Graham Greene and Oxford’s pubs

Daniel Curtis loses himself in tales of writerly pub trips in the penultimate Through the Looking Glass

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever had to down a few drinks to pluck up the courage to speak with someone you fancy, so intimidated by their attractiveness or by your own burgeoning emotion?

You’re in good company. One of the greatest British novelists of all time, Graham Greene, recalled his crush on a Lamb and Flag barmaid, “who we all agreed resembled in her strange beauty the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. What quantities of beer we drank in order to speak a few words with her”, in his Fragments of Autobiography.

Greene is known to have been a frequent face at the Lamb and Flag, off St Giles. Much like Gerard Manley Hopkins, the subject of this feature a few weeks ago, Greene was prone to bouts of depression and religious doubt both during his degree and during his life, affecting his relationships and work. He graduated with a second class degree, so clearly his skills as a novelist surpassed his abilities as an essay writer.

Greene was to write a number of books, both serious novels and what he called ‘entertainments’, after leaving Oxford. But even these lighter works, Brighton Rock and Our Man in Havanna being just two, were classics which explored twentieth century anxieties, through a lens of tortured Catholicism. It was during his time at University that he first tried his hand at creative writing, publishing a poorly-received poetry collection, Babbling April.

Pub-going authors abound, and when walking down St Giles from North Oxford, it’s sometimes impossible to make it into town without first stepping off the pavement to avoid the usual congregation of tourists crowding round The Eagle and Child. This was where the Inklings, a group of literary-minded friends and tutors which happened to include C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, met. Here, the literary worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth were dreamt up in hazes of revelry and creativity. Would that my own pub trips this Oxmas might be quite so productive.