Sunday, June 12, 2022

Brighton Rock and all that.

The first serious book I ever read was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. It was the compulsory text for my English Literature O level and I still have the thin Penguin Classic edition with passages underlined in pencil. Reading it transformed my perspective on fiction, setting the tone for the novels I'd prefer thereafter. And ironically, for a boy who loathed the prospect of double English every Thursday, it is one of the few physical legacies of my school days.

Brighton Rock is also the only book that I can say with confidence I've read three times. In my twenties, I went through almost every other title by Greene, but most have sat unopened on my bookshelves ever since. Only recently have I started to revisit them, reminding myself of how excellent a writer he was, and how the recurring themes of his work mirror questions I've wrestled with all my life. Listening to them now, with the benefit of half a century's experience, it's obvious how his character's inner struggles are as autobiographical as their colonial settings. 

I used the words 'revisit' and 'listening' in the last paragraph because I've not been rereading the novels as such. Rather, I've been playing them on Audible, one of my more delightful discoveries this year. The author Stephen King in his book 'On Writing' recommends listening regularly to audiobooks, saying he always has one on the go. And yet, despite my considering his advice to be generally excellent, the only ones I'd ever previously bought were children's CDs to keep our boys amused on long car journeys. 

It's interesting though, how they remember them still.  

Listening to books being read aloud is a different experience from holding a copy in your hands. I'm glad to have 'read' Greene's complex novels first, albeit decades ago. But I'm glad too that I can listen to them again now, in the gym (yes, really!), in my car; walking on the beach... As I do so, I often think of my grandfather and how as he grew progressively more blind he went from those dreadful large print books to fiddly eight-track cassettes and eventually to the limited fare on the radio because there was nothing else available. How thrilled he'd have been with today's technology.

Many writers dislike e-readers, and perhaps understandably, booksellers are non too keen either. But it's worth reflecting on how almost overnight they increased the quality and quantity of titles available to those with visual impairment. The early versions of the Kindle even had a text-to-voice transcription, which though somewhat robotic was a godsend to many. For those of us who struggle with small print, the ability to change the point size at the touch of a button is almost as transformative. 

Audible takes all this step further with top-quality narrators, synchronisation features that allow you to skip from e-book to audio and back again, and a catalogue that's more extensive than most local libraries. And there must be many people for whom simply finding the time to read is a challenge with busy jobs, young families and household chores to juggle —yet their daily commute might provide many hours for books they'd never get round to otherwise — I know my son listens every day on his walk to work.

And so for someone who was very sceptical of 'yet another subscription' I have to say, I'm a convert. I suppose part of the reason is that I believe we should recognise where progress has genuinely been made. I've no affinity to Amazon and am as aware as anyone that as a company they're far from saints (oh how Graham Greene is that). But Audiobooks (of which Audible dominates) are now the fastest-growing sector of the market, introducing millions of listeners to books of all types. Some will no doubt remain wary and curmudgeonly regardless, but I reckon their success is worth celebrating.

All of which is a bit of a ramble from Brighton Rock and my school age curriculum. Although, isn't that how reading and writing go. Like so many of Greene's characters, we stumble from one situation to another, carrying our crosses to an uncertain destiny... Okay, let's not stretch the metaphor too far...  The point, if there is one at all, is that good literature endures, whatever form it takes —from Brighton Rock to blogs; from Penguin to Kindle, from O level to Audible; it's all the same thing.


  1. I recently heard someone say (on a podcast! another addiction of mine!) that the book we read at twenty is not the same book we read at fifty, even if the title is the same. This is so true.
    I do not have an audible account but I do have access to my local library's audio book catalog and I love it. I read books with my ears and my eyes sometimes. Right now I am listening to a book I actually read in print awhile back and it is a joy to hear the words that I first enjoyed so much on the page. I have a strong feeling that a different part of our brains process the words depending on how we take them in. Interesting. Both very valid.

  2. For my husband , who is blind, the books produced by RNIB (Talking Books) have been a blessing. I love the feel of a 'proper' book, though I rely heavily on a Kindle also. Graham Greene was one of the first , as you say, serious, authors that I read, way way back. Along with Nancy Mitford and others.

  3. I've never read that book. I'll order on the library now and give it a try. I like listening to books on tape but I so rarely have the time now, where as reading I can carve out a few minutes here and there.

    When I drove long distances, to Vancouver and back, I would listen to books on tape and loved them. Now my husband drives and I read a book.

  4. Good literatures endures. So true.

  5. It is years since I read this/ Might give it another try as a possible book club book - don't think we have read a Graham Greene.

  6. It is years since I read this - might giiive it another try - could be a Book Club book - don't think we have read a Graham Greene/

  7. I am an Audible fan, listening to books instead of reading it frees up my hands for spinning. The books I go back to are earlier than Greene, and I enjoy the story being told to me. Except, when they adopt a voice I don't like for a particular character. I shall explore Hardy soon, but at the moment 'Middlemarch' , 33 hours of it is the one that lulls me to sleep in the evening.

  8. I went through an intense Graham Greene phase in my late teens/early twenties. Time for a revisit? Perhaps 'Our Man in Havana' as I'm joining a bicycle tour in Cuba in January. All the books are still on my shelves. Will look into Audible too with a long drive to England coming up soon.
    Cheers, Gail.

  9. Hi, Martine from Silencing the bell here. Thanks for the info about the puffins, we went and watched for a while and they are adorable, the island sounds like a wonderful place to visit too. I too read Brighton Rock at school, but the only one I have read in recent years is Travels with my Aunt, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

  10. I have a problem about listening to a story being read to me as my mind tends to go off somewhere else - which doesn't happen when I have a real book in my hands.

  11. Dear Mark,

    I hope you are well. The last book I read by Greene is "Monsignor Quixote" (1982) based on the classic novel, Don Quixote by Cervantes. I read it during the pandemic and it was a potpourri type of novel with various ingredients of comedy, politics, philosophy and religion. The overheated plots in his novels make me shy away from his novels but "Monsignor Quixote" delighted me in the atmosphere of lockdown period. I prefer Evelyn Waugh (another convert to Catholicism) to Greene as I can relate to Waugh's characters more easily.

    I do enjoy listening to the audiobooks. There are writers who read their own books (John Le Carre, for example, was a wonderful narrator) superbly. It is a good way to familiarise with their unique voice in their writing. There used to be a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 called "Quote - Unquote" and it is quite fascinating to see how some of the writers' voices are easily recognisable and others are not. I always take an audiobook when I am travelling as it seems to make the journey goes quicker.

    You can call me predictable but my favourite audiobooks are Neville Jason's reading of "Remembrance of Things Past" (there are two versions by him and I love his unabridged version for Naxos AudioBooks, 2012) by Proust.

    Proust's long sentences never sound stilted and in fact, they sound effortlessly smooth in the way Neville Jason read. I think that the reason why it is special is that not only Neville Jason had the most soothing voice but also he had a keen appreciation for written language and a total command of the spoken word.

    You can sample his reading on youtube if you are interested.

    Have a nice weekend. Apologies for this rambling message.

    With warm wishes, ASD

  12. I have never been a fan of the idea of audiobooks and I'm embarrassed to say I've never even tried one. But I like podcasts and radio documentaries and such, so I don't know why I can't jump the audiobook hurdle. It would certainly be a great way to consume literature. I guess I feel like I wouldn't really be "reading" the book. It feels like cheating.

    I've read a lot of Graham Greene but I never read "Brighton Rock." Maybe I'll try it. (On audiobook...?)