Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter VIII

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Chapter VII Autobiography
Chapter VIII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter IX



Chapter VIII: Figures in Fleet Street

The profound problem of how I ever managed to fall on my feet in Fleet Street is a mystery; at least it is still a mystery to me. It used to be said by critics that falling on my feet was only a preliminary to standing on my head. But in fact Fleet Street, not to mention my head, was a rather seasick and earthquaky sort of thing to stand on. On the whole, I think I owe my success (as the millionaires say) to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite. For what they all told me was that the secret of success in journalism was to study the particular journal and write what was suitable to it. And, partly by accident and ignorance and partly through the real rabid certainties of youth, I cannot remember that I ever wrote any article that was at all suitable to any paper.

On the contrary, I think I became a sort of comic success by contrast. I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist, now that I am myself an old journalist, is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and another for the Church Times, and put them into the wrong envelopes. Then, if the article were accepted and were reasonably intelligent, all the sporting men would go about saying to each other, "Great mistake to suppose there isn't a good case for us; really brainy fellows say so;" and all the clergymen would go about saying to each other, "Rattling good writing on some of our religious papers; very witty fellow." This is perhaps a little faint and fantastic as a theory; but it is the only theory upon which I can explain my own undeserved survival in the journalistic squabble of the old Fleet Street. I wrote on a Nonconformist organ like the old Daily News and told them all about French cafés and Catholic cathedrals; and they loved it, because they had never heard of them before. I wrote on a robust Labour organ like the old Clarion and defended medieval theology and all the things their readers had never heard of; and their readers did not mind me a bit. What is really the matter, with almost every paper, is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper. But in these later days of the solidification of journalism, like everything else, into trusts and monopolies, there seems to be even less likelihood of anyone repeating my rare and reckless and unscrupulous manoeuvre; of anyone waking up to find himself famous as the only funny man on the Methodist Monthly; or the only serious man on Cocktail Comics.

Anyhow, all will agree that I was an accident in Fleet Street. Some will say a fatal accident, such as is proclaimed on the placards of Fleet Street. But Fleet Street itself was full of such accidents; it might have been called the Street of Accident, as a man whom I am proud to have first met there afterwards called it the Street of Adventure. Philip Gibbs himself accentuated that intellectual incongruity which was the comedy of the place; he carried a curious air of being the right man in the wrong place. His fine falcon face, with its almost unearthly refinement, seemed set in a sort of fastidious despair about ever making it the right place. This was long before he gained his great distinctions as a war correspondent; but he dealt in the same detached way with the other great wars in the past. He had been studying the struggle between the great men of the French Revolution; and had concentrated on what seemed to me an unbalanced yet delicate detestation of Camille Desmoulins. He summoned him before a tribunal of earnest talk, in my presence; and all the time he was talking, I thought how like he looked to those high-minded, hatchet-faced, hard humanitarian idealists among the great revolutionists whom he criticised. David should have painted his profile. I begin with that impression of Gibbs precisely because his figure did seem so detached and cleancut against the background. But I myself was only the background; it was lightly alleged that I could by myself have constituted a back scene. In other words, I belonged to the old Bohemian life of Fleet Street; which has since been destroyed, not by the idealism of detachment, but by the materialism of machinery. A newspaper proprietor in later years assured me that it was a slander on journalism to tell all these tales about taverns and ragged pressmen and work and recreation coming at random at all hours of the night. "A newspaper office is now exactly like any other place of business," he said with a radiant smile; and I agreed with a groan. The very name of Bohemia has faded from the map of London as it has faded from the map of Europe. I have never understood why the new diplomacy abandoned that old and noble national name, which was among the things that were not lost on Mohacs Field; but it would seem that in both cases the best things are lost in victory and not in defeat. At least I know that I should have been annoyed if, in order to gain with doubtful judgment another strip of territory, I had been suddenly asked to talk about England as West Saxony; and that is what has happened to the long epic of Serbia, now described as North Slavia. I remember when it was announced that Bohemia was to cease to exist, at the very moment when it came into existence. It was to be called Czechoslovakia; and I went about asking people in Fleet Street whether this change was to be applied to the metaphorical Bohemia of our own romantic youth. When the wild son disturbed the respectable household, was it to be said, "I wish Tom would get out of his Czechoslovakian ways," or, when Fleet Street grew riotous, "I hate these rowdy Czechoslovakian parties." But the question is merely fanciful; for there is very little left in Fleet Street that its worst enemies could call Czechoslovakian. The newspaper proprietor was perfectly right in his facts; journalism is now conducted like any other business. It is conducted as quietly, as soberly, as sensibly as the office of any successful moneylender or moderately fraudulent financier. To such persons, it will indeed seem idle if I recall that the old taverns in which men drank, or the old courts in which they starved, were often full of starving poets and drunken scholars; and all sorts of perverse personalities who sometimes even tried to tell the truth; men of the type of old Crosland, that queer cantankerous man, who hated so many things (including me) but had often justified his great farewell, in which he said bitterly that he had:

  ... trod the path to hell,
  But there were many things he might have sold
  And did not sell.

