Graham Greene, was an English novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist whose novels treat life’s moral ambiguities in the context of contemporary political settings.
Following the modest success of his first novel The Man Within (1929), Greene quit his job as copy editor for The Times and worked as film critic and literary editor of The Spectator. He travelled widely as a freelance journalist until the 1950s and used his trips to scout locations for novels.
His 1932 thriller, Stamboul Train was the first of his ‘entertainments’ books which combined with spare, tough language and suspenseful plots with moral complexity and depth. Stamboul Trian was the first of Greene’s novels to be made into a film in 1934 and his fifth ‘entertainment’ The Third Man (1949) was originally written as a screenplay for the Director Carol Reed.
Brighton Rock (1938, films 1947 and 2010) shares some of the characteristics of his pacy thrillers – the protagonist is a hunted criminal roaming the underworld of Brighton, but Greene explores the moral attitudes of the main characters with a new depth, including the violent teenage criminal, whose tragic situation is intensified by a Roman Catholic upbringing.
I read Brighton Rock when I was about thirteen. One of the first lessons I took from it was that a serious novel could be an exciting novel – that the novel of adventure could also be the novel of ideas.
Catholicism became the dominant theme of his finest novel, The Power and the Glory (1940; also published as The Labyrinthine Ways; adapted as the film The Fugitive, 1947). The book follows a weak and alcoholic Priest who tries to fulfil his duties in rural Mexico despite the despite the constant threat of death at the hands of a revolutionary government.
Greene worked for the Foreign Office during World War II and was stationed at Freetown, Sierra Leone, the setting for The Heart of the Matter (1948; film 1953), a novel which traces the decline of a well-meaning British Officer, whose pity for his wife and mistress leads him to commit suicide.
The Quiet American (1956; films 1958 and 2002) chronicles the doings of a well-intentioned American government agent in Vietnam in the midst of the anti-French uprising there in the early 1950s. Our Man in Havana (1958; film 1959) is set in Cuba just before the communist revolution there, while TheComedians (1966; film 1967) is set in Haiti during the rule of François Duvalier.
Throughout his long career Greene’s novels share a preoccupation with sin and moral failure against a backdrop or setting wrought with danger, violence, and physical decay. Despite the downbeat tone of his books, Greene was in fact one of the most widely read British novelists of the 20th century, due to his superb gifts as a storyteller, especially his masterful selection of detail and his use of realistic dialogue in a fast-paced narrative. Throughout his career, Greene was fascinated by film, and he often emulated cinematic techniques in his writing. No other British writer of this period was as aware as Greene of the power and influence of cinema.
Throughout his career he also published several selections of short stories, essays a collection of film criticism.
Ian McEwan’s novels are as diverse as his upbringing. Born in Hampshire in 1948, his childhood was a transient one, spent moving between east Asia, Germany and north Africa, following his father’s military postings. His similarly wide-roaming career has positioned him as one of Britain’s foremost literary voices.
Whether penning eerie psychodramas or delicately wrought period pieces, what unites McEwan’s novels is an unerring curiosity about people. Whether the book’s key concern is personal or political, it is the intimate interpersonal relationships that provide their emotional core.
McEwan’s career began with a penchant for the gothic. His first two novels The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) were released to uneasy admiration, with critic John Krewson describing the former as being “beautiful but disturbing”. Subsequent works went on to stray from this generic darkness and, in doing so, found a wider readership. After the divisive release of The Child In Time (1987), an unusual tale of time travel, cold-war era romance The Innocent (1990) was met with near-unanimous critical praise.
It was his 1998 novel, Amsterdam, that marked a true popular breakthrough. The tale of love and death won him the Booker Prize, with critics praising its “sardonic and wise examination of the morals and culture of our time.”
A popular candidate for adaptation, McEwan’s works have frequently been seen on screen. Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement, adapted from McEwan’s 2001 novel of the same name brings to life a confusion of sexuality, war and guilt, replicating the author’s ability to vividly capture a moment frozen in time and imbue it with sizzling heat.
