G. K. Chesterton part 1

A Celebration of G.K. Chesterton compiled by Michael Ffinch

Sound effects: Fleet Street newspaper vendors


When I came back to Fleet Street,

Through a sunset nook at night,

And saw the old Green Dragon

With the windows all alight,

And hailed the old Green Dragon

And the Cock I used to know,

Where all good fellows were my friends

A little while ago.

G.K. Chesterton 1874 - 1936


When I turned a corner in Fleet Street, I was always expecting to see him, striding towards me, a winged vision of jovial victory.  The big, proud, humble face under the huge, soft hat, puckered into a thoughtful smile, sprouting from the corner of his mouth, papers bulging from his pockets, under a flapping cloak.

Chesterton used to sit writing his articles in a Fleet Street cafe, sampling and mixing a terrible conjunction of drinks, while many waiters hovered about him, partly in awe and partly in case he should leave the restaurant without paying.

One day the head waiter approached me.

“Your friend,” he whispered admiringly, “He very clever man. He sit and laugh, and then he write, and then he laugh at what he write.”

Ye Olde Cock Tavern Fleet Street
He plunged then into the life of Fleet Street and held it his proudest boast to be a journalist, but he had his own way of being a journalist.


On the whole I think I owe my success, as the millionaires say, to having listened respectively and rather bashfully to the best advice, given by the best journalists, who’d achieved the best sort of success in journalism – and then going away and doing the exact opposite.
In a way Chesterton was always a child. He did not grow at all, except in physical bulk. Writing of Dickens’ characters, he says they don’t progress, they don’t change. They are there as if eternal. If you turned a corner and met Mr Micawber, you would know just what he would look like and very much what he would say. So it was with Chesterton.
I had been long in meadows,
And the trees took hold of me,
And the still towns in the beech-woods,
Where men were meant to be.
But old things held; the laughter,
The long unnatural night,
And all the truth they talk in hell,
And all the lies they write.

For I came back to Fleet Street,
And not in peace I came;
A cloven pride was in my heart,
And half my love was shame.
I came to fight in fairy-tale,
Whose end shall no man know–
To fight the old Green Dragon
Until the Cock shall crow!

All that I loved and hated,
All that I shunned and knew,
Clears in broad battle lightning,
Where they, and I, and you,
Run high the barricade that breaks
The barriers of the street,
And shout to them that shrink within,
The Prisoners of the Fleet.

Bring up Fleet Street news vendors again - and fade

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on May 29th 1874 at a house in Sheffield terrace, Campden Hill, just below the great tower of the waterworks, which so much impressed his childhood imagination.
What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I really recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling. This is where it differs from the other great thrill of the past, all that is connected with first love and the romantic passion; for that, though equally poignant, comes always to a point; and is narrow like a rapier piercing the heart, whereas the other was more like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.

I had the privilege of meeting Mrs Edward Chesterton, and I know where Gilbert got his wit; but remember that there were two giants growing up in that home. For in his own way Cecil was as great a man as his brother.


Cecil was five years younger than Gilbert, who welcomed his birth with the remark, ‘Now I shall always have an audience.’ A prophecy remembered by all parties, because it proved so singularly false. As soon as Cecil could speak, he began to argue, and the brothers’ intercourse henceforth consisted of unending discussion. They always argued. They never quarrelled.
I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament.

I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and I cannot do my duty as a true modern by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am. I am not clear what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault. And I am compelled to confess that I look back to that landscape of my first days with a pleasure that should doubtless be reserved for the Utopias of the Futurist.
The Chestertons were the best sort of Middle Victorian liberals. They had a keen intellectual activity. They tried all theories and systems, religious or political on their merits. And if their judgement sometimes erred, it was because they had not all the facts, or because of the atmosphere of the time.
I was subconsciously certain then as I am consciously certain now, that there was a white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud.


