‘The Basement Room’ by Graham Greene


All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience…

When his parents set off for a fortnight’s holiday, seven-year-old Philip Lane is left at home in the care of the butler and housekeeper, Mr and Mrs Baines. Philip takes the absence of his parents in his stride. He is giddy with his new-found freedom and more than happy to exchange the familiar confines of his nursery of the for the strange new world of the Baines’s titular basement room. Indeed, throughout this story Philip seems to be on a quest to expand his experience even further and explore the world beyond the walls of his parents’ “great Belgravia house.” (“This is life,” he tells himself again and again, the phrase running throughout the story like, well, like a stick of Brighton rock.)

But as Philip pushes against the boundaries of his childhood he discovers that life beyond the nursery is beset with incomprehensible adult concerns. And Philip soon becomes unwittingly entangled in Mr Baines’ extramarital affair – something that has terrible consequences for all concerned; consequences that go far further than the realisation that Philip’s beloved Mr Baines has feet of clay; consequences, indeed, that will reverberate down the years, and colour Philip’s own adult life. (And colour, perhaps, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which seems to be a development and expansion of Greene’s brilliantly compact short story.) 

First published in Town & Country, 1936. Collected in Nineteen Stories, William Heinemann 1947 and Collected Stories, Penguin 1986

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