More recently, Man-Booker prize shortlisted On Chesil Beach (2007) was adapted into a 2017 film starring Saoirse Ronan. Once again McEwan’s meditations on desire in a repressive society of the past are proven to have a continuing contemporary appeal. This reliable appetite to see McEwan’s work reinvented speaks to his continued appeal to diverse audiences.
With the ability to wheedle his way to the emotional heart of any story, regardless of how convoluted, McEwan brings his readers into an unfamiliar situation only to find relatable humanity.
These titles are also available to loan through our eBooks app, BorrowBox.
John Coughlan CBE, who retired as Hampshire County Council’s Chief Executive last month, talks about his reading loves and recommendations as well as his vision for Hampshire’s libraries.
This blog post is taken from a longer conversation with Emma Noyce, head of Hampshire Libraries, which is available here.
I’m an English graduate, so I’m a reader by background. I love literacy, I love literature and I love books: I’ve kept reading since my university days. But I have to admit, particularly in the last three or four years, I’ve found it harder and harder so I’m very much looking forward to getting some time to read now as I retire.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe was a holiday read last year. It’s fantastic, highly comic, but also a state-of-the-nation novel. Jonathan Coe is a Brummie contemporary of mine, he went to St Philip’s School in Birmingham and I went to a Catholic grammar school not far away. When I first read The Rotters Club, which is about a group of the kids at St Philip’s school, I could recognise the streets, I could recognise the jobs the parents are doing, and recognise the pubs that they go to. I can hear his accent: posh Brummie a bit like mine, like sanded down Brummie. Since then, I’ve always liked returning to Jonathan Coe.
I’m not a political reader, per se. For me, the best literature is laced in metaphor, where you can read things into it. Charles Dickens is highly politicised, but in very well disguised ways. I love Dickens: I love his humour. I know it’s laced with sentimentality but that’s because he was a jobbing writer: he managed to put all his politics into material that was being read avidly on a monthly basis by a population who would queue at paper stands to buy his chapters. For me, Dickens just stands apart: a remarkable writer and person. I’d pick Bleak House as a particular favourite with its two major themes of child poverty and a legal system gone mad, and also Our Mutual Friend, partly because there’s a character who’s in the waste business: my dad was a dustman, so I always related to that.
Another favourite of mine is John le Carré. I first read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when I was doing a serious and difficult staff investigation. It was one of those professional turning points, which we all have, when you decide where your career is going and what side you are on. The thing about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and most of le Carré, is that while they’re obviously really well-crafted spy stories, they’re also profound social commentaries. Tinker Tailor is a commentary on post-war, post-empire England. But for me, it’s also a tremendous management text because it makes you think deeply about how organisations take decisions and how you challenge those decisions if they happen to be wrong. It also talks deeply about issues of loyalty and betrayal, and the causes of betrayal and the nature of betrayal. It’s astonishing. I go back to it every year or two.
A non-fiction book, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, is one of those books that was a ‘moment-changing’ read of my life. It’s astonishingly difficult to read – it’s a history of rape – but brilliantly put together and unarguable. I think boys should be made to read it.
Irish roots, Irish stories
It is ridiculous how many astonishing authors have come from recent and modern Ireland. I’m one of the few people I know that have read Ulysses properly: but I did it because it was on my curriculum. It’s an extraordinary read and one I’d like to return to in retirement.
My parents came to England when they were teenagers. They ran away to get work at the time when there was a depression in Ireland. For them, the word ‘home’ referred to somewhere else. So one of one my choices would be Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. It was made into a wonderful film but the book, as ever, is even better than the film.
Prose writing among this group of Irish writers is subtle, gentle and pointed: you suddenly realise you’ve been hit hard without knowing it simply by a passage describing a scene, or a journey, or a conversation. Tóibín, for me, is probably one of the masters of that. The narrative of Brooklyn is very simple but hugely meaningful. It’s the story of a young woman who goes to live in America, a classic part of the Irish diaspora. And I relate to it because the woman is a bit like my mum. She went in different circumstances and for different reason but there’s that same sense of losing your family to go abroad and how the traditional parts of Irish culture butt against modern culture. It’s just beautifully, beautifully written.
