Book Corner – August 2017 (3)

The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene

This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.

Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.

Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.

The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.

Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.

The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.

And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.


Beach Of The Week

Here’s an example of taking away with one hand and giving with the other. I learned this week that the gloriously named Dooagh sands are back, having been swept into the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean in 1984. The loss of the sands – Grahame Greene wrote Heart of the Matter there and Angela Lansbury holidayed at the resort as a child – was catastrophic for the local community, causing its hotels and, more recently, its local shop to close.

Unusually strong northerly winds have deposited hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on to what was previously a rocky stretch of coast line on Achill Island in County Mayo in Ireland. The beach has previous for disappearing and returning, vanishing in the 1890s only to be restored to its full glory forty years later.

How long this incarnation will hang around is anyone’ guess but the 2,500 residents of Achill Island hope it will be there in time to be awarded blue-flag beach status.

If you want to visit it, get there quick is my advice!

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Four


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Enid Blyton, Gilbert Harding/ Malcolm Sargent, Graham Greene (Graham Greene)

When I was a kid Enid Blyton was at the peak of her fame and popularity as a children’s writer. Her fictional creations included Noddy and his gang, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. As well as a penchant for alliteration her books were engaging and fed the childish mind with innocent tales of derring-do and adventure. She was a prolific author and is thought to have sold over 600 million copies and her works have been translated into some 90 languages.

As we moved into a more politically correct era, Blyton’s books ran into choppy critical water and she was accused of being elitist, sexist, racist and xenophobic and her literary style was deemed to be unchallenging in terms of vocabulary and grammatical construct. The prominence of a golliwog amongst Noddy’s gang led her works to be banned by “more enlightened” libraries. Notwithstanding that Blyton’s works continued to be popular until and after her death in 1968 showing, as usual, the disconnect between right-on liberalism and popular taste, and her characters are a form of cultural reference for many people the wrong side of fifty to this day. It is dangerous to retro-fit modern sensibilities to works which reflected attitudes that were prevalent at the time they were written, a tendency that is all too present in our society today.

Gilbert Harding was the presenter of the very first edition of the Beeb’s televised panel game What’s My Line. Unusually for the time, Harding developed a persona as a bit of a character rather than the bland reader of a script which most TV presenters were at the time. He was famed for not suffering fools gladly and was dubbed the rudest man in Britain. In 1960 Harding hit the headlines again when he broke down in tears under John Freeman’s questioning on the Face to Face series. A closet homosexual whose gruff exterior was a defence mechanism, Harding was instrumental in developing the role of a TV presenter. As often is the way in England, nothing is what it seems.

Malcolm Sargent was probably the most famous English conductor in the 1950s and 60s, being the principal baton waver at the Proms. Known as a bit of a flash harry because of his debonair appearance, he did much to maintain the popularity and accessibility of classical music.

Graham Greene is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and a particular favourite of mine. His works were often what are now termed as thrillers although he described them as entertainments and include Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and The Third Man. His Catholicism and the sense of guilt and the need for forgiveness run through them. Despite being a serious writer his books were phenomenally successful and many were converted into films.

Both Sargent and Greene were in their different fields great artists with the common touch and that is what the English appreciate most.