Brighton Rock, Graham Greene


Music: Agnus Dei

Down by Brighton’s seafront, Pinkie, the boy gangster and Rose, the girl within his grip, wrestle with their Catholicism in one of the few meaningful exchanges between them.

‘But you do believe, don’t you,’ Rose implored him, you think it’s true?’
‘Of course it’s true,’ the Boy said. ‘What else could there be?’ he went scornfully on. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,’ he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, ‘torments.’
‘And Heaven too,’ Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
‘Oh, maybe,’ the Boy said, ‘maybe.’

Brighton was and still is a popular seaside resort in East Sussex on the south coast of England. But in the 1930s, beyond the glitzy tourist façade of the Palace Pier with its Royal Pavilion and amusements, lay tracts of shonky housing, dreary shopping precincts, industrial areas, and a racecourse that crawled with small time crooks.

This bleak aspect appealed to Graham Greene, who made a number of trips here in 1936 to capture the atmosphere of Brighton and take notes for a book he had in mind. He always researched his fictional worlds carefully.

He was in his early thirties, and worked as a freelance writer to support his wife and two small children. Although an earlier novel Stamboul Train (1932) had been a success, others (there were seven up to that point) had sold less well, and each new book added to a debt that was accruing to his publisher. Only regular film and book reviews with The Spectator were keeping him afloat.

Greene had begun to write film scripts for the producer/director Alexander Korda and while on location in London he came into contact with figures from the underworld who intrigued him. In Kings Cross he followed a cameraman into a club owned by a gay man called the Giant Panda. It was full of tough, quiet men with razor scars, who were drinking only milk. When asked if it was laced with anything stronger, they said no, it was just straight milk. He made this the drink for the teetotal antihero in his new novel.

Initially he had envisaged a thriller set in Brighton focused on the working and criminal class, and the fights between rival gangs at the racecourse, where knives and razors used to be readily drawn. But as he went deeper, his malevolent young anti-hero, Pinkie Brown, took over and the book turned into something else entirely. Forty years later he said, ‘I have never again felt so much the victim of my inventions’. It is a novel that leaves a haunting impression on its readers.

Brighton Rock (1938) bears the hallmarks of what became known as his ‘Greeneland’: novels characterised by settings full of depressed seediness. They are about wounded, thin-skinned and divided men whose beliefs are radically tested in a universe where God remains silent.

The Story

The novel opens with a journalist hack who has been caught up with rival racetrack gangs and turned into an informer. ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’. Pinkie and his gang, Spicer, Dallow and Cubitt, are out to avenge the death of their former boss, Kite. By the end of the first chapter, Hale has been abducted and murdered; a stick of Brighton rock (a type of confectionery sold in the shops on the seafront) rammed down his throat.

Pinkie is a product of Brighton’s slums. An orphan and a schoolyard bully, he has made a natural transition to the surrogacy of the gang. Just seventeen years old and now leader of this gang, he will in all likelihood kill again. He is a terrifying figure: unfeeling, amoral, dripping with rage and resentment against ‘them’, the ‘others’ and the bogies (police); he has hatred to spare.

He walks rigidly through Brighton’s Palace of Pleasure, past its peepshows and slot machines in his thin, cheap suit. His young, bony body has yet to catch up with his ‘slatey eyes’, touched with an ‘annihilating eternity’ in a ‘face of starved intensity’. Pinkie is wary of women and repelled by the thought of sex. On encountering a woman waiting in a car for him with her legs open, he recoils and fights to keep the nausea down. ‘I’d rather hang’, he says. Yet he is ashamed of his virginity, this bitter innocence. Pinkie is hell bent on avenging a world that has brought him nothing but misery:

‘[A] prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness. That was what happened to a man in the end: The stuffy room, the wakeful children, the Saturday night movements from the other bed. Was there no escape – anywhere – for anyone? It was worth murdering a world.

