Gargoyles have their place

A.N. Wilson

  • Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce
    Hodder, 522 pp, £25.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 340 67132 7

G.K. Chesterton wrote every day of his life, seldom revising and missing as many targets as he hit. But because of the sheer magnitude of the output, that still leaves a monument of achievement, a mountain of words proceeding from a mountain of a man. Chesterton was the living contradiction of Cyril Connolly’s famous adage, since it could be said that, inside this fat man, there was an even fatter one wildly signalling to be let out. And in the newspaper articles, the editions of GK’s Weekly, the poems (most of them execrable), the Father Brown stories, the fantastical novels, the works of criticism, the religious apologetics, the travel pieces, the parodies, the many public speeches, the Introductions to other people’s books, the Even Fatter Man had many outlets for his energies.

That, primarily, is what journalism on this scale is: energy. It isn’t meant to be lapidary or perpetual; still less is it, in any normal sense of the word, serious. The most deadly type of journalist is the one who takes his or her words seriously: the pontificating columnist with views on everything. This is not to say that nothing they write is true, or indeed, at times, serious. But the occasional nature of the craft – the fact that a deadline has to be met by four o’clock in the afternoon – determines the nature of what they write. It is not Chesterton’s fault that since his death he should have been venerated as an icon, and his words, often scribbled on the backs of envelopes in station waiting-rooms or at pub tables, treated by faithful Chestertonians as if they had been engraved in stone.

Chesterton’s brilliant parodies of 19th-century poets reveal better than anything his aesthetic and literary origins in the Nineties. Of his various versions of ‘Old King Cole’, the Browning parody is perhaps the funniest:

Who smoke-snorts toasts o’ My Lady Nicotine,
Kicks stuffing out of Pussyfoot, bids his trio
Stick up their Stradivarii (that’s the plural).

But the Swinburne is the most loving – it is, indeed, beautiful:

   In the time of old sin without sadness
And golden with wastage of gold
   Like the gods that grow old in their gladness
Was the king that was glad, growing old;
And with the sound of loud lyres from his palace
   The voice of his oracles spoke,
And the lips that were red from his chalice
   Were splendid with smoke.

The obsession of the first generation of Aesthetes with the ‘time of old sin’ – whether a fantastical Alma-Tadema-ish Ancient Rome, or a John Addington Symonds Athens, where pederasty was not merely permissible but praiseworthy – drifted, for those who survived their heady youth of Baudelaire and absinthe, into the Aesthetes’ religion, in which chalices and smoke played their part. John Betjeman understood, and loved, this aspect of our grandfathers’ (or great-grandfathers’) emotional development – witness his many poems celebrating the incense-drowned wonders of the Nineties and the early 20th century (‘Spectacled faces held in thrall’). It was almost as if Catholicism, Roman or Anglo, was their way of coming round from a bad trip, the similarity of its trappings and images to those less wholesome pleasures enjoyed by Swinburne or Baudelaire making it an efficacious substitute – a methadone, as it were, to wean them from the heroin of other varieties of mental decadence. Swinburne was at heart an old-fashioned rationalist of the 1840s, but the younger men – Wilde, Beardsley, John Gray, Lionel Johnson and the rest – all found a spiritual home at some smokey Arts and Crafts altar. No wonder GKC came to do the same.

This is not to say that there was no seriousness about Chesterton, merely that some of his best journalistic hits, and his most serious points, were made in tones of frivolity rather than when he was being trundled onto a public platform – literally or metaphorically – to argue the case for Distributism v. Socialism or Catholicism v. Eugenics. Of all forms of human expression, polemic is surely the most ephemeral. His famous rumpuses with the likes of Shaw, Dean Inge, H.G. Wells and Co now seem dead, only enlivened – as in his marvellous ‘Chuck it, Smith’ verses addressed to F.E. Smith on the subject of Welsh Disestablishment – where the wit is so airy that he has absorbed the matter in question into his own fantasy life.

One feels this when reading an essay, which his present hagiographer quotes, on skyscrapers:

A fine American epic might be written about the battle in the big hotel with its multitudinous cells for its swarming bees. It might describe the exciting battle for the elevators; the war of the nameless and numberless guests, known only by their numbers. It might describe the gallant ally of 55783, who succeeded in seizing and working the 32nd lift; the heroic conduct of 62017, in bringing up an armful of yams and sweet potatoes by the fire-escape; of the deathless deed of 65991, whose name, or rather number, will resound for ever in history.

