Outside England Chesterton is a literary hero.
Christopher Howse meets Fr Ian Boyd who explains the myths surrounding him
GRAHAM Greene named the two greatest journalists of the century recently. One was Claud Cockburn, whom Evelyn Waugh used to call 'my Communist :cousin'. The other was G. K. Chesterton.
Chesterton elevated journalism to a vehicle for penetrating philosophy, according to Fr Ian Boyd, editor of the Chesterton Review. At the same time almost everything in the popular view of Chesterton seems to be wrong.
Fr Boyd appears to have agents in every country on earth. The G. K. Chester-ton Society has offices in Japan, France, Australia, the United States, Poland and Fr Boyd's native Canada. Its most recent coup has been to publish a long lost Father Brown story. But its scope goes far beyond that.
I met the editor of the Chesterton Review in the most stagey surroundings. it was like the last scene of Don Giovanni performed by an old people's home. Baroque hierophantic figures cast weird shadows on the walls.
It was only the library of Campion Hall in fact. The Jesuits' house of studies in Oxford boasts a full store of larger than life figures in regular Society of Jesus sizes — very thin and very fat. So Fr Boyd talked to me in the twilight of the library.
Fr Boyd dresses in a three piece pinstripe suit, with a Roman collar on his shirt and a thin gold watch chain on his waistcoat. His tall boney frame is topped by rather spikey hair and an intelligent glance from behind large spectacles.
He founded the Chesterton Review in 1974 and it now appears quarterly. He insists that the review is not just a Chesterton nostalgia club. It is a vehicle for his line of thought on politics, theology. aesthetics and sociology. And up to now some of Chesterton's worst enemies have been his most ardent enthusiasts.
It is not true that Chesterton's journalism is just inconsiderable ephemera. Fr Boyd holds that Chesterton's best writing is fundamentally journalistic. His method was to interpret events by applying to them his strong imagination.
This imaginative force often gives the impression that Chesterton deals only in symbols. For example he keeps coming back to Prussianism in his writing. This shows not so much a fixation with the real Germany as an anxiety about what the imaginative force of Prussia stood for — the big machine, against the ordinary little man (the theme of his poem The Ballad of the White Horse).
Chesterton was a Catholic — though he was not converted till 1922, only 14 years before his death, in the year of which his own astonishing autobiography appeared — a tour de force of the imaginative vision of events. His best known works were written when he was passing from his Unitarian background, through the nihilistic pessimism of his con
temporaries at the Slade school of art, via Anglicanism towards Orthodoxy.
But Chesterton was not a reactionary. • His politics were radical, liberal and anti-Capitalist. Not an economist by inclination, he settled for a brand of distributism, that is, the distributed ownership of the means of production for everyOne, Again, this was an imaginative option. though one still applicable today. The Glasgow University Distributist Society recently celebrated its 50th birthday.
Fr Boyd comes from a little village in Saskatchew an in which most of the villagers spoke Russian. They were a sort of Quaker ex-Orthodox rural anarchist. Western Canada bred independent minded settlers and farmers.
Many Chestertonians now tend to be bluff and anti-intellectual, Chesterton's brother. whose death in the First World War meant his taking on his weekly paper. was an active Fabian. .Chesterton himself met Shaw and Wells on their own ground. Chesterton's mind was deeply incisive. He shared with James Joyce an appreciation of the theories of beauty in art worked out by Aquinas. Father Brown wasn't half the story.
One of the reasons the casual reader might be deceived into thinking Chesterton shallow is his easy wit and playful approach to words. But in the same way that he saw the material world elevated by the presence of God. he elevated hack writing into a vehicle for powerful themes. He was an incarnationalist in the most practic-al manner. For him, the patterns of window panes revealed the sign of the Cross. ' Like Dr Johnson, he made his living by writing well and fast.
The modern myth is that he was also a bombastic controversialist. For the most part, his writing avoided heated argument. He said that he heard God's words in others' words. This outlook becomes apparent in his sympathetic treatment of Browning. His charity covered nations as well as persons. He began his career by helping Jews from Russia and ended it helping Jews from Nazi Germany. (The myth is that he was anti-Semitic.)
Much of Chesterton's vast output remains unpublished. Fr Boyd spent days during his recent visit to this country winding through miles-of microfilm at the British Library newspaper collection. He is planning to carry unpublished articles in future copies of the Chesterton Review.
Polish academics find Chesterton particularly attractive. Once his newspaper was the only one in England to give the oppressed Poles a platform. There is a spirit in Poland abroad which now embraces the freedoms and rejects capitalism and totalitarianism just as Chesterton had.
Much of the richness and clarity of Chesterton's writing stems from his strong visual sense. His artistic training reinforced the imaginative power of his writing. This year the 'Chesterton Review published some drawings by Chesterton which showed his delight in the • fresh vision of children compared with the short sightedness of adults. The outlook of a child runs as a theme through his autobiography. He also thought that a worthwhile idea should be capable of expression in a picture.
The Review also deals with Chesterton's fellow thinkers — men like Eric Gill, Christopher Dawson or Etienne Gilson. One of Chesterton's most constant admirers was the controversial Marshal McLuhan who died last year.
Fr Boyd is confident of the future of the Review. He suspects there is an untapped supply of genuinely Chestertonian thinkers in England, where he has been oddly neglected.
The Review is there as a meeting point for people with 'sound' ideas, and by this Fr Boyd means not the stuffy or extreme views of dogmatists, but people for whom Catholicism informs their thoughts and their authentic priorities for action.