BOOK REVIEW / Pinkie: out on the dangerous edge of things: John Carey considers the background to the enduring popularity of Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock

John Carey
Saturday 02 January 1993 00:02 GMT

'THE BABY is crying & I have ten books accumulated for review and this damned thriller to write,' Graham Greene complained to his brother Hugh in a letter of 31 October 1936. The thriller was Brighton Rock, and Greene's slighting reference to it confirms that, like Stamboul Train (1932) and A Gun for Sale (1936), it was meant as a money-spinner, not serious art. It turned out, though, to be his first masterpiece. It was also - a fact vital to its stature - his first novel seriously to engage with Catholicism. Looking back, he speculated that the Catholic theme had entered the novel because of two developments in world affairs - the persecution of Catholics in Mexico, and Franco's attack on Republican Spain. These two events 'inextricably involved religion in contemporary life', and his novel, though utterly remote from such news items, pursued the same involvement. 'The first fifty pages of Brighton Rock are all that remain of the detective story,' Greene recorded: after that it became something more complex.

He got the idea for the story from newspaper accounts of a case at Lewes Assizes in July 1936 - a case at which, as he later remarked, 'the Brighton race gangs were to all intents quashed forever as a serious menace'. The details of the affray, in which a gang of 16 men (armed with hatchets, hammers and iron bars - but not razors) attacked a bookmaker and his clerk, resemble the assault on Pinkie and Spicer by Colleoni's hoodlums. The gang leader was called James Spinks, nicknamed Spinky, which may have suggested the innocent-sounding Pinkie. All the accused were found guilty of malicious wounding and riotous assembly, and given prison sentences. Spinks got five years' penal servitude. On reading the press report Greene wrote excitedly to his brother inviting him to 'a day of low sport' at Brighton races the following week. 'I warn you that I shall want to spend my time in the lowest enclosure.' They went on 4 August, the day after a Bank Holiday Monday which had seen - as the Times reported - 'unusually large' crowds at Brighton, with hundreds of young people sleeping out on the Sunday night under the piers or along the beach.

Greene already knew Brighton well, and loved it ('No city . . . had such a hold on my affections'). But a visit to its seamier side seemed advisable since, as he later acknowledged in a Paris Review interview, he had no personal experience of low life, let alone of razor-wielding gangsters. 'I had spent only one night in the company of someone who could have belonged to Pinkie's gang,' he recalls in Ways of Escape, 'a man from Wandsworth dog-tracks whose face had been carved because he was suspected of grassing to the bogies after a killing at the stadium.' Possibly this was the cameraman with underworld connections who (as Greene told J Maclaren Ross) had taken him round various clubs in the Kings's Cross area to eavesdrop on criminal accents and jargon, when he was filming with Alexander Korda in 1936 (and starting work on Brighton Rock). In one club, Greene recounted, the regulars drank only milk. It was owned by a fat homosexual known as the Giant Pander, 'But the customers weren't queer. Very tough looking, razor scars and all that, but quiet. Very quiet. I asked if the milk was laced with brandy or anything, but they said no. Straight milk. Made it much more sinister I thought.' Pinkie's milk drinking may originate here. Just possibly, too, it was in one of these clubs that Greene overheard the rare word 'buer' (loose woman), recorded as Northern dialect or tramp's slang by the Oxford English Dictionary, which, in Brighton Rock, Pinkie's gang substitute for more familiar and (in 1938) unprintable obscenities.

But Brighton Rock is not of course, just a gangster novel. It is, among other things, a contemptuous indictment of England in the 1930s. The features Greene scorns - popular newspapers, advertisements, inane, fun-loving crowds, American-style crooners, wireless - had incensed many intellectuals between the wars, provoking, for example, F R Leavis's diatribe Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930). Greene's opening scene shows Brighton inundated by these vulgarities. An aeroplane scrawls a patent medicine advertisement across the sky; 50,000 trippers cram into the town; packed trains unload, at five-minute intervals, their unappetising cargoes of clerks, hairdressers and fat, spotty girls; and Hale, alias Kolly Kibber of the Daily Messenger (based on the real-life Lobby Lud of the News Chronicle) is caught up in a squalid newspaper stunt that propels him inexorably to his death.

