A Sort of Death

Friday 27 September, 2019.

I realised when I posted ‘Trouble in Mind’ on my blog that the version published in ASON, the Graham Greene newsletter, had gone out without a couple of corrections. These related to the ‘sunken’ cottages at the bottom of Castle Street. They weren’t, as Greene thought, alms houses. I had removed references to them as such in the final draft.

Not the biggest of big deals, but difficult for an auty.

Last weekend at the excellent Graham Greene International Festival, I suddenly heard my dad saying ‘That’s not the same man you wrote about’. He was looking at a coroner’s report into the suicide of a man, Tom Clarke, who had cut his own throat in Manor Street, in January, 1910.

On Tuesday, I popped into the British Library on my way to counselling and was very relieved to find (from the Berkhamsted Gazette, 22 January, 1910) that, apropos Greene’s sad man at the humpbacked bridge, I was not mistaken, Tom Clarke was not him.

I had spent much of the weekend feeling a bit gutted, to tell the truth. I felt rubbish, raw, naked – those sorts of things. I was quite ready to believe I was mistaken and was racking my brains for where I went wrong.

Thing is this: in a way, I had made a mistake – the mistake that one tends to give more weight to discoveries you make early in your research. In fact I had been so convinced that Albert Thorn was my man, that I stopped looking for other ‘suspects’. I hadn’t thought to check the archives for other possibilities, so I missed someone who, on the face of it (a ‘successful’ throat cutter), was an even better candidate.

But. Poor old Tom Clarke. The M.O. was all wrong. There was no hoohah, no crowd, no spectacle. Just an old man, alone in his kitchen in Manor Street, at the end of his figurative rope. He was discovered by his cleaner.

‘Deceased was very regular in his habits, and very accurate in his accounts.’

But now I wonder if in a strange, Greenelandian way, Tom Clarke was indeed part of the story. At some stage in the boys’ minds, his tragic death had grafted itself on to the other memory.

Raymond wasn’t lying when he said that the attempt in Castle Street had been successful. But he was mistaken. The panic which lodged in his and Graham’s imagination (so much so that it appears in half a dozen Greene writings) was so visceral that, they reasoned, it must surely have had a bad outcome: the memory was ‘sticky’ and crying out for an unhappy ending, which TC’s story duly supplied.

So there we are. Two unreliable witnesses. Two ‘suicides’. One story, perhaps. A sort of death?

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