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The unsung heroine who saved Graham Greene’s life

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The unsung heroine who saved Graham Greene’s life

Graham Greene’s fearless travels in west Africa established his reputation as
a literary explorer. But, as Tim Butcher reveals, he wouldn’t have survived
without his ladylike cousin, Barbara Greene, at his side

Graham Greene and cousin Barbara ,
Graham Greene and his redoubtable cousin, Barbara Greene, who saved his life during an expedition to Sierra Leone and Liberia

Newspaper readers in Nazi Germany at the end of January 1935 might have
spotted a racy and rather racist cartoon depicting a haughty white female
explorer in Africa. She was drawn in knee-length boots and jodhpurs,
riding-crop in gauntleted hand, glancing cockily over a palm tree-covered
landscape. In the undergrowth a bare-chested native cowered, spear in hand,
lips crudely plumped up in the fashion of 1930s caricature.

With her scraped-back blonde hair and Aryan features, the cartoon at first
glance might appear a clumsy piece of Nazi propaganda.

public recognition for an
otherwise unsung hero

Born in 1907, she had been brought up in great affluence, something made
possible by her millionaire father, a hugely successful commodity broker
known as Eppy, who built his fortune trading coffee in Brazil. Eppy made
enough to buy The Hall, a large pile in Berkhamsted where he installed
Barbara and her five siblings.

But, as I found out during two years of research into my new book, Chasing
the Devil
, it was in fact a rare instance of public recognition for an
otherwise unsung hero
ine of 20th-century African exploration, an
upper-middle-class Englishwoman called Barbara Greene.

Eppy had been drawn to the town because nearby lived his brother, Charles, the
long-serving headmaster of Berkhamsted School. Charles also had six
children, one of whom was to become so famous he would – unintentionally – cast
the rest of his family’s achievements into the shade. Christened with the
first name of Henry, he would be known by his middle name. He was Graham

After studying at Oxford followed by a newspaper apprenticeship, most of which
was spent as a sub-editor on The Times, Graham Greene had embarked in
his mid-twenties on a career as a full-time author. Life was not easy. Sales
of his first four novels were patchy, although one, Stamboul Train,
was made into a film, generating a rights cheque that kept him going for
years in basic rented accommodation, first in the Cotswolds, later in

In search of money, he branched into non-fiction, persuading the publishers
William Heinemann in late 1934 to pay £350 upfront for a travel book about a
journey through Sierra Leone and Liberia. Publicly he always said he chose
those countries as a flight of fancy but, as so often in his career, other
currents were at play. My research showed the Africa trip was a dress
rehearsal for his later wartime service with MI6.

As he prepared for the trip he sought a travelling companion and, as was
common in such a large and close family, he cast his net no further than
siblings and cousins. At the wedding of his younger brother, Hugh, in
October 1934, he asked Barbara, three years his junior. Rather to his
surprise she said yes. They later both admitted that the champagne quaffed
at the reception heavily influenced the exchange.

Although frivolous in origin, his choice of companion was to prove a
life-saving one.

Until then Barbara Greene had done little with her life. She did not study at
university, opting for a nursing course, though she soon tired of a career
in care. Her son, Rupert, told me she regretted frittering away her early
life on London’s social scene. When later writing about the Liberian
adventure she sought to camouflage this, Rupert suggested, by saying she was
23 at the time of the trip, four years younger than her actual age.

Graham Greene was sufficiently well known in 1935 for a national newspaper,
the News Chronicle, to send a photographer to capture the cousins’
departure by ship from Liverpool that January. Immaculate in a Burberry mac,
a pair of gloves and hat, Barbara is not much shorter than her famously tall
cousin. Both have brightly polished shoes. They look as if they are off for
the weekend to Paris, rather than a trek through one of Africa’s tougher and
more remote regions.

After the sea passage to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, they checked in to
the Grand Hotel and prepared for the train journey. At the last moment in
London Barbara had brought a pair of knee-length boots, so she arranged for
a local tailor to make her a pair of ballooning shorts, ones that she later
described as “very brief and unbecoming’’. Self-deprecating almost to the
point of masochism, she once described herself as physically “tall and
hefty’’ and by nature “stolid’’.

On the morning of departure, she donned the shorts and in the half-light of a
Freetown dry-season dawn, walked the short distance downhill from the Grand
to what was then known as Water Street Railway Station.

At the off, the adventure was the property of Graham Greene. He made all the
arrangements and took all the decisions, hiring a team of 24 bearers, three
servants and a cook. A child of the late Edwardian era, Barbara Greene was
happy to go along with this.

But after crossing into Liberia and beginning the trek, a reversal took place.
Graham fell ill, dangerously ill, while Barbara got stronger and stronger.
They had various adventures and almost lost each other in the thick forest,
but the key moment came about three weeks into the walk when his illness
worsened dramatically and he lost consciousness.

“Graham would die,’’ she later wrote. “I never doubted it for a minute. He
looked like a dead man already … I was incapable of feeling anything. I
worked out quietly how I would have my cousin buried, how I would go down to
the coast, to whom I would send telegrams.’’

Calmly Barbara Greene took over responsibility for the trip, settling on the
route, arranging food and motivating the bearers. Having completed the same
trek last year for my book, staying in the same villages and enduring the
same climate, I am in awe of her achievement. And I am in no doubt that she
saved her cousin’s life.

Brought up in a lifestyle where servants ran her a bath and laid out her
clothes each evening before dinner, she coped with a range of discomforts,
including rats that ate every bristle from her hairbrush. She used pit
latrines at night even when all the locals stayed trembling in their huts
for fear of being seen by the village devil – the masked figure with magical
powers who is the keeper of spiritual power in upcountry Liberia.

Yet when the Greenes got home she was, quite literally, written out of the
history of the trip. Graham Greene did not mention her by name in the first
edition of his famous travel book on the adventure, Journey Without Maps.

That might appear a little selfish, spiteful even. Graham Greene admitted to
having been irritated by his cousin as the trek went on. Indeed, her
ballooning shorts were, he said, something that really got under his skin.

But I learnt from my research that the frustrations from the walk were left
behind in Africa and Graham Greene held no long-term grievance. In a private
letter to his mother he gave fulsome praise to his cousin’s spirit. I also
found an early draft of his book in which she was not the only person to be
left out. Initially he made no mention of himself, preferring instead to use
the device of an alter ego called Trench.

Barbara Greene also wrote an account of the trip, originally called Land
and later reprinted as Too Late to Turn Back. In many
ways it is a more accessible and amusing book then that of her literary
cousin, and I find it a pity that today it is out of print.

She went on to have an extraordinary war, trapped in Berlin as the fiancée of
an aristocratic German diplomat, too in love to contemplate leaving. To
survive she skivvied as a char, protected by a family friend, Paul Schmidt,
who happened to be Hitler’s long-standing interpreter.

She belonged to a class and a gender brought up not to make a fuss. I hope she
would forgive me for seeking to make a fuss on her behalf.




September 6, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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