In our house we keep the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. The Christmas holidays are a time when I tend to take old favourite books of the shelf, get comfortable in an armchair and re-read and savour familiar passages as much for their familiarity as anything else. In particular I like to savour seasonal favourites, so I have been re-reading some short pieces on Christmas by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Some of these I have read aloud onto podcast and audioboo sites, so I thought I’d gather up the links and share them again with readers of this blog. First up is GK Chesterton’s wonderful little piece ‘The Shop of Ghosts; a good dream’, which I had the pleasure of reading aloud tis year with my friends Jerry and Claudia Root and Pat and Den Conneen. Then, in three short parts, I have posted some readings from ‘A Remaining Christmas’, Hilaire Belloc’s wonderfully partial account of how he kept Christmas at Kingsland, his beloved old house in Sussex. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
Tag Archives: GK Chesterton
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.
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.
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
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.
If GK Chesterton had been born in my generation he would have been a natural-born blogger! As it is, he invented blogging before his time and used the best technology availabe to get his brief, pithy, brilliant posts out there.
Let me explain. Chesterton published a regular series of short, topical thought-provoking essays in all kinds of journals and newspapers, and towards the end of his life, when he was too hot for some big publishing house to handle, in his own paper GK’s Weekly. But what makes him a natural born blogger is the ways he approached the task. In the preface to Tremendous Trifles, a collection of some of his very best, he says something that will ring bells with many bloggers about the way what he writes has to be both personal and public. He calls his writing:
“a sort of sporadic diary—a diary recording one day in twenty which happened to stick in the fancy—the only kind of diary the author has ever been able to keep. Even that diary he could only keep by keeping it in public, for bread and cheese.”
“As the reader’s eye strays, with hearty relief, from these pages, it probably alights on something, a bed-post or a lamp-post, a window blind or a wall. It is a thousand to one that the reader is looking at something that he has never seen: that is, never realised.”
“could not write an essay on such a post or wall… even write the synopsis of an essay; as “The Bed-Post; Its Significance—Security Essential to Idea of Sleep—Night Felt as Infinite—Need of Monumental Architecture,” and so on…. [or] sketch in outline his theoretic attitude towards window-blinds, even in the form of a summary. “The Window-Blind—Its Analogy to the Curtain and Veil—Is Modesty Natural?—Worship of and Avoidance of the Sun, etc., etc.”
“None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don’t let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”
I have played with the magical toy theatre of which he said:
I have had a very positive response to that posting, so at the request of a number of people I have now made a recording of the entire poem which I have organised into 9 podcasts with links to all 9 episodes gathered onto this page.
As I remarked on the 9/11 anniversary ,the poem, whose own 100th anniversary falls this year, is as much a poem about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.
Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.
You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.
My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.
The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite:
‘The Poets have been Mysteriously Silent about Cheese’ GK Chesterton
well, as its Brisish Cheese Week (really!) here’s a little response to GKC:
Poets have been silent about cheese
Because whilst every subject is the message.
Cheese is the very medium of their work.
We drink in language with our mothers milk
But poets curdle words until they bite,
With substance and a flavour of their own:
So Donne is sharp and Geoffrey Hill is sour
Larkin ascerbic, Tennyson has power
(But only late at night, taken with port)
I like them all and sample every sort
from Creamy keats with his mossed cottage trees
tasting the words themselves like cottage cheese
To Eliot, difficult, in cold collations
Crumbling and stuffed with other folk’s quotations..