Tag Archives: opening paragraph

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

162 BR orange p coverLobby Lud, the man from the News Chronicle was a perpetual disappointment in my youth. If you spotted Lobby Lud, you were supposed to strike him on the shoulder with a copy of the News Chronicle and say, ‘You are Lobby Lud and I claim my £5’. But he never appeared in my home town in South Wales and on the occasion he came to Newport we did not. The paper ceased publication in October 1960 when my chance disappeared for ever.

Why read this novel?

I picked up Brighton Rock from my TBR pile because I needed a thin book to read on the train. It was on the pile as a classic to re-read. I was immediately rewarded with the brilliant opening paragraph of the novel.

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the seam the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something or the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky. (5)

This opening paragraph is acclaimed for setting up the novel’s violence, tension, and the place and time of its events. The first sentence is apparently contradicted by the picture of Brighton on a Whitsun holiday. But we know at once that Hale is doomed.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

I am working on the revision of the first draft of my novel. So I read the most acclaimed novels with attention. Graham Greene was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century and this is one of several of his novels classed as classics.

There is one major novelistic problem for me in Brighton Rock. For this story to work we have to believe in several unlikely aspects of the characters. We have to believe that, knowing his life was in danger Hale would not try to escape; that Pinkie, only 17 years old, would go as far as he does; that Ida really cares enough about a man she barely knew to pursue the truth and put her own life in danger; that Rose is as innocent, stupid and gullible as she acts. None of these are givens, but there would be no story without them.

The story

162 BR filmWe are in the late 1930s. You may be visualising the Boulting Brothers 1947 film, which starred Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Hermione Badderly as Ida Arnold. (The more recent film has not made a big impression.) That rather pasty face, with its scar and huge eyes, a baby face with the eyes of a mean old man, this is the Pinkie of the novel and 1947 film.

Good and evil were themes in the air in the late ‘30s and through the 40s, the time of the Second World War. And they are themes for all times. Graham Greene was a Roman Catholic and embraced these themes. The orthodox Roman church is not the hero of this novel. Rather it is the wholesome goodness of Ida Arnold, (almost a tart with a heart of gold). Pinkie’s evil is set against Ida’s humanity.

Lobby Lud lives on in Killey Kibber, aka Fred Hale, a journalist with the Messenger, in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. He is in Brighton to leave his cards (finders could claim 10/-) and be ready to be challenged by a member of the public.

Pinkie, the Boy, is 17 and trying to assert himself as the leader of a violent gang in Brighton by stepping into the shoes of Kite, slashed in the waiting room at St Pancras station in London. Pinkie organises Hale’s murder, because the journalist exposed gangs in Brighton and is on Killey Kibber duty in Brighton that Whitsun holiday. Pinkie is conscious that if caught he will not hang because he is a minor. But the gang do not lay the false trail according to his directions and in putting this right he meets 16-year old waitress Rose. She is a potential witness and Pinkie has to marry her so that she will not be able to testify against him. But he becomes so revolted by the idea of being tied to her he plans her murder as well.

Brighton West Pier October 2009. By Lars Olsson via Wiki Commons

Brighton West Pier October 2009. By Lars Olsson via Wiki Commons

As the story progresses Pinkie finds that the more violent he becomes, the more he compromises himself with everyone, including of course his God. Meanwhile his hold on his gang diminishes in the face of his rival Mr Corleoni. Evil will get its just desserts.

Ida Arnold, who likes a good time, was friendly with Hale, and she suspects foul play and injustice when she finds he has died. She sets out to find the truth which brings her into conflict with Pinkie. She also tries to rescue Rose but the girl has never received any attention before and is determined to do what Pinkie wants.

Why do we care?

Of course we want Pinkie’s plans to fail. But we also have some sympathy for Pinkie and Rose, they are young and naïve and come from impoverished backgrounds. Pinkie has no concept of any one else’s experiences and feelings. Consequently, he is very dangerous. Although Pinkie is evil, he experiences fear and frustration as his plans unravel. For example when he is tricked and cut at the races.

The poverty of Rose’s parent’s house and of her upbringing are stark. This is the scene when Pinkie goes to get permission for their marriage from her father.

There was only one door and a staircase matted with old newspapers. On the bottom step between the mud marks stared up the tawny child face of Violet Crow violated and buried under the West Pier in 1936. He opened the door and there beside the black kitchen stove with cold dead charcoal on the floor sat the parents. They had a mood on : a small thin elderly man, his face marked deeply with the hieroglyphics of pain and patience and suspicion : the woman middle-aged, stupid, vindictive. The dishes hadn’t been washed and the stove hadn’t been lit.

‘They got a mood,’ Rose said aloud to him. ‘They wouldn’t let me do a thing. Not even light the fire. I like a clean house, honest I do. Ours wouldn’t be like this.’

‘Look here, Mr -.’ The Boy said.

‘Wilson,’ Rose said.

‘Wilson. I want to marry Rose. It seems as she’s so young I got to get your permission.’

They wouldn’t answer him. They treasured their mood as if it was a bright piece of china only they possessed : something they could show to neighbours as ‘mine’. (141-2)

The childish mood persists until Pinkie offers 15 guineas for Rose. It is accepted. Poverty, violence, inadequacy, ignorance, mean-spiritedness – all these in so few lines.

Following the civil ceremony they wander at a loss around Brighton until they return to Pinkie’s lodgings. Finally he graduates in the last human shame (sexual consummation of the marriage) and now he believes he could face anyone. Both young people have been raised as ‘Romans’ and because their marriage is not solemnised in church, they are aware they have committed a mortal sin. Now they are lost they go on to plan more mortal sins.

The references to the church are to not to everyone’s taste, but this novel is an excellent thriller and raises important questions relevant to all beliefs and all times.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) Penguin pp247 (Page references are to the 1977 Penguin edition).

How do you react to this classic? Is it a book you would re-read?

To ensure you are notified of future blogposts please subscribe to email notifications by entering your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Reviews, Writing