I imagine to any passing lorry driver, it probably looked like my car had broken down: it was actually the driver who had
I was at the Oxford Literary Festival at the weekend to give a talk on Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, published 60 years ago in September, and to assess his position in the 20th century literary canon today. When Greene died on April 3rd 1991 – twenty years ago last week – I remember first hearing the news listening to the radio while driving south down the M1 (I was somewhere like the exit for Rotherham).
When I interviewed Vivien Greene, Greene's wife of over 50 years, in the course of researching my Greene biography (focusing on his years with Catherine Walston that inspired The End of the Affair) she told me that the only time she had ever seen Greene himself 'shake' with emotion was when he was first introduced to TS Eliot, a writer and poet that he admired – like Evelyn Waugh – more than any other 20th century writer.
When he was feverishly trying to 'win' Catherine Walston in the late Forties and early Fifties and get her to marry him (she was married to a wealthy left-wing landowner called Harry Walston with an estate near Cambridge) Greene made a habit of presenting her each year with an aquamarine diary that included a hand written quotation (chosen by Greene) for each day of the year. For 13th August 1950, Greene quoted Eliot, from his essay on Baudelaire: 'With the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of an intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us in both poetry and prose… tend to become less real'.
This epigraph sums up much of the enduring appeal of Greene today, whose novels continue to sell and be read because characters – from Bendrix to Scobie – articulate the moral anxieties and paradoxes of 20th century consciousness within a moral scaffolding where actions have real consequences. I rarely feel that when I read most literary novelists today; and I certainly didn't pull over on the hard shoulder of the motorway when I heard than John Updike or Saul Bellow had died.
Strangely enough, however, I did find myself – bizarrely – sitting next to the poet Geoffrey Hill, recently installed at Oxford Professor of Poetry, at the black tie gala dinner in Christ Church on the final evening of the literary festival. While I was able to eat my gourmet curry without shaking, I was acutely aware that sitting next to Hill in Christ Church Great Hall is not unlike sitting next to TS Eliot or WH Auden at dinner and I was thankful that I had been introduced to his work by the brilliant Trinity Cambridge don Eric Griffiths (who was my tutor).
Hill is almost certainly the greatest living poet alive today. While some of his work is truly obscure and 'difficult’ in the way that great poetry, as Eliot once said, should be, I was relieved that I could recall much of the gritty, muscular lyricism of his extraordinary Mercian Hymns and a review he once wrote for the TLS on the new Oxford English Dictionary which ran to 10,000 words. When I mentioned this to him, and asked if the TLS editor knew he was going to be filing 10,000 words, Hill smiled and said: 'Yes, I did warn them it was going to be on the long side.’ They printed every word and the review must be one of the longest ever printed in a newspaper or magazine.
What I had not been expecting, however, was Hill's enormous Prospero-like beard. A tall man, with clear and penetrating brown eyes, Hill has a formidable presence as wel as a gravelly voice that I heard in all its Tennysonian preacher's grandeur the following day when he gave a formal sermon (‘It will take between fifty minutes to an hour, depending on how fast I read,’ he told me) at Sung Matins at 10am the next morning in Christ Church Cathedral. As he stood in the pulpit, with a scarlet robe on, talking about the ‘maiestas’ of the Four Quartets, Hill resembled the bearded St Jerome.
In the 12th century, a monk wrote a famous book called An Apology for Beards which argued that the more matted and dirty hair one had growing by way of a beard, the more it celebrated the 'marvellous mystery' of the soul – the more outwardly unkempt and greasy the beard, the more it revealed 'interior cleanliness' and ‘divine virtue'.
I was almost disappointed to see that despite its length and majestic growth, Hill’s beard did appear to be clean and unspeckled by grime.
At one point in our conversation (we were discussing Auden's passion for detective fiction and the novels of Agatha Christie) Hill's fondness for the 'difficult' over the populist and easy became self-evident. His favourite detective, said Hill, was Kurt Wallander, the laconic and existentialist divorced Swedish policeman in the novels of Henning Mankell. 'Did you like Kenneth Branagh's portrayal?’ I asked. 'Oh no,' replied Hill. 'You must watch the original TV version – in Swedish.’