Rediscovering G.K. Chesterton – journalist, poet, polemicist and prophet.
Famously named by George Bernard Shaw as "the Chesterbelloc" (or, at least, one half of that lumbering literary monster!), yet known by some of his young friends and admirers as "Uncle Chestnut", G.K. Chesterton was undoubtedly one of the greatest personalities of early 20th-century English literature and verse.
The lasting image of Chesterton (together with his old friend, Hilaire Belloc) is of a man who set forth in a billowing cloak to do battle with the scientific atheism of the Fabians; to state the case against Socialism, and for tradition, spirituality and the ancient Catholic Church; to write reams of verse, combative newspaper articles; and surreal, sometimes almost comical novels and stories which concealed fables and morality tales. Part-priest (but always laughing), a modern-day Dr. Johnson (and just as physically imposing), a Sir John Falstaff (but never a tragic figure), ‘G.K’ delighted – and continues to delight – readers throughout the world. Yet having said that, his presence today – ever so slightly – has faded.
Perhaps this eccentric gentleman in great tweeds, with his fantasies of self-governing London city-states (The Napoleon of Notting Hill), "flying inns", ruddy-faced publicans, sleuth-priests and suburban anarchists, is a little out-of-step with our bland, technological times. And yet, ‘G.K.’ is a man for our times – his messages, his prophecies, and his faith being entirely relevant to the immense problems of life, and the complexities of contemporary living.
This literary hero to so many traditionalists was born in the Kensington district of London, Campden Hill to be precise, on the 29th May 1874. Educated at St. Paul’s School, he was, as a young man, a vigorous participant in debates – even espousing what seemed like a prototype Communism! However, his unsettling rather leftish ideas as expressed at one schoolboys’ debate, and the notion that the state should govern economic life in the interests of all, was – perhaps – not as Marxist as one would think, as in later life he developed the idea of "distributism" – now, a rather esoteric, forgotten theory which aimed to transcend the materialism of both Socialist uniformity and rapacious, unrestrained global capitalism.
A distributist nation
According to Chesterton’s vision of Albion, the country would become a largely co-operative nation of smaller-scale enterprises; with skilled craftsmen making, trading or distributing goods; with property distributed as widely as possible, to encourage freedom and dignity – but with economic life not as an end in itself, but as a means to keep body and soul together. A country of suffiency, not greed – a country of skilled workers and worthy traders – a nation which had the church and tradition at its core: this is the bedrock of G.K’s England.
But the young Gilbert was by no means the certain, convinced, ready-made Catholic and philosopher. Joseph Pearce, in his detailed and lively 1996 biography of Chesterton, gives us a very different portrait of the great writer-in-waiting:
"He was asking the questions but, as yet, had not received the answers. Catholicism, Protestantism, paganism, agnosticism, socialism and spiritualism were all influences to varying degrees at varying times. During these formative years he caught these influences for short periods, much as a man catches influenza… He didn’t accept them as facts but fed on them as fads."
Literature and writing, however, were not his only enthusiasms. Chesterton (a keen doodler and cartoonist) was drawn toward the world of art, and enrolled at the renowned Slade School – although in time drifted away, partly disenchanted by the prevailing fashion of "the moderns", and partly having realised that his talents lay elsewhere. He also enlisted at University College London (1893), where his Latin teacher was the great A.E. Housman, although again, he departed prematurely from his studies. He later reflected:
"It was at the Slade School that I discovered that I should never be an artist; it was at the lectures of Professor A.E. Housman that I discovered
I should never be a scholar; and it was at the lectures of Professor W.P. Ker that I discovered I should never be a literary man."
A brush with the occult
By 1895, and with no degree, G.K. found himself confronted by the dilemma which affects so many aspiring writers – how to live from day-to-day, but still be able to build one’s experience and reputation. Chesterton supported himself by taking employment as a reader of manuscripts at Redway’s, a curious publishing house which specialised in occult texts. But the nature of some of the contributions which landed upon the reader’s desk surprised and shocked him, and he felt compelled to comment upon "the private asylums" from which the manuscripts must have emerged!
This bizarre backwater soon gave way to a more lucrative and mainstream world, that of the publisher T. Fisher Unwin – although Chesterton was still very much the "reader by day, and writer by night". This employment was to last until 1902, but a year after leaving academia, in the autumn of 1896, our literary hero was to find himself at a social gathering which changed his life. Accompanying his old friend from schooldays, Lucien Oldershaw, to the home of the Blogg family in London’s Bedford Park, Gilbert met "the elvish-faced" Miss Frances Blogg – and immediately fell in love.
For Chesterton, Frances corresponded to a romantic, even a religious ideal, and he gave expression to his love in a poem entitled, To My Lady. He wrote:
"God made you very carefully,
He set a star apart for it,
He stained it green and gold with fields
And aureoled it with sunshine;
He people it with kings, peoples, republics,
And so made you, very carefully.
All nature is God’s book, filled with his rough sketches
The poet proposed to his idealised love two years after their first meeting, in the green surroundings – not of the English countryside – but among the woods and trees of St. James’s Park, one of the great lungs of London. His deeply romantic and chivalrous disposition found its complete expression in Frances, and throughout their life together, Gilbert doted on his wife.
