Pages

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Book Review: G.K. Chesterton - Tales of the Long Bow

I had read the Father Brown stories earlier but never followed up to find more stories by Chesterton. A recent purchase of a bound volume of the British pulp The Story-Teller with some Chesterton stories changed that. Those stories were later collected under the title Tales of the Long Bow, on the cover of which Chesterton is pictured laughing, and the spine has a picture of a man wearing a cabbage as a hat. These stories combine Chesterton’s philosophical urges with a good dose of whimsical and humorous story-telling.

British first edition dustjacket of Tales of the Long Bow
British first edition dustjacket of Tales of the Long Bow

The first story in the collection tells you why Colonel Crane came to be wearing such unique headwear. The Unpresentable Appearance of Colonel Crane begins with Colonel Crane, a pre-World War 1 soldier, wearing a cabbage hat as he walks to Sunday Church in his village. Not a single churchgoer feels up to asking the Colonel the reason for his change of hat, and the Colonel doesn’t volunteer any information. The mystery is cleared up the next day at lunch. Light-hearted whimsical fun. But it won’t stay that way.

With The Improbable Success of Mr. Owen Hood, Chesterton lets loose a salvo against industrialization and the corrupt conjunction of business and politics. A new factory has polluted a river, leaving a visibly oily film on top. When the titular Hood asks the business to explain this, the hearing is farcical. The British capitalist behind the factory, the factory manager, a professor who is an expert witness on pollution and the local medical inspector are ranged against Hood. The conversation between them is delicious and rings true even today.

Then it was that Professor Hake explained the theory of the Protective Screen. Even if it were possible, he said, for some thin film of petrol to appear on the water, as it would not mix with the water the latter would actually be kept in a clearer condition. It would act, as it were, as a Cap; as does the gelatinous Cap upon certain preserved foods.

"That is a very interesting view," observed Hood; "I suppose you will write another book about that?"

"I think we are all the more privileged," remarked Bliss, "in hearing of the discovery in this personal fashion, before our expert has laid it before the public."

"Yes," said Hood, "your expert is very expert, isn't he— in writing books?"

Sir Samuel Bliss stiffened in all his bristles. "I trust," he said, "you are not implying any doubt that our expert is an expert."

"I have no doubt of your expert," answered Hood gravely. "I do not doubt either that he is expert or that he is yours."

For my money, this is the best story in the collection. It culminates with a Saki like ending, as Hood takes out a torchlight procession, ostensibly to support the candidacy of the medical inspector for parliament, and ends up setting the river on fire. This is the bet that Colonel Crane lost and led to him wearing a cabbage as a hat.

The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce introduces American capitalist Enoch B. Oates and Captain Pierce of the British Flying Corps. Colonel Crane and Hood are lunching on eggs and bacon at the village inn when they learn that new regulations forbid locally raising pigs and their meal may soon be a thing of the past. You know from the outset that this is a bad idea; Chesterton’s English countrymen are generally docile and might grumble at new regulations in general, but if you threaten their eggs, bacon, bangers and mash, fish and chips or beer you’re in for a fight.

Captain Pierce, who loves the inn-keeper’s daughter, fights the regulations with high-profile publicity stunts, the kind of stuff that you would share and laugh at on social media today. One of those stunts is putting parachutes on pigs and landing them in the country, thus disproving the old saw that pigs can’t fly. These stunts are, of course, ineffective in swaying officialdom, but the new regulations are withdrawn at the end of the story and romance triumphs.

The Elusive Companion of Parson White sees authorities forbidding menageries and breaking them up, leaving one particular animal in the hands of Parson White, an eccentric priest who manages to stir up the countryside. I found this tale rather weak and you can skip it without losing much.

The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates sees the return of Oates the American capitalist. Originally thought to be inimical to Chesterton’s conception of the ideal British way of life, Oates turns out to be an eccentric yet successful businessman who conceives a process to make silk from pig ears, and then turns that silk into purses that sell across the world, disproving the old adage that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Having discovered Oates’ eccentricity, Colonel Crane and his merry men take him into their fold. The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green is a rather muddled story, more romance than whimsy; Chesterton uses it to introduce the eccentric scientist Green into Crane’s band. Green will be needed later.