Two women, Rose and Ida, come to realise that Pinkie is guilty of murder. Rose is a waitress, timid and innocent, who stumbles on the truth behind Pinkie’s alibi. He marries her to secure her silence. When she is not living in the future she lives in the past, ready to swear allegiance to anyone willing to pay her attention. She is perfect fodder for Pinkie as she is prepared to corrupt herself in order to protect him, even to die for him: ‘I’ll do anything for you. Tell me what to do’.

Theirs is an odd love story. Pinkie is cruelly manipulative, and battles to keep away the odd feeling of tenderness as the sex takes him by surprise. Rose’s love for him is persistent, implacable, blind. What unites them is their Catholicism. They have only the haziest notion of its teachings, but the little they know gives them a sense of superiority. An anonymous poem about grace makes a particular impression:

My friend judge not me,

Though seest I judge not thee:

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,

Mercy I asked, mercy I found

Ida Arnold, the woman who had befriended Hale on the last day of his life, stands in their way. A blousy, exuberant character, she is turned by Hale’s death into a shrewd detective, determined to discover the truth and save Rose from Pinkie’s clutches.

Ida is not religious. She has no sense of a spiritual life, of heaven and hell. Instead, she clings to superstition and resorts to the ouija board for contact with the dead, ‘tables which rapped and inept little voices speaking plaintively of flowers’. Yet she has a keenly developed sense of justice. Her earthiness and desire for law and order work in counterpoint to Pinkie and Rose’s immaturity and belief in salvation and damnation.


Greene made Pinkie a Catholic in order to view his behaviour from a theological perspective. In particular he wished to examine the effect of faith on action and felt it was time for him to do so. He had converted to Catholicism himself ten years earlier when he married: ‘It takes longer to familiarise oneself with a region of the mind than with a country’.

This exploration transformed the novel from a straightforward detective story into an examination of good versus evil, right versus wrong and the mysterious and ‘appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’. The phrase that is repeated six times in the novel is ‘Between the stirrup and the ground’, being the space where mercy can be found. But Greene makes it clear that Pinkie is evil, and wilfully intent on hell rather than heaven. Hailing from a Brighton slum called ‘Paradise Piece’, he is portrayed as fallen before he could even walk: ‘Hell lay about him in his infancy.’

In a television interview in 1968 with Christopher Burstall, Greene said:

I wanted to make people believe that he was a sufficiently evil person almost to justify the notion of Hell. I wanted to introduce a doubt of Pinkie’s future in the words of the priest, who speaks of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, a doubt whether even a man like that could possibly merit eternal punishment.’

A strong influence in this regard was TS Eliot, who so eloquently captured the climate of moral breakdown and spiritual redundancy of the mid twenties and thirties. A convert to religion like Greene, Eliot said it was better to do good or evil than to do nothing; that both were intrinsic to what it meant to be human. He suggested the possibility of damnation came as a relief and salvation from ‘the ennui of modern life,’ because at least it gave ‘some significance to living.’ He added: ‘The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned’.

When Ida tries to coerce Rose into leaving Pinkie, two world-views collide. Ida’s secular existence is brightly lit, doubt free, her love life a succession of hedonistic encounters. She carries ‘her air of compassion and comprehension about her like a rank, cheap perfume’. For Ida, human nature is consistent, untainted by original sin. She says to Rose:

‘Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature… ‘ ‘Confession…repentance,’ Rose whispered. ‘That’s just religion,’ the woman said. ‘Believe me. It’s the world we got to deal with.’

Despite her warmth and humour, her decency begins to feel a little tired and smug. Her homely heart, so easily touched by tragedy, appears trite next to Pinkie who wonders how ‘God couldn’t escape the evil mouth which chose to eat its own damnation’. Greene implies that Ida is representative of morally weak clichés about justice and right and wrong. He believed the ‘ethical is much further from the good than evil is’. And in spite of Pinkie’s fallen state, Greene suggests that it is his vision of the world, its awareness of the divine order that is ultimately the more valuable and significant. As JM Coetzee, in the introduction to the Vintage edition (2004) writes,

Though Ida’s view seems in the end to triumph, it is one of Greene’s subtler achievements to put it in doubt as perhaps blinkered and tyrannical. In the end the story belongs not to Ida but to Rose and Pinkie, for they are prepared, in however juvenile a way, to confront ultimate questions, while she is not.

