G. K. Chesterton
These fleeting sketches are all republished by kind permission
of the Editor of the DAILY NEWS in which paper they appeared.
They amount to no more than 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. But trivial as are the topics they
are not utterly without a connecting thread of motive. 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. He could not write an essay on such a post or
wall: he does not know what the post or wall mean. He could
not 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.
He could not 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
Contents Chapter I Tremendous Trifles
II A Piece of Chalk
III The Secret of a Train
IV The Perfect Game
V The Extraordinary Cabman
VI An Accident
VII The Advantages of Having One Leg
VIII The End of the World
IX In the Place de la Bastille
X On Lying in Bed
XI The Twelve Men
XII The Wind and the Trees
XIII The Dickensian
XIV In Topsy-Turvy Land
XV What I Found in My Pocket
XVI The Dragon's Grandmother
XVII The Red Angel
XVIII The Tower
XIX How I Met the President
XX The Giant
XXI The Great Man
XXII The Orthodox Barber
XXIII The Toy Theatre
XXIV A Tragedy of Twopence
XXV A Cab Ride Across Country
XXVI The Two Noises
XXVII Some Policemen and a Moral
XXVIII The Lion
XXIX Humanity: An Interlude
XXX The Little Birds Who Won't Sing
XXXI The Riddle of the Ivy
XXXII The Travellers in State
XXXIII The Prehistoric Railway Station
XXXIV The Diabolist
XXXV A Glimpse of My Country
XXXVI A Somewhat Improbable Story
XXXVII The Shop of Ghosts
XXXVIII The Ballade of a Strange Town
XXXIX The Mystery of a Pageant
Once upon a time there were two little boys who lived chiefly
in the front garden because their villa was a model one.
The front garden was about the same size as the dinner table;
it consisted of four strips of gravel a square of turf with some
mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower
bed with a row of red daisies. One morning while they were at play
in these romantic grounds a passing individual probably the milkman
leaned over the railing and engaged them in philosophical conversation.
The boys whom we will call Paul and Peter were at least sharply
interested in his remarks. For the milkman (who was I need say
a fairy) did his duty in that state of life by offering them
in the regulation manner anything that they chose to ask for.
And Paul closed with the offer with a business-like abruptness
explaining that he had long wished to be a giant that he might stride
across continents and oceans and visit Niagara or the Himalayas
in an afternoon dinner stroll. The milkman producing a wand from
his breast pocket waved it in a hurried and perfunctory manner;
and in an instant the model villa with its front garden was like a
tiny doll's house at Paul's colossal feet. He went striding away
with his head above the clouds to visit Niagara and the Himalayas.
But when he came to the Himalayas he found they were quite small
and silly-looking like the little cork rockery in the garden; and when
he found Niagara it was no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom.
He wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find
something really large and finding everything small till in sheer
boredom he lay down on four or five prairies and fell asleep.
Unfortunately his head was just outside the hut of an intellectual
backwoodsman who came out of it at that moment with an axe in one hand
and a book of Neo-Catholic Philosophy in the other. The man looked
at the book and then at the giant and then at the book again.
And in the book it said "It can be maintained that the evil
of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe."
So the backwoodsman put down his book took his axe and
working eight hours a day for about a week cut the giant's head off;
and there was an end of him.
Such is the severe yet salutary history of Paul. But Peter oddly
enough made exactly the opposite request; he said he had long
wished to be a pigmy about half an inch high; and of course he
immediately became one. When the transformation was over he found
himself in the midst of an immense plain covered with a tall green
jungle and above which at intervals rose strange trees each with
a head like the sun in symbolic pictures with gigantic rays of
silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie
stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape yet of
such stony height and dominance that it looked like some incident
of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he
could see the line of another forest taller and yet more mystical
of a terrible crimson colour like a forest on fire for ever. He
set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has
not come to the end of it yet.
Such is the story of Peter and Paul which contains all the highest
qualities of a modern fairy tale including that of being wholly unfit
for children; and indeed the motive with which I have introduced
it is not childish but rather full of subtlety and reaction.
It is in fact the almost desperate motive of excusing or palliating
the pages that follow. Peter and Paul are the two primary influences
upon European literature to-day; and I may be permitted to put my own
preference in its most favourable shape even if I can only do it
by what little girls call telling a story.
I need scarcely say that I am the pigmy. The only excuse for the scraps
that follow is that they show what can be achieved with a commonplace
existence and the sacred spectacles of exaggeration. The other
great literary theory that which is roughly represented in England
by Mr. Rudyard Kipling is that we moderns are to regain the primal zest
by sprawling all over the world growing used to travel and geographical
variety being at home everywhere that is being at home nowhere.
