GKC, Part 2: Borders and Other Verbal Artwork

Gilbert K. Chesterton studied art before going into journalism, and it shows.

He’s the one who wrote that “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

This might be why, living on an island as he did, he often used the border between land and sea to set up his stories. For instance, his very first Father Brown story starts this way:

Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous — nor wished to be. There was nothing notable about him, except a slight contrast between the holiday gaiety of his clothes and the official gravity of his face. His clothes included a slight, pale grey jacket, a white waistcoat, and a silver straw hat with a grey-blue ribbon. His lean face was dark by contrast, and ended in a curt black beard that looked Spanish and suggested an Elizabethan ruff. He was smoking a cigarette with the seriousness of an idler. There was nothing about him to indicate the fact that the grey jacket covered a loaded revolver, that the white waistcoat covered a police card, or that the straw hat covered one of the most powerful intellects in Europe. For this was Valentin himself, the head of the Paris police and the most famous investigator of the world; and he was coming from Brussels to London to make the greatest arrest of the century.

Flambeau was in England…

Valentin, some bewildered London bobbies, the criminal Flambeau, and of course, Father Brown eventually meet up in an equally fine setting, a public park:

The street they threaded was so narrow and shut in by shadows that when they came out unexpectedly into the void common and vast sky they were startled to find the evening still so light and clear. A perfect dome of peacock-green sank into gold amid the blackening trees and the dark violet distances. The glowing green tint was just deep enough to pick out in points of crystal one or two stars. All that was left of the daylight lay in a golden glitter across the edge of Hampstead and that popular hollow which is called the Vale of Health. The holiday makers who roam this region had not wholly dispersed; a few couples sat shapelessly on benches; and here and there a distant girl still shrieked in one of the swings. The glory of heaven deepened and darkened around the sublime vulgarity of man…

By the way, Chesterton wasn’t putting down humanity — he also frequently referred to himself as vulgar in this sense.

He just loved to fit words together in pleasing ways, in other stories for instance, describing how “a joyous band of bagmen rolled into the room like a shoal of porpoises” in a Father Brown tale in which he artistically and probably not coincidentally gave Red Herring #1 a bright green turban and dressed Red Herring #2 in a Scotch plaid.

Here’s the start of one more story where Chesterton’s training at the Slade, such as it was, really stands out:

Two landscape-painters stood looking at one landscape, which was also a seascape, and both were curiously impressed by it, though their impressions were not exactly the same. To one of them, who was a rising artist from London, it was new as well as strange. To the other, who was a local artist but with something more than a local celebrity, it was better known; but perhaps all the more strange for what he knew of it.

In terms of tone and form, as these men saw it, it was a stretch of sands against a stretch of sunset, the whole scene lying in strips of sombre colour, dead green and bronze and brown and a drab that was not merely dull but in that gloaming in some way more mysterious than gold. All that broke these level lines was a long building which ran out from the fields into the sands of the sea, so that its fringe of dreary weeds and rushes seemed almost to meet the seaweed. But its most singular feature was that the upper part of it had the ragged outlines of a ruin, pierced by so many wide windows and large rents as to be a mere dark skeleton against the dying light; while the lower bulk of the building had hardly any windows at all, most of them being blind and bricked up and their outlines only faintly traceable in the twilight. But one window at least was still a window; and it seemed strangest of all that it showed a light.

‘Who on earth can live in that old shell?’ exclaimed the Londoner, who was a big, bohemian-looking man, young but with a shaggy red beard that made him look older; Chelsea knew him familiarly as Harry Payne.

‘Ghosts, you might suppose,’ replied his friend Martin Wood. ‘Well, the people who live there really are rather like ghosts.’

Where do these land-sea borders come from? Or to put it another way, why are Ireland and the UK islands?

Humans and animals, including wild cats, were isolated from their fellows on the continent.

People, of course, could build boats, but the animals were stranded after the Channel flooded. Today only one native feline species is left in the UK.

The Scottish wildcat’s coat is quite thick and weatherproof because it doesn’t merely rain in Chesterton country. Oh no:

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.

— in The Secret of a Train

Needless to say, he had a weird adventure on the train that eventually arrived, one that he never understood.

So, why is Britain such a wet place?

More on the Lake District here.

Getting back to borders again:

For three days and three nights the sea had charged England as Napoleon charged her at Waterloo. The phrase is instinctive, because away to the last grey line of the sea there was only the look of galloping squadrons, impetuous, but with a common purpose. The sea came on like cavalry, and when it touched the shore it opened the blazing eyes and deafening tongues of the artillery. I saw the worst assault at night on a seaside parade where the sea smote on the doors of England with the hammers of earthquake, and a white smoke went up into the black heavens. There one could thoroughly realise what an awful thing a wave really is. I talk like other people about the rushing swiftness of a wave. But the horrible thing about a wave is its hideous slowness. It lifts its load of water laboriously: in that style at once slow and slippery in which a Titan might lift a load of rock and then let it slip at last to be shattered into shock of dust. In front of me that night the waves were not like water: they were like falling city walls. The breaker rose first as if it did not wish to attack the earth; it wished only to attack the stars. For a time it stood up in the air as naturally as a tower; then it went a little wrong in its outline, like a tower that might some day fall. When it fell it was as if a powder magazine blew up.

— The start of The Two Noises

Today we have electronics to broaden our experience beyond a single viewpoint.

Here’s why coastal dwellers here experienced such storms in Gilbert Chesterton’s time, are experiencing them today, and probably will still be experiencing storms a century from now.

Let’s wrap this series up tomorrow with Chesterton’s take on Planet Earth. Did he predict what we now call Earth Day?

Featured image: Torsten Reimer, CC BY-NC 2.0.

One comment

  1. Note: Someone has pointed out that, in the story about a shoal of bagmen and the two red herrings, Chesterton uses the N-word once. I had forgotten that but on checking do find it there. That’s sad, but I’m not going to delete the link because it’s used to show how contemptible a character is.

    That said, Chesterton *was* terribly racist, like many other white people of his day. He used the N-word a lot, and it spoils a lot of his writing. I chose examples carefully to avoid offense to modern readers and look forward to the day when we can read it all, becoming saddened but not insulted or outraged when this ugliness comes up and we see an otherwise great man (or woman, though no examples come to mind just now) beclowning themselves and tarnishing their work with prejudices.

    We aren’t there yet, unfortunately, but we are moving in that direction, and a little more quickly than human rights support advanced back then.

    At least this is a good reminder that some of the greatest minds on the planet have always been — and always will be — jerks.

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