Greene's diagnosis of modern ills was not, of course, free from class feeling. The Greenes were a professional upper-middle class family. His father Charles was headmaster of Berkhamsted, a public school in Hertfordshire where Graham and his brothers had been educated. An uncle, Edward, owned the biggest house in Berkhamsted, with 23 servants and a chauffeur. 'No foreign blood', Graham's brother Raymond proudly (and, it appears, mistakenly) chronicled, had been mingled with that of the Greenes since the Norman Conquest. Greene made a show of breaking away from this traditionalist background. He became a card-carrying Communist - as a lark, while an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1933, more seriously, he joined the Independent Labour Party, because his modest earnings in the early years of his marriage made him fancy he shared the lot of the poor. He took to using 'bourgeois' as a term of abuse (a practice which in England, as George Orwell remarked, is restricted exclusively to the bourgeois).

But despite these gestures of rebellion he remained, at heart, true to his class and its watchwords - fair play, sympathy for the underdog, a stiff upper lip, dislike of cads, bounders and the nouveau riche. Despite his left-wing opinions he signed on as a special constable during the General Strike of 1926, and relished clashing with strikers. The atmosphere was, he said, 'that of a rugger match played against a team from a rather rough council school'. His letters to his future wife, from the same period, express dismay at the ill- bred types he has to mix with. In Nottingham, working on a local paper, he reports that 'One sees absolutely no one here of one's own class . . . It destroys democratic feelings at birth'. On a traineeship with the British American Tobacco Company, he finds his fellow trainees socially distasteful. One of them 'is, I imagine, from Durham University'; another is an ex-bank clerk, who insists upon 'reminiscing about his 'pals' & his 'girls', knows everything about motorcycles and wireless, and talks about 'johnnies' and says your 'label' when he means your name . . . I want to kick him'.

These social prejudices are observable in Brighton Rock. The narrative encourages us to respond with quick, class-oriented reactions to the clothes people wear or the cars they drive. A scarlet racing model suggests 'totsies' and 'furtive encounters in by-lanes off the Great North Road'. The men in camel-hair coats, who order their beer in tankards at the Peacehaven hotel, seem 'upper-class' to Pinkie, but we are meant to realise they are not, just as when Ida calls Hale 'a real gentleman' it exposes how little she understands about families whose blood goes back to the Norman Conquest.

The masses do not, in Greene's depiction, lack breeding: they are soulless. T S Eliot's The Waste Land, an earlier lament over the decline of spirituality, is part of the novel's cultural background. Brighton's Metropole Hotel actually features in The Waste Land, seemingly as a venue for degenerate sexual encounters, and Eliot's Madame Sosostris with her tarot pack prefigures Ida and her ouija board, both exemplifying religion's decay. This theme is emphasised by the inhuman parody of religion met with at the registry office where Rose and Pinkie marry (likened to a clinic and a public lavatory) and at Fred Hale's cremation. The 'cold, secular chapel' and the vapid nondenominational address in this scene are modelled on Greene's mother-in-law's cremation at Golders Green in 1933. He was disgusted by its 'air of irreligion posing as undogmatic Christianity' as well as by the 'emaciated vulture' who took the service.