Let it be granted that a man in a frock coat is a heartrending sight;
and the two alternative methods still remain. Mr. Kipling's school
advises us to go to Central Africa in order to find a man without
a frock coat. The school to which I belong suggests that we should
stare steadily at the man until we see the man inside the frock coat.
If we stare at him long enough he may even be moved to take off his coat
to us; and that is a far greater compliment than his taking off his hat.
In other words we may by fixing our attention almost fiercely
on the facts actually before us force them to turn into adventures;
force them to give up their meaning and fulfil their mysterious purpose.
The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary
things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent
to continent like the giant in my tale. But the object of my school
is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man
may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
For this purpose I have taken the laziest person of my acquaintance that
is myself; and made an idle diary of such odd things as I have fallen over
by accident in walking in a very limited area at a very indolent pace.
If anyone says that these are very small affairs talked about in very
big language I can only gracefully compliment him upon seeing the joke.
If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills I confess
with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive
form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills.
But I would add this not unimportant fact that molehills are mountains;
one has only to become a pigmy like Peter to discover that.
I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering
in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything.
Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides when he took
Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed
him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan
in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness but a joy in
beholding smallness in the fact that all men look like insects
at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large;
it is from the level that things look high; I am a child
of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help;
but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills unless it is
absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind;
and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude.
I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle
on me like flies. There are plenty of them I assure you.
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only
for want of wonder.
A Piece of Chalk
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 went into the kitchen (which along with the rest of the house
belonged to a very square and sensible old woman in a Sussex village)
and asked the owner and occupant of the kitchen if she had any
brown paper. She had a great deal; in fact she had too much; and she
mistook the purpose and the rationale of the existence of brown paper.
She seemed to have an idea that if a person wanted brown paper he must
be wanting to tie up parcels; which was the last thing I wanted to do;
indeed it is a thing which I have found to be beyond my mental capacity.
Hence she dwelt very much on the varying qualities of toughness and
endurance in the material. I explained to her that I only wanted to draw
pictures on it and that I did not want them to endure in the least;
and that from my point of view therefore it was a question not of
tough consistency but of responsive surface a thing comparatively
irrelevant in a parcel. When she understood that I wanted to draw
she offered to overwhelm me with note-paper apparently supposing
that I did my notes and correspondence on old brown paper wrappers
from motives of economy.
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.
. . . . .
With my stick and my knife my chalks and my brown paper
I went out on to the great downs. I crawled across those colossal
contours that express the best quality of England because they
are at the same time soft and strong. The smoothness of them
has the same meaning as the smoothness of great cart-horses
or the smoothness of the beech-tree; it declares in the teeth
of our timid and cruel theories that the mighty are merciful.
As my eye swept the landscape the landscape was as kindly
as any of its cottages but for power it was like an earthquake.
The villages in the immense valley were safe one could see
for centuries; yet the lifting of the whole land was like
the lifting of one enormous wave to wash them all away.
I crossed one swell of living turf after another looking for a place
to sit down and draw. Do not for heaven's sake imagine I was going
to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim
and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right
and saints in robes of angry crimson and seas of strange green
and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright
colours on brown paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature;
also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching
by in the field next to me a mere artist might have drawn it;
but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew
the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me
in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver and had
seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts. But
though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape
it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out
of me. And this I think is the mistake that people make about the
old poets who lived before Wordsworth and were supposed not to care
very much about Nature because they did not describe it much.
They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills;
but they sat on the great hills to write it. They gave out much
less about Nature but they drank in perhaps much more. They
painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding
snow at which they had stared all day. They blazoned the shields
of their paladins with the purple and gold of many heraldic sunsets.
The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live
green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten
skies became the blue robes of the Virgin. The inspiration went
in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo.
. . . . .
But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper it began
to dawn on me to my great disgust that 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 which one has either seen or
Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means
something flaming like Joan of Arc. In a word God paints in
many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously I had almost
said so gaudily as when He paints in white. In a sense our age
has realised this fact and expressed it in our sullen costume.
For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless
thing negative and non-committal then white would be used instead
of black and grey for the funeral dress of this pessimistic period.
We should see city gentlemen in frock coats of spotless silver
linen with top hats as white as wonderful arum lilies. Which is
not the case.
Meanwhile I could not find my chalk.
. . . . .
I sat on the hill in a sort of despair. There was no town
nearer than Chichester at which it was even remotely probable
that there would be such a thing as an artist's colourman.
And yet without white my absurd little pictures would be as
pointless as the world would be if there were no good people in it.
I stared stupidly round racking my brain for expedients.
Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter again and again
so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a
man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hour-glass.
Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some
salt water with him for his chemical experiments. 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.
The Secret of a Train
All this talk of a railway mystery has sent my mind back to a
loose memory. I will not merely say that this story is true:
because as you will soon see it is all truth and no story.
It has no explanation and no conclusion; it is like most of the other
things we encounter in life a fragment of something else which
would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen.
For the perplexity of life arises from there being too many
interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any
of them; what we call its triviality is really the tag-ends
of numberless tales; ordinary and unmeaning existence is like ten
thousand thrilling detective stories mixed up with a spoon.
My experience was a fragment of this nature and it is at any rate
not fictitious. Not only am I not making up the incidents
(what there were of them) but I am not making up the atmosphere
of the landscape which were the whole horror of the thing.
I remember them vividly and they were as I shall now describe.
. . . . .
About noon of an ashen autumn day some years ago I was standing
outside the station at Oxford intending to take the train to London.
And for some reason out of idleness or the emptiness of my mind
or the emptiness of the pale grey sky or the cold a kind of caprice
fell upon me that I would not go by that train at all but would step
out on the road and walk at least some part of the way to London.
I do not know if other people are made like me in this matter;
but to me it is always dreary weather what may be called
useless weather that slings into life a sense of action and romance.
On bright blue days I do not want anything to happen; the world
is complete and beautiful a thing for contemplation. I no more
ask for adventures under that turquoise dome than I ask for
adventures in church. But when the background of man's life is
a grey background then in the name of man's sacred supremacy
I desire to paint on it in fire and gore. When the heavens fail
man refuses to fail; when the sky seems to have written on it in
letters of lead and pale silver the decree that nothing shall
happen then the immortal soul the prince of the creatures rises
up and decrees that something shall happen if it be only the
slaughter of a policeman. But this is a digressive way of stating
what I have said already--that the bleak sky awoke in me a hunger
for some change of plans that the monotonous weather seemed to
render unbearable the use of the monotonous train and that I set
out into the country lanes out of the town of Oxford. It was
perhaps at that moment that a strange curse came upon me out of
the city and the sky whereby it was decreed that years afterwards
I should in an article in the DAILY NEWS talk about Sir George
Trevelyan in connection with Oxford when I knew perfectly well
that he went to Cambridge.
As I crossed the country everything was ghostly and colourless.
The fields that should have been green were as grey as the skies;
the tree-tops that should have been green were as grey as the clouds
and as cloudy. And when I had walked for some hours the evening
was closing in. A sickly sunset clung weakly to the horizon
as if pale with reluctance to leave the world in the dark.
And as it faded more and more the skies seemed to come closer and
to threaten. The clouds which had been merely sullen became swollen;
and then they loosened and let down the dark curtains of the rain.
The rain was blinding and seemed to beat like blows from an enemy
at close quarters; the skies seemed bending over and bawling
in my ears. I walked on many more miles before I met a man
and in that distance my mind had been made up; and when I met
him I asked him if anywhere in the neighbourhood I could pick up
the train for Paddington. He directed me to a small silent station
(I cannot even remember the name of it) which stood well away
from the road and looked as lonely as a hut on the Andes.
I do not think I have ever seen such a type of time and sadness
and scepticism and everything devilish as that station was:
it looked as if it had always been raining there ever since
the creation of the world. The water streamed from the soaking
wood of it as if it were not water at all but some loathsome
liquid corruption of the wood itself; as if the solid station
were eternally falling to pieces and pouring away in filth.
It took me nearly ten minutes to find a man in the station.
When I did he was a dull one and when I asked him if there was
a train to Paddington his answer was sleepy and vague. As far as I
understood him he said there would be a train in half an hour.
I sat down and lit a cigar and waited watching the last tail
of the tattered sunset and listening to the everlasting rain.
It may have been in half an hour or less but a train came rather
slowly into the station. It was an unnaturally dark train;
I could not see a light anywhere in the long black body of it;
and I could not see any guard running beside it. I was reduced
to walking up to the engine and calling out to the stoker to ask
if the train was going to London. "Well--yes sir" he said with
an unaccountable kind of reluctance. "It is going to London;
but----" It was just starting and I jumped into the first
carriage; it was pitch dark. I sat there smoking and wondering
as we steamed through the continually darkening landscape lined
with desolate poplars until we slowed down and stopped
irrationally in the middle of a field. I heard a heavy noise as
of some one clambering off the train and a dark ragged head
suddenly put itself into my window. "Excuse me sir" said the
stoker "but I think perhaps--well perhaps you ought to know--
there's a dead man in this train."
. . . . .
Had I been a true artist a person of exquisite susceptibilities
and nothing else I should have been bound no doubt to be