Richard Greene on the Graham Greene Festival

Spy thriller writer Thomas Waugh chats with the director of the International Graham Greene Festival that begins this month.
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Richard Greene, you have been appointed as the Director for the 24th Graham Greene International Festival. Can you tell us a bit about the festival and your role?

The festival, taking place this year from September 28 – October 1, is a gathering of Graham Greene aficionados to celebrate his legacy at his birthplace in Berkhamsted – many of the events take place at the school where his father was headmaster and Greene himself was a troubled child. My job has been to recruit speakers, help choose films and arrange a schedule. There is actually a group of people, all better organized than myself, who help with these things. The hope is to create a friendly atmosphere in which fans can mingle with experts, and we can all come away  a little in awe of what we’ve discovered.

Why do you think that the novels of Greene and a fascination with the author have endured?

He has an unrivalled ability to tell stories that are compulsively readable while addressing themes, such as belief, doubt or betrayal, that are of ultimate significance. He could shape a page-turning story of espionage or murder into a study of the soul or of love or of politics. His own life was also extraordinarily adventurous; he was a spy and a journalist who travelled to most of the world’s troubled places in a career of almost seven decades and wrote about them in a manner that was clear-eyed and compassionate, so a study of his life can almost be as compelling as the novels. I daresay that he lived as many novels as he wrote.

Your biography of Greene, Russian Roulette, has now been available for a couple of years or so. Have you discovered any stories about the author, subsequent to publication, that you wish you could now add in?

Not really, but I do wish I had had a little more time and space as I would like to have written at greater length about his travels in Ireland and India. I would also like to have written more about his loathing of MI5, the branch of intelligence that ferrets out subversion, after its threat to prosecute him over his revelations of intelligence methods in Our Man in Havana – his resentment was likely a factor in his subsequent defences of Kim Philby and John Cairncross, two of the Cambridge Five. His attitude towards these double-agents mystified many people and needs to be put in a personal context.

If you could somehow magically be able to interview Greene himself at the festival, what would you most like to ask him? And which of his novels would you most like to discuss and why?

While I would like to hear him talk about his experiences in Vietnam and in writing The Quiet American (1955), I don’t trust interviews – documentation is much more reliable. People work up anecdotes which drifter further from reality as the years pass – and Graham Greene was no exception, nor were those who knew him. Also, Greene was a notoriously difficult person to interview. He had rather practiced answers to most questions and refused to address personal matters. I would rather step aside as interviewer and hand him over to, say, Jeremy Paxman and let the two of them fight it out.

I am very much looking forward to attending the festival – and not just because I have recently set a spy novel against the backdrop of a fictional Graham Greene conference. Are you looking forward to any events in particular?

Your book sounds fascinating – and a lot of fun! Good luck with it! I think we have a wonderful line-up of speakers and films. I am looking forward to every one of them. We’ve had a lot of interest in the sessions on Jay Parini’s novel about Greene in Sierra Leone and Michael Mewshaw’s memoir of Greene in Antibes. Festival goers also seem very interested in the two sessions on Kim Philby. One session that may surprise people is Matthew Butler’s talk on the real priest in Tabasco who inspired the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory – he’s found many letters the man wrote while on the run. But every session has the potential to surprise listeners. They should come and enjoy!

The 24th Graham Greene International Festival takes place from the 28th September to 1st October 2023 and tickets are available here.

Thomas Waugh is the author of Eastern Approaches, published by Sharpe Books.