John Watson, Croquet - Gordon Bowker, GK Chesterton

Chesterton’s Spell

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Whenever I’m asked who my favourite schoolteacher was, I don’t hesitate. His name was Bill Drysdale and he taught me English when I was barely into my teens. He was tall and charismatic, with a dark beard and a beautiful bass voice. The thing we most loved about Bill, however, was that from time to time, instead of teaching us grammar, he would read us a story instead. I remember him reading Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile. But best of all, he introduced us to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Stories.

We never quite understood the instant spell Chesterton cast over us, though I now believe it had to do not only with his beguiling use of language but also with his odd way of looking at the world and his love of paradox. Bill Drysdale had won me over to Chesterton completely. I hurried off to my favourite bookshop and quickly found the newly reissued Father Brown Stories.

I also came across a collection of his newspaper sketches called Tremendous Trifles. The beautiful English, the eccentric point of view and the love of paradox are all there to be relished. He also had the knack of taking his readers on flights of fancy, transforming trivialities into matters of moment, and so turning them into parables. ‘If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills,’ he writes, ‘I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills.’

My favourite Chesterton essay, which perfectly captures this spirit, was and still is ‘A Piece of Chalk’, in which GK sets out one day with brown wrapping paper and a number of coloured chalks to spend a day drawing on the Sussex Downs. He has to explain to his landlady that he doesn’t want the brown paper for wrapping but takes the opportunity to outline to her the aesthetic

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About the contributor

Gordon Bowker has written four literary biographies, the latest being of James Joyce (2012). He lives in Kensington, near where Chesterton was born, and frequently encounters the author’s friendly ghost when he ventures down Campden Hill Road.

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