Tag Archives: GKC

What has it got in its pocketses? Bilbo Baggins, GKC and Me

Martin Freeman does a good impression of me running to catch my plane

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…

GKC. will he fit that body scanner?

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?

several pocket’s full of oddments from GKC’s desk

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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!

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Beginning again; re-reading GKC post-9/11

Came ruin and the rain that burns

I have been re-reading GK Chesterton’s astonishing poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the story of how, against all odds, King Alfred the Great resisted the seemingly inevitable collapse of England before the Danes. Chesterton intended his poem not so much as an historical work as a comment on his own times, when he was summoning England to resist the nihilism and despair embodied in the writings of Nietzsche and others. But it became again and again a poem of succeeding times, because it is a poem about the courage to begin again when evrything seems lost. When France fell and England seemed open to swift and inevitable invasion by the Nazis, the times leader was headlined by a quotation from this poem “Naught for your Comfort” which expressed at once the bleakness of our situation and a call to hope and resistance, for the lines go on:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,

Yea, naught for your desire,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

….

“Night shall be thrice night over you,

And heaven an iron cope.

Do you have joy without a cause,

Yea, faith without a hope?”

That same phrase ‘Nought for your Comfor’t was taken up again by Trevor Huddleston in the great struggle against appartheid. Now it sems to me a we come to remember the fall of the twin towers that another part of this great poem can speak to us afresh.

I am reading from a point in the poem where Alfred has been apparently routed at Ethandune and his men are about to give up and accept the inevitability of destruction and defeat. Chesterton suddenly introduce the image of a child patiently building and rebuilding a tower that keeps falling. That child-like capacity to renew and begin again, seems a good thing to remember today

As always you can here me reading the extract on audioboo by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the link in the words ‘beginning again’

From Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Beginning Again

Away in the waste of White Horse Down

An idle child alone

Played some small game through hours that pass,

And patiently would pluck the grass,

Patiently push the stone.

…..

On the lean, green edge for ever,

Where the blank chalk touched the turf,

The child played on, alone, divine,

As a child plays on the last line

That sunders sand and surf.

….

Through the long infant hours like days

He built one tower in vain–

Piled up small stones to make a town,

And evermore the stones fell down,

And he piled them up again.

And crimson kings on battle-towers,

And saints on Gothic spires,

And hermits on their peaks of snow,

And heroes on their pyres,

And patriots riding royally,

That rush the rocking town,

Stretch hands, and hunger and aspire,

Seeking to mount where high and higher,

The child whom Time can never tire,

Sings over White Horse Down.

….

And this was the might of Alfred,

At the ending of the way;

He saw wheels break and work run back

And all things as they were;

And his heart was orbed like victory

And simple like despair.

….

And as a child whose bricks fall down

Re-piles them o’er and o’er,

Came ruin and the rain that burns,

Returning as a wheel returns,

And crouching in the furze and ferns

He began his life once more.

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