Chesterton Chuckling

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Chesterton Chuckling

G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton

I have a memory of hearing G K Chesterton’s laugh – a deep, rich, infectious chuckle, bursting out of him almost uncontrollably, as if he can’t keep it in. My memory of this is from a short clip – no more than a minute long – which I heard on YouTube a few years ago. I now can’t find this, only another sample of his laugh at an event in honour of Rudyard Kipling in Canada [1], but it’s not the clip I remember. Was I imagining it?! Perhaps someone will find it for me, meanwhile I’ll have to make do with this other sample. It’s also frustrating to know that there was a film made of a literary breakfast before the First World War attended by GKC and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, that’s now lost. What I’d give to see that! Could it be gathering the proverbial dust in someone’s attic somewhere and they don’t even know?

Listening to Chesterton’s speech at the event honouring Rudyard Kipling, all of GK’s wit and intelligence and self-deprecating humour is on display and it’s obvious from the laughter of the audience that this is appreciated. His voice has the posh clipped tones that one hears in old British movies and news reports and has the slow deliberateness of someone used to projecting their voice without amplification. But every so often towards the end of the speech he can’t resist laughing at his own jokes. And that’s what I really love! It’s as though a gush of boyish joy bursts through and punctures the pomposity of the public event, as though we get a glimpse of the real Gilbert, his essence. This is certainly the impression he made on others – that of an irrepressible joie-de-vivre and enthusiasm, of someone enjoying life to the full, as if he had a private spring of gurgling joy that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, repress.

Here’s a first-hand impression from Holbrook Jackson’s description of him in 1908:

“Best is it to see him in his favourite habitat of Bohemian Soho. There in a certain obscure yet excellent French restaurant, with Hilaire Belloc and other writers and talkers, he may be seen, sitting behind a tall tankard of lager or a flagon of chianti, eternally unravelling the mysterious tangle of living ideas; now rising mountainously on his feet to overshadow the company with weighty argument, anon brandishing a wine-bottle as he insists upon defending some controversial point until ‘we break the furniture’; and always chuckling at his own wit and the sallies of others, as he fights the battle of ideas with indefatigable and unconquerable good-humour.” [2]

At first this doesn’t seem to have much in common with his much quieter creation, Father Brown. But one quality they seem to me to have in common is a mountainous confidence in God as the Creator of a good world that we are required to enjoy, and confidence in a universal church as the joyous servant and instrument of God in the world. Father Brown seems to see the world as his parish and everyone he comes across as his responsibility. He speaks the truth to them before God and hears their awful truth in confession. His God has a global reach and it’s actually quite silly of people not to believe. It reminds me of the astonished response of ‘Bridie’ in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ that Charles Ryder is not a believer. How strange! It’s so different to the feeling of marginalisation that one has as a Christian now most of the time. God and His Church are the central truths and it’s the rest of the world that’s odd and out of kilter. Now, I know this theologically, but how often do I feel it ? I remember when re-reading the Father Brown stories several years ago being so impressed with this confidence that Father Brown has as a priest that I had a ‘Father Brown moment’ at the hairdresser’s. My hairdresser, who was not a believer, was saying how worried she was about her fiance who was serving in the army in Iraq – there were only two weeks left before he could come home and they were to be married. With all of Father Brown’s confidence in my mind I said, “I’ll pray that he returns safely and you can get married.” Normally I think I might have said I would pray for her peace of mind in this difficult situation. But the Father Brown (or Chesterton) effect raised my confidence levels and suddenly this stranger was my pastoral responsibility and it seemed obvious that God would hear me – He was Master of all these events in the world. Needless to say I had to return to the hairdresser’s two weeks later to find out what had happened, the confidence level generated by Father Brown having worn off a bit by then. What if her fiance had been injured or killed in that time and my offer to pray now sounded like a facile mockery? Well, I’m glad to be able to say that the hairdresser’s fiance had indeed returned home safely and they were reunited as planned. I suppose I shouldn’t have doubted that the Lord would respond to a heightened level of faith, that was His gift after all. And I’m sure GK would be thrilled at another example of his stories still inspiring people’s confidence in God and the Christian worldview.

And that’s what I hear in Chesterton’s chuckle – a whole worldview and a massive faith in God is communicated in that outburst of fun and joy. Life is so good, he can’t help himself! Let non-believers keep their doom and gloom – Christians have this world and eternal life to be delighted about and a loving Lord who cares and intervenes for good. How fantastic, to be able to communicate the gospel just by how you laugh! Here Chesterton reflects the same view as the great victorian novelist and preacher, George MacDonald. GK loved MacDonald and was influenced by his writing and on this subject they could agree, as MacDonald wrote:

“I wonder how many Christians there are who so thoroughly believe God made them that they can laugh in God’s name; who understand that God invented laughter and gave it to His children. The Lord of gladness delights in the laughter of a merry heart.” [3]

And it certainly wasn’t because MacDonald or Chesterton had easy lives. It wasn’t a laughter generated by having no troubles. When I was thinking how to describe Chesterton’s laugh, I certainly did not want to use the phrase ‘holy laughter’ as that now seems to have such negative connotations – a laugh that’s held back, puritanical, anally-retentive, anondyne – the opposite of Chesterton’s happy gurgling or stupendous roar. Where are the well-known Christian comedians (apart from Milton Jones – God bless him)? Sometimes stand-up comedians are the only ones speaking the truth about the world in our media. We need to listen to MacDonald again:

“It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence.” [4]

When this world order is over, I’m looking forward to having a good long chuckle with Chesterton.

Meanwhile I think I need some more ‘WWFrBD’ moments…

 

NOTES

1] YouTube clip of G K Chesterton at Rudyard Kipling event in Canada, the third excerpt of GKC speaking, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJjtJrvo87I

2] Holbrook Jackson, ‘G K Chesterton’, 1908, quoted in A Booklover’s Companion, The Folio Society, London, 2006, p74.

3] George MacDonald, The Miracles of our Lord, Strahan and Co., London, 1870, p23.

4] George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1911, p152.


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