Lecture 26: The Flying Inn

Besides Heretics and Orthodoxy, Chesterton said that the book he most enjoyed writing was The Flying Inn. He apparently enjoyed creating the comical scenes as much as the polemical ones, the drinking songs as much as the bitter satire and the hard-edged debate. As the hero of the novel says (in describing something else), “It’s as innocent as Heaven and as hot as hell.” And one critic called it a novel of “great anger and high mirth.” It is also possible that writing this book provided an outlet of tension for Chesterton, as he started it after the trial of his brother, Cecil, who had been sued for libel in connection with the Marconi Scandal. The novel is a vehicle for Chesterton to tee off against corrupt and ineffectual politicians who had not merely lost touch with common citizens but were actively taking away their basic rights and freedoms. Besides politicians, he also makes room on his skewer for journalists, textual critics, health gurus, idiot socialists and capitalist toadies.

The plots of Chesterton’s novels are always difficult to explain (which is why none have been made into movies, as studio executives only understand descriptions the length of an advertisement). In The Flying Inn, Prohibition has come to England in a roundabout way. Public houses have not been abolished, only the signs that hang in front of them. However, pubs cannot serve wine and spirits unless they have a sign. Got it? So a couple of rebels start roaming around England with an inn sign, setting up temporary public houses in unexpected places. The two adventurers are Patrick Dalroy, an Irish soldier, and Humphrey Pump, a former inn-keeper. Along with the inn sign, they carry with them a barrel of rum and a wheel of cheddar cheese, and are accompanied by a dog and a donkey. Their nemesis is Lord Ivywood, the cold and calculating leader of Parliament, who has engineered the oppressive law. Ivywood rabidly pursues the good villains until he is confronted by a small crowd and comes face-to-face with the utter unpopularity of his laws. He is asked, “Do you think you made the world, that you should make it over again so easily?”

Rather than being suitably chastised and repentant, he answers: “The world was made badly, and I will make it over again.”

Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”

Chesterton claimed he originally conceived the book to be “an epic about the Crescent and the Cross,” which explains the presence of another key character: the Islamic “Prophet of the Moon,” Misysra Ammon (read M.Ammon, if you like). But there is no great clash between Christianity and Islam in the story. Instead, the upper class simply surrenders to Islam through what Dalroy describes as the four acts of the Empire: “Victory over barbarians. Employment of barbarians. Alliance with barbarians. Conquest by barbarians.” But it is the lower classes who have to pay the great price for this conquest when the great Muslim virtue of abstinence is forced on them. Thus Chesterton changed the emphasis of the book into a defense of democracy and Christian custom.

But as was the case with all his books, critics arose who insisted on missing the point. They considered Chesterton’s drinking songs and defense of pubs as excusing and even glorifying drunkenness. As usual, Chesterton felt compelled not to defend his book but defend his ideas. In the first place, he was lamenting the loss of the social center of the small English village. The public house was the place where men gathered at the end of the day to discuss and debate ideas and events. It was a convivial gathering, in which they would leisurely enjoy wine and beer. In this tradition, hundreds of years old, the drinking was secondary, discussion was primary. (That culture is gone. Ironically, in the modern version of the pub, the drinking is emphasized and the discussion is drowned out by blaring music, or, even worse, a blaring television.)

Chesterton fully acknowledged “the other side” of the drinking question. He admitted there was such a thing as alcohol abuse, but he pointed out that this abuse was a greater problem not where drinking was permitted but where it was prohibited. And it was not a problem where men drank the local brews and looked after one another but where big brewers moved into areas where they thrived on the thirst of the poor, whose lives were already disordered by their poverty. In other words, drinking wasn’t the real problem.

Finally, he defended the drinking songs in The Flying Inn, as being true Temperance songs: temperance is about moderation not abstinence. Self-restraint and self-control are acts of freedom. Prohibition is not. Though drinking may be a caprice, says Chesterton, “it is a caprice that cannot be forbidden to a citizen, but can be forbidden to a slave.” And what are these drinking songs that came under such fire? Simply some of the dearest and most delightful poems that Chesterton or anyone else has ever written: The Song of Right and Wrong, The Song of the Dog Quoodle, Wine and Water, The Logical Vegetarian, The Good Rich Man, The Saracen’s Head, and The Rolling English Road, which ends with the lines:

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

For those who have wondered what Kensal Green is, it is the name of a great London cemetery.

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

MENU