16 August 2012
The image above shows the first American edition of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, as displayed in the 'Waterlands' section of the British Library's summer exhibition, Writing Britain. The dynamic cover design is the work of the celebrated book designer George Salter. Greene's novel forms part of a modest display devoted to the south coast seaside resort of Brighton. First published in 1938, Brighton Rock lifts the curtain on the Brighton of day-trippers, ice cream and donkey rides on the beach, to reveal a landscape of decrepit boarding-houses roamed by razor-wielding spivs. The civic-minded Brighton Gazette was moved to declare the book a 'gross libel' on the town, and it may have had a point. Though the Brighton of the period was indeed afflicted with areas of poverty and slum housing, its level of violent crime was no worse than that of any other comparably-sized town. Greene's fictional Brighton was, as he has admitted in print, a considerable transformation of the reality. In the autobiographical work Ways of Escape, Greene reflected on his artistic treatment of the town he in fact loved more than any other ('No city before the war, not London, Paris or Oxford, had such a hold on my affections.'):
I must plead guilty to manufacturing this Brighton of mine as I never manufactured Mexico or Indo-China. There were no living models for these gangsters, nor for the barmaid who so obstinately refused to come alive. [...] Why did I exclude so much of the Brighton I really knew from this imaginary Brighton? I had every intention of describing it, but it was as though my characters had taken the Brighton I knew into their own consciousness and transformed the whole picture. I have never again felt so much the victim of my inventions.
If Brighton Rock presents a one-sided picture of the Brighton of the 1930s, it is nonetheless a gripping one, and one that has endured in the public consciousness - thanks also in no small part to the Boulting Brothers classic 1947 film version and in particular Richard Attenborough's chilling portrayal of the psychotic teenage gangster Pinkie, a role he had previously played in a 1943 stage adaptation of the book.
In the exhibition Greene's novel is displayed alongside a handwritten manuscript page from Terence Rattigan's 'outline treatment' for the film - one of many Rattigan drafts in the British Library's collection - and a vintage copy of The West Pier, the 1951 novel by Patrick Hamilton considered by Greene to be 'the best book written about Brighton', superior even to his own.
A CD anthology of Graham Greene's talks, readings and interviews, in which he discusses Brighton Rock, the films that have been made of his books, and his own career as a film critic, among other subjects, was issued by the British Library in collaboration with the BBC in 2007. It is available to buy from the British Library online shop.