Greene's reading of T S Eliot may have suggested, too, Brighton Rock's distaste for machines and its association of them with modern soullessness. This anti-mechanical animus had been a widespread feature of English Utopian and neo-pastoral thought in the Victorian period, traceable, for example, in Ruskin, William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and Fabianism. But it was Eliot's 'human engine' waiting 'like a taxi' in The Waste Land, and the typist putting a record on the gramophone 'with automatic hand' in the same poem, that epitomised the deadness of machine-culture for Greene's generation. The typists Prewitt lusts after ('I could embrace their little portable machines') are distant cousins of Eliot's. Brewer's wife coughing 'like a machine trying to start', and the appalling car-park attendant, like something from a painting by Otto Dix, who moves his leg 'with a mechanism worked from his pocket', both suggest the erosion of human nature by machinery. Cubitt's slot-machines, dispensing their fatuous love-letters and character-appraisals, demonstrate the capacity of machines to distort, debase and eradicate human feelings as, more hideously, does the gramophone record Rose is left with at the novel's end.

The major recipient of the narrative's acrimony, however, is Ida. 'The real point,' Greene explained to his agent when sending the novel's first 30,000 words, 'is the contrast between the ethical mind (Ida's) and the religious (the boy's and Rose's) in thriller terms.' Even with the addition of those last three words, it sounds, as an idea, rather flat. It took Greene's belligerent genius to turn it into something outrageous - something that challenges all our notions of justice and common sense. For what he proposes in Brighton Rock is that Pinkie, a murderer and sadist, is spiritually superior to Ida, who is brave and law-abiding, and saves Rose's life as well as seeing justice done. More outrageous still, the novel would have us believe that Pinkie is not just superior: by comparison, Ida does not exist. She inhabits the shadowland of Right and Wrong. But Pinkie, as a Catholic, lives in the real world of Good and Evil.

It was in T S Eliot's essay on Baudelaire that Greene came upon the germ of this contrast - though Eliot could never have given it flesh and blood, as Greene does. 'Baudelaire has perceived that what distinguishes the relations of man and woman from the copulation of beasts is the knowledge of Good and Evil . . . which are not . . . Puritan Right and Wrong . . . It is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist.'

These propositions would strike many readers as ridiculous, or worse. The notion of Eliot performing a dignified, non-boring sexual act is hard to entertain seriously, and the suggestion that it is better to do evil than to do nothing seems worthy of a monster, or a madman. But the glaring irrationality of the idea was exactly what Greene wanted to make his novel inescapably challenging. Pinkie says of Ida 'She's just nothing.' 'She doesn't know what a mortal sin is,' scoffs Rose. And Greene, as narrator, agrees: 'She was as far from either of them as she was from Hell - or Heaven.' Ida does not exist on the spiritual plane, whereas Pinkie, who once sang in a church choir and swore he would be a priest, is evil enough to be real, and is, indeed, provocatively aligned with Jesus Christ. When Cubitt denies he was a friend of Pinkie's a 'vague memory of the Bible' (actually Matthew 26:74) stirs in Ida's brain - 'a courtyard, a sewing wench beside the fire, the cock crowing'.

As a devout Anglican Eliot had not, of course, meant to imply that to exist it was neccessary to be a Roman Catholic. That addition was Greene's, and it reflected his own conversion to Catholicism, which had taken place 10 years before he started writing Brighton Rock. 'Conversion' is perhaps the wrong word, since his adoption of Catholicism had been, it seems, essentially opportunist. While at Balliol he fell in love with a young woman assistant at Blackwell's bookshop, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who was a Catholic convert, and would consider marrying him (as she did in 1927) only if he became a Catholic too. Previously he had been a convinced atheist - a position he found it difficult to relinquish. 'My primary difficulty,' he admitted, 'was to believe in God at all.'

Like Pinkie, though, he found Hell believable, even attractive - 'It gives something hard, non-sentimental and exciting'. He was also attracted to the spiritual class-distinction which, as he saw it, Catholicism bestowed. Rose Macaulay recalls him holding forth at a dinner party about how 'only RCs were capable of real sin because the rest of us were invincibly ignorant'. Seen in this light, Catholicism distinguished its adherents from the gross, fun-loving masses almost as effectively as blood that goes back to the Norman conquest.