Here are the beginnings of the man’s philosophy in the life and experience of the child. He was living in a world of reality, and that reality was beautiful, in the clear light of “an eternal morning,” which “had a sort of wonder in it, as if the world were as new as myself.” A child in this world, like God in the moment of creation, looks upon it and sees that it is very good. It was not that he was never unhappy as a child, and he had his share of bodily pain.
I had a fair amount of toothache and especially earache.


Curiously enough Gilbert Chesterton does not speak in the Autobiography of any school except St Pauls.


St Pauls, under its High Master Walker, was a school famous for the scholarships it won at Oxford and Cambridge, but such academic triumphs were not to come Chesterton’s ill organised way.

His early days at school were very solitary; his chief occupation being to draw all over his books. He drew caricatures of his masters. He drew scenes from Shakespeare. He drew prominent politicians.

He did not, at first, make many friends.

Chesterton aged 10 by himself



He sat at the back of the room, and never distinguished himself. We thought him the most curious thing that ever was.
I can see him now, very tall and lanky, striding untidily along, smiling and sometimes scowling, as he talked to himself, apparently oblivious of everything passed, but in reality a far closer observer than most; and one who not only observed, but remembered what he had seen.
St Pauls School


GKC’s one scholastic achievement at St Pauls was to gain the Luton prize for verse. This made a stir. For the boys of the eighth regarded the prize as their property and Gilbert was in the Lower School.

The subject set by the examiners for the test was, strange to say, St Francis Xavier.

St Francis Xavier

Sounds of the Junior Debating Club


The Junior Debating Club, which became so central in Gilbert’s life, and which he treated with a gravity, solemnity even, such as he never showed later for any cause; a gravity untouched by humour. It was a group of about a dozen boys, started with the idea that it should be a Shakespeare club; but immediately changed into a general discussion club. They met every week at the home of one or other, and after a hearty tea, some member read a paper, which was then debated. In May 1891 the chairman of the JDC attained the maturity of 17.


The secretary then rose, and in a speech, in which he extolled the merits of the chairman as a chairman, and mentioned the benefit which the junior Debating Club received on the day of which this was the anniversary, viz., the natal day of Mr. Chesterton, proposed that a vote wishing him many happy returns of the day and a long continuance in the Chair of the Club should be passed. This was carried with acclamations.


Towards the end of his school life Gilbert’s voice had not yet broken. His mother took him to a doctor to be overhauled and was told that his brain was the largest and most sensitive that the doctor had ever seen, a genius or an idiot was his verdict on the probabilities. Above all things she was told to avoid for him any form of shock. Physically, mentally, spiritually he was on a very large scale, and probably for that reason of a slow rate of development.


Man is a spark flying upwards. God is everlasting. Who are we, to whom this cup of human life has been given, to ask for more? Let us love mercy and walk humbly. What is man, that thou regardest him? Man is a star unquenchable. God is in him incarnate. His life is planned upon a scale colossal, of which he sees glimpses. Let him dare all things, claim all things: he is the son of man, who shall come in the clouds of glory. I saw these two strands mingling to make the religion of man.



When all Gilbert’s friends were at Oxford or Cambridge, he used to say how glad he was that his own choice had been a different one. He never regretted his rather curious experiences at the Slade School of Art.

Gilbert Chesterton was a fine draftsman. From early childhood it was as natural for him to draw with a pencil as to write with it. And for as long as I knew him, whenever he sat down before a clean sheet of blotting paper, he left it covered with pencil sketches. Great stuff!

Stern Art - what sons escape her?
Soon I was drawing Gladstone's nose on scraps of blotting paper.



Morally his temptations seem to have been in some strange psychic region rather than merely physical. The whole period is best summarised in a passage from the Autobiography, for looking back after forty years Gilbert still saw it as deeply and darkly significant, as both a mental and moral extreme of danger.

