19th Graham Greene International Festival 2017

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From its portrayal of razor gangs in 1930s Brighton to its depiction of the machinations of the CIA in 1950s Indochina, the work of the British novelist Graham Greene remains not only chillingly accurate but also enduringly relevant. Swap acid for cutthroat razors and the Middle East for the Far East, and Greene might almost be talking about our own times.

The 2017 Graham Greene International Festival, held in the writer’s native Berkhamsted from 21–24 September, added an extra note of topicality to the program by featuring a number of practitioners who work in fields closely related to Greene’s oeuvre.

Priests feature prominently in the work of Greene, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in his twenties. It was therefore fascinating to hear the observations of the Rev. Giles Fraser – well known for his contributions to The Guardian and BBC Radio Four – on the psychological and moral challenges of the priesthood. He spoke movingly of his own periodic struggles to hold on to his faith in the face of human suffering, but at the same time conveyed great compassion and a huge love of life.

The Rev. Giles Fraser (left) interviewed by
Festival Director Mile Hill (Credit – Giles Clarke).


The dangerous edges of existence

An appetite for the dangerous edges of existence was also conveyed by crime novelist Peter James, the creator of the Brighton-based detective Roy Grace. James sometimes accompanies Sussex Police on their operations in the manner of an embedded journalist – much as Greene did in his day, accompanying French bomber pilots on raids against the Vietminh in the early 1950s, for instance.

Danger as well as sexual obsession and entrapment feature in the work of novelist Louise Doughty, whose psychological thriller Apple Tree Yard was recently adapted for television to great acclaim and whose subsequent title, Black Water, has been compared with the work of both Greene and John le Carré. Louise spoke fascinatingly about experiencing visions of individuals in situations of peril, which have provided the inspiration for her most recent works.


Novelist Louise Doughty in conversation with former
Honarary Consul Pierre Joannon (Credit – Giles Clark).

Greene famously worked for British intelligence during and after World War II, and was friends with the British double agent Kim Philby.The theme of espionage in Greene’s work was taken up with brilliance by Andrew Lownie, author of a new biography of the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. Lownie’s meticulous research revealed the complex trauma that Burgess experienced during adolescence, presenting this brilliant and deeply flawed human as a character that might easily have been portrayed by Greene himself.

‘Our Journey with Greene’

Continuing the theme of expert practitioners, photographer Tim Hetherington, whose evocative images grace the covers of the Vintage editions of Greene’s works, shared some of the secrets of his approach. His observations were complemented by an impressive exhibition of prints by local artists on the theme of Our Journey with Greene.

The traditionally high academic standards of the Festival were maintained this year with insightful talks by Professor Michael Meeuwis of the University of Ghent and Professor Kevin Ruane of Canterbury Christ Church University, who spoke respectively of Greene’s Congo journal and of his friendship with British agent Trevor Wilson in Hanoi. Friendship was also a strong theme in the moving talk delivered by Pierre Joannon, Irish Honorary Consul in Nice, who knew Greene well during the novelist’s years of residence in the South of France.

Festival Director Mike Hill rounded off this year’s excellent program – which included screening of the films The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory) and Confidential Agent – with a thought-provoking analysis of Greene’s last and unfinished work, Lucius.

Remembering David Pearce

Mike and Festival Chair Giles Clark preceded this with personal recollections of former Festival Director David Pearce, who died last year and who is sorely missed by all who knew him. David’s unforgettable ebullience and profound love of Greene’s work were well conveyed in his contributions to a BBC Radio Four discussion of Greene in the Great Lives series, recorded in 2011 and replayed at the end of the festival, as well as in footage of David talking about Greene’s time at Berkhamsted for a TV documentary.

To find out more about this year’s Festival, which will be held in Berkhamsted from 20‒23 September, please visit www.grahamgreenebt.org.

This review originally appeared in The Old Berkhamstedian 2018.

Main post image: © Jo Wilson.

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