Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family by Jeremy Lewis
|Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family by Jeremy Lewis|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A great - in many meanings - book of combined biography, with some very disparate Greene scions covered throughout the twentieth century. If you're familiar with one or more - or none - this is still well worth a read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 592||Date: April 2011|
Graham Greene's father actually had six children, and his brother six of his own. (Well, there were nine in their generation for a start...) The surprising and joyous thing about this book is that it can show that Graham Greene's remarkable life is by no means the only standout in that whole generation of family history. It can continuously throw up surprises - we know Hugh Greene was high up in the BBC, but it wasn't him who helped found Canadian public service broadcasting. We are familiar with Graham himself traipsing around the world, reporting back in fact and fiction from unusual circumstances and exotic climes with dubious systems of government, but it wasn't he who was noted for being an ardently public supporter of pro-Communist China.
However you think it would work, a linked series of biographies throughout the generations of two families, you could still be surprised by how effortless and sprightly this huge book actually is. It segues brilliantly at times - perhaps not noticeably enough at others! - from one Greene scion to another. Our author admits some have had more public lives than others, but manages on the whole to have a great balance of spread from one offspring to another, linking them up when opportunities allow.
And even when they didn't, the diversity of these men and women was staggering - partly the very point of this book. One combined a career in medicine with what he learnt from his first love, mountaineering - and was in a party on Everest in the 1930s which went higher than anyone had before, when they weren't playing cricket with a mangelwurzel on its foothills. Diplomats, spies, businessmen at home and abroad, and hilarious failures of spies, all are here.
There's also, subtly conveyed, a whole gamut of social history. Four of these dozen were born in or before 1901, and there's still some spirit of Empire and colonialism in their lifestyles, what with one side's fortunes coming from Brazilian coffee. By the end Graham's riches were such that he chose to have a house here, a flat there, and still use expensive hotels as his ivory towers for writing (his own phrase), but richness and profligacy were not uniform, if anything in fact was in these incredibly singular lives.
Lewis has produced an eye-opening tome, for the amount of quotes, references and research he can include. Sometimes I think he assumes we share a little too much of the Greenes' own interests, and gets a little too detailed - in the Labour Party manoeuvrings of one, and in a post-war trial for being - well, a little maverick, to say the least, which is all one can expect at that stage in the narrative. But take that slight deflection from the welter of stories combined into one sterling volume, and you have a clear candidate for classic-in-the-making. There is a fun edge to the editorialising, and a conviviality that is naturally put on by its author, however many years and acres of archived ground he must have covered.
This is one of those biographies that one should feel free to pick up without any knowledge or interest in any of its subjects, topics and times covered, and it will still strike the reader as informative, educational and as clear as Graham Greene's own writing. It's a large read, but a most worthwhile one, and I'm thankful for Vintage sending me a review copy.
For more literary lives we can recommend The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Patrick Lienhardt, Olivier Philipponnat and Euan Cameron and Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green. For another biography of one generation of a large family try Brothers in War by Michael Walsh.
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