The fact of Greene’s conversion to Catholicism had not come to anyone’s attention until the publication of Brighton Rock. Now he became known as a ‘Catholic writer’: a ‘detestable term’ in his view. He was irked that Catholics began to review him far too kindly, and some non-Catholics complained he was being given an unfair advantage over his contemporaries. ‘Many times since Brighton Rock I have been forced to declare myself not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be a Catholic.’

Yet Greene followed up Brighton Rock with three novels that also focused on Catholicism: The Power and the Glory (1940), which many believe is his masterpiece, The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951). After finishing the last one, he told Evelyn Waugh that he thought he’d take a break from Catholicism and try writing about politics. Waugh (a fellow Catholic convert) replied: ‘I wouldn’t give up writing about God at this stage if I was you. It would be like PG Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series.’ But Greene had had enough. With age he became increasingly agnostic.

Social Awareness

All his life Greene supported the underdog, and was sensitive to issues of social justice. His friend the writer Shirley Hazzard believed that he had been marked by the Great Depression, during which he and his wife Vivien had endured poverty and anxiety. Much of his early fiction is set in harsh environments in which those who are poor remain so, without hope of advancement, while the rich continue to be privileged and oblivious. Greene was always curious to learn about those outside his class, ‘to discover what lies behind the dark, thick leaf of the aspidistra that guards like an exotic fungus the vulnerable gap between the lace curtains’.

He hunts down the details of poverty behind Brighton’s façade of fun. The old man scavenging for food scraps and cigarette ends along the seashore as evening approaches. The tawdry Whitsun holiday atmosphere on the front where, on the last day of his life, Hale leans against a railing near the Palace Pier and watches the passing crowd of day-tripping Londoners endlessly uncoiling:

like a twisted piece of wire, two by two, each with an air of sober and determined gaiety. They had stood all the way from Victoria in crowded carriages, they would have to wait in queues for lunch, at midnight half asleep they would rock back in trains to the cramped streets and the closed pubs and the weary walk home. With immense labour and immense patience they extricated from the long day the grain of pleasure: this sun, this music, the rattle of the miniature cars, the ghost train diving between the grinning skeletons under the Aquarium promenade, the sticks of Brighton rock, the paper sailor’s caps.

Greene felt an obligation to express his views as an individual in his writing, calling himself above all a moralist. He believed it was the storyteller’s task ‘to elicit sympathy and a measure of understanding for those who lie outside the boundaries of State approval.’

I think a writer ought to be a bit of grit in the state machine. That applies to a democratic state machine, a socialist state machine or a Communist state machine.


Greene had strong feelings for Brighton: ‘No city before the war, not London, Paris or Oxford, had such a hold on my affections.’ He knew it well, first as a child of six, when he was sent with an aunt to convalesce from a bout of illness. On that trip he had seen his first film, the silent one: Sophy of Kravonia. The tale of a kitchenmaid who became a Balkan queen, it captured his imagination and it was the sort of story he always wanted to write:

the high romantic tale, capturing us in youth with hopes that prove illusions, to which we return again in age in order to escape the sad reality. Brighton Rock was a very poor substitute for Kravonia, like all my books, and yet perhaps it is one of the best I ever wrote. 

As an adult Greene returned to this city by the sea, again to convalesce after illness. But in Brighton Rock, he criticises the town’s spiritual vacuity. Brighton is full of advertising, consumers, and all that is brittle and evanescent. The waves of ‘bewildered multitudes’, men in suits with big cars and their women, ‘small creatures, who rang like expensive glass when they were touched but who conveyed an impression of being as sharp and tough as tin’. And then there is Brighton’s sinister side, its underworld of gangsters and crooks, the ‘shabby secret behind the bright corsage, the deformed breast’.

