I have always had mixed feelings about biographies: I have never greatly enjoyed reading them, far preferring memoirs and autobiographies, but writing and researching them has given me more pleasure than anything else in my forty-plus years of literary life. In the early Nineties I was asked, for no very good reason, to write the authorised biography of Cyril Connolly; emboldened by good reviews, I then embarked on lives of Tobias Smollett and Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. I still prefer reading memoirs, and have written three volumes of my own, but I have, almost by default, become a fully-fledged chronicler of other people’s lives, and expect to spend the rest of my working life nosing about in university libraries and reading letters intended only for their recipients’ eyes.

My most recent book has taken me into less familiar territory – the group or multiple biography. About four years ago Graham C. Greene – son of Hugh Carleton, nephew of the novelist, and my former boss in the Chatto, Bodley Head and Cape group of publishers – suggested that I might like to write a book about the Greene family. I knew almost nothing about the Greenes, although, like everyone else, I had read Graham’s novels in the far-off days of my youth; I remembered Hugh Carleton as a controversial Director-General of the BBC, and Felix Greene rang dim bells as the author of rhapsodic accounts of life in Communist China, published by Cape in the early Sixties. I knew from the outset that I had no desire to write a family history, which would be even duller to write than to read: my main worry, in those early days, was that Graham Greene would dominate the proceedings, with Hugh as his lieutenant and the other Greenes in spear-carrying roles. Although Graham has been badly served by his biographers, the last thing I wanted was to add to the pile.

To my relief, both the structure of the book, and the balance between the various members of the Greene family, soon made themselves apparent. Graham Greene’s father was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and had six children; they were known, collectively, as the ‘School House’ or ‘intellectual’ Greenes. The headmaster’s younger brother, who settled in Berkhamsted after making his fortune as a coffee merchant in Brazil, also had six children, and they were referred to as the ‘Hall’ or ‘rich’ Greenes. Of these twelve siblings and first cousins, eight led varied, interesting and well-documented lives. Very early on in the proceedings and long before I realised what extraordinary lives both families had led, I decided to concentrate my fire on that one generation of Greenes, with ancestors and descendants in subsidiary roles; and because I was not writing a family history, I had no compunction about giving short shrift to those Greenes who led uneventful lives of little or no interest to the lay reader – such as Molly, the eldest School House Greene, who fell down a crevasse at the age of eighteen, got married shortly afterwards, and vanished from view thereafter.

Because so many of the Greenes, from both sides of the divide, led such unusual lives, I soon realised – much to my relief – that Graham would not dominate the proceedings, and that, with luck, I could produce a much more balanced book than I had feared: as it happens, Graham, Hugh and Felix are the three Greenes whose lives are of interest from cradle to grave, but the others gave them a run for their money. Before I move on to the perils and pleasures of writing group biographies, I should introduce my particular cast of characters – starting with the School House Greenes. And since Graham Greene is so much better-known than the rest, I will confine myself to saying that three motifs of his career – writing, publishing and espionage – were common to other members of the clan.

Three of Graham’s siblings were what we would now call ‘high achievers’. Hugh, the youngest boy, was the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin correspondent from 1934 to his expulsion in 1939; he covered the Nazi invasion of Poland, ran the BBC’s German Service during the war, directed propaganda against terrorists in post-war Malaya, and ended his days as the Director-General. Raymond was a mountaineer and a hugely respected medical man: he was the medic on the 1933 Everest expedition, and made his mark as a pioneering endocrinologist (glands and goitres) and an authority on frostbite and oxygen deprivation. Elisabeth joined MI6 in 1938, enlisted Graham and Malcolm Muggeridge into the service, and spent the war years with the ‘old firm’ in the Middle East. The black sheep of the family was the eldest boy, Herbert, a remittance man, sponger and drunkard who was sent home from Rhodesia and South America, tried his luck as an amateur spy for the Japanese, wrote a book about his (often imaginary) experiences as a courier during the Spanish Civil War, and led a nationwide campaign of protest when Hugh moved the Nine O’clock News to ten, and phased out the ‘bongs’ of Big Ben.

The Hall Greenes were thought to be rather unworldly and idealistic, less cerebral and hard-headed than their cousins. Ben, the eldest boy, was a case in point. He left Oxford to do relief work in famine-stricken southern Russia, made his mark on the left wing of the Labour Party, and was sent to Germany to help the Jews after Kristallnacht. He then joined the future Duke of Bedford and John Beckett – who had abandoned the British Union of Fascists as insufficiently anti-semitic – in setting up the far-right British People’s Party, and was interned at the same time as Oswald Mosley after being stitched up by MI6. His brother Felix made his reputation as a pioneer radio journalist, interviewing out-of-work miners and shipyard workers, and Sir John Reith sent him, still in his early twenties, to New York to be the BBC’s first North American correspondent. A fervent pacifist, he spent much of the war praying in the California desert with his cousin Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley; always in search of some all-explaining system of belief, he went on to become a passionate devotee of Communist China, and a brilliant maker of documentary films. Their sister Barbara went with Graham Greene to Liberia in 1935, and briefly disconcerted him by writing a far funnier account than his of their travels; she later married a German diplomat, spent the war years in Germany, and took a dim view of Felix’s more credulous escapades.

The idle way of writing a book like this would be to write a brief introductory chapter, giving the family background, followed by eight self-contained chapters, each devoted to a different Greene. I was determined to write a chronological account, and – as far as possible – to interlace and counterpoint their lives: this was easier in the early years, before they had all gone their separate ways, while some chapters – that devoted to Raymond on Everest, for instance – were, by their very nature, devoid of other family members. Juggling so many different lives is a complicated but exhilarating business, and because the Greenes were involved in so many different activities, I found myself having to become an instant expert on broadcasting, mountaineering, spying, right-wing politics and medical matters, as well as covering the more familiar terrain of publishing and literary life.

As a literary exercise, group biography has much to recommend it, but it is also extremely hard work: one needs – and wants – to find out everything one can about each of one’s subjects, just as one does when writing about a single character; but if a volume the size of several telephone directories is to be avoided, then one has to exercise strict self-control and use only a modest proportion of what one has learned. I enjoyed every minute of the research and the writing: I have now embarked on a biography of David Astor of the Observer, and am readjusting – very pleasurably – to the constraints and disciplines of writing a single life.

Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family is published by Jonathan Cape at £25

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