Since Greene identified the contrast between Ida and Pinkie as the real point of the novel, their characterization became crucial. He was worried in retrospect about Ida, feeling she had 'obstinately refused to come alive'. Any shortcomings of this kind would be Greene's fault, of course. Much of the time he seems intent not on portraying Ida but insulting her. When he adverts to her 'cow-like' eyes, 'vulgar summer dress', 'big breasts', 'magnificent breasts', 'great open friendly breasts' etc (which are nevertheless 'breasts which had never suckled a child of her own' - marking her as a typically sterile inhabitant of The Waste Land), the effect is of name-calling. He also makes Ida the receptacle for his intellectual aversions: she reads Warwick Deeping and J B Priestley because they are best- selling authors he detests (Priestley had threatened to sue Greene for libel over the satirical portrait of him as Mr Savory in Stamboul Train).

But Ida is one of a long line of characters in the history of fiction who survive despite, or because of, their creator's antagonism. Greene's assault on her is so crude and snobbish that it swings us in her favour. Besides, her vitality is what drives the plot: without her investigations the story would not move forward. She is the avenger and righter of wrongs, panoplied with poetic justice. In addition to these reasons for our esteeming her, there is what seems to be a sneaking sympathy with her, and with the sleaziness she flourishes in ('stout and oysters, and the old Leicester Lounge'), on Greene's part. His very hatred, too, implies an acknowledgement of something potent and other in Ida. Her name, as Greene remarks, is a 'vulgarised' Greek original. Lurking underground with Old Crowe and the spirits, or meditating on men and death with Clarence ('the ghost') in the shades of Henekey's bar. Doomed and terrified in the taxi, Ida represents something older, but no less religious, than Christianity, and something which suggests why power-roles in myth - Parcae, Maenad, Nemesis - have been allocated to women by men.

With Pinkie, Greene could feel more at home. It was the character of Pinkie that 'took hold', he said later, and made him realise he was not going to write just a detective story. One ingredient of Pinkie, it appears, was Greene's memory of a boy called Carter who bullied him at school, and who perpetrated some kind of cruelty with dividers (which Pinkie, too, remembers using in his school-bullying days). But Pinkie also has much in common with Greene. He regarded himself, he said, as Pinkie's 'accomplice'. Pinkie's coldness is the coldness that Greene's relatives and acquaintances often noted. 'Apart from three or four people he was really fond of,' his cousin Barbara admitted, 'I felt that the rest of humanity was to him like a heap of insects that he liked to examine, as a scientist might examine his specimens, coldly and clearly.' He believed his coldness vital for his art - 'There is,' he affirmed, 'a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer'. According to his wife the splinter grew, and became icier, as his creative powers developed.

Also Greene-like is Pinkie's fastidious revulsion from bodily functions. At school Greene had been brought close to nervous breakdown simply by having to live with other boys. He found their 'continual farting' and coarseness intolerable. This, rather than physical ill-treatment (of which, indeed, he acknowledged there was almost none) was what drove him to despair. He tried to kill himself by drinking his hay-fever drops, eating deadly nightshade, and other unlikely measures, and eventually he ran away - which brough his plight to the attention of his parents. They instantly withdrew him from the boarding house and allowed him to be a day-boy.

