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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Have with You to Woking
As a teenager, I used to read a lot of G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. They were sparring partners and friendly rivals; one Catholic with a fondness for beef and beer, the other an atheist vegetarian teetotaller. Both had a talent for controversy and paradox, and healthy egos to match, and I liked them both, while sharing the opinions of neither (though I preferred GKC).

Like any pair of duellists, Chesterton and Shaw had their seconds (at least in my head), in the form of Hilaire Belloc and H. G. Wells, whom I also read, but not so avidly. In my imagination, this foursome spent the first few decades of the last century as gung-ho, pamphleteering frenemies, warring and intimate in turns. I liked to think of them penning essays and manifestos by day, and enjoying a pint (or a soda water with lemon) together by night. I don't know if it was really like that, and I don't want to know.

Anyway, I just want to record my pleasure at finding this slim volume on sale for 20p at the local Amnesty shop:

Mr Belloc Objects

Watching people argue with such passion, and such a vivid sense of amour propre, about controversies now almost entirely irrelevant, is a strangely luxurious feeling for me, whether it be here or in the pamphlet battles of earlier ages (Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey are another favourite pairing). Perhaps future historians of social media will get a similar buzz when they come to review the story of gamergate, or whatever.

Why do these things give me pleasure? It's not an Olympian "what fools these mortals be!" disdain - not at all; more a reassurance that my own furious passions, too, will eventually be chaff, and that therefore I really needn't worry so much.

Even futility is a half-full cup.

Chesterton may have been the greater talent but I think when it comes to principals and seconds it was the other way round- and Chesterton deferred to and was a little in awe of Belloc. Belloc seems to have regarded Chesterton as an acolyte and is supposed to have told friends that he never actually read his stuff.

Belloc was a little scary, I think. A big, burly, ferociously opinionated man. I love him dearly but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to drink with him.

Frenemies is the right word. Chesterton got very angry with an underling who published a personal attack on Wells in some paper he (Chesterton) was supposed to be editing- and wrote to Wells to apologise and tell him it wouldn't happen again. They were constantly biffing one another over the head over matters political, philosophical and religious but never descended to ungentlemanly name-calling.

I can well believe you're right about the reality of principals and seconds, but in my head-canon Chesterton is definitely the top man. If Belloc never read him, more fool Belloc!

My proudest achievement as a second-hand bookseller (in York in the 1980s, while I was writing my PhD) was suffficiently deciphering the accent of a couple of Spanish students who came into the shop to deduce that they were asking for Chesterton's Orthdoxy. If hadn't known the book myself, I would never have recognised it in their pronunciation, but as it was I made a sale.

From the volume in my hands:

Accustomed as I am to see Mr. Belloc dodging about in my London club, and in Soho and thereabouts, and even occasionally appearing at a dinner-party, compactly stout, rather breathless and always insistently garrulous, I am more than a little amazed at his opening. He has suddenly become aloof from me. A great gulf of manners yawns between us. "Hullo, Belloc!" is frozen upon my lips, unuttered.

I now see that Belloc made a reply to Wells' reply, Mr. Belloc Still Objects, which of course I yearn to read in its turn.

I went through a phase of being intensely Chestertonian. I even wrote articles for the Chesterton Review- a quasi-scholarly publication based in Canada. I still own an uncounted number of his books.

Later a reaction set in, though I am still very fond of Father Brown.

My father used to read Belloc's Tarantella to me. It remains a favourite poem. Later, during a rainy childhood holiday in Somerset, I got stuck in to the hotel's library- which had several volumes of his essays- and was seduced. They must have been the very first essentially adult books I read. Belloc was a fascinatingly conflicted and contradictory man. I have a caricature of him- by David Low- hanging on the wall.

I read Wells' science fiction as a teenager- and much, much later discovered he'd written other things as well. If the Edwardian culture wars were still raging it's Wells I'd line up behind. I believe his later novels are woefully neglected.

I know -- I'm getting a bit of that feeling, in a more depressing way? since I subscribed to the Paris Review poem a day email list. There are some really good forgotten poets from thirty to fifty years ago. As good as the really good poets of today. And those really good forgotten poets don't make me want to read any more of their work or explore their careers. The poems seem like trivial journalism, yesterday's news. So many of them had vivid insight and the language to convey it. And if the poems had been written today they'd be exciting. But instead they come with the weight of the inexorability of time, and they're exhausting instead.

I don't think I used to feel that way, though, when I came upon old fugitive pieces from fugitive writers. I fell in love with the now complete unknown Philip Owens when I read him in college, quite by chance (he was featured in the wonderful 1931 anthology European Caravan ed. Samuel Putnam and J. Bronowski). And I really liked Rosalie Moore's book The Grasshopper's Man, lines of which still dance in my head, which I found lying (myself) on the cool floor of the stacks of the Cornell library, in order to read without the noise and heat of the more public spaces. There it was on the bottom shelf right by my head, and I pulled it out and read it.

So maybe it's me, alas, unwilling to cope any more with the accumulations of the forgotten past.

On the other hand, Chesterton, Belloc, Shaw, and Wells are still of intense interest to me!

Another library floor moment, actually: I think I learned the practice when I worked in the Yale Science Library. Evelyn Hutchinson, the great, very old ecologist and limnologist, would come in and go to the basement floor, where very old and therefore outdated journals were kept, and lie on his belly, his tie over his shoulder, reading those journals, gleaning who knows what. I'd find him there when I went down to the basement bathrooms on my breaks to smoke in peace.

And in addition to being one of the founders of ecology, he was Rebecca West's literary executor! So I was three degrees of separation, I guess, from Wells (unless Hutchinson knew him too, which is possible).

But instead they come with the weight of the inexorability of time, and they're exhausting instead.

There are certainly positive and negative ways to experience this feeling of, what temporal satiety? Or inexorability, as you say. Fame is a chancy thing, and posterity is not meritocratic (God, now I sound like Thomas Browne), and in my saner moments I try to take the hint from that kind of exhaustion and let things go, mine and other people's.

I was wondering the other day whether, if I could keep the finest ice sculptures for future generations to admire in a huge sub-zero gallery, I would want to do it, and my answer was no: the ephemerality is half the point, half the charm, half what makes such things human. And so perhaps of less obviously impermanent productions.

I think if I was drinking with Belloc I would have slagging humungous tirades with him and probably he would still have the last word. Great find for 20p though!