I have recently had the (for me) thrilling, and (for others) entertaining experience of emptying my pockets in public! I am just back from an adventure in America attending the wonderful Kindlingsfest on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest, a gathering of inklings-minded vagabonds and assorted poets and artists. But in order to get ‘there and back again’ I was obliged to pass through all kinds of searches and high security electronica at various airports. Now I had forgotten I would have to do this and had set off on the adventure, like a certain middle aged hobbit before me, without so much as a pocket hankerchief, but with the usual assortment of bits and pieces in the pockets of the trousers, waistcoat, and old tweed jacket I happened to be wearing when, at the bidding of Dick ‘Gandalf’ Staub, I dashed for the plane. Needless to say when I walked through the electronic arch I set alarm bells ringing. (what a pleasure to do literally what I have so often done metaphorically!) so I was obliged to retrace my steps and empty my pockets (all of them!) into one of their capacious plastic tubs. I was of course just as intrigued and curious as the various security officials as to what I would find there. As I began to retrieve the assortment of pipes, pipe-cleaners, unfinished poems, odd coins, pocket-knives, songs, fountain pens, guitar-picks, bottle-tops, tobacco-pouches, wine-corks, etc., I was suddenly reminded, as I often am, of two great literary moments. The first was of course Gollum’s famous question, to Bilbo, ‘What has it got in its pocketses?’ and I thought it was just as well the orcs hadn’t built Gollum any body scanners (these security devices are very orcish things – and to be honest some of the security guards looked pretty orcish too!) or he would never have got away with the ring. And the second literary recollection was of GK Chesterton’s wonderful essay ‘What I found in my pocket’. I dont think GKC would have fared too well with airport security either, in fact I’m not sure he would actually have fitted through the scanner at all, and as for explaining the sword-stick he habitually carried, well…
Anyway, let me pass discretely over the growing pile of oddments with which I filled their plastic trays and tell you a little more of what GKC discovered in his pockets, and his reflections on those contents. The scene is set as GKC sits in a railway carriage and is asked by a ticket inspector for his ticket, so begins his epic quest:
I have only once in my life picked a pocket, and then (perhaps through some absent-mindedness) I picked my own. My act can really with some reason be so described. For in taking things out of my own pocket I had at least one of the more tense and quivering emotions of the thief; I had a complete ignorance and a profound curiosity as to what I should find there.
I’m with him all the way here, I was surprised and delighted with some of my ‘finds’ though I fear the security guards were less amused.
The first thing I came upon consisted of piles and heaps of Battersea tram tickets. There were enough to equip a paper chase. They shook down in showers like confetti. Primarily, of course, they touched my patriotic emotions, and brought tears to my eyes…
The next thing that I took out was a pocket-knife. A pocket-knife, I need hardly say, would require a thick book full of moral meditations all to itself. A knife typifies one of the most primary of those practical origins upon which as upon low, thick pillows all our human civilisation reposes. Metals, the mystery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel, led me off half-dazed into a kind of dream. I saw into the intrails of dim, damp wood, where the first man among all the common stones found the strange stone. I saw a vague and violent battle, in which stone axes broke and stone knives were splintered against something shining and new in the hand of one desperate man. I heard all the hammers on all the anvils of the earth. I saw all the swords of Feudal and all the weals of Industrial war. For the knife is only a short sword; and the pocket-knife is a secret sword. I opened it and looked at that brilliant and terrible tongue which we call a blade; and I thought that perhaps it was the symbol of the oldest of the needs of man. The next moment I knew that I was wrong; for the thing that came next out of my pocket was a box of matches. Then I saw fire, which is stronger even than steel, the old, fierce female thing, the thing we all love, but dare not touch.
I had a little bladed pipe-tool for cleaning my pipes and I tried to share with the security guards who were asking me about it, some of GKC’s beautiful exposition of the mystery and symbolism of iron and the sword, but they were unconvinced, and sadly it had to be left behind. But let’s return to Chesterton in the railway carriage:
The next thing I found was a piece of chalk; and I saw in it all the art and all the frescoes of the world. The next was a coin of a very modest value; and I saw in it not only the image and superscription of our own Caesar, but all government and order since the world began. But I have not space to say what were the items in the long and splendid procession of poetical symbols that came pouring out. I cannot tell you all the things that were in my pocket. I can tell you one thing, however, that I could not find in my pocket. I allude to my railway ticket.
Ah well, unlike GKC, I did eventually come across my boarding pas and passport, and I was allowed to keep my pipe and pipe-cleaners, on strict promises of good behaviour!
Now I have a treat for you! I know where all the lovely things in GKC’s pocket, and indeed on his desk-top still are! As they would never get through airport security you will have to come and find them, when they are assembled next year in their new home in Oxford. I am a trustee of the GK Chesterton Library and soon, very soon, you will be able to come and see many of his personal effects and his own library of books full of his wonderful annotations, and his chalk drawings and his toy theatre, and so much more. You can read about the library trust here, and through this page you can support us, if you wish, in our efforts to get these treasures properly displayed and housed. You can also connect with the library on facebook here, and follow us on twitter here.
In my pockets I also had an iphone, which would have fascinated GKC, a natural born blogger and communicator. He once sent his wife a telegram saying ‘Am in Market Harborough. Where should I be?’ what might GKC have made of GPS?