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The Editor's View Sept 04


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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If you want to know something about writing, study Graham Greene and everything about him

John Jenkins, Publisher

IT WAS about three o’clock on a humid morning and once more insomnia had won. Idly flicking the remote control I saw there was a showing of The Comedians starring Richard Burton, Alec Guinness and Elizabeth Taylor. Occasionally I am pleased to be an insomniac.

A student at my creative writing class had asked: If you could advise one novelist and one novelist alone for would be authors to read, who would it be. There was only one answer: Graham Greene.

Without descending into hyperbole Greene combines entertainment, theme and literary ability in a way which few others can achieve.

If you think I am overstating the case stand by for an avalanche of articles, radio and television programmes as the great man’s centenary is celebrated next month.

Green was born on October 2nd 1904 and died in 1991. He was one of six children, loathed school and sport and spent his time reading, particularly enjoying the novels of Rider Haggard and R M Ballantyne.

He was only 15 when he was sent to a therapist. His analyst, Kenneth Richmond, suggested he should write and introduced him to a circle of literary friends, including the poet Walter de la Mare.

Greene went up to Balliol where he read modern history and in his own words spent his Oxford years drunk and debt-ridden; essential experience for his future role as a sub editor, first on the Nottingham Journal and then The Times.

He had several abortive attempts at getting published until The Man Within became a critical success, persuading him to give up the job on the Times. But the next two novels failed and he was once more in despair.

Fortunately his publisher kept faith and he moonlighted as a film critic for the Spectator.

He wrote Stamboul Train as a crowd pleaser and from then on combined his skill as a social commentator and entertainer. He even became involved in screenwriting despite being sued by Twentieth Century Fox for savaging Shirley Temple. (A man clearly after my own heart.) He wrote screen plays and adaptations, shooting to fame with the success of The Third Man.

His travels around the world took him to many trouble spots and he exposed corruption and dictators. He certainly worked for a time with British Intelligence using his experiences in Sierra Leone as background for The Heart of the Matter.

Critics argue about which of his books is the best and a majority seem to favour The Power and the Glory about Catholicism in Mexico. It won the Hawthornden Prize and was condemned by the Vatican.

Not content with upsetting the Vatican, he found unpopularity in the United States with The Quiet American. Don’t miss Michael Caine in the recent film. Greene was generous and to the point with his advice to other writers. He had, after all, tasted rejection.

In Ways of Escape he writes: The main characters in a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the author, they come out of his body as a child comes from the womb, then the umbilical cord is cut, and they grow into independence. The more an author knows of his own character the more he can distance himself from the invented characters and the more room they have to grow.

And in A Sort of Life he wrote: Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb and an object, perhaps a rhythm – little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquillises the nerve.

But back to The Comedians. Greene wrote about the book: The Comedians, I am glad to say, touched Papa Doc on the raw. He attacked me personally in Le Matin, the paper he owned in Port au Prince – the only review I have ever received from a head of state. ‘Le livre n’est pas bien ecrit. Comme l’oeuvre d’un ecrivain et d’un journaliste, le livre n’a aucune valeur.’

When people tell me that journalism is the wrong profession for a would-be writer I mention that one or two didn’t do too badly: Greene, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Forsyth. . .

 A fitting tribute to a BBC legend

ALONG my bookshelves are three long rows on sport: mostly, but not all, about cricket, golf and boxing. At one time it was fashionable to look down on scribes who covered the antics of flannelled fools and muddied oafs, but the best stand comparison with anything written in the English language.

The latest addition to my shelves will be JimThe Life of E.W. Swanton by David Rayvern Allen. For years Jim was known to millions through his cricket reports in the Daily Telegraph and to viewers and listeners to the BBC with his Test match summaries. He had two great qualities: a clear mind and an ability to express himself fluently (and forcibly if necessary) on any given subject.

He was, according to his detractors, a snob, arrogant, pompous and even a coward. To others he was a Christian, a good friend in bad weather and very good company.

One of his detractors was John Arlott who, upon being told that Swanton had published some eight million words on cricket replied: “and not a memorable sentence among them.”

Arlott was later to modify his opinion and they found themselves on the same side in opposing apartheid and supporting the cause of Basil D’Oliveira as an England cricketer.

Allen’s biography is an excellent book and I was close enough to many of the people mentioned to vouch for its accuracy. Pity about the spelling of bone fide (sic). That would have sent Jim beresk, as they say in the Guardian. Now look heah, he would have trumpeted. If you had a proof reader who knew any basic Latin . . . quite right Jim.

Quite right.

Jim - The Life of E. W. Swanton by David Rayvern Allen is published by Aurum Press at £20. ISBN 1-854-10-900-6.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2004. Reproduced from the December-January edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.