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Memories of G. K. Chesterton


Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874–1936

984 words

Editor’s Note:

The following is from Anthony M. Ludovici, Confessions of an Anti-Feminist: The Autobiography of Anthony M. Ludovici, ed. John V. Day, ch. 7, “My Friends, Part II.”  The book remains unpublished, but we hope to raise funds to finally bring it into print.

Despite his extreme Leftish prejudices and his innocent acceptance of Bolshevik professions, he [Leonard Magnus, a Jewish acquaintance of Ludovici’s] had an acute intellect and was a dear good fellow. I owed him many happy hours and much generous hospitality. If I had to thank him for nothing else, it was at least through him that I had the privilege of seeing a good deal of one of the most celebrated journalists of that day, G. K. Chesterton. My repeated meetings with this popular Fleet Street figure at Magnus’s chambers and the opportu­nity they afforded of a close study of his personality have left me with a vivid recollection of his character and outlook.

Chesterton was my antipodes. Very fat and anything but polished in his appearance and manners, he and I revealed our fundamental dispari­ties by our looks alone. He was a pyknic; I was a schizothyme. He was massive and ponderous; I was slight and wiry. He appeared to be wholly unaware of the handicap his extreme obesity imposed on his activities. Indeed, owing to the unaccountable and inveterate predilec­tion English men and women, especially the latter, are wont to show for fat men—hence the ease with which people of the Horatio Bot­tomley type become trade union leaders, Members of Parliament, suc­cessful commercial touts and prosperous racecourse tipsters—Ches­terton’s experience had no doubt taught him that, far from being a drawback, his bulk had always been one of his greatest assets.

He usually wore a frock-coat, the lapels of which, owing to his habit of constantly fingering them when speaking, shone with grease; nor did his fingers ever strike me as too clean. There was a look about his heavy mustache as of a beer-drinker and heavy smoker, and I sometimes sus­pected that he rather liked to be thought of as a modern Dr. Samuel John­son. His huge head with its mane of long hair made his shoulders seem narrower than they actually were, and when he sat down his great bow-front kept him so far from the table that there was always something pompous and magisterial in his appearance at a meal.

He spoke with that curious fluctuation of two keys so often heard in the voices of fat men. Thus the noises would rise and fall from bass into falsetto and back again, with an undeniably pleasing effect which often lent persuasiveness to a remark.


Anthony M. Ludovici, 1882–1971

But he was a most difficult opponent in debate, and to come to grips with him was usually impossible. As I soon found, however, the greater part of this difficulty was due more to the behavior of the rest of the company than to him, for, no matter what he said, they insisted on thinking it funny, and as in England to raise a laugh in debate amounts to proving your point, no matter how far-fetched, Chesterton was an easy winner in all our arguments.

Once, for instance, I was trying to argue that the sense of sin might be merely the inability to digest or forget a reprehensible action, and that people endowed with smoothly functioning bodies which quickly dis­posed of their waste or harmful products would be less likely than the costive and congested to harbor feelings of guilt. “That’s all very well, young man,” he exclaimed, “but when you stand before your Maker with your knapsack of sins across your shoulders, you won’t cut much ice with that sort of argument.”

Everyone laughed, and the discussion closed with G. K. the ac­knowledged victor.

When one evening I tried to explain that it was quite impossible, even if you believed in Him, to imagine what the Almighty was like, as none of us could possibly grasp what a being looked like who could create something out of nothing, Chesterton objected most violently. “Not a bit of it!” he said. “Think of the kind of thing you find most lov­able and seductive on earth. I can easily imagine God as a beautiful glossy Newfoundland dog [loud laughter]. I can honestly, and I like to think of Him as that.”

On yet another occasion we were discussing aristocracy. He had been saying that all aristocracies had abused their power, and I rejoined that not only was this untrue historically, but that there were also many reasons for believing that under an aristocracy people might be much more free than in a democracy.

“Oh, get along with you,” he retorted. “You are the sort of romantic who wants the joy of fireworks at midday.”

Whenever at public dinners I heard him speak I noticed without fail that, as soon as his name was called, all present began to laugh just as audiences used to do, but with much greater justification, at the old Tivoli and Oxford music halls the moment Dan Leno’s number ap­peared on the front of the stage. And when he actually began to speak, and offered us one of his many variations on his elephantine figure, the company would rock with laughter. Often one could not help admiring the resolute good will with which, in Chesterton’s case, the crowd re­sponded to the sheer power of a reputation for “humor.”

I do not know what modern readers think of him. But when I look again at his essays and stories I find them quite unreadable, and it seems to me most likely that quite soon—unless this has occurred already—he will be regarded by most people as among those celebri­ties of the twentieth century who were consistently and grossly over­rated by their age.