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…



1] YouTube clip of G K Chesterton at Rudyard Kipling event in Canada, the third excerpt of GKC speaking, at

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.

Marsh and MacDonald

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MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'

MacDonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

Marsh and MacDonald

In my last blog, I made a link between a passage I had been reading in a Ngaio Marsh murder mystery and the memorial service for C S Lewis. I never dreamt I would be doing the same again for my next blog, although this time not about C S Lewis but in reference to his mentor, George MacDonald.

This week I moved on to reading Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar (1939), beautifully realised on TV and DVD with Patrick Malahide as her Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. If you like murder mysteries that also take you on a trip to the seaside with your favourite detective, then this is one for you (as well as the classic ABC Murders with Poirot, of course). ‘Death at the Bar’ is a pun, much beloved by Marsh for her titles, as the murder victim is killed at the bar in a darts match in an old-fashioned pub but is also ‘at the bar’ since he is a lawyer. Meanwhile, Inspector Alleyn is up to his eyes in work and exhausted in London and so is rather pleased to get the chance to travel to Ottercombe in Devon on the south west coast of England for a change that might prove something of a rest.

He and his main sidekick Inspector Fox are soon holed up in the olde worlde pub where the murder has taken place and are interviewing suspects. But they cannot resist the charm of the beautiful scenery stealing over them. One night, instead of concentrating on poisons and fingerprint evidence, Alleyn takes a break:

“He got up, stretched himself, and leant over the windowsill. The moon was out, and the sleeping roofs of Ottercombe made such patterns of white and inky black as woodcut draughtsmen love. It was a gull’s-eye view Alleyn had from the parlour window, a setting for a child’s tale of midnight wonders. A cat was sitting on one of the crooked eaves. It stared at the moon and might have been waiting for an appointment with some small night-gowned figure that would presently lean, dreaming, from the attic window. Alleyn had a liking for old fairy tales and found himself thinking of George MacDonald and the Back of the North Wind. The Combe was very silent in the moonlight.”

This is just one of the very evocative descriptions by Marsh of the Devonshire coast and what a small English coastal village was like in 1939, almost cut off from the rest of the world. There are also interesting political discussions between characters, like Nark and Legge and Will Pomeroy, which would not be out of place in the polemic over emergent evolutionism, scientism, and social progressivism also used in C S Lewis’ cosmic trilogy of the same period and confirm that he had his finger on the pulse of the times (if more confirmation were needed). But I am chiefly grateful at this moment for this evidence that one of my favourite literary detectives was also a fan of fairy tales and the father of fantasy fiction, that his first recourse on a moonlit night was to think in imagery derived from the marvellous MacDonald, or should I say that I am grateful for this reminder from the mind of his fantastic female creator, Ngaio Marsh.