John Carey
Original Copy

Chesterton had a body like a slag heap, but a mind like the dawn sky. He saw the world new, as if he’d just landed from another planet. Mankind’s very existence struck him as wildly improbable. How could anyone take seriously, he demanded, an intelligent being which sustained itself by stuffing alien substances through a hole in its head? His amazement at normality unlocked for him the poetry of Edwardian London, which becomes in his books a magical stage-set, alive with barrel-organ music and fiery orchards of gas-lamps. But Chesterton’s innocent eye rested with most incredulity on the poor. Like the fair-minded cannibals who visit Europe in Montaigne’s essay, he couldn’t understand why the poor didn’t simply fall upon the rich and cut their throats. Wealth filled him with almost physical loathing: he dreamed of bloody revolutions which would smash the 'fat white houses' in Park Lane.

This hatred came partly from his Christianity, partly from his conviction that the rich were, in any nation, the scum of the earth. But it was fuelled too, by his phobia about international finance. When he first saw the neon signs in New York, trumpeting the monopolies of the rich, he remarked what a glorious sight they'd be if only you couldn't read. He believed there was a worldwide conspiracy of millionaires intent on reducing man to docile uniformity and stamping out patriotic urges. The poor, not the rich, were necessarily the real patriots, he argued: the rich could always scuttle off to the Caribbean in their yachts if times got bad. Great Jewish families like the Rothschilds, with ties that spanned national frontiers, appalled him. They were treason personified: all Jews, he suggested, should be made to wear Eastern dress, so that they couldn't pass as loyal natives.

Margaret Canovan, in her acute anatomy of Chesterton's politics, apologizes for these extremes, while sensibly insisting that our knowledge of later horrors makes us incapable of judging his anti-Semitism fairly. His support for Mussolini can likewise, if we switch off hindsight, look quite healthy. It stemmed solely from sympathy with the poor. Mussolini, Chesterton reported, had proved more independent of the rich and done more to coerce employers than any English government. He admired Fascism's contempt for parliamentary rule: Parliament, he'd always thought, was a charade run by a governing clique who were in league, as like as not, with the dark plutocrats of his nightmares. When his brother Cecil unearthed some crooked share dealings involving government ministers, it confirmed his worst fears.

In fact he probably saw through his own obsessions half the time. In his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, the creepy conspirators are all, it turns out, honest policemen in disguise. What remained stubbornly sane about him was the treatment of the poor, though his sanity took the form of battling against all current proposals for their relief. Socialism was no good, he decided, because it aimed to take capital out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of fewer—the politicians. The abolition of private property was a mad idea: the poor existed precisely because someone had abolished theirs. Everyone needed something to express himself through, if it was only a roll of wallpaper or a cabbage patch: property was the art of a democracy. As for the reforms being introducd by the Liberal party, they were just high-minded elitism. They compelled the poor to be thrifty, hygienic and sober, exactly as potential employers would wish. Chesterton stuck out for beer and liberty. The philanthropist, he warned, is not a brother but a supercilious aunt.

He was right, too. The best part of Mrs Canovan's book is her catalogue of the consistently repressive attitudes displayed by the philanthropic reformers. The unemployed, it was proposed, should be segregated from their families to stop them breeding and confined to remote labour colonies where idlers would be firmly disciplined. Such schemes were favoured by Socialists like Beatrice Webb as well as by Liberals. The same tyrannical paternalism inspired the movement for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, and measures like Lloyd George's National Insurance Act, which involved compulsory deductions from wages but denied unemployment relief to anyone who'd been discharged for 'insolence' or left his job 'without just cause.' Old age pensions, introduced in 1908, were to be withheld from those who had been in prison or 'persistently failed to work.' Under the Mental Deficiency Act, a prime Chestertonian bug-bear,'defective' children of the poor could be forcibly removed and subjected to remedies like craniectomy—an operation which killed a quarter of them and left the rest no brainier than before.

The assumption behind all these charitable enterprises was that the poor needed reformative treatment. Chesterton thought they needed a house and a bit of garden like everyone else. This humdrum, sensible opinion reflects his lifelong respect for the common man, as against intellectuals and other cranks. He helped to found the Distributist League, which campaigned to create a prosperous English peasantry by settling the destitute on smallholdings. A beautiful idea, and a sure flop politically. Sadly Chesterton watched his League dwindling into a talking-shop for simple-lifers and vegetarians. But then, he'd never reckoned himself a practical politician. Asked what he'd do if he were made Prime Minister, he said he'd resign at once. He remains a vital force because he held aloft great glaring half-truths about poverty and wealth without which justice dies, and which shuffling practicality prefers to ignore.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.