PsychoGeography #59: A marriage made in Greeneland

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The Independent Online

I went to a wedding at the weekend in Havana ... in Brighton. Let us just dwell on that phrase for a few moments: I went to a wedding at the weekend in Havana ... in Brighton.

I went to a wedding at the weekend in Havana ... in Brighton. Let us just dwell on that phrase for a few moments: I went to a wedding at the weekend in Havana ... in Brighton. Havana was very nice as it happens, two large sepia rooms, with galleries running around them, fans revolving lazily on the white-painted ceilings. The staff were bustling and efficient, wound tightly into their immaculate, ankle-length aprons. There was no sign either of the sleaze and corruption one associates with the Batista regime, or of the penury and paranoia that has dogged Fidel Castro's exercise in nation building. But then this was Havana ... in Brighton.

I think it was brave of the bride and groom to hold their wedding in Havana, because the bride comes from an Anglo-Chinese family and they must have fairly negative feelings about communism. As for the groom, well, he's a dyed-in-the-cashmere capitalist, a true getter, so the venue must have seemed more than a tad outré. Still, he betrayed no anxiety as he ushered the guests in. There were painted ladies on stilts, a brace of conjurers, the food was noisettes of lamb, rosti, rugula salad - not quite what you expect from Cuban cuisine, but then this was Havana ... in Brighton.

Later, as the Victoria train made a lengthy detour via Haywards Heath due to engineering works on the main line, I reflected on how Graham Greene might have reacted to the wedding. It's almost impossible to conceive of Greene visiting any kind of theme restaurant, even one as discreet as Havana. Perhaps this alone confirms that he wasn't quite the towering genius some once thought, and also explains why his books are beginning, ever so gently, to slide out of print. It seems to me incontrovertible that nothing that is human can be strange to those creators whose works will endure, not even an Irish pub in Maputo.

Had Havana been Brighton in the 1930s it would've allowed Greene to kill two fictional birds with one stone. He could've written a novel called Our Man in Havana Rocks ... in Brighton, the action of which would concern the sad machinations of a down-at-heel British spy running a theme restaurant who is threatened by a punk gangster. If you think this is preposterous, you need to consider the fact that Greene himself never even visited Brighton. During the composition of Brighton Rock he put up at the rather more genteel Bexhill-on-Sea and sent researchers along the coast to do his legwork for him.

I don't know why I've got it in for Greene at the moment - he never did anything to hurt me. Still, the revelation that far from being an urbane globetrotter he never got further than Sussex, while the vast bulk of his output was written in the vicinity of Clapham Common, is one I must share. It was not without accident that critics dubbed his late-colonial milieu, with its dipsomaniac expats, tormented priests and nymphomaniac natives "Greeneland", because it was first and foremost a country of the mind. The Human Factor, The Heart of the Matter, The Quiet American - all of them were drummed up by a fantasist who knew no more of South America, Africa or South-east Asia than a schoolboy armed with a decent atlas. Travels With My Aunt should really have been entitled Hanging Out with my Aunt, while Greene's very first fiction, Stamboul Train, is a blatant lie, as any close reading of the text makes it perfectly clear that the train in question is travelling on the branch line from Ely to Peterborough.

Does it matter, I hear you ask, surely it's a very prosaic conception of fiction indeed which insists on such a factual basis? After all, even Kafka wrote a novel called Amerika without ever going there. Well yes and yet no. I do think a sense of topography is integral to our enjoyment of fiction, and that even if we haven't been to a place we can somehow sense whether the writer who describes it has. I remember being in Brazil (or do I?) 10 years ago, and the Brazilian literary community being much exercised by John Updike, who'd just published a novel called Brazil. "'E was only 'ere a week! One week!" expostulated my genial translator Hamilton dos Santos. What he would've made of Terry Gilliam's film of the same name I shudder to think, set as it was almost entirely inside the cooling tower of Chiswick Power Station.

No, when a writer's frauds become too flagrant there can only be one solution: send them to Botany Bay. And I'm not talking New South Wales here, but Botany Bay near Enfield. This little village was dubbed by a Victorian wag who found it inconceivably far from London, and the name stuck. Graham Greene would've been perfectly happy in exile there penning a great Australian novel.

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