There is something truly menacing in the thought of how quickly I could imagine the maddest, when I had never committed the mildest crime. There was a time when I had reached that condition of moral anarchy within, in which a man says, in the words of Wilde, that “Atys with the blood-stained knife were better than the thing I am.” As Bunyan, in his morbid period, described himself as prompted to utter blasphemies, I had an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images; plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide

GKC before he put on weight


Two of his intimate friends, finding at this time a notebook full of these horrible drawings, asked one another, “ls Chesterton going mad?” He dabbled too in spiritualism until he realised that he had reached the verge of forbidden and dangerous ground:


I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire. ln the words that were written for us there was nothing ostensibly degrading, but any amount that was deceiving. I saw quite enough ofthe thing to be able to testify with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will. Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad, or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide. The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.


In the year 1895, in which GK left art for publishing, he came of age.
Suddenly in the midst of friends,
Of brothers known to me more and more,
And their secrets, histories, tastes, hero-worships,
Schemes, love-affairs, known to me
Suddenly I felt lonely.
Felt like a child in a field with no more games to play
Because I have not a lady
to whom to send my thoughts at that hour
that she might crown my peace.



Frances Blogg was the daughter of a diamond merchant, some time dead. The family was of French descent, the name de Blogue having been somewhat unfortunately anglicised into Blogg. Judging by their photographs the three girls must all have been remarkably pretty, and young men frequented the house in great numbers. Some time in 1896, Lucien Oldershaw took Gilbert to call and Gilbert, literally at first sight, fell in love with Frances.

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 peopled it with kings, peoples, republics,
And so made you, very carefully.
All nature is God’s book, filled with his rough sketches for you.



Gilbert sympathized with his future mother-in-law’s anxiety at Frances’s engagement to “a self-opinionated scarecrow,” but I doubt if it occurred to him that the basis of that anxiety was the fact that he was earning only twenty-five shillings a week! Frances herself, Lucian Oldershaw, and the rest of his friends believed he was a genius with a great future and this belief they tried to communicate to Frances’s family. After a long engagement Chesterton married Blogg in June 1901. After marriage Frances seems to have given up the struggle to make him tidy. By a stroke of genius she decided instead to make him picturesque. The conventional frock-coat and the silk hat crowning a mat of hair, disappeared, and a wide-brimmed slouch hat and flowing cloak more appropriately garbed him. As a boy he had been thin, but now he was rapidly putting on weight. the sedentary Daily life and the consumption of a good deal of beer did not help towards a graceful figure. By 1903 G.K. was called a fat humourist and he was fast getting ready to be Dr. Johnson in various pageants. By 1906–he was then thirty-two–he had become famous enough to be one of the celebrities painted or photographed for exhibitions; and Bernard Shaw described a photo of him by Coburn:
GKC: "One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star."


Chesterton is the young Man Mountain, a large abounding gigantically cherubic person who is not only large in body and mind beyond all decency, but seems to be growing larger as you look at him–“swellin’ wisibly,” as Tony Weller puts it. Mr. Coburn has represented him as flowing off the plate in the very act of being photographed and blurring his own outlines in the process.
Bernard Shaw
I was light as a penny to spend
I was thin as an arrow to cleave,
I could stand on a fishing-rod’s end
With composure, though on the qui vive
But from Time, all a-flying I thieve
The suns and the moons of the year,
A different shape I receive;
The shape is decidedly queer.


A couple of years before The Man Who Was Thursday Chesterton had written his Heretics. It’s an amusing book that was more amusing at the time of its publication, when Heretics attacked men more in the public eye, than it would be today when some of them are somewhat forgotten.


Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law – all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause.

The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.


At its appearance Heretics considerably enhanced Chesterton’s fame. In Heretics he took one after another the leading publicists of the day, Shaw, Kipling, Ibsen, Wells and attacked their gospels; but it raised the inevitable question. Asked by Shaw and Wells: if they are heretics, what are they heretics from? What is this orthodoxy that Chesterton opposes to them?
H.G. Wells


Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it.
Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.
William Cowper
Only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin.

Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. The Diverting History of John Gilpin illustrated by Randolph Caldecott
The Diverting History of John Gilpin illustrated by Randolph Caldecott
Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics, who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

Organ music and birdsong

Mr. Mandragon the Millionaire, he wouldn’t have wine or wife,
He couldn’t endure complexity; he lived the simple life;
He ordered his lunch by megaphone in manly, simple tones,
And used all his motors for canvassing voters, and twenty telephones;
Besides a dandy little machine,
Cunning and neat as ever was seen,
With a hundred pulleys and cranks between,
Made of metal and kept quite clean,
To hoist him out of his healthful bed on every day of his life,
And wash him and brush him and shave him and dress him to live the Simple Life.

Mr. Mandragon the Millionaire, I am happy to say, is dead.
He enjoyed a quiet funeral in a crematorium shed,
And he lies there fluffy and soft and grey and certainly quite refined,
When he might have rotted to flowers and fruit with Adam and all mankind.
Or been eaten by wolves a’thirst for blood,
Or burnt on a big tall tower of wood,
In a towering flame as a heathen should,
Or even sat with us here at food,
Merrily taking twopenny ale and cheese with a pocket knife,
But these were luxuries not for him who went for the Simple Life.
The Protestant invokes Christ to sit in judgement on the Church. He accuses the Catholic of preferring the Church to Christ. But Chesterton apologetics, even at this time, refused to admit this dichotomy between Christ and the Church.

The evidence of Christ strengthened the case for the Church.
The evidence of the Church strengthened the case for the Christ.
One believed in each, because of the other.
Arius of Alexandria


A heresy always means lopping off a part of the truth and, therefore, ultimately a loss of liberty. Orthodoxy, in keeping the whole truth, safeguarded freedom and prevented any one of the great and devouring ideas she was teaching from swallowing any other truth. This was the justification of councils, of definitions, even of persecutions and wars of religion: that they had stood for the defence of reason as well as of faith.


This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity; and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism.
Calvin of Geneva
She swerved to left and right, so as exactly to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
There is an excellent biography by the late poet Michael Ffinch, reviewed anonomously:

An affectionate, perceptive biography of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whose spiritual and intellectual life seems far more interesting at this remove than most of his vast writing output. Poet Flinch had access to a wealth of previously unexamined notebooks, letters, and other source material in the keeping of Dorothy Collins, GKC’s secretary for the last 10 years of his life and his literary executor. In the event, the Ffinch entry (which includes a generous sampling of its subject’s prose and poetry) is more tellingly detailed than either Maisie Ward’s discreet (and official) biography (1944) or GKC’s selective autobiography, published posthumously in 1936.
Michael Ffinch
Basically a learned journalist, Chesterton (who was born in London in 1874) is best remembered for his Father Brown detective stories, plus a handful of poems, e.g., “Lepanto” and “The Rolling English Road.” Never wholly free of Financial worries, he was a prolific producer of articles, sociopolitical commentary, literary criticism, essays, novels, plays, and verse that earned him great popularity with post-Victorian readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

GKC was also a widely respected lecturer (a talent he eventually used on radio) and an intimate of his era’s leading men of letters–Hilaire Belloc, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, et al. While much of Chesterton’s work has proven ephemeral, Ffinch brings to vivid life the religious and social passions that informed it. In his persuasive view, GKC, who embraced both Catholicism and Distributism (an economic system based on employee equity) during the 1920’s, was at heart a lover of liberty.

In brief, the author concludes that Chesterton, whose childlike sense of wonder never faltered throughout his life, found freedom in serving God through one true church. In addition to being an articulate and clever defender of the Faith, Chesterton was a visceral anti-Semite. Ffinch deals forthrightly with this aspect of his subject’s character as he does with GKC’s on-the-record admiration for Mussolini and reasoned rejection of the Nazis. Covered as well are Chesterton’s hearty appetites for food, drink, and boon companionship, which made him larger than life–literally as well as figuratively. Beneath the often eccentric bonhomie and facile creativity, though, Ffinch finds a lively, ordered mind whose principal consolations were the eternal verities of Rome. Without overstating the case for Chesterton’s enduring worth, Flinch has done a fine job of bringing an altogether engaging and surprisingly complex literary figure into focus in the context of his times. The text has photographs (not seen), plus a half dozen delightful line drawings, four of which were done by GKC.