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Friday 9 May 2003, 23:02 - 23:30

PROGRAMME 6: Richard Ingrams on GK Chesterton

Picture of the author Gilbert Keith Chesterton.'My country, right or wrong', is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober'.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was tall, rotund, of distinctive appearance, with an amazing mind and memory.

Though he considered himself a mere "rollicking journalist," he was actually a prolific and gifted writer in virtually every area of literature. He seemed to love making enormous propositions and over-statements, as well as paradox (saying that it was a mental form of standing on one's head to see if the world made any more sense from that angle).

GK Chesterton was born in Kensington, London, on the 29th of May, 1874 into a middle-class family.

A slow learner he did not learn to read until he was over eight, one of his teachers telling him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump of white fat."

After attending St. Paul's School Chesterton studied at University College and the Slade School of Art (1893-96).

In 1895 Chesterton left University College without a degree and worked for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902). Much of his works were first published in such publications as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G.K.'s Weekly.

Around 1893 he had gone through a crisis of skepticism and depression and during this period Chesterton experimented with the Ouija board and grew fascinated with the occult.

In 1896 he fell in love with Frances Blogg whom he married in 1901. Despite never having any children, their marriage was happy.

In 1900 Chesterton's first collection of poems, Greybeard at Play, appeardred. This was followed by literary biographies of Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906).

His career as a novelist began in 1904 with The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a political fantasy, in which London is a patchwork of petty principalities. He returned to political satire with The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a spy stroy. However his most famous creation is probably the clerical detective, Father Brown, who first appeared in 1911.

On the outbreak of the First World War Chesterton was recruited by Charles Masterman, the head of Britain's War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), to help shape public opinion. His work included the writing of two pamphlets, The Barbarism in Berlin (1915) and The Crimes of England (1915) and numerous articles in Britain's newspapers.

Though not known as a political thinker, his political influence has been significant. In his writings Chesterton expressed his distrust of world government and evolutionary progress, his views were often ruralist, antimodernist, Victorian. Some see in him the father of the 'small is beautiful' movement.

After World War I Chesterton became leader of the Distributist movement and later the President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that private property should be divided into smallest possible freeholds and then distributed throughout society.

Distributism can be summed up by his expression that every man ought to be allowed to own "three acres and a cow".

Chesterton had no difficulty standing up for what he believed. He was one of the few journalists to oppose the Boer War. His 1922 Eugenics and Other Evils attacked what was at that time the most progressive of all ideas. He was also very popular radio performer, giving the first ever lecture on the BBC.

In 1922 Chesterton was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thereafter he wrote several theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.

Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield. His coffin, too big to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window to the ground.

"A champion of beer and skittles..." - hear a clip from GK Chesterton's Spice of Life lecture (BBC 1936)

Picture of the journalist Richard Ingrams.There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob.

- G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

Humphrey Carpenter keeps the adulation in check.

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