Tag Archives: GK Chesterton

Where to find the Treasure, and A Piece of Chalk!

That Typewriter!

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

That 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.

glorious things drawn with coloured chalks on good brown paper!


Filed under imagination, literature

GK Chesterton; Natural-Born Blogger!

GKC wearing that hat!

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.”
Now what’happens to stick in his fancy’ is always a particular thing, an object, an image, a visual clue, something that catches the eye and opens the mind’s eye. He explains his approach like this:
“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.”
Chesterton wonders whether by writing he might help us to see, whether he
“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.”
Then he addresses his readers in an inspiring call to work at seeing, in a passage which I think should be written in gold letters above every blogger’s desk ( or on the wallpaper of their iPad!):
“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.”
Well in what follows I am going to try! GKC keeps his promise in Tremendous Trifles and ‘blogs’ about stray cats and coloured clouds, about a piece of chalk, the contents of his pockets,  a man running after his hat, a magical toy theatre. These  were all glorious starting places, all portals and gateways into wider realms.
And with his help I am going to do the same.
A Secret Revealed
For now it is time for me to reveal a wonderful secret. These treasures, these starting places, these tactile little nuggets of his life, have not been lost. I have held in my hand the piece of chalk he picked up from white horse down:

The chalk he picked up from White Horse Vale, the pen with which he wrote the poem!

 and the pen with which he wrote the Ballad of the White Horse! I have worn the hat that so often blew and flew from a head so full of ideas!

Yours truly wearing that hat!

I have played with the magical toy theatre of which he said:

‘All the essential morals which modern men need to learn could be deduced from this toy’

The Magical Toy Theatre!

 I am one of the stewards and guardians of these treasures for the Chesterton Library Trust, and at last  we have the good news that these wonderful things, together with a library of Chesterton’s personal books, full of his annotations,will soon be properly housed, displayed and available for people to see! In my next post I will tell you the story of these treasures, the trust we have formed to  look after them, and where they will soon be housed and displayed.
 In the meantime, by way of anticipating that display, I am going to do a series of blog posts on the very things GKC had in front of him on his desk, and about which he himself ‘blogged’, so coming soon:
A Piece Of Chalk,  A Hat To Run After, A Tale Of Two Sticks! And of course A Toy Theatre!


Filed under christianity, literature, Theology and Arts

The Ballad of the White Horse a complete reading in 9 podcasts

In a previous post on the anniversary of 9/11 I read an extract from GK Chesterton‘s extraordinary Ballad of the White Horse, which seemed to me uncannily apt for the day.

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 Dedication

Book I The Vision of the King

Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs

Book III The Harp of Alfred

Book IV The Woman in the Forest

Book V Ethandune: The First Stroke

Book VI Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Book VIII The Scouring of the Horse


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems

The Poets have been strangely silent about cheese!

‘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..


Filed under literature, Poems, Uncategorized