This was written during the Thirties but it harks back to the Chesterton of three decades earlier, who had written The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday; books which have had their adherents not just among the GKC brigade, but among the more obviously tangential literary observers of this century. Kafka, for example – as Pearce reminds us – read The Man Who Was Thursday, and another admirer was Borges. I remember having a conversation with the great Argentinian about The Man Who Was Thursday during the Falklands War and it seemed appropriate to be discussing a book in which two gangs of conspirators – apparently deadly enemies – turned out to be one and the same lot of people.

What is often called paradox in Chesterton is what the Russian Formalists hailed as the ability of a writer to ‘make things strange’. To this degree, he has much in common with the Martian poets of the Seventies and Eighties. ‘The strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness, or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale,’ he wrote in his brilliant book on Thomas Aquinas. In fact – and this is what makes Chesterton so much more delightful a writer than Belloc – everything he wrote was ‘subjective’, everything in his prose, whether it is the poetry of Browning which is being considered or the intellectual somersaults of Aquinas, becomes Chestertonian. True, there was something embarrassing on occasion about his religious polemics – Heretics, Orthodoxy and so on, all the rather loud prose that so beguiled C.S. Lewis – but there is also something playful and enchanting about his visit to the Vatican in 1930 and his boyish excitement at the uniform of the Swiss Guard:

I could not imagine why this romantic Roman halberdier should in any way remind me of England ... And then I suddenly remembered that long ago, in my older days of scribbling, I had written a ridiculous story about Notting Hill; of which the joke was that a man might die for a little suburb as if for a holy city; and that I had equipped the men fighting for it with the same sort of halberds and heraldic colours.

He overworks the metaphor, of course, until we reach the point where the Vatican is seen as a place as parochial in size as Notting Hill but ‘the reverse of parochial in importance’.

It would not be too Chestertonian to observe that it was only when he was being too self-consciously a Catholic writer that Chesterton now seems so parochial; whereas when he was being parochial and subjective he made some of his most universally memorable utterances. We must all have our favourite bits of Chesterton – few writers have had so many collections made of extracts (Auden’s is the best). If I were to compile one it would have to include the essay on ‘The Advantage of Having One Leg’, a stupendous piece of doodling, which begins with his being laid up with a sprained ankle, and takes off into surreal speculation about whether, when standing one-legged like a stork, he has not seen into some unitary generalisation:

One sun is splendid; six suns would be vulgar. One Tower of Giotto is sublime; a row of Towers of Giotto would be only like a row of white posts. The poetry of art is in beholding the single tower; the poetry of nature in seeing the single tree; the poetry of love in following the single woman; the poetry of religion in worshipping the single star. And so, in the same pensive lucidity, I find the poetry of all human anatomy in standing on a single leg.

The volume from which I have copied those sentences has been in my possession since I was 12 years old: a selection of Chesterton’s essays, published by Methuen, one of the first books I ever bought for myself. The religious apologetics now make my toes curl, and the tuppence-coloured, tub-thumping verse like ‘Lepanto’ or ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ sends me diving for cover; I find that I return to the essays, and to the Father Brown stories, more often than to the longer books, though The Man Who Was Thursday, the Dickens, the Browning and the Aquinas all have marvellous things in them.

The Cobbett is the hardest of these books, by which I mean the most adamantine, the angriest rather than the most difficult to read. Chesterton could have been one of the great radical journalists of our century, and one senses in Cobbett a wistful knowledge of this. When he depicts Cobbett as a man who ‘was simply a man who had discovered a crime’ – that capitalism was a swindle – we could wish that Chesterton had struck out more on his own as a political commentator and recognised that his besetting sin was cronyism. His remarks on Ireland, for instance, are not just those of the would-be RC convert, they are those of the indignant and humane observer who was prepared to notice that ‘the Prussians adopted the destructive method in Belgium; and the English have now adopted it in Ireland. They have crossed a line and the whole world has seen them do it.’ (He was writing at the time of the Black and Tans.) Chesterton hated bullyism and he saw clearly that the story of England and Ireland was in his day – as it remains in ours – the simple, ugly story of a big country bullying a small one.

