
There are obvious problems in writing a group biography if the group covers a wide range of success and failure, including one figure of international reputation. Lewis generally switches focus with agility but he is less successful at editing out material concerned with a succession of irrelevant minor characters about whom we learn far too much. If only the result had been about six chapters and 120 pages shorter it would have been more readable.
Elisabeth’s life was officially secret, and much of it remains so, although with her wit and charm she would have made a brilliant professional diplomat had she been born 40 years later. The remaining cousins split into two groups. Graham and Hugh led lives of enduring interest whereas Ben, Felix and Herbert would make an absorbing study in failure. Herbert Greene was a strange one, but his misadventures provide some of Lewis’s best anecdotes. Early in the Great War, Corporal Herbert’s military career ground to a halt when he was ordered to guard a prisoner in the Tower of London who had been sentenced to death for treason. Herbert let him out of the Tower to watch an air raid. After the war Herbert too joined the secret service, but it was the Japanese embassy in London that employed him. MI5 was soon going through his correspondence. Herbert sponged off his parents until the outbreak of the second world war, when he demanded a commission (on the fictional ground that he had held one in the last show). Instead, the War Office posted him to Liverpool to dig latrines with the Pioneer Corps.
Lewis’s narrative really comes together during the war years. By 1939 Ben Greene, the international socialist, had moved so far to the right that he was identified with Sir Oswald Mosley and interned under Regulation 18b. He put up a terrific fight in the courts and eventually won his release; it turned out that MI5 had forged some of the evidence against him. The experience understandably left him with a lifelong persecution complex. His brother Felix had continued as he started, on the Left and a pacifist. He was a good man, but the very model of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’. Felix spent the war years in California with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, insisting that the conflict was not just the fault of Churchill and Hitler since ‘We are all guilty’. While Elisabeth and Graham were in MI6, both subject to the sinister activities of Philby, Herbert was still being tailed by MI5 and Ben was struggling to get out of prison. Meanwhile Hugh was running a critical part of the BBC and Barbara was enduring the RAF bombing of Berlin. Her husband was implicated in the 1944 anti-Hitler plot and both were lucky to escape with their lives.
After the war, Hugh was forced to deny that the BBC German Service had broadcast the names of anti-Hitler conspirators in 1944 when they were unknown to the Gestapo. In fact the names were revealed by the British government’s Black Propaganda ‘Freedom Station’, which was open to Philby’s influence. Graham, who had been under Philby’s command during the war, remained partly under his spell for the rest of his life. Elisabeth, who married a fellow MI6 officer, Rodney Dennys, regarded Philby as a close personal friend but never forgave him for his treachery.
In later life Felix became a champion of Maoist China before and during the Cultural Revolution. When Felix told Premier Chou en Lai that he had decided to have heart surgery in Peking under acupuncture, Chou advised him to switch to the London Clinic.
Herbert lived off an allowance that was given to him by Graham, his younger brother, who dis
liked him and once wondered why he did not kill himself. Herbert repaid Graham’s kindness by launching ferocious public attacks on the broadcasting policies of his youngest brother, Hugh.
Lewis’s diligent historical research regularly throws up curious details. Some will be surprised to learn that as recently as 1959 the governors of the BBC regarded it as impossible to appoint a Roman Catholic as director general. But the elephant in Lewis’s biographical room is of course Graham, whose work is largely ignored but whose private life is covered in some detail. In the event this ‘Not a biography of Graham Greene’ approach provides an exact silhouette of the writer as his family must have known him. As such, it goes a long way to correct the three-volume Norman Sherry biographical road accident that seems to have blighted Graham Greene’s final years. Lewis hides none of Graham’s failings but shows him to have been human, generous and funny. (He once said of his former friend Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘his underpants conceal a stiletto.’)
Graham’s enigmatic cousin Barbara provided a gentle family epitaph, writing to him shortly before his death. ‘We were such a huge family long, long ago. I seem to be the only one that is going on and on and on’.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.