As Watts notes, Brighton Rock with its ‘corrosively negative, nightmarish’ quality takes us deeper into the world of Greeneland than any other of his dark novels. Greene offered a standard defence of his strangely compelling vision, saying that he just saw things as they were. But that was not the complete picture.


Graham Greene a was guarded, and prickly man. His biographer Norman Sherry was ‘fascinated by his singular smile and eyes so blue that they gave off a curious sense of blindness’. Marie-Françoise Allain, a friend of his who interviewed him extensively for The Other Man (1985) described him as almost wilfully obscure. He confessed to her that he did not wish to know himself. And it seemed that he was equally determined that others should know as little about him as possible, admitting that he distorted facts about his life to journalists. Yet he mentioned Henry James’s description about ‘the pattern in the carpet’, referring to the psychological patterns to be discovered in any body of work. If critics found ‘certain keynotes’, he was fine with that, as long as he remained none the wiser. He feared, he said, that such knowledge could lead his imagination to dry up.

Allain described him as,

Impressive, restless, occasionally frivolous, subject to sudden tempers and to almost child-like enthusiasms; he resembles a stick of Brighton rock which, by definition, reveals the name of Brighton no matter where you break it. The fact is that, whatever the question he was prepared to answer, whether he was talking about Cuba or Indo-China, the lawless roads of Mexico, the fleshpots of Brighton, or indeed his childhood Berkhamsted, the name GRAHAM GREENE has always featured, like a signature, in his answer. As he grew more familiar, he grew more perplexing.

One of these signatures was his habit of taking his ‘grey universe’, his Greeneland, with him wherever he went, its cast of Catholic priests under conditions of oppression, hack journalists, those down on their luck, or small-time crooks with a penchant for evil.

Another signature is his obsession with escape, a subject on which he wrote extensively, even using it to name his second autobiography (Ways of Escape). He once confided to a journalist: ‘I don’t want to stay in one place too long in case the ice melts beneath my feet.’ And to another, ‘my roots are in rootlessness’, which he believed to be his main subject. Allain noticed the noun escape kept cropping up in his conversation.

And there was his attraction to ‘the dangerous edge of things’, by which he said he meant,

the narrow boundary between loyalty and disloyalty, between fidelity and infidelity, the mind’s contradictions, the paradox one carries within oneself. This is what men are made of.

There were also physical dangers, to which he exposed himself time and again. Three years before writing Brighton Rock, Greene travelled to Liberia to investigate modern slavery, which formed the basis for his first travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). He and his cousin Barbara walked across Africa for four weeks, with a case of whiskey (they downed the lot). Barbara observed how the risks of being bitten by snakes, shot at by soldiers or catching yellow fever, which nearly killed him on this trip, only seemed to spur him on. She found him frightening: ‘If you are in a sticky place he will be so interested in noting your reactions that he will probably forget to rescue you.’

Shortly after finishing Brighton Rock, he took off for Mexico (The Lawless Roads, The Power and the Glory). There were journeys to Cuba (Our Man in Havana), Sierra Leone (The Heart of the Matter) China, Argentina (The Honorary Consul) Belize, Malaya, Vietnam (The Quiet American), Chile, Haiti (The Comedians), Nicaragua, and the Congo (A Burnt-Out Case). He visited some of the world’s wildest, most dangerous and newsworthy places and was often paid by newspapers and magazines to report back.

From the 1940s to 1980s he also seems to have been paid by what he once called ‘the best travel agency in the world’, the British Secret Service. These travel experiences frequently fed into his novels and added to the world’s collection of great literary fiction that explore blighted terrains, such as Dickens’s Bleak House, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Eliot’s, ‘The Wasteland’. The danger he encountered also satisfied him on a psychological level. He said it ‘offered the possibility of escape from the grisly routine of daily life’, from the boredom which seemed to plague him as much as his restlessness.

