© Audible Studios
I certainly felt ready to read Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt a few months ago. I started this novel just after Britain’s ruling Conservative party had held its annual conference, which itself came after the British electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. Most Conservatives being anti-EU, their party conference this year was shrill and gloating, loud with jingoistic rhetoric about the greatness and specialness of Britain and with xenophobic rhetoric about pulling up the drawbridge against immigrants, Europeans and foreigners generally.
And I began Travels with my Aunt with the words of Prime Minister Theresa May ringing in my ears. In her keynote conference speech, May made it plain that in her view the decent thing to do is to stay at home and not sully yourself with such dangerous concepts as living and working overseas (and presumably associating with foreigners). “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she intoned, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Having lived and / or worked at different times in Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, the Republic of Ireland, North Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Mauritius and – my current place of abode – Sri Lanka, I thought: “Wow, that’s me told. Sorry, Theresa!”
Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was: “Bog off, you ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded, curtain-twitching cretin, you.”
After that, I was eager to get into Travels with my Aunt, written by Graham Greene in 1969. Its story, the back-cover blurb assured me, was a humorous one about an unadventurous Englishman having his mind broadened and horizons widened by foreign travel. And the process whereby he becomes a citizen of the world, rather than remaining a citizen of the stultifying Little England beloved by Theresa May, has an unlikely facilitator – his elderly but still sprightly and impetuous Aunt Augusta.
And for most of its length, that’s how the narrative of Travels with my Aunt unfolds. Henry Pulling is a fifty-something retired and never-married bank manager, living in a sedate part of London with a garden of carefully cultivated dahlias (“the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems”) and an ex-army major next door. His main plan for the future is to produce some home-made jam since “a man in retirement has to have some hobbies if he is not to age too fast”. Had he lived 47 years later, the timid Henry probably wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU – he would’ve been a reluctant Remainer. But I’m sure that, generally, he would’ve admired the cut of Theresa May’s jib.
One day Henry attends his mother’s funeral, which passes with an efficiency and lack of fuss that he approves of: “The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.” At this point he meets Aunt Augusta, his mother’s younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen for more than half-a-century. Henry soon decides it was a good thing his family saw nothing of her for so long: “She had a temperament my mother would not have liked.” But almost immediately, he finds himself entangled in a web of eccentric acquaintances, far-flung locales and not-entirely-legal activities that somehow surrounds the old lady.
By page 12, Henry is visiting his aunt’s apartment above a London pub, which she shares, seemingly intimately, with a burly middle-aged Sierra Leonean called Wordsworth. By page 26, Henry is having visitors of his own – the police, eager to examine the contents of his mother’s ashes-urn, which he unwisely took with him to his aunt and Wordsworth’s flat and which they believe now contains something besides human remains. And twenty pages further, the same police are informing him that there’s “more cannabis than ashes” in the urn.
Meanwhile, Henry also gets roped into accompanying his newly-discovered aunt on her travels. By page 30 she’s made him escort her to Brighton, where she tracks down an old friend called Hattie, who’s now a fortune teller. Giving Henry a tea-leaves reading, Hattie predicts: “…you’re going to travel. Across the ocean. With a lady friend… I see a lot of confusion too and running about.” Henry retorts, “That’s most unlikely… I lead a very regular life. A game of bridge once a week at the Conservative Club. And my garden of course. The dahlias.”
Needless to say, Hattie’s predictions are on the money. By page 60, Henry finds himself heading for Paris in the company of Augusta and a dodgy-looking red suitcase that proves to be “stacked with ten-pound notes”. By page 91 he’s with her on board the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul where she has a rendezvous with a mysterious General Abdul. He makes the acquaintance of an American hippy-chick called Tooley, who offers him a cigarette: “It had an odd herbal flavour, not disagreeable. ‘I’ve never smoked an American cigarette before,’ I said.” And by page 183 Henry is journeying across the South American interior to Paraguay, summoned by Augusta after she’s installed herself there with a former lover called Mr Visconti. There’s no surprise when it transpires that both of them are up to their necks in a smuggling operation.
During their travels Augusta regales Henry with stories – tales of past adventures and lovers that are rambling, fanciful, at times ridiculous and no doubt economical with the truth. But they indicate that the old lady has led a life – in contrast to Henry, who’s managed to spend most of his life in the same bank-branch, first as a clerk, then a cashier, then a manager. The funniest of Augusta’s stories involves a chancer called Curran, with whom she once set up a fake church in Brighton. Called the Doggie Church, it catered for the spiritual needs of canines and, obviously, was designed to fleece the congregation’s owners. “It was Curran who set me reading theology,” she tells her nephew. “He wanted references to dogs. It wasn’t easy to find any – even in St Frances de Sales. I found lots about fleas and butterflies and stags and elephants and spiders and crocodiles in St Frances but a strange neglect of dogs.”
The exchanges between the feisty Augusta and the fusty Henry – who, despite himself, develops a wanderlust and taste for adventure as the book progresses – are a constant delight. Modern readers will have problems, though, with how Greene depicts the character of Wordsworth. Specifically, they’ll be uncomfortable with how he milks Wordsworth’s Sierra Leonean patois for easy and nowadays politically-incorrect laughs: “The telephone talk all the bloody time while you not here… Oh, poor Wordsworth not understand one bloody word. Ar say to them you no talk English. They go away double quick.” Yes, I know, Greene wrote the book in an era when awareness of racial stereotyping, among British authors anyway, was practically non-existent and it seemed acceptable to use coloured characters for comic relief. But still. I found myself cringing every time Greene had Wordsworth open his mouth.
That said, Wordsworth is allowed some development and by the book’s finale he’s become its most virtuous character – certainly its most loyal, probably its most principled. Gratifyingly, Henry’s attitude towards him changes. After viewing him at the start with shock, suspicion and probably lightly-disguised horror, he reacts to Wordsworth’s reappearances in later chapters with the joy of someone reunited with a dear old friend.
Travels with my Aunt is a funny book but there’s a point, near the end, when it suddenly stops being funny. Greene suddenly switches mode from entertainer to moralist. Henry and Augusta have had a lot of fun on their travels, but much of that fun has involved illegality and now there’s a price to be paid. Thus, the story finishes on a sour note. A sympathetic character gets killed, the nephew and aunt find themselves in cahoots with another character who’s utterly unsavoury, and in the final paragraph Henry makes a couple of admissions that show his escape from his mundane existence as a retired English bank manager and transformation into a well-travelled man of the world have cost him his decency.
I still think Theresa May is talking objectionable drivel with her citizen of the world / citizen of nowhere claims. However, if I were debating the matter with her, Travels with my Aunt probably isn’t the book I’d use to back my argument. She might read the ending and jeer: “See? I told you so!”
© Daily Telegraph