But the damage was done. In Brighton Rock the disgusting aspects of human physicality that haunted the young Greene receive vivid emphasis, especially those that relate to people's mouths and digestive organs - belching, wind, sour breath, the lavatory smells in Rose's home, the air 'poisoned with human breath' in the tunnel by the rock shop, Prewitt's indigestion, Spicer's upset bowels, the taste of stout coming back up Ida's throat, the taste of whisky coming back up Cubitt's. The insides of mouths are a peculiar horror. Phil's mouth, half-open as he sleeps, discloses 'one yellow tooth and a gob of metal filling'. A lump of toffee stirs on Molly's tongue; a wedge of cream on Ida's. Judy fastens on Rose 'a mouth wet and prehensile like a sea- anenome'; Ida relishes 'the soft gluey mouth affixed in taxis'. The sea slides 'like a wet mouth round the piles'; darkness presses 'a wet mouth against the panes'. The cheap music coming out of the wireless at Snow's is 'the world's wet mouth lamenting over life'. This disgust, so deeply embedded in the novel, has the effect of aligning us with Pinkie and apprehending life as he does. For the book's aversion to mouths is his, as well as Greene's. He feels sick at the thought of kissing, and he pictures innocence repellently to himself as 'a slobbering mouth, a toothless gum pulling at the teats'. His furious disgust at the obscene novelties Cubitt buys is reminiscent of Greene's sensitivity to such things, which was another inheritance from his schooldays. At Berkhamsted he was exposed to constant 'scatology' and, he notes in his autobiography, he 'disliked the lavatory joke from that age on'.

Another link between Pinkie and the young Greene is Pinkie's desire to seem tough and grown-up, disguising his childishness and his 'secret fear' from Rose. Greene, as we have seen, was bullied at school, and being hopeless at games he was despised by his classmates as a 'softy'. When he went up to Oxford he felt the need to assert his manhood. He told his friends that he was in the habit of playing Russian roulette with a revolver he had found in his brother's bedroom cupboard. In later accounts, written and spoken, he gave further details. He played Russian roulette, he claims, on six occasions over a six-month period, first on Berkhamsted Common, then (after he had taken the revolver to Oxford) in a lonely country lane near Headington.

Norman Sherry, his biographer, has noted curious inconsistencies in these accounts. Greene's earliest written description of the episode dates it in autumn 1922. Later, in his autobiography, he claims that it happened in autumn 1923. But he adds that he went to Paris shortly after, which would indicate autumn 1924 as the date. Another inconsistency, not noted by Sherry, concerns the bullets. Greene's earliest account, an article published in 1946, reads: 'The revolver was a small genteel object with six chambers like a tiny egg stand, and there was a cardboard box of bullets. It has only recently occurred to me that they may have been blanks; I have always assumed them to be live ammunition.'

Greene's autobiography, A Sort of Life, repeats the rest of the article almost verbatim, but omits this second sentence, and his later accounts never mention any doubt about the ammunition. It was 'live ammunition - a cardboard box of bullets,' he assured Sherry in 1981. Blanks, of course, do not look like live ammunition - as Greene would certainly know by 1946. It seems strange that his memory of the gun is so precise and his memory of the ammunition so hazy. There are other suspicious circumstances. He never told his closest Oxford friend Claud Cockburn that he played Russian roulette, and Cockburn was very surprised when he read about it later. The less close and perhaps more gullible acquaintances Greene did tell seem muddled about the facts. Lord Tranmire, who was up at Balliol with Greene, told Sherry: 'We made him promise he would never do it with more than two shots out of the five chambers.' In Greene's written accounts there are always six chambers and he loads only one bullet. It looks as if he deliberately alarmed his companions with tales of a higher-risk version. No one, of course, ever witnessed him playing Russian roulette, and whether he ever did cannot now be settled. What seems clear is his desire to impress college friends with his bravado - and to impress later readers and interviewers by concealing his doubts about the ammunition.

Why this episode is relevant to Pinkie is that Greene, describing his exploit, uses words that are echoed by Pinkie. 'I put the muzzle of the revolver in my right ear and pulled the trigger,' Greene writes in the 1946 article. Pinkie, handing the revolver to Rose, tells her: 'Put it in your ear - that'll hold it steady.' Pinkie is, of course, steeped in lies. He has no intention of committing suicide after Rose: the suicide pact is a sham; so is his grown-up, knowledgeable manner. Greene puts into the mouth of his boyish arch-deceiver a key phrase from the story he had told friends in order to assert his manhood. ('One had passed a test of manhood,' he wrote, after describing how he pulled the trigger and heard the click of the firing pin.)

