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.

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