The pub was at the end of an ill-lit side street. Under the back bar’s nicotine-stained ceiling, half a dozen sombre-faced men sat round a table and planned to set the world free from capitalism. It was winter, 1963; I was 18 and had been drawn here by the rumour of free beer for student recruits to the Party. It soon became clear that these men were in no way bloody revolutionaries – the Party was dedicated to peaceful persuasion, by the distribution of leaflets and patient argument. I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked at their faces, that we were few and mankind many. The meeting was long, serious and very dull. The most surprising thing, as we prepared to depart, was a warning by the chairman (a revolving position to guard against temptations of Stalinism) to watch out for police surveillance. We were advised to leave the pub one by one and at intervals and to take a roundabout route to our bus stops. Outside it was raining. I was a bit drunk on free beer but failed to detect any operatives of Special Branch as I swayed homeward.
When, a few years later, I started to read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, I thought how feeble we were as revolutionaries compared to the seven anarchists of that book – at the beginning of the book anyway, for it has many surprises up its sleeve. Of all of Chesterton’s stories this novel, published in 1908, is the most fantastic and ultimately mysterious. Chesterton was profoundly religious and politically conservative, and he regarded with horror a world in which, as now, revolutionaries demanded attention by indiscriminate bombings and assassinations.
We are in the London suburb of Saffron Park, at the end of a summer’s day. The evening sky is suffused with a peculiar and slightly menacing light: the brick-built houses are ‘as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset . . . the extravagant roofs dark against the afterglow’. At a party in one of the gardens, two poets, Gabriel
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