A hatchet faced photo of a dozen Berkhamsted School Prefects in the Summer of 1922 shows my grandfather, Dennis Goffey, on the far right, standing. Charles Greene, headmaster & father of Graham, is in the centre, and Claude Cockburn, the writer, and friend of Graham, seated (appropriately, he was once denounced as the ‘eighty-fourth most dangerous Red in the world’ by Senator McCarthy) on the far left.
The photo may or may not explain my interest in Berkhamsted’s most famous literary figure – I mean after Ed Reardon.
The following article can be read – complete with illustrations at https://grahamgreenebt.org/our-quarterly-magazine/ – at least until August, I think.
Graham Greene, aged 41⁄2, and the violent genesis of a Brighton shocker?
In Graham Greene’s volume of autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), he recalls a vivid memory from Castle Street, Berkhamsted, when he was about five years old. He is with his nurse walking past a row of old cottages near the canal. There is a crowd of people. A man, threatening to commit suicide, runs into a house. Greene can’t remember what happens next, but his brother, Raymond, suggests that he may (or may not) have seen the man cut his throat in a window on the first floor.
Greene suggests the facts of the story might be found in The Berkhamsted Gazette. His biographer, Norman Sherry, scoured four years’ worth without coming across the relevant article. Or it may be that he saw it and discounted it because it did not quite fit Greene’s story. Either way, I sympathise with Sherry. Reading four years of the Gazette (there is still no digital copy) might cause a scholar to contemplate suicide themselves. Today there are happier alternatives.
The Bucks Herald, Saturday 03 April 1909. ‘BERKHAMSTED. ALLEGED ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.’, the headline screamed, cautiously. This was not quite the story that Greene remembered, but it involved:
- a kerfuffle in Castle Street
- a razor
- reports in The Bucks Herald and (I could now call up the hard copy with the correct date) The Berkhamsted Gazette.
Albert Thorn, an army pensioner, of Berkhamsted was charged with attempting to commit suicide in the town on March 31st 1909. My story shapes the news reports into a single narrative which is supported by army, census and other records in the public domain.
Albert Thorn was 42 at the time of the events described and he had been lodging with his brother’s family in Shrublands Avenue for about eight months whilst he looked for a job. Brother John worked at the Mantle Factory in Lower Kings Road. Mantles were a type of Ladies’ cloak popular at the time. Officially called the Bulbourne Factory, it manufactured various lines in the “Ladies’ Coat, Costume, Dress, Showerproof” trade and at the height of production between the wars would employ a thousand people.
The Thorn brothers had been born in the East End of London to John Thorn, a labourer from London, and Mary, from Cork, Ireland. In the East End, the rag trade was king. Albert himself had operated a boot press when he was 14 years old. He had decided that manufacturing was not for him and joined the army. It is not too difficult to imagine that his parental heritage influenced his choice of regiment, The Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Now he had retired after 18 years, 190 days service. His conduct had been ‘exemplary’ – as John told the magistrate in his brother’s defence – and his references excellent: “Specially suited for caretaker. Most reliable and dependable man”. But there are always fewer caretaker posts than old soldiers. Certainly, John thought, it was Albert’s lack of employment that was the chief cause of his depression.
The day before the attempted suicide, there had been a commotion at the Thorn household in Shrublands Avenue to which the police were called. It seems John Thorn’s wife, Clara, had got fed up with her brother-in-law and thrown him out of the house. Albert was threatening to kill her. A policeman found temporary lodgings for the old soldier at the Fish in Mill Street, opposite the south eastern corner of the Moor, one of a handful of pubs tied to the small Rodwells Brewery in Tring.
The following day, seeing his brother outside the police station, Albert, already several sheets to the wind, kissed him goodbye and told him he was going to throw himself under an L&NW express. John did not believe his brother’s threats because, he said, he’d heard them all before. However, he appears to have had second thoughts and set off in pursuit having enlisted the help of two policemen.
