BOOK REVIEW / In defiance of Franco, in honour of friends: 'The Use of Memory' - Tom Burns: Sheed and Ward, 19.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
IN 1938 Graham Greene was a struggling young novelist, working by day as a publishers' reader. He sensed there was an interesting story in Mexico about the revolution, and President Callas's persecution of the Catholic Church, but could not find anyone to commission the trip. Tom Burns, then an editor at Longmans, stepped into the breach and came up with the princely sum of pounds 500. His faith was repaid with The Lawless Roads, Greene's graphic and disturbing expose of what he had seen in Mexico. Better still, the visit provided Greene with the material for The Power and The Glory.

For his foresight in this one matter alone, Tom Burns merits closer scrutiny. But it was just one flash of inspiration in a life that has never been anything less than colourful, ranging from journalism to counter-espionage, from spearheading the revolt in the English-speaking world against the papal ban on the pill to pressurising Franco into staying out of the Second World War. The Use of Memory, Burns's autobiography, covers all of these in pages that are littered with well-known names: a game of roulette in Portugal with the Duke of Windsor, evenings with Nora Joyce in Paris while her husband was taking singing lessons.

Tom Burns's career has been spent in publishing, mainly of the Catholic variety. With a succession of publishing houses, now mostly moribund, and later as editor of the Tablet, he was responsible for giving early encouragement to the likes of Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The religious bent of the companies he worked for never confined him to dreary spiritual exhortations or prayer books. His own view of Catholicism is more universal, catholic in the true sense of the word, akin to the synthesis of life and faith that he found in Spain. What theology Burns did publish was the best of modern European thought, and he can claim much of the credit for shaking the English Catholic Church out of its slavish devotion to every papal whim.

During the war he served in the British embassy in Madrid under the limp figure of Sir Samuel Hoare, memorably dismissed by Churchill as 'descended from a long line of maiden aunts'. Burns's task was counter-propaganda, with a view to keeping Spain from taking up arms alongside Hitler and Mussolini. As a mark of his success, he was sent in 1945 by the Foreign Office to accept the surrender of the German embassy in Madrid.

The title of Burns's memoirs, borrowed from T S Eliot's Little Gidding, lays claim to a broader purpose than merely entertaining with sketches of characters and events. Memory, he argues, allows you to rationalise those you have known, to pinpoint their real worth without being distracted by passing fads. 'Every human being reveals values in the world of the spirit which escape measurement, being infinite. To realise this is the ultimate use of memory.'

In pursuit of this lofty ambition, Burns has wisely waited to publish his memoir until most of those who people its pages have passed away. Yet it seems that, for the author, many of them are still very much alive, and that loyalty prevents him from giving his memory full rein. Take the example of Eric Gill. In the late Twenties and early Thirties Gill's house became a home from home for Burns until they fell out over the Spanish Civil War. The use of memory allows Burns to overlook that little hiccup and pen a glowing evaluation of Gill as a great artist who toiled, saint-like, to give expression to his Catholic faith. But it also permits the author to brush aside the less savoury side of Gill - his perverse sexual appetites, as revealed by Fiona MacCarthy in her 1991 biography, and so much a theme in his work. According to Burns, McCarthy betrayed her subject by 'dredging up from the detritus of the past . . . fleeting passions and obsessions' with an eye on what would please the Sunday papers.

Such a claim is a whitewash, and throws into doubt the very objectivity Burns is trying to pursue. Yet such is his amiable tone that it is impossible to hold such lapses against him for very long. While his attempt to claim a higher purpose for autobiography may not always convince, it does not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable chronicle of a fascinating life.