Digging Deeper

Greene well understood that the past is critical for understanding the work of a writer. In an essay about Henry James, he wrote:

The early formative years of a writer must always have a special fascination: the innocent eye [dwells] frankly on a new unexplored world, the vistas of new experience at the end of the laurel walk, the voices of older people…the strange accidents that seem to decide not only that this child should be a writer but what kind of writer this child shall be.

And in Greene’s formative years, a traumatic experience proved seminal for his own literary future.

Early Years

Greene claimed his childhood in England’s Hertfordshire was a happy one. He was the fourth of six children, with six cousins living nearby. His parents were aloof, middle class and largely benign. What distinguished him from the other children was his acute sensitivity and a vivid imagination that conjured up all types of terrors. Lurking in wait near his bedroom were Siberian wolves, a witch with white puffy hands and long, mandarin fingernails, a man in a tricoloured hat, a bleeding head in a basket. The prospect of bed-time could bring him close to hysteria. He also developed a terror of birds, and of drowning but, a loner and secretive from the start, little Graham kept his terrors to himself. It is surprising that he grew up to become such a risk taker, but as an adult, he made a distinction between fear, which holds a certain allure, and terror, from which ‘one escapes screaming’.

A Difficult Adolescence

Greene confessed that the horror in his life began when he was thirteen when he was moved to St John’s, a boarders house a short distance from his home and school. Here he found himself in ‘a savage country of strange customs and inexplicable cruelties’. He became a ‘hunted creature’, a ‘foreigner’ and a ‘suspect’, and suffered loneliness and betrayal.

He hated the total absence of solitude. But worse was a schoolboy called Carter, who devised ‘a system of mental torture based on my rather difficult situation.’ Greene was the perfect target for this boy’s ‘genius for evil’ as his father was headmaster of the school, and his brother head of his house. In A Sort of Life (1971), he wrote that Carter had ‘an adult imagination – he could conceive the conflict of loyalties, loyalties to my age-group, loyalty to my father and brother’, (part of what later became Greene’s ‘dangerous edge of things’).

There was at least one physical attack during which another boy called Wheeler sided with Carter against him. But Greene found the mental torture worse: ‘sneering nicknames were inserted like splinters under the nails.’ Everything about him was scrutinised and ridiculed: his strange appearance and speech, his lack of physicality and sports ability. He felt pressure to side with the schoolboys against his family, a betrayal that would have won him popularity and a friendship with Carter, whom he reluctantly admired.

I admired his ruthlessness, and in an odd way he admired what he wounded in me. Between the torturer and the tortured arises a kind of relationship. So long as the torture continues the torturer has failed, and he recognises an equality in his victim. I seriously in later years desired revenge on Carter.

It seems that Greene kept his scruples. Although this experience would appear to be fairly standard fare in the English public school system, it cut Greene to the marrow. In A Sort of Life, he also talked of ‘a great betrayal’, mentioning Wheeler but never elaborating on the circumstances. Yet the devastation of that betrayal was still evident in an interview he gave to Ronald Matthews in 1957:

One didn’t know where one was, and that might be a good definition of nightmare. The world of nightmare is a world without defences because each defence may be nullified. What would be the point in preparing to prevent an attack when your best friend might suddenly without any reason turn into your worst enemy?

Carter played with him, implying that he might stop the torment soon, but he did not and there was no reprieve. Greene was very much on his own, unable to turn to his father or brother, for that would mean betraying the boys and thereby, in his mind, justifying their behaviour towards him. He tried harming himself and ‘other forms of escape’, making a number of suicide attempts.

