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Too Late to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia - Barbara Greene, Paul Theroux ”His brain frightened me. It was sharp and clear and cruel. I admired him for being unsentimental, but ‘always remember to rely on yourself,’ I noted. ‘If you are in a sticky place he will be so interested in noting your reactions that he will probably forget to rescue you.’ Physically he did not look strong. He seemed somewhat vague and unpractical...Apart from three or four people he was really fond of, I felt that the rest of humanity was to him like a heap of insects that he liked to examine...He was always polite. He had a remarkable sense of humour and held few things too sacred to be laughed at. I suppose at that time I had a very conventional little mind, for I remember he was continually tearing down ideas I had always believed in, and I was left to build them up anew. It was stimulating and exciting, and I wrote down that he was the best kind of companion one could have for a trip of this kind. I was learning far more than he realized.”

It all began with too much champagne at a wedding. Graham Greene, I’m sure in jest, asked his first cousin Barbara to go with him to Liberia. He’d asked nearly everyone else he knew and had been turned down with I’m sure a host of very weak excuses, but the elephant in the room, of course, was the question hardest to answer... why would anyone want to go to Liberia?

Barbara said yes.

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The next morning after the bubbly haze of champagne had dissipated there was certainly buyers and sellers remorse.

She told Graham. “I’m sure Daddy won’t let me go.”

Daddy says. “Yes you should go have an adventure.”

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Barbara and Graham Greene about to disembark.

Of course Barbara could have just backed down and Graham would have been relieved. He could have probably scared her with tales of cannibalism and disease and convinced her only a fool would come, but neither one of those things happened which indicates to me that Barbara had the fortitude to stand by her inebriated volunteering and Graham frankly still needed someone to go with him. As it turned out it was fortuitous that he did.

About three weeks into the trip Graham became seriously ill. As he became weaker Barbara became stronger. When he lost consciousness she feared the worse.

“Graham would die,’’ she later wrote. “I never doubted it for a minute. He looked like a dead man already … I was incapable of feeling anything. I worked out quietly how I would have my cousin buried, how I would go down to the coast, to whom I would send telegrams.’’

She took over all his responsibilities for the expedition. She told the porters what to do. She had him carried in a hammock. Instead of her steadfastly following him down the paths and through the elephant grass and shrubs she now lead the way.

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Barbara Greene our Woman in Liberia

In the book that Graham wrote about Liberia called Journey Without Maps he downplays his illness. It is mentioned almost as much as he mentions Barbara which is to say not much. She is a shadowy figure, never mentioned by name in his book, but only referred to as cousin. On the other hand Graham is a towering figure in Too Late to Turn Back. She obsessively observes him with more than a tinge of hero worship. As Paul Theroux says in the introduction: ”He lives in her book as he does in none other that I know.”

”Graham had a little twitching nerve over his right eye. When he felt particularly unwell it would twitch incessantly, and I watched it with horror. It fascinated me, and I would find my eyes fixed upon it till I was almost unable to look anywhere else. I did not tell him about it, for I got to know it so well that I was able to gauge how he was feeling without having to ask him.”

It is always about the little things and one thing that drove Barbara to distraction was Graham’s ever slipping socks.

”Yes, I thought. There’s nothing to be done. Every day I shall have to walk behind him. For the first quarter of an hour I shall watch his socks slipping slowly, so very slowly, over his calves and down to his ankles, and there they will lie, useless, in little round wrinkles, like an old concertina. It’s too awful. I must put my mind on something else immediately, I thought firmly.
For the next quarter of an hour I was fairly happy. I had put my mind on smoked salmon.”

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Barbara’s view for most of the trip until Graham became sick.

Barbara was a woman who admitted that she had flitted away her youthful twenties not doing much of anything. Servants drew her bath and cooks prepared her meals. Her time was her own because her father was wealthy enough that very little was expected of her. At the beginning of this trip she was 27 and by the end she would most certainly be able to say she had done something. She kept alive an important English writer who had many more brilliant books to write.

As the trip ground on she not only dreamed of smoked salmon, but Virginia hams, and lunch at the Savoy Grill. Rats ate her brushes so even the luxury of combing her hair was gone. Everything had to be secured at night because rats and insects would eat anything. A hot bath: god what would she have done for a hot bath? Books were scarce in this climate as the humidity turned them to mold and mush. She did bring copies of Maugham and Saki with her, but soon wished she brought something more challenging for her brain. Something to really take her mind off her sore feet, the stinging bites, and the ever present worry about disease.

”I had read in the British Government Blue Book a list of diseases that flourish in the interior of Liberia. I went over them in my mind. Malaria, elephantiasis, yaws, hook-worm, smallpox, dysentery. Did it also mention plague? I racked my brains and tried to see the print before my eyes. I listened to the rats rushing around my hut, and remembered that plague is carried by rats.”

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The “Little Tart” outside Bassa Town that Barbara didn’t think Graham notice, but oh yes he noticed.

Of course she was an exotic in the interior of Liberia and she was informed by a beautiful king’s daughter: “My fadder says you very fine woman.” Bobby Howes is the king and as they pass wine around slowly becoming drunk the scene becomes more and more surreal. The room was full of the king’s wives and daughters.

”Some of the wives were very good looking and the daughters were lovely. They were lying in each other’s arms, or sprawling over the chief, who brushed them off from time to time, good-naturedly, as if they were flies.”

Skipping forward.

”We soon finished the bottle and were all in a pleasant haze. By this time I hardly knew what was real and what was not. The hut seemed to be fuller than ever of bare arms, legs, breasts, and rats.”

More time passes.

”The wives were leaning back on one another, laughing with the chief and giggling at Graham. The chief gaped at me, watched me with staring eyes. The moment had come, I could not help thinking, when he should burst into romantic song, One could hardly carry on with this scene without music.”

Things seem to teeter on the edge of god knows what.

”The hut was hot and stuffy, filled with the scent of black bodies, and almost overpowering in its atmosphere of sex and drunkenness. The chief was wearing some magnificent rings and bracelets. Without much hope I rather wished he would give me a few.
My fadder says you very fine woman.”

I think Barbara could have bargained for a few of those trinkets if she so desired... If you know what I mean.

I bought this book and Journey Without Maps a decade or more ago intending to read them together. It is rather rare to get two versions of the same trip. I decided to read Barbara’s book first because I felt that reading it after Graham’s book I’d be underwhelmed. Arguably, Graham Greene is one of the finest British writer’s, and certainly one of my favorites I can say now that I’ve finished both books that I did read them in the proper order. Barbara’s book is certainly more of a breezy affair, but so charmingly so.

Barbara kept a diary the whole trip, even bone tired she’d take a few moments to jot down her observations. She had never intended to write a book, but when her father became ill she started reading him passages to entertain him as he lay in bed. In the process she started to put her jottings into a more presentable form and the book Land Benighted (later changed to Too Late to Turn Back) was published. Graham of course was less than thrilled, but she did wait until two years after his book was published to publish her own. I also finished reading Graham’s book and a review is forthcoming. This book is a must read for fans of everything Graham Greene. Homage must be shown to the woman who stepped up when things were most dire and brought GG out of the jungle. Tim Butcher wrote a book following in the footsteps of Graham and Barbara and I will be reading that as well to form a trilogy of reviews.

Link to my Journey Without Maps Review By Graham Greene