Turning down Castle Street, Albert apparently found time to enter a pub – presumably the Railway Hotel at the bottom of the street near the mill stream (and like the cottages and the Fish, since demolished) – before resuming his plan.
By the time John Thorn and the two policeman reach the bottom of Castle Street a small crowd has formed which includes a four-and-a-half year old writer and his nurse. Someone directs the police to the railway (just beyond the canal) where they apprehend Albert ‘between the fast down rails’ and, on searching him, find a new ‘Splendid’ razor in his pocket. Albert Thorn is charged with attempting to commit suicide and held on remand to stand trial at the next Assizes in Hertford.
Before looking more closely at the differences between Greene’s account and the newspapers’, I wondered if there was anything in Thorn’s army career in India and South Africa that made him particularly vulnerable to depression? He had returned to home service (at Naas, just outside Dublin) in 1898, a year before the Boer War, in which his regiment fought. Could survivor guilt have contributed to his employment woes, homelessness and alcoholism?
Before South Africa, he had served in Bombay (Mumbai) during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1896. The authorities viewed the plague as not only a public health disaster, but a potential threat to British rule. Soldiers were tasked with house to house searches. Anyone found with a fever could be stripped and searched for bubos (swollen lymph glands) in the groin and armpits. Victims would be removed to hospital and their families herded into camps, having first watched all their worldly goods tipped into the street and burnt, and their houses doused with disinfectant and lime-washed. Sometimes the houses were de-roofed or demolished altogether.
Clearly this was a catastrophe for the families but it is hard to imagine it not having a detrimental effect on the soldiers’ mental health, quite apart from the not unreasonable fear of catching plague themselves, and dying horribly, five thousand miles away from their own nearest and dearest.
If Albert’s gloom dated from his army service in India, he was not alone. I wondered if watching a colleague hanged also preyed on his mind? The regimental historian writes:
“A tragic event took place at Deesa [in Gujarat] in the spring of 1897. Private Mooney, suffering from a fit of morbid depression, became obsessed with the idea that one of his best friends, Private Flood, was going to the bad. To save the latter’s soul, as he declared, Mooney shot him dead in his barrack-room. He was condemned to be hanged by sentence of a General Court-Martial, and, as Deesa was more than the stipulated distance from any place where the execution could have been professionally carried into effect, the gruesome duty fell on the staff officer (now Lieutenant-General Sir James Wilcox) and the officers of the detachment.”
Perhaps the gloom is mine as much as Albert’s. He after all maintained that he was just drunk and foolish and very sorry. He had no intention of taking his own life and the fact that he lived until February, 1936 seems to bear this out. Though the fact that he died in the hospital wing of Hemel workhouse suggests that he may never quite have found his feet in civilian life.
On 2nd June 1909 Albert Thorn appeared at Hertford Assizes accused of ‘Unlawfully attempting, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, to kill and murder himself, at Great Berkhampstead, on the 31st March, 1909.’
One feels the language alone could kill a sensitive man. Happily for Albert, the judge accepted the defence claim that he intended no such thing. What’s more the judge suggested that, even if he did, intention was not, of itself, an offence. The jury agreed and Albert walked out of court a free man.
Perhaps Albert’s story is of marginal interest to Greene scholars. But the incident itself was clearly a vivid memory for the writer. He refers to it directly in six works – seven if you count, as Sherry did, unpublished material. It might be argued that the influence of the event reverberates, transformed, throughout his work. Was a middle-aged Pinkie with his razor and vitriol bottle running amok in Castle Street in 1909?
Why the difference between Greene’s version of the story and the newspaper account?
It seems to me that Greene’s memory is accurate – as far as it goes. It bears all the hallmarks of what Esther Salaman calls ‘involuntary memory’ – a memory from a very young age of a traumatic experience. ‘It seems,’ argues Salaman, ‘we do not lay down memories when the stream of our lives runs smoothly.’ Involuntary memories are episodic in nature and often characterised by a sequence of concrete images. Greene’s memory seems to fit this description. He remembers the alms houses, the canal, a crowd, a man running into a house …
Sherry not unreasonably looked for some literary development in Greene’s various revisitings, but the defining quality of such a memory is that it leads nowhere. It is an ‘island in a sea of oblivion’ in Salaman’s phrase – a closed loop, a kind of mental tick. As Greene himself observed of his early memories, ‘the fragments remain fragments.’
