The Seventh Gate by Peter Greave


About a year ago my wife´s grandmother died and left me two bookshelfs full of old Penguins, Pelicans and other lovely treats. In amongst these treasures was this book, The Seventh Gate by Peter Greave. To look at, it is a classic Penguin, orange spine, 90p in the UK and sits nicely, unassumingly, near luminaries such as DH Lawrence, Somerset Maugam, Woolf and the rest. But, I wondered one day, drawing out the slim, yellowing volume, who was this Greave and what is this book? I´d never heard of it. Soon I wouldn´t be able to forget it.

The cover is an evocative picture of a vast setting sun on what – we learn after reading the back cover blurb and flicking through the crispy pages – must be an Indian river. There are shadowy figures in boats, a hint at mysticism, a unmistakable exotic attraction. Inside we learn that Greave died in 1977; the book was published in 1976, when he was a fairly well-known playwright (he gave talks on the BBC).

The book then, an autobiography, tells the tale of a young English boy born in Calcutta in India in 1910: this, obviously, is Greave. Immediately we are thrown into he and his family´s colonial world, all told with a wry, comic-tragic tone which is charming, brutal and sensitive at the same time.

Greave´s childhood is blighted by his flasher father, a lying conman who gets run out of the country and drags his children and long-suffering wife to the States and South Africa. Peter escapes their clutches and ingeniously makes it back to India where he runs wild. There are fine descriptions of degredation and adventure here for the reader and Greave never flinches in his descriptions. This is always a book you must meet eye to eye.

It´s hardly a spoiler to be told that Greave´s second Indian adventure comes to a halt with the discovery that he has leprosy – the book is largely sold on that sensationalist news anyway – and in his lifetime he was famous for it: “Leper at Large On Liner” being the headline in the now happily defunct News Of The World.

Greave comes back to England and takes refuge at a small hospital in Essex run by an order of Anglican nuns. It is testimony to his charm and idiosynchratic manner that while, disfigured, being treated there he met a young novice who resigned her novitiate in order to become his wife.

I heartily recommend searching out this little, lost book but any reader must beware for
“He who enters the Seventh Gate may not retrace his footsteps…”