At sixteen he had a breakdown and finally, he was coerced to reveal what had been going on to his parents. They immediately withdrew him from St John’s, and in an extraordinarily radical move for the times, they sent their son into the care of a Jungian analyst in London for six months. Kenneth Richmond was an intuitive, deeply intelligent and humane person. He and his wife Zoe came along at a critical time in Grahame’s development. It was one of the happiest periods in his life. In A Sort of Life, he wrote:

My Life with [Richmond] did me a world of good, but how much was due to the analysis and how much to the breakfasts in bed, the quiet of Kensington Gardens, the sudden independence of my life I would not like to say, nor whether the analysis went deep enough.

The Aftermath

Greene’s biographer Sherry suggests that the switch from an atmosphere of utter imprisonment at St John’s to one of freedom and enlightenment,

may have established his life’s pattern of escaping from the impossible or the boring into unknown and dangerous environments which would stimulate, offer fresh experiences and also provide copy for his novels.

Certainly, the bullying had changed Greene from a trusting child into an untrusting man. It explained his aversion to scrutiny, and an early preoccupation with good and evil, evident in Brighton Rock. And it gave him a subject that fed his novels, his ‘dangerous edge of things’, as he explained to Allain:

In all my books perhaps I return to the duality which has marked my life from the time that I was a pupil in the school at Berkhamsted…I made obvious use of these divided loyalties in the person of the priest in The Power and the Glory. In The Heart of the Matter, a book I dislike, Scobie is torn between pity and Pride. In The Third Man one could probably find this theme of friendship betrayed, but betrayed in a better cause. Even Sarah, in The End of the Affair, remains torn between her love for Bendrix and her love, her sudden electrifying love, for God.

He added that thanks to these books he had recaptured his experience as a boarder. ‘I’ve had no wish to do away with this cleavage; I’ve accepted it as one of the constants of my work and of my life. Perhaps it was the only way to exorcize the evil, for there’s no doubt, it was a most unpleasant situation.’

Carter’s torments and Greene’s subsequent feelings of humiliation are strongly present in Brighton Rock when Pinkie is cornered by a rival gang:

[He]…saw the faces ringing him all round. They grinned back at him: every man had his razor out…the long cut-throat razors which the sun caught slanting low down over the downs from Shoreham. He put his hand to his pocket to get his blade, and the man immediately facing him leant across and slashed his knuckles. Pain happened to him, and he was filled with horror and astonishment as if one of the bullied brats at school had stabbed first with the dividers.

In turn the tormented becomes tormentor. Present in Pinkie, as Sherry observes, is Carter’s ‘ability to toy with his enemies, pretend a friendship, hint at danger, humour his victim’. In the last hours of Hale’s life, Pinkie lets him buy him a drink. Then it’s time to leave.

‘We’ll be going, Fred,’ the Boy said.

Hale rose. His hands were shaking. This was real now…the ground moved under his feet, and only the thought of where they might take him…saved him from fainting. But even then common pride, the instinct not to make a scene, remained overpoweringly strong; embarrassment had more force than terror, it prevented him crying his fear aloud, it even urged him to go quietly.

It is impossible not to imagine that as a boy, Greene too felt such frozen moments of terror at Carter’s approach.

Throughout his life Greene was beset by depression, later diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Drugs, alcohol and a succession of affairs became added ways of escape. But a constant was his writing. He was a consummate professional who had to stop himself from writing more than five hundred words per day.

There was a point though, more than than thirty years after writing Brighton Rock, when the words dried up. Greene suffered from an acute episode of depression and he became suicidal. In desperation he asked a friend, a psychiatrist, for electric shock treatment. His friend asked him to hold on for a fortnight, but instructed him in the meantime to write down what he remembered of his childhood. After a fortnight, Greene discovered the depression had lifted and he kept going with what he had. The work became his first autobiography, A Sort of Life  (1971). In his second autobiography, Ways of Escape (1980) he wrote:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.

