I promised last time to tell you a little more about how I came upon these treasures of Chestertoniana,and what is to become of them now. The treasures are the gift of the wonderful collector and enthusiast in whose house I first saw them when I was a young man. He was a bookseller in Bedford and I remember making the journey, past the great statue of Bunyan, to look for what I thought would be an ordinary bookshop. But the address I had been given proved to be a private house in a quiet back street. The book seller who opened the door was an elderly man with a wonderfully warm countenance and a twinkle in his eye. He welcomed me in and let me browse amongst the books by Chesterton he had for sale, many rarities I had been looking for for years. And when he saw my enthusiasm and my exclamations of delight as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, he said ‘step in here I have some things you might enjoy seeing.’ I stepped into another room and there was the Theatre! The hat! the walking stick,! the wonderful old typewriter! the chair in which he sat to write, the curiously shaped walking sticks! the drawings in coloured chalks on brown paper, and shelf after shelf of GKC’s own personal books full of his inimitable annotations!
I looked up to see Aidan Mackey ( for it was he!) smiling with the pleasure of sharing things he loved with a fellow enthusiast. Over the years I came to know Aidan better and visited his magical house many times, gradually realising that I was in the presence of one of the greatest living authorities on GKC, full of a kind of tacit knowledge and familiarity which is not to be found in academia. When the time came for him to retire from book-selling there was a circle of friends, of whom I am one, who formed the Chesterton Library Trust to fulfill his three specific wishes for this collection; that it should be kept together, that it should remain in England, and that it should be made accessible to scholars and to the wider public. And now at last we are going to be able to do all these things. The Library Trust which is affiliated to the GK Chesterton Institute, has at last finished cataloguing the collection and will loan the whole collection to the Oxford Oratory who will display it and make its treasures accessible not only to scholars but to any Chesterton fans, and there will be many, who make the pilgrimage to Oxford to see these things. They are currently housed in the Oxford Centre for Faith and Culture, and available, by appointment for scholars to consult, but as of next year they will be housed, and displayed for all to see in the Chesterton room in the new study centre at the Oratory in Oxford.
A Piece of Chalk
And now, as I review these treasures in my mind, my eyes light on a piece of chalk! When I first held it in my hand, and looked also on his chalk drawings on brown paper I remembered the opebing of GKC’ own ‘blog post’ on A Piece of Chalk in Tremendous Trifles:
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
Ah how often I also reluctantly tear myself away from that delicious task! so we follow GKC downstairs where he asks someone for brown paper to draw on, she wants to give him nice crisp expensive white drawing paper but Chesterton just wants the stuff that parcels were wrapped in:
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
So off he goes with his paper, coloured chalks, a pocket-full of jingling oddments and a head-full of potential poems. But when he gets out on to the great wide Sussex Downs, he realises he has forgotten something!
I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun
There is so much glorious truth in this reflection on goodness as a positive force and reality in the world, a ‘sun-clad power’ as Milton called it, and all springing from a reflection on chalk drawing, but then chalk drawing is maybe where all human art started. Then comes the wonderful ‘turn’ in this essay, the sudden realisation that he is sitting up there on the chalk downs, the very chalk that whitens the white cliffs of Dover!
I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on; it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do; but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
I wonder, as I think of him ‘sitting on an immense warehouse of chalk’, how often we are sitting, unthinking on a vast warehouse of the very resources we need for any task. Desparately searching around in shops for prefab, pre-packed items, prefab, pre-packed ideas, when all we need do is dig a little deeper into the vast resource of our own mind and consciousness, our memory imagination, and maybe digging a little deeper right down into The Ground of our Being, who is God, the one in whom we are being ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ If we dug deep enough we might find what Chesterton called, in another place ‘the buried sunrise of wonder’. but that’s another tale for another time.