The Great GKC

There was a time when you would not have to remind people who GK Chesterton was. The chief proponent of beer and beefsteak Catholicism, he was the greatest polemical writer of the late 19th and early 20th century.

For GK Chesterton (1874-1936 ) was a brilliant man whose vast output included brilliant journalism, novels (The man Who was Thursday and the Father Brown detective stories ), poetry (“The Battle of Lepanto” ), histories, biographies, plays and more than eighty books.

An atheist in youth, he converted to the Church of Rome 14 years before his death. He debated some of the most brilliant anti-Christian celebrities of his day, including Bertrand Russell and HG Wells. Here was someone who would have dealt with Richard Dawkins in between the soup and the main course, and used Sam Harris to mop up the gravy.

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908 ) was a call to arms to combat the rise of secularism and the decline of religion in Europe, was and still is regarded by his admirers and detractors as a masterpiece of polemical writing.

“When people stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing; they’ll believe in anything.” Consider much of the blithering nonsense of New Age irrationality. Writer Sam Harris opined that “the New Age has ... made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells [and has arisen] in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence”.

According to his autobiography, as a young man Chesterton became fascinated with the occult. He also was a fringe associate of Yeats and his occult group The Golden Dawn. Educated at St Paul’s School, he attended the Slade School of Art and became an illustrator.

Chesterton married Frances Blogg in 1901; the marriage lasted the rest of his life.

In September 1895 Chesterton began working for the London publisher Redway, where he remained for little more than a year. In October 1896, he moved to the publishing house T Fisher Unwin, where he remained until 1902. During this period, he also undertook his first journalistic work, as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1902, the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column, followed in 1905 by a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, for which he continued to write for the next 30 years.

Chesterton was a large man, standing six feet four inches, and weighing around 20 stone six pounds. His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During the first world war, a lady in London asked why he was not "out at the Front"? He replied: "If you go round to the side, you will see that I am. On another occasion, he remarked to his friend George Bernard Shaw: "To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England." Shaw retorted: "To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it."

Chesterton usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He had a tendency to forget where he was supposed to be going and miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife Frances from some distant (and incorrect ) location, writing such things as: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply: "Home".

In 1931, the BBC invited Chesterton to give a series of radio talks. He accepted and from 1932 until his death, Chesterton delivered more than 40 talks per year. He was allowed (and encouraged ) to improvise on the scripts. This allowed his talks to maintain an intimate character. The talks were very popular

When he died, on the eve of Europe’s descent into the hell of Hitlerlism, a telegram was sent by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli on behalf of Pope Pius XI to the people of England lamenting his death. Chesterton died of congestive heart failure on the morning of June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshamshire.

His is a voice and sensibility we could use today as we face into another period of unreason.

Barnaby ffrench


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