Music: Agnus Dei

In a possible cinematic device, Brighton Rock is full of references to music. Orchestras and bands by the pier or the Palace of Pleasure play stale, romantic tunes. Ida sings at the bar ‘When I came up from Brighton by the train’ in ‘a rich Guinness voice’, and then sings something that sounds to Fred Hale like a song from the Australian gold rush. At the seafront, with the growing realisation that Pinkie and the gang are set to kill him, Fred is desperately drawn to ‘a winey voice singing, of brides and bouquets, of lilies and mourning shrouds, a Victorian ballad’. It is Ida again, sitting amongst the deck chairs. At Sherry’s a crooner’s song ‘Music, talks, talks, talks, of our love’ stirs in Pinkie’s brain ‘like poetry’ and gets under his skin. All of it is sentimental, trite.

The only music with real power is a formula recited three times by the priest at Mass that Pinkie remembers from when he was choirboy. In a glass shelter on a wet and dripping night, he sings it to Rose: ‘Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’, (Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace, have mercy on us).

In his voice a whole lost world moved – the lighted corner below the organ, the smell of incense and laundered surplices, and the music.

Pinkie had once dreamed of becoming a priest. Despite his violent exterior, bits of the liturgy often break into his thoughts, along with the possibility of repentance.


Greene’s lean depression years made him alert to the needs of friends and charities. He would give generously and discreetly to those causes he deemed genuine. He admired the work of Muriel Spark (another Catholic convert) and it came out at his memorial that Greene had privately sent her money on a regular basis to help her though her first years of writing. Muriel said the cheques would arrive in the mail with ‘a few bottles of red wine to take the edge off cold charity.’

Another beneficiary of Greene’s generosity was the Indian novelist R K Narayan. A friend of Narayan’s sent his manuscript of Swami and Friends to Greene, who helped him find a publisher. Despite meeting only once in London in 1964, they began a correspondence that lasted fifty years until Greene’s death in 1991. Greene said he was ‘the novelist I most admire in the English language’. Over the years he became a mentor to Narayan, suggesting alterations to his English and giving him financial help. In a forward to The World of Nagaraj’ Greene wrote: ‘Narayan wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for…without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.’


Like Greene, Brighton had ‘a hold on my affections’ through an aunt. When I was seven, I spent a week there with my aunt and uncle. It seemed an enchanting place. There were walks by the seafront, sticks of rock, rides on the dodgems, and visits to the fun parlour at the end of a pier, no less. Then in my teens I was utterly gripped by Greene’s novel. So, on my most recent visit, I already had a feeling for the yin and yang of the place.

We listened to a local radio station on our way there. A bulletin announced that a boy had fallen from a cliff and a rescue was underway. Events unfolded as we drew closer. It appeared the boy had been able to provide the GPS for his location but paramedics were hampered by a locked gate on the coastal path and were forced to grab some kids’ bikes to reach him. A bulletin came through that he had been airlifted to hospital. Then my heart sank when we heard that he had died. As we drove into Brighton, I was deep in thought about how quickly lives can be turned upside down on any ordinary day. Little did I realise that death soon lay in wait for us too.

It was late spring but the weather had turned chilly and a strong gale was whipping the sea into froth at the seafront. We had just one hour to stretch our legs and visit the fun parlour. It felt different from how I’d remembered it. A little desolate. A little bleak. But I know that Brighton is much more than a few tacky sideshows and I sorely wish to return.

Later, we learned that Nick Cave was the father of the boy who had died. A long-time resident of Brighton, he writes powerful songs, full of feeling. The way in which he has so openly spoken of his struggle since Arthur’s death, and the gracious manner in which he has lived and worked with this loss, has helped me in my grief too. And so, I regard that day in Brighton as a gift. For me it has come to be associated with this song of Nick Cave’s: ‘Idiot Prayer’.


A short from the original black and white version of Brighton Rock  (1947) directed by John Boulting, starring Richard Attenborough. The young Richard Attenborough first played Pinkie in a stage version of Brighton Rock in 1943, and kept the role for the 1947 film. Greene told the director John Boulting it was the first time he had seen any of his books on the screen ‘with any real pleasure’.