Their first home together was in another London setting, south of the Thames at Battersea.
A striking literary landscape
The solid, quiet inspiration provided by Frances was hugely important to G.K. and in the very early years of the 20th-century, he emerged as one of Fleet Street’s great columnists, principally for The Daily News – and later, for that once-great title, The Illustrated London News. Home was no longer amid the Victorian gloom of London’s Battersea, but in the leafy Home County of Buckinghamshire, where the writer and his wife would live for the rest of their days. But one of the most striking of Chesterton’s literary landscapes was in Berkshire – the chalk downland where the English army of King Alfred met the Danes in mortal combat, and from which Wessex and a true English nation emerged triumphantly.
The Ballad of The White Horse from 1911 is a stirring and romantic epic – full of the wonder of history and the past – the very magic and essence of England. One can almost imagine G.K. as a veteran of Alfred’s army – a great bulk of a man, a chieftain, elder or earl perhaps – drinking a tankard of ale before re-telling the story of heroic exploits on the high, green hills.
Stiff, strange, and quaintly coloured
As the broidery of Bayeux
The England of that dawn remains,
And this of Alfred and the Danes
Seems like the tales a whole tribe feigns
Too English to be true.
Yet Alfred is no fairy tale;
His days as our days ran,
He also looked forth for an hour
On peopled plains and skies that lower,
From those few windows in the tower
That is the head of a man.
In these lines from the Ballad, the reader is shown both the romance, the "fairytale" side to our history – and the sense that despite the drama and mythology, Alfred and his men saw the very contours of the hills which we can see today. For Chesterton, the past and the present are indissolubly linked through landscape and legend.
England under Islam
Two years later, the author entered a world of pure make-believe in his novel, The Flying Inn. The book begins in the perfect English seaside landscape of Pebbleswick – a completely fictional place – but perhaps a compound of Eastbourne, Deal, Selsey, or a dozen other towns or villages by the sea. But it is the political and religious landscape of The Flying Inn which is so remarkable – a strange England in which the ruling class has fallen under the spell of Islam – the traditional pub and the practice of beer-drinking having been outlawed by the imperious Lord Ivywood, ruler of this new unhappy land. An outraged and defiant publican, Humphrey Pump, and his friend, the Irish mariner, Patrick Dalroy, decide that they will not be crushed by the unnatural and alien diktat of the regime, and so take to the open road as fugitives – their barrel of ale and pub sign the last symbols of defiance of the downtrodden English.
Despite the serious purpose of the tale, there are moments of great mirth, and Chesterton unleashes one of his most famous "drinking songs" upon us – The Rolling English Road. Just as The Ballad of the White Horse, unites past and present, so this beery verse creates a similar sense of English unity over the centuries.
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
By the time the revellers have come to the end of their rolling journey, they have passed to
"paradise, by way of Kensal Green" – a line that seems to symbolise an important ideal of Chesterton – that heaven itself is an overlooked suburb or an English town that is thought to be commonplace.
Sadly, but perhaps not too surprisingly, The Flying Inn (at least to my knowledge) exists in no modern edition. Modern sensitivities being what they are, the swashbuckling story of plucky natives fighting a foreign regime – with a climactic battle between alien overlords and the people – might be considered too controversial. However, if you ferret through any old bookshop, there is a chance that – beneath the dust – you will chance upon an old copy of this prophetic work.
The unhappy lords
Finally, let us leave Chesterton not in any one place, but in another mood of grave prophecy – a landscape of the mind, if you will. Of all his poems, The Secret People seems to speak out to true, traditionalist Englishmen and women the world over – especially in these anxious and disturbing times when so many of our institutions have been changed, or have disappeared altogether – where nothing seems right. Never harsh, never strident – the emotions which Chesterton evokes might yet inspire the people of the land he loved…
They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God's scorn for all men governing.
It may be beer is best.But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
Chesterton died at his Buckinghamshire home in the June of 1936. With the exception of his close friend, Belloc, there was no-one remotely like him – and his place has yet to be filled. Journalist, novelist, poet, polemicist, visionary, thinker, crusader – ‘G.K.’ surprised, startled, educated and won over readers and audiences throughout the world to his unique wisdom and philosophy. There were giants in the land in those days…
- Mike Smith
- Mike Smith, is Chairman of the Conservative Democratic Alliance (CDA). He was formerly on the Executive Council of the Conservative Monday Club. He is a Chartered Surveyor. Distinguished members of Mr Keith-Smith's family include James Keith, the legendary Prussian Field-Marshal, and his brother George Keith, hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland and friend of Frederick the Great. Through his paternal grandmother he is descended from Frederick Philipse, Dutch-born merchant of New Amsterdam. Distinguished members of the family who subsequently made their life in England included General Sir Frederick Philipse Robinson. Smith was a member of the Conservative Party for 32 years, attaining area rank and serving for several years as Vice-Chairman of Portsmouth South Conservatives. In 2002 he was expelled from the party for attacking Iain Duncan Smith in print. Challenging this unlawful expulsion with a writ, he was readmitted and his costs paid by Central Office. In the 2005 General Election he stood as the UKIP candidate for Portsmouth North. Smith recently won a major test case for libel over the internet against a former schoolteacher.