Travel: Our man in Berkhamsted

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The Independent Culture
`Slitty eyed and devious' was how the novelist Graham Greene once described the inhabitants of his birthplace.

The Hertfordshire town has somehow forgiven him - and has even founded a festival in his honour.

The town of Berkhamsted has had an uneasy relationship with Graham Greene, and it's fair to say that Graham Greene has had an uneasy relationship with Berkhamsted. There are, of course, other famous sons of the town, either by birth or by education: the poets Geoffrey Chaucer and William Cowper; the historian, GM Trevelyan; the lone sailor, Robin Knox-Johnston; and newcomers like Posh Spice and David Beckham, who live locally.

Time is a great healer, though, and seven years since Graham Greene's death, Berkhamsted has forgiven him for once calling local residents "slitty eyed and devious". The reconciliation has meant that a blue plaque is due to be erected at his family's former residence on Chesham Road, and a group of local enthusiasts have formed the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust and founded a festival in his honour - the first of which is being held next week.

It will be a four-day gathering of the great and the good of "Greeneland". Films, readings and symposiums, an exhibition by Paul Hogarth (Greene's illustrator), and a walking tour of the town sites that were associated with Greene are all in the programme.

"We often get tourists dropping in and asking if they can look around," explains David Pearce, chairman of the Greene Birthplace Trust. "I usually get roped in to show them the sites, and it's gratifying to see that these slot another piece of the jigsaw into place for his readers."

The guide text for the Greene walking tour is the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life. The early chapters give an insight into what it was like growing up as the son of the deeply unpopular headmaster of Berkhamsted School, being cold shouldered and ignored by other boys and making several inept attempts at suicide before running away from school. This alienation and resentment of institutions stayed with Greene for the rest of his life, and inspired many of his characters, from the teenage thugs in Brighton Rock to the authoritarians of The Ministry of Fear.

Berkhamsted itself is a ribbon town in a Chiltern valley, along the old Aylesbury-to-Watford road and the Grand Union Canal. There are still some fine buildings, such as the church of St Peter (where Greene listened to his father preach), but others have been swept away. The New Cinema, with its "green Moorish dome, the height of pretentious luxury and dubious taste", was where Greene went to watch Tarzan movies when bunking off school. The cinema burnt down in the Sixties and on its site is now a Tesco supermarket.

Up the Chesham Road a flight of steps leads on to the wood where Greene took to illicit smoking. I bumped into a local resident, John Cook, who remembers being introduced to Greene when he came to a public meeting in the town in later life. "He was really very personable, but couldn't quite reconcile the fact that at Berkhamsted he was so miserable at school and uncomfortable with other boys."

Berkhamsted school has recently gone co-ed and been renamed Berkhamsted Collegiate. As befits a leading public school, the buildings are imposing in red brick with stone mullioned windows and the two added sides of a quadrangle brooding in that Victorian gothic style.

Stepping inside what used to be the headmaster's quarters, and now houses a sixth-form centre (complete with Kurt Cobain posters), we passed through a secret passageway to the main hall. This Greene referred to in later life as the green baize door that separated his home from the public activities of the school. It was a metaphor that recurred throughout many of his novels, and there indeed, on the back of the door, was pinned a piece of tattered old green baize covering.

Outside the school, David Pearce pointed out the fives courts - not, as he explained, that the aspiring novelist would have used them much. "Greene and his friend Peter Quennell were a couple of stinkers, and by all accounts they would much prefer to be in the graveyard reading their books than playing games."

During the Twenties and Thirties, Berkhamsted School had a reputation as an enterprising place that sent pupils to far parts of the empire to serve in the colonial service. "If anything, there was a high proportion of boys who emerged with independence of mind, an urge to travel and a willingness to rough it. So the fact that Greene was fascinated by political subterfuge, and going into foreign interiors is no surprise."

The school is hosting many of the events for the forthcoming festival. One intriguing event is David Pearce's own adaptation for the stage of Graham Greene's numerous letters to newspapers. "We've called it May I Suggest...? and it shows a man always willing to take a personal line, invariably in sympathy with the little man."

Back on the High Street, I popped into the WH Smith where Greene used to pinch books and magazines, and then to Hubert Figg, the chemists. Sadly the assistant was flummoxed when I enquired as to whether the shop had any relation to Mrs Figg's toy shop where Graham Greene used to buy his toy soldiers.

There were fictional sites, too. David Pearce pointed out The Swan public house where The Human Factor was set. In a development that Greene would probably have found fascinating, it is now a rehabilitation centre for local drug and alcohol sufferers.

There are some twee tea and antique shops between the Sixties blocks, and I felt sure that Greene would have been amused by the Home and Colonial Antiques emporium, as well as a couple of notices in the shop window inviting all comers to two new night-classes: "The Search for the Spiritual" and "Keep up your French Conversation".

A short drive up to Berkhamsted Common, 600 feet above sea level gives a full view of the Chiltern valley. According to David Pearce, it was here that Greene used to come for lonely walks. There's also the story that this was where he had his first childhood memory: sharing a pram with a dead dog. Greene was later to discover that it was the corpse of his sister's pug that was run over by a horse carriage and was being transported home.

As I left Berkhamsted, I picked up a copy of the local paper and saw an article referring to nefarious doings down by the canal. I thought of Greene's comments in A Sort of a Life: "Down by the Grand Junction, a sense of immediate danger lurked - the menace of insulting words from strange, brutal canal workers and the danger, too, of death from drowning."

It was clearly such hints of malice under the surface that inspired the man who delighted in creating dark characters, tortured souls and downright badhats set in unpleasant foreign climes and despotic republics.

Residents of Berkhamsted have perhaps finally come to terms with this side of Graham Greene, and are happy to make a fuss over the man who was a notoriously reclusive and diffident novelist.

"Despite what people think, he always held a great regard for the place of his birth," says David Pearce, "and I think he would have been secretly flattered by all the attention."

The Graham Greene Festival in Berkhamsted runs from 29 September to 3 October. For more information call 01442 865158