The problem for historians (an autobiography – even a sort of one – makes a claim to historical fact) is not the memory per se but the author’s attempt to put it into context. Greene strains to stick facts to the memory – although not to the extent of checking the Gazette himself. But the facts don’t quite adhere. Beat at it as he may, there is nothing the other side of the door. Nothing and everything of course: the point at which his traumatic childhood memory fails is the birthplace of his creative imagination.
A couple of nice ironies occur to me. Firstly, the incident as it turned out, was not actually a suicide but rather the dramatic representation of suicidal thoughts: a description that might equally be applied to some of Greene’s literary output as well as his not infrequent journalistic incursions into harm’s way. The other irony is that even at age four-and-a-half, Greene’s world is informed by the printed word – in this case reported to him by adults. It is a conflation of experience and imagination.
Greene is often called ‘widely travelled’ – with good reason. But he was not unique in that respect a century ago, in an empire that straddled the globe. Albert Thorn had been to India and South Africa in the service of two British monarchs. He had not fought but he had witnessed sights, particularly in plague-ridden Bombay, that he would probably much rather have forgotten, including the judicial murder of a mentally troubled colleague.
Whatever the real driver of his agitation, the fact that Albert Thorn achieved his three score years and ten suggests that he managed to find at least some accommodation with the demons witnessed by a four-and-a-half year old writer in Berkhamsted on the last day of March, 1909.
© Richard Shepherd, 2018.
I think Graham Greene would have enjoyed the unexpected poetry of the surnames in the historical record. Surely only a novelist with a religious frame of mind could have invented Private Flood, or poor old Albert Thorn, travelling to his own personal crucifixion – and resurrection – on the London & North Western Railway.
A Sort of Life, Graham Greene, London Penguin, 1974 (First published by the Bodley Head 1971)
‘Berkhamsted. Alleged Attempted Suicide.’ Bucks Herald. Saturday 03 April 1909. The British Newspaper Archive [ https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000270/19090403/024/0006 visited 25.04.2018]
‘Army Pensioner’s Foolish Conduct’
Berkhamsted Gazette. Saturday 10 April 1909.
‘Berkhamsted Man Discharged’
Berkhamsted Gazette. Saturday 05 June 1909.
National Archives HO 140/272 – A Calendar Of Prisoners Tried At The Assizes
National Archives WO 97/6075 – Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records 1760-1913
Crown and Company The Records of The Second Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Major A.E. Mainwaring, 1911, London, A. L. Humphreys [ https://archive.org/details/crownandcompany00unkngoog visited 25.04.2018]
Room 000, Kalpish Ratna, London, Pan Macmillan India, 2015. A novel about the Bombay plague of 1896 written by two doctors.
Cedric Watts noted the appearance of ‘the despairing man who sought suicide at the almshouses by the humpbacked bridge’ in A Sort of Life, Journey Without Maps, The Lawless Roads, ‘The Innocent’, The Captain and the Enemy, and Reflections.
(A Preface to Greene, Cedric Watts, Longman, London and New York, 1996.) Norman Sherry’s similar list does not include Captain, but does include an unpublished manuscript ‘Fanatic Arabia’. (The Life Of Graham Greene Volume 1: 1904-1939, Norman Sherry, London, Jonathan Cape, 1989-2004.)
” … our memory of a moment is not informed of everything that has happened since; this moment which it has registered endures still, lives still, and with it the person whose form is outlined in it.”
Marcel Proust, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, quoted in A Collection of Moments A Study of Involuntary Memories, Esther Salaman, London, Longman, 1970. This was a study of her own memories of childhood in revolutionary Russia, and of writers (though not Greene) who wrote about their early childhood. I came across it in Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.