The trailer for a second adaptation of Brighton Rock (2011) directed by Rowan Joffe starring Sam Riley, Helen Mirren and John Hurt.

Graham Greene looking awkward during a 1950 interview with Jack Mangan for a television series called ‘Ship’s Reporter‘. Mangan used to interview celebrities in what appeared to be a closet, aboard the Queen Mary, as she sailed between England to New York.

An excellent article about Grahame Greene in The New Yorker.

The Channel 4 News obituary of Graham Greene, featuring contributions from Anthony Burgess, Richard Attenborough and Auberon Waugh.

The Graham Greene Birthplace Trust, with news of an annual festival, resources and archives.

Greeneland, a fan site.

A clip of Brighton in the 1930s.

The official tourist site, Visit Brighton.


Allain, Marie-Francoise. The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Penguin, 1991

Greene, Graham. A Sort of Life, The Bodley Head, 1971

Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock. Vintage, 2004

Greene, Graham. Ways of Escape, Vintage, 1980

Hazzard, Shirley. Greene on Capri: A Memoir. Virago, 2000

Hoskins, Robert. Graham Greene: An Approach to the Novels. Routledge 2004

Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene, Vol 1: 1904-1939. Penguin, 1989

Watts, Cedric. ‘Darkest Greeneland: Brighton Rock’, Nighthawks Open Institutional Repository, 2017

West, WJ. The Quest for Graham Greene, St Martin’s Press, 1997

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  1. Jeffrey D. Briggs on

    What a thoughtful exploration of Graham Greene’s time in Brighton and his ensuing novel Brighton Rock. I particularly enjoyed how you wove significant events throughout the course of Greene’s life–his conversion to Catholicism, his childhood experience at a boarding school, his lifelong struggle with depression–into this brilliant essay on the novelist and this early work.

    How did Greene manage to escape the madness swirling around in his own head, in his world ? How do we manage to escape the madness swirling around us today? To his quote about writing:

    “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

    I would add “reading another of your essays is a form of therapy; it allows me to manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

    Thank you!

    • Jo Wing on

      Thank you so much Jeffrey for those lovely comments. He was a complex person and I’ve always admired his novels. I hadn’t known about the bullying and I enjoyed his comment about ‘the pattern in the carpet’, how the incidents in the writer’s formative years can shape the sort of writer they become. It really left an indelible stamp, didn’t it? And I’m so glad reading about it gave you some reprieve from this crazy world right now.

  2. Barbara Cail on

    I was supposed to be working on another project. I opened the email with this story to have a quick look and make a note to return and read it at a later time. Instead, I abandoned my project and read the whole story. How absolutely absorbing it is.
    It’s wonderful! Thank you Jo! You provided a great amount of fertiliser for my brain.

    • Jo Wing on

      I love it when I get lost in a story. One of my favourite ways to spend my time. Thank god we’re readers, eh? Thanks so much Barb.

  3. paula ashworth on

    Another delight…. As it happens, a couple of months ago I tuned into a radio serial of “Brighton Rock”. It was riveting, even though I’d seen the film and knew what was to come. Discomfiting, but terrific!

    Fascinating to read of the background which played such a part in Greene’s books and so pertinent to that wonderful film (story) “The End of the Affair” (reminiscent of “Brideshead Revisited”?).

    I loved the link to the recording of Agnus Dei… Perfect.

    BTW (Jeffrey) Bob would say that reading is a form of therapy, too – a most important one.

    Yet again,Jo, you’ve prompted me to search out related books. Have now finished Edith Wharton’s “Backward Glance”. What an (enviously) terrifying intellectual milieu for ordinary folk and what a daunting child she was…! I approved of the lack of angst and revelations; her “just getting on with it” attitude – and always making the most of it, too. All the dosh helped:-)!

    Only made a few pages of de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” retrieved from our library last week. A daunting tome, which didn’t grab me at all, but then I never was much of a feminist:-)

    Thank you…..