Graham Greene and the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit and the ability to “speak in tongues”, recalls Greene’s Mon

This Sunday is Pentecost, a day on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles while they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the gift of tongues suddenly enabled them to speak in many different languages, malicious observers said it was just drunken babbling (a claim that St Peter answered, saying that in fact it was the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Joel).

This made me think of how Graham Greene dealt with the Holy Spirit, a rather tricky and elusive entity, and, indeed, the subject of wine, in his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote. Some readers may remember the charming Thames Television film adaptation, in which Alec Guinness played the innocent, other-worldly Monsignor Quixote and Leo McKern the communist ex-mayor of their little village who travels across Spain with him to buy the purple bib and socks that go with the rank to which the priest has just been elevated.

The pair stop for the evening at an abandoned farm, and sit by a wall eating sausage and drinking rather a lot of Manchegan wine. Sancho, the ex-mayor, asks his friend to explain the mystery of the Trinity to him. I'm going to quote the passage at length, as Greene is often thought of as being tormented by his Catholicism, but this shows his playful side.

"You see these bottles?" [says Monsignor Quixote.] "Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half-bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."

"I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost," [says Sancho.] "He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."

"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half-bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

"You are very ingenious, friend. I begin at least to understand what you mean by the Trinity. Not to believe in it, mind you. That will never do."

Father Quixote sat in silence looking at the bottles. When the Mayor struck a match to light a cigarette he saw the bowed head of his companion. It was as though he had been deserted by the Spirit he had praised. "What is the matter, father?" he asked.

"May God forgive me," Father Quixote said, "for I have sinned."

"It was only a joke, father. Surely your God can understand a joke."

"I have been guilty of heresy," Father Quixote replied. "I think -- perhaps -- I am unworthy to be a priest."

"What have you done?"

"I have given wrong instruction. The Holy Ghost is equal in all respects to the Father and the Son, and I have represented Him by this half-bottle."

"Is that a serious error, father?"

"It is anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early Council. Perhaps it was Nicaea."

"Don't worry, father. The matter is easily put right. We will throw away and forget this half-bottle and I will bring a whole bottle from the car."

"I have drunk more than I should. If I hadn't drunk so much I would never, never have made that mistake. There is no sin worse than the sin against the Holy Ghost."

"Forget it. We will put the matter right at once."

So it was they drank another bottle . . .

Perfect. And if you get the chance to see the film version you'll see both Guinness and McKern make the most of Greene's gentle meditation on bewilderment and faith. Not one of his most celebrated books, for sure, but still a latter-day reflection "of the master's long-standing preoccupation with doom, pity and the inscrutability of God's will", as the New York Times put it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue