FROM TALLINN TO NORWICH: GRAHAM GREENE’S CHANCE ENCOUNTER WITH A SPY

 

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Graham Greene first visited the Estonian capital of Tallinn, some 250 miles west of St Petersburg, in the spring of 1934, “for no reason”, he writes in his memoir Ways of Escape, “except escape to somewhere new”. His fellow passenger on the flight from Riga was an ex-Anglican clergyman installed in Tallinn as a Foreign Office diplomat. The two men happened to be reading a Henry James novel in the same edition, and they struck up a conversation. They later spent “many happy hours” together in Tallinn, Greene records, “when I was not vainly seeking a brothel”. (The brothel in question had been recommended to the novelist by Baroness Budberg, a Baltic exile living in London and a mistress, among others, of H. G. Wells.) Greene described his chance encounter as one of “the most pleasant” in his life.

 

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Though the diplomat is not named in Ways of Escape, Foreign Office files identify him as Peter Edmund James Leslie, appointed His Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Tallinn on February 12, 1931. By any standards, Leslie’s had been an exotic life. Prior to the First World War he was Curate of the Church of the Ascension in East London, a turreted red-brick building down by Victoria Docks. The Diocesan Yearbooks for 1916 list “Reverend Leslie” as an Anglican army chaplain; at the war’s end, however, he converted to Catholicism and joined a munitions firm (William Beardmore & Co) as a commercial salesman. Though not wealthy, he moved among patrician circles and had shares in a diamond mine in South Africa. One could imagine him as a spy in an Eric Ambler novel and, it seems, he may have been a spy for the British government.

 

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During the 1930s, Greene’s brother Hugh was a journalist on the Daily Telegraph in Nazi Berlin; Greene called on him there en route to Tallinn in 1934. It is not known what the novelist’s movements were in Hitler’s Germany. On May 4, however, Greene caught the midnight train from Berlin to the Latvian capital of Riga, and from there, on May 12, he boarded a small propeller plane to Tallinn: Vice-Consul Leslie was on the same plane. On arrival in Tallinn, Greene had tea with Leslie in the British Consulate at 17 Lai Street, and afterwards explored the Old City, or Vanalinn. Tallinn’s medieval guildhalls, Russian orthodox onion domes and twisting cobbled streets enchanted Greene. Baroness Budberg’s directions, however, must have been inadequate as the novelist failed to find the bawdy house she had recommended. Later that evening Greene treated Leslie to a vodka-fuelled supper, before wandering back to the Golden Lion Hotel on Harju Street where he was staying. From his room he wrote a slightly tipsy letter to his wife Vivien:

“. . . I’ve been very lucky here. The train takes 10 hours to go the 100 miles from Riga, & as to fly only costs 25/- I flew, a pretty flight along the edge of the Baltic. My luck was to share a taxi to the aerodrome with the Vice-Consul at Tallinn. I had tea with him when we arrived. A charming rather disappointed character, a Catholic who reads nothing but Henry James! I noticed when he unpacked his suitcase that he was carrying The Ambassadors with him. So we more or less fell into each other’s arms. . . . He has lived in Tallinn for 12 years with an interval when he was a commercial traveller in armaments. I gave him dinner tonight and tomorrow I’m having dinner with him. It’s all amazingly cheap here. We had dinner, the two of us, 6 vodkas, a delicious hors d’oeuvres, 2 Vienna schnitzel with fried potatoes, & two glasses of tea. Total bill in one of the swell restaurants 3/6d . . . .”

 

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Greene concluded: “Good night, dearest dearest heart, I’m going to bed early being sleepy after the vodkas”, and signed off “Your Tyg”.

On his return to England that spring of 1934, Greene recommended the British diplomat to his brother Hugh. “Leslie, the nice Vice-Consul in Tallinn, wrote to ask me for a line of intro. to you. He’ll be passing though Berlin while you are on holiday, so I suggested he might find you on the way back to Estonia.”

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