The friendship with Belloc, seen from the point of view of one who cherishes Chesterton’s independence of spirit, might be regarded as an artistic disaster. Belloc seems like a man with the perpetual grudge of the outsider, who half-wants to belong to institutions, and then savages the institutions in question for failing to give him sufficient reward. Oxford was the first target: a first-class degree wasn’t good enough; Belloc wanted a fellowship at All Souls, and bore a grudge about it for his whole life. Chesterton, whose school reports at St Paul’s presciently recorded that he was ‘wildly inaccurate about everything’, was an indolent student at the Slade School of Art but never cared about degrees, exams or status in this sense. But then he did not need to. He wasn’t half-French; nor were his parents RC at a time when it was still possible to kid yourself (as Belloc did) that anti-Catholic prejudice damaged your chances at Oxford. (The man Belloc most hated was ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, elected to a fellowship in history at Balliol shortly after his own failure: Sligger, unfortunately for Belloc, was a Catholic.)

Chesterton’s parents came from a background of ‘atheist orthodoxy and even atheist respectability ... that was above all normal in suburbia’. They were Liberals, as people like that were. Belloc by contrast carved out his Liberalism from a background in which the oldfashioned radicalism of his English antecedents – his grandfather had given George Eliot the money to translate Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu; his mother, Bessie Parkes, was a pioneer feminist – clashed with the revolutionary positions of the Continent. Belloc was an MP, and had he been a successful one he would probably not have been so convinced that the Rich and the Jews were engaged in a sinister conspiracy to keep the rest of the world in the dark. When you read the rubbish that GKC wrote about the Jews you might be reading Belloc: ‘Cromwell brought the Jews back into England; as early as that they were bound up with the building of the Whig aristocratic state.’

Like Belloc, GKC was passionately anti-Hitler, though in Belloc’s case it sometimes seems this was largely because Hitler was German, rather than because of anything he did or said about the Jews. You can’t defend anti-semitism – as I to my shame tried to do in a book I wrote about Belloc – on the spurious need to see it in its historical context. It is in this same ‘historical context’ that Edwardian clubmen, the aristocracy and London newspapers tolerated a level of anti-semitism which allowed them later to turn a deaf ear to the accounts of pogroms and persecutions in Poland and Germany. John Gross, in his Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, rightly castigates GKC’s anti-semitism as an ‘illness’.

Some analysis of what that illness was like, and where it came from, would be interesting. We don’t get it in Pearce’s book, since this is little more than an extended (and on occasion rather simple-minded) version of the thesis best embodied in Hugh Kenner’s Paradox in Chesterton (1949): that Chesterton was a serious thinker, and that we should disregard the toby-jug ‘jolly journalist’ side and concentrate on his message. To which Gross replies that, had Chesterton ‘been meant by nature to be a theologian, he could have become one, even without the medieval Sorbonne at his disposal’. We don’t want a full-blown psycho-sexual ‘explanation’ of Chesterton, but some investigation of his character along Freudian lines might throw light on the (unintentional) paradoxes of his work – of which the anti-semitism is one of the more glaring. (If ever there was a group who you would have thought would appeal to Chesterton it would be one which was small in number, with ancient links to an exotic Oriental religion.)

Malcolm Muggeridge, in those walks he liked to take with visitors from London, when he was living the simple life of the Sage of Robertsbridge, often spoke to me of Chesterton, whom he had once, as a boy, glimpsed going into a Soho restaurant. He told me that Nicolas Bentley the illustrator, son of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Chesterton’s schoolboy friend at St Paul’s, believed GKC was a suppressed homosexual. There was always something cloying, E.C. Bentley maintained, about GK’s friendship – he wanted too much from his male friends. It was an awareness of this (Mugg spoke only of a latent homosexuality, he wasn’t implying it ever had physical expression) which led Frances Chesterton (GK’s wife) to insist on their leaving London and setting up their crashingly dull household in Beaconsfield.

She desperately wanted children, and the fact that she got medical advice (and even surgical attention) in an attempt to become pregnant gives the lie to her sister-in-law Ada’s (the widow of GK’s brother Cecil) assertion that it was a mariage blanc. Nevertheless, one suspects that, if not absolutely blanc, it was not a union in which the woman found much fulfilment. In an embarrassing essay, quoted with approval by Pearce, GKC wrote, ‘throughout numberless ages and nations, the normal and real birth control is called self control’ – words which make it cringingly clear that he did not know what he was talking about.

