Daniel Macklin illustration - Jeremy Lewis on Graham Greene, Slightly Foxed Issue 18

Greene but Colourful

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For the past couple of years I’ve been researching a book about the Greene family. The Greene King brewery, on which its fortunes are based, dates back to the Napoleonic period, but since I’m allergic to dynastic histories I’ve decided to concentrate on one generation: Graham Greene’s siblings and first cousins, all of whom grew up in the same small town in the early years of the last century.

Graham Greene himself has been written about at inordinate length already, not least in Norman Sherry’s three-volume life, so I doubt if I’ll have anything new to say about him: but other members of his generation more than compensate. They include the black sheep of the family, who spied for the Japanese in the 1930s, wrote a fanciful account of his adventures in the Spanish Civil War, and led a nationwide campaign against his youngest brother’s decision to move the nine o’clock news on the BBC Home Service to ten and phase out the bongs of Big Ben; a brilliant mountaineer who joined Eric Shipton and Frank Smythe in their 1933 attempt on Everest before becoming a pioneer endocrinologist, famed for diagnosing Guy the Gorilla’s thyroid problems; and an idealistic member of the Labour Party who fell into bad company shortly before the war, and was banged up in Brixton in 1940 under Regulation 18b at the same time as Oswald Mosley. Add to these the BBC’s first North America correspondent, who became a disciple of Krishnamurti and an enthusiastic apologist for Mao and Communist China; the even more distinguished employee of the BBC who infuriated his older brother by tinkering with the nine o’clock news; and a pampered daughter who – to the surprise of all who knew her – wrote one of the most entertaining travel books of its time.

Looking back to the 1930s, Graham Greene once wrote that ‘It was a period when “young authors” were inclined to make uncomfortable journeys in search of bizarre material – Peter Fleming to Brazil and Manchur

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About the contributor

The third volume of jeremy lewis’s autobiography, Grub Street Irregular, was be published in July 2008, and his book on the Greene family came out later that year.

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