Whether or not Pinkie here mirrors Greene's own deceptions and fears, it is evident, from what we have seen, that the correspondences between Pinkie and his creator go far beyond their Catholicism - vital as that is to Greene's involvement in the story. His identification with Pinkie was accompanied by some ambivalence about his fate. 'I wrote a book about a man who goes to hell - Brighton Rock,' Greene asserted flatly in 1951. But the old priest's words to Rose about the strangeness of the mercy of God could license another conclusion, which Greene later (in a 1968 interview) claimed he had intended. 'I wanted to introduce a doubt of Pinkie's future in the words of the priest . . . a doubt whether even a man like that could possibly merit eternal punishment . . . In fact I wanted to throw doubt on Hell altogether.'

This ambivalence can be seen to extend to the whole form and genre of Brighton Rock. Much as Greene despised the masses he was, by choosing to write a thriller, writing for them. Further, he had learned how to write by studying the mass media - newspaper and film. Sub-editing on The Times had taught him to sharpen his prose style, and his passionate interest in cinema in 1930s (as critic, producer and script-writer) taught him how to construct scenes, abbreviate dialogue, and focus attention. Scenes in Brighton Rock repeatedly resemble film-shots - the pursuing car which Hale glimpses in the driver's mirror, Spicer inspecting his face in a mirror 'as if he were looking at a close-up on a screen', the persistently snapshotting promenade photographer, Pinkie pouring drops of vitriol on a plank to frighten Rose - 'the lightning showed a strut of tarred wood, a wave breaking, and her pale bony terrified face'. Swiftly registered sights and sounds account for the book's most brilliant moments - 'the horses went by, their hoofs padding like boxing gloves on the turf'; Spicer's pyjama-cord squeezing out of his suitcase 'like toothpaste'. Greene's visual images carry meaning more securely than either his authorial comments or the introspection he gives his characters. In the opening scene a beautiful police horse, its leather harness 'as deeply glowing as an old mahogany table top', turns its head aside delicately 'like a dowager' as it passes a horribly mutilated war veteran selling matches by the kerb. The fastidious gesture conveys the novel's revulsion at human physicality, and its old-world values, even as it brings to our notice the social injustice that (as Greene repeatedly suggests) breeds the Pinkies of the world.

No doubt Greene would have turned Brighton Rock into a film earlier, but World War II intervened, and it was not until 1947 that it was filmed, with Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. Greene himself wrote the script. The main change was the ending. Brook Wilkinson, Chairman of the British Board of Film Censors, insisted that Pinkie's quotations from the Mass should be cut, and he also objected to the final horror of Rose and the gramophone record. In the film she puts the record on the gramophone, and Pinkie starts his speech. The words he had recorded were 'You want me to say I love you, but God damn you you little bitch . . .' (and so on, as in the book). However, in the film the needle sticks, the record goes on repeating 'I love you, I love you', and the camera pans to a crucifix on the wall, giving the impression that the needle has stuck miraculously.

Greene said he liked this ending. He knew the distributors and the censor would not have accepted the original, and besides, 'I also knew that thinking people would realise that one day Rose would play the record and move the needle beyond the crack and thus get the shock with which the book ends'. The film's ending works, then, on two levels, one for thinking people, the other for the rest. This is true of the whole novel. Following the example of his admired Joseph Conrad, Greene took a popular fictional form and made it serious without destroying what made it popular. In this way he created in Brighton Rock a model of how the artist can preserve his integrity while writing for a mass audience. The mass audience was, as it turned out, rather slow to materialise. The book sold only about 8,000 copies in the months after publication. But of all his novels, Greene ventured 30 years later, 'perhaps it is the best I ever wrote'.

The above is an edited version of John Carey's introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of 'Brighton Rock', to be published in March. Other recent titles include: 'Parade's End' by Ford Madox Ford, 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe, The Odyssey and The Koran.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in