Whether he was homosexual, heterosexual or, much likelier, no particular kind of sexual, GKC found his emotional fulfilment in cronies. This was the embarrassing closeness of which Bentley complained; funnily enough, Belloc, too, found it cloying – he did not even bother to turn up to the ceremony in which Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church and the famous pair drifted apart in latter years. Chesterton’s Autobiography stresses the importance in his life of his brother Cecil – a very different type, and to all surviving appearances hideously less congenial. It was Cecil who unearthed, with Belloc, the skulduggery known as the Marconi scandal, in which several members of the Cabinet, including Lloyd George, had bought shares in the Marconi company before it became generally known that the Italian engineer had won the biggest commercial contract in history, connecting up the British Empire by telegraph. That swindling on a colossal scale had gone on is not in doubt. Belloc and Cecil Chesterton, however, ruined their case – which ended up in the libel courts – by harping on the Jewishness of two of the plotters, Godfrey and Rufus Isaacs.

Pearce rightly reminds us that Chesterton, in the old cliché, had many friends who were Jews. The ‘illness’ was caught at the time of the Marconi scandal and the ensuing libel case. (Subsequently, Cecil Chesterton went off to fight in the First World War and was killed, leaving GKC with a permanent and irrational sense of grievance against the Isaacs brothers.) It was Cecil who had befriended Belloc, Cecil who had learned to parrot Belloc’s less original bits of gutter-press anti-semitism, and Cecil who, years before GKC did so, became a Catholic. Chesterton, who knew so clearly the advantage of having only one leg, pined with the weaker side of his nature to have two. He wanted to join a coterie: Fleet Street, with its pubs and bars provided it until his wife (who was clearly a jealous and neurotic woman) compelled him to leave it all behind. It was when he was thrown back on his own society – it sounds like one of his own paradoxes but it isn’t – that he felt so strongly the need to join the Chesterbelloc gang.

The ultimate act of cronyism, perhaps, was to join the Roman Catholics, of whose ideas he had been for so long a champion. He was nearly fifty when he capitulated. Since then, he has been claimed as one of them, so that Joseph Pearce, himself a recent convert, can write such leaden sentences as: ‘In the following decades the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene would epitomise the realism of 20th-century Catholic literature. In the meantime, Chesterton was content to let Baring and a handful of others practise the art of the Catholic novel while he concentrated on controversy.’

This makes it clear enough why there are now serious moves afoot to have GKC made into a saint of the Catholic Church – in which event, Pearce’s book will be welcome reading in the appropriate quarters in Rome. They’ll put a few pencil marks in the margin – Brocard Sewell is a Carmelite friar, not a Trappist monk, the Dominicans are friars, not monks – but on the whole they will perhaps sympathise with Pearce’s convert zeal.

There will, however, be another category of reader, to which I belong: those who think that the original biography of Chesterton by Maisie Ward (1944) hasn’t been improved on, but who would like a short book, dealing, not with paradox in Chesterton, but with a more interesting phenomenon, the paradox of Chesterton. It is easy, after all, to see why the cruder Christian apologists, particularly if they are also alcoholics, have a taste for The Everlasting Man, or ‘The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English Road.’ But what of the others, who (like the people of England in another of his roistering verses) ‘have not spoken yet’?

In order to capture what was so remarkable about GKC you need to see why many of his contemporaries (whom Pearce fails to quote) found him exasperating. One thinks of A.C. Benson, who regarded Heretics as ‘inflated, flashy stuff’ (‘flashy’ is just the right word) and was less than impressed when GKC came to dine in Cambridge: ‘Chesterton sweated so that when he shook hands and held his cigar downwards, the sweat ran down and hissed at the point.’ Or of Dean Inge’s sour comment ‘that the public would soon get tired of the elephantine capers of an obese mountebank.’ Inge, who made a handsome living as an Evening Standard columnist, attributed GKC’s repeated attacks to the jealousy felt by ‘the professional journalist at an interloper’. But a remarkable thing about Chesterton is that he should have set himself up as a ‘controversialist’ while never saying or writing a malicious word about anyone save the Isaacs brothers. He once described his art as that of the carver of gargoyles outside a cathedral – ‘I leave to others the angels and the arches and the spires.’ This was not mock-modesty – it was true. There is a place for gargoyles and for doodles. ‘Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.’ If you find something sublime in that sentence then you will always find something to delight you about Chesterton – even if it is sometimes clouded from view by the incense offered to their idol by the Chestertonians.