William Trevor is another Irish writer, a Cork man, where my mum was from. He was a prolific author with a fantastic prose style, who tended to write about England and Englishness as an observer in his earlier novels but then went back into themes of how Ireland was changing as independence came in his later work. He deals with the harsh underbelly of people and places and it can be quite disturbing when he gets to work with his scalpel. Love and Summer is poignant and at times, challenging; it’s a love story and very different from some of his earlier work. One of the reasons I love it is because it’s a thriller: it becomes a page turner from having been this very elegiac, gentle narrative about rural Ireland.
BookTrust and children’s literacy
I’m Chair of Trustees for an organisation called BookTrust, which is a children’s reading charity which works nationally as a universal book gifting service, working with Hampshire County Council and with every other local authority, providing free books to different age groups of children.
As my children’s book choice, I’m picking Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas because it was one of those books that my children kept asking us to read again and again. I don’t know how many times we read it. It’s a great story about a witch who abuses a cat by changing its colour too often, but I won’t spoil the ending for you. It’s an absolute page turner.
The future of libraries
I think libraries are wonderful and I think they are huge assets to communities and to places. But in a modern society, libraries have to modernise too. I believe deeply in the physical book: whether a picture book or a written book, they’re remarkable things, tactile objects. Having a community resource of books where people know they can go is hugely important.
If we want to have libraries as vibrant, real places that people can trust, then we’ve got to make them relevant, we’ve got to make them used, and we’ve got to make sure that they can keep pace with their own viability. If the library service is serious about itself, it must continue to modernise. Protecting our libraries as buildings in corners of streets is not protecting our libraries as viable, important community resources that are going to be meaningful. We have to keep looking at what the future is going to hold, because otherwise you won’t create libraries, you’ll create unused museums of books. And that’s not what they should be for. They should be vibrant places that people use and go to.
Caryl Phillips, born in St Kitts and brought up in Leeds, has written for television, radio, theatre, and cinema and is the author of three works of non-fiction and eight novels, including Crossing the River which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and an Honorary Fellow of Queens College, Oxford University, among his literary prizes and awards Phillips has won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Fellowship, and Britain’s oldest literary award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His novel A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 Pen/Beyond the Margins Prize.
Much of his writing – both fiction and non-fiction – has focused on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora. The Final Passage (1985), his first novel – which won the Malcolm X Prize for Literature, is the story of a young woman who leaves her home in the Caribbean to start a new life with her husband and baby in 1950s London. His second novel, A State of Independence (1986), is set in the Caribbean and explores the islands’ growing dependency on America. Higher Ground (1989) consists of three narratives linking the lives of a West African slave, a member of the Black Panther movement and a Polish immigrant living in post-war Britain.
Cambridge (1991), his fourth novel, centres on the experiences of a young Englishwoman visiting her father’s plantation in the Caribbean and won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Crossing the River (1993) which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, follows the separate stories of two brothers and a sister from slavery to a dislocated emancipation. The Nature of Blood (1997) draws parallels between the persecution of Jews in Europe and the black victims of slavery. His most recent novels are In the Falling Snow (2009), The Lost Child (2011), and A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018).
Caryl Phillips’ non-fiction includes a travel narrative, The European Tribe (1987), winner of the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and The Atlantic Sound (2000), an account of a journey he made to three hubs of the Atlantic slave trade: Liverpool, Elmina on the west coast of Ghana, and Charleston in the American South. In Colour Me English (2011), Phillips explores the notion of identity, how is constructed, thrust upon us, how we can change it.
Phillips is a writer who often appears most at home when he is away, journeying between places. Accordingly, he has remarked that he wishes to be ‘buried’ in the Atlantic, at the crossroads between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean.
Books by Caryl Phillips are available to reserve by clicking the book titles below or to loan as eBooks, eAudio on the BorrowBox app.