The Architecture of Commander Blair is well-written. Oates the eccentric American capitalist decides to hand over the land he purchased in the English countryside to his tenants. A most worthy and noble idea, and one immediately opposed by the existing landowners who are terrified of what will happen to their estates. The Prime Minister, taking the side of the rich landowners, proposes to nationalize all their lands. Then he explains that, except for Oates’ estate, which will be reassigned to other management, the estates will be returned to the management of their current owners, who will be compensated twice. Once for the takeover of their estates, and later in salaries and expenses for the management of the estates.

"It really looks as if he were right in calling it too late," said Lord Normantowers bitterly. "I can't think of anything to be done."

"I can," said the Prime Minister. They all looked at him; but none of them could read the indecipherable subtleties in his old and wrinkled face under his youthful yellow hair.

"The time has come," said the Prime Minister, "to Nationalize the Land."

Sir Horace Hunter rose from his chair, opened his mouth, shut it, and sat down again, all with what he himself might have called a reflex action.

"But that is Socialism!" cried Lord Normantowers, his eyes standing out of his head.

"Well, all I can say is—" began Normantowers explosively.

"Compensation, there will be compensation, of course," said the Prime Minister soothingly; "a great deal can be done with compensation. If you will all turn up here this day week, say at four o'clock, I think I can lay all the plans before you."

He paused, as if for cheers, and Sir Horace was vaguely irritated into saying: "But look here, my castle—"

"Damn it all!" said the Prime Minister, with his first flash of impatience and sincerity. "Can't you see you'll get twice as much as before? First you'll be compensated for losing your castle, and then you'll be paid for keeping it."

Now is the time for, in Chesterton’s world, the non-workers and workers of the world to unite and rise against the oppression of the rich. The first symbolic gesture is to create a floating castle and deny the Prime Minister an opportunity to take it over, since it is not on the land. This is the first shot in the war to follow.

The Ultimate Ultimatum of the League of the Long Bow is the culmination of the gradual revelation of political corruption and immoral behavior of the rich landowners and capitalists. As the Prime Minister’s plan is revealed, Colonel Crane incites rebellion in the countryside and causes chaos by cutting off the supply of food to the cities. The chaos foments urban discontent against the government, who respond by setting the army against the rebels. What follows is written in the form of a history lesson.

The inexplicable and indeed incredible conclusion of the story was due to a new fact; the fact of the actual presence of the new peasantry. They had first come into complete possession of their new farms, by the deed of gift signed by Enoch Oates in the February of 19— and had thus been settled on the land a great many years when Lord Eden and his Cabinet finally committed themselves to the scheme of Land Nationalization by which their homesteads were to pass into official control. That curious and inexplicable thing, the spirit of the peasant, had made great strides in the interval. It was found that the Government could not move such people about from place to place, as it is possible to do with the urban poor in the reconstruction of streets or the destruction of slums. It was not a thing like moving pawns, but a thing like pulling up plants; and plants that had already struck their roots very deep. In short, the Government, which had already adopted a policy commonly called Socialist from motives that were in fact very conservative, found itself confronted with the same peasant resistance as brought the Bolshevist Government in Russia to a standstill. And when Lord Eden and his Cabinet put in motion the whole modern machinery of militarism and coercion to crush the little experiment, he found himself confronted with a rural rising such as has not been known in England since the Middle Ages.

This series has some good stories but doesn’t work for me as a whole. While the problems Chesterton highlights are real, and his proposed solution (distributism) might even work, the method of bridging the two is an airy confection of sugar which crumbles when you look at it. Having said that, Chesterton’s writing is excellent at times and I will be looking out for more stories from him.

A paperback edition of these stories is available from Stratus.

 

 

 




No comments:

Post a Comment