Lecture 125: There - Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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Lecture 125: There

Introductions to Books About Places

GKC as MC III: Introductions to Books About Places 


In the majority of travel books, we are somehow much more conscious of the books than of the travels. Even at the best the books are rather bookish; and in many cases they are obviously only books about books, or even books about books about books. 

If we were to continue grouping Chesterton’s many and splendid prefaces, we could put together a collection of his introductions to books about places. Those places are both local and national, general and specific, historic and contemporary. They are places faraway and out of reach and places so close that we have overlooked them. For Chesterton places are sacred. And in every case, a place is also a people. It is never empty.  

Chesterton himself wrote books about places he visited or places that were under attack or both. The theme of Chesterton’s first book of prose, The Defendant, seems to have carried through to every other book he wrote, or in this case, did not write. Surprisingly, he never wrote books about his visits to Poland and Spain, two places he greatly loved. But he did write introductions to books about Poland and Spain. He also penned prefaces to books about Portugal, Bohemia, Australia, Germany, Russia, and Europe in general. At the other end of the spectrum, he was tapped by the local district council to write the introduction to Beaconsfield: Official Guide Book. 

In Letters on Polish Affairs by Charles Sarolea (1922), Chesterton describes his own great sympathy for Poland, which rose largely from hearing the country denounced by others: “I judged the Poles by their enemies. And I found it was an almost unfailing truth that their enemies were the enemies of magnanimity and manhood. If a man loved slavery, if he loved usury, if he loved terrorism and all the trampled mire of materialistic politics, I have always found that he added to these affections the passion of a hatred of Poland. She could be judged in the light of that hatred; and the judgment has proved to be right.” 

Catherine Moran, who was the English tutor to the Spanish royal family, wrote Spain: Its Story Briefly Told. Chesterton’s introduction to the 1931 book (only a few years before the tragic civil war) talks about how most modern Europeans do not know anything about the history of Europe. “The main business of the modern Englishman, in several matters, is not so much to learn history as to unlearn history. An artificial version of the past, manufactured almost entirely in the interests of one political party, has left the ordinary reader almost as ignorant of mediaeval England as he is ignorant of modern Spain.”  

He describes the same problem in his preface to The Making of Rural Europe by Helen Douglas Irvine. The urban populations have all forgotten the story of the land and “have actually forgotten that we all live on the land.” He predicts a new agrarian movement that will go on without them.  

He was a member of the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, and thus had good reason to write the intro to The Penn Country of Buckinghamshire, where the people had halted or at least slowed “the march of utilitarian ugliness” of endless commercial signs, creativeless rows of flats, and roads that slash and slice.   

…the very strange and abnormal force that is in this matter the enemy… is marked everywhere by one form of intellectual blindness or uncanny contradiction…Certain notions that are narrow to the point of monomania, notions about speed or trade or traffic or what not, have completely shut in the mind, as the more modern make of motor-cars completely shuts in the motorist. And just as actual invading enemies might travel in a tank or an armoured car, shut in by walls and shooting out of loopholes at people or places they could hardly see, so the new and narrow type of trader or traveller spreads ruin and destruction along his essentially solitary journey, precisely because it is essentially solitary; and the more introspectively he looks inward at his speedometer or his road book, the more certainly and sweepingly does he in practice wither the woods on the remote horizon or shake the very shrines in the heart of every human town. 

The roads designed by this spirit are not roads to places; but through places. It does not entertain the old idea of reaching the gates of a town; but rather of shooting a town full of holes by which it can reach out beyond. If there were still growing an oak sacred to the Druids, or a market-cross carved with the signatures of the Crusaders, it would be to these innovators merely an obstacle to their getting through to they know not what. There is therefore in this modern mechanistic tendency, as in all forms of barbarism, a sort of fundamental unreason; for the most fundamental unreason, as the medieval philosophers saw, is to refuse to consider the end; and these journeys have really no end. 

This essay first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Gilbert! magazine.