The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier

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The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A selection of short extracts, both comic and serious, from the author and journalist best remembered for the Father Brown stories.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 978-1441179586

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G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), best known as the creator of the clerical detective Father Brown, seems to have slipped a little among the general reading public's estimation these days. This is surely unmerited, for he was just as versatile as and hardly less quotable than the Victorian enfant terrible.

In this volume Hillier, also author of a three-volume biography of John Betjeman, provides an introduction which surveys his writings in general, and a biographical essay puts him in perspective. These pages include two of his cartoons, and one feels that a few more would have been welcome. This is followed by a generous selection of quotations from his novels, stories, essays and contributions to the 'Illustrated London News' and other journals in very short extracts, generally just a paragraph or a sentence (and occasionally a complete poem), divided into twenty different categories including literature, art, architecture, historians, science, London, education, religion, America, and transport.

A Puritan, Chesterton tells us, originally meant a man whose mind had no holidays, while as young man, he knew all about politics and nothing about politicians. Is it not rather absurd, he suggests, to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky by slapping him on the back and urging him to be a man, while never trying to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer by slapping it on the back and saying, be a crocodile? If there were no God, he suggests, there would be no atheists. According to Father Brown, every crime depends on somebody not waking up too soon, and in every sense most of us wake up too late. And who among us can resist the one-sentence story of the woman who took apartments in which she was not allowed to keep a cat or a dog. She applied for permission to keep a bird, and eventually walked round to her new lodgings accompanied by an ostrich. Quite daft, and maybe oddly quaint, dated even alongside 21st century humour, but none the less amusing for all that.

Amongst the dryly comic quotations are a few serious words. In a prediction worthy of the prophet Nostradamus, we have a paragraph from 1933 in which he says the world is drifting horribly near to a New War, which will probably start on the Polish Border, before drawing comparisons between the despised and driveling Old Men of 1914 and the young men of the day who have had nineteen years in which to learn how to avoid war. On another page he contemplates Stonehenge, the vast void roll of the empty land towards Salisbury, the grey tablelands like primeval altars…[telling] of a very ancient and very lonely Britain.' Then he follows it with the observation that it must rather spoil the visitor's mood to arrive there and find it all surrounded by a barbed wire fence, with a policeman keeping guard and a shop selling souvenir postcards. So now we know that mass commercialization and keeping undesirables out was not unknown even in the 1930s. Finally, he says that the tale of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Britain is presumably legend, but not such a preposterous or incredible idea as one might suppose. It is generally thought of as being just as comic as if one said that Wat Tyler went to Chicago, or that John Bunyan discovered the North Pole.

Full of amusing and serious thoughts, it makes the ideal book either to dip into or read cover to cover. Those who are already familiar with Chesterton's books might get rather more out of it, but even so those for whom he is an unknown quantity will certainly find this a rewarding read as well as perhaps introduce them to a writer who is less remembered today than he should be.

Our thanks to Continuum for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, for more on two of Chesterton's near-contemporaries and fellow wits, why not try Idle Thoughts on Jerome K Jerome: A 150th Anniversary Celebration by Jeremy Nicholas, or Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright.

Buy The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier at

Buy The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton by Bevis Hillier at


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