For one thing, it was always said of him that he nearly died of hunger in Fleet Street with a volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets in his pocket.

A man of that impossible sort, of finer spiritual culture and, therefore, of less fame or success, was Johnston Stephen, who was, I am proud to say, my friend. He was of the great Scottish family, of Leslie Stephen and of "J.K.S."; and he was quite as wise as the one and as witty as the other. But he had a certain distinction very difficult to define; the world with which he dealt simplified it by saying he was mad. I should prefer to say that he could not completely digest anything; he refused things of which he thoroughly approved at the last moment, with a movement like that of a bucking horse. Sometimes his objection was profound enough, and always illuminated by an idea; but he lacked the power of final adherence. He once made to me the very sensible remark, "The only little difficulty that I have about joining the Catholic Church is that I do not think I believe in God. All the rest of the Catholic system is so obviously right and so obviously superior to anything else, that I cannot imagine anyone having any doubt about it." And I remember that he was grimly gratified when I told him, at a later stage of my own beliefs, that real Catholics are intelligent enough to have this difficulty; and that St. Thomas Aquinas practically begins his whole argument by saying, "Is there a God? Apparently not." But, I added, it was my experience that entering into the system even socially brought an ever-increasing certitude upon the original question. For the rest, while a fierily patriotic Scotsman, he had too much of such sympathy to be popular with many Scots. I remember when he was asked whether the Church was not corrupt and crying out for the Reformation, he answered with disconcerting warmth, "Who can doubt it? How horrible must have been the corruption which could have tolerated for so long three Catholic priests like John Knox and John Calvin and Martin Luther."

Somebody ought to have written a life of Stephen or collected his literary remains; which were left to vanish as journalistic remains. I once had a notion of doing it myself; it is one of the many duties I have neglected. There was an essay on Burns in my brother's paper, the New Witness, which was so much better than most essays on Burns, or essays on anything, that it might have made a man's name if the man had been on the make. He remains to me as a great monument of the futility of the present condition of fame, which is merely fashion. He had indeed violent freaks of temperament; but these did not in the old days extinguish a man like Swift or a man like Landor. If he is remembered in no better way, it is well that I should dedicate this passing note to his memory. He has long since discovered the answer to his only religious difficulty.

All these extremes were too extreme to be typical; the fine fanatic who said what he liked and died; the mere snob or sneak who said what he was told to say and lived, if you can call it living. But it is only fair to Fleet Street to say that there were some who kept their intellectual independence, and yet kept their connection with the working machine of journalism; mostly by having a wide range of variety in their work, and because monopoly was not yet so uniform as to prevent them having some choice of masters; even if it were already a choice of tyrants. Perhaps the most brilliant of these, who might without exaggeration be called the Queen of Fleet Street, was a lady with whom I have the great honour to be connected; I mean the wife of my brother Cecil. She has always managed to remain a freelance, or the Joan of Arc of a whole company of freelances, though there is one field especially in which her banner has now been displayed to all. She always had a hundred irons in the fire; though only one of her fires is now so big as to be a bonfire and a beacon. Everyone has heard of the Cecil Houses, in which homeless women find that real hospitality, human and humorous, which was incredibly absent from the previous priggish philanthropy; and nearly everyone has read about their origin, in her own astounding book which records her own astounding adventure. She went out without a penny to live among the penniless; and brought back our only authoritative account of such a life. But not everybody understands that flame of angry charity which resents the poor being pestered even more than their being neglected; hating the selfishness of the sweater, but hating more the spiritual pride peculiar to the spy. She has sympathy with Communists, as I have, and perhaps points of agreement I have not. But I know that she stands, first, for the privacy of the poor who are allowed no privacy. She fights after all, as I do, for the private property of those who have none.

It marked a sort of sublimation of the Fleet Street spirit in my sister-in-law that, within healthy limits, she not only could do everything, but she would do anything. Her work was patch-work of the wildest and most bizarre description; and she was almost continuously in a state of hilarious irony in contemplation of its contrast. She would turn easily from a direct and demagogic, though quite tragically sincere, appeal in a Sunday paper against official oppression of poor mothers to an almost cynical modern criticism of the most sophisticated modern plays. She would finish a hard controversial comment on the Marconi Case, full of facts and figures, for the Eye-Witness, and lightly turn to the next chapter in a shamelessly melodramatic and Victorian serial, full of innocent heroines and infamous villains, for "Fireside Romances," or "Wedding Bells." It was of her that the story was told that, having driven whole teams of plotters and counter-plotters successfully through a serious Scotch newspaper, she was pursuing one of the side-plots for a few chapters, when she received a telegram from the editor, "You have left your hero and heroine tied up in a cavern under the Thames for a week, and they are not married."

It was in connection with this last line of journalistic adventure that an incident occurred of greater public, indeed of a certain historic importance. It is not only a landmark in the history of the law, but it throws a lurid light on that curious lawlessness which, in many modern matters, seems to be the principal effect of law. My sister-in-law was contributing to a Sunday paper in serial form one of these gravely, not to say brazenly, romantic romances. In this case something brazen, in the sense of something theatrical and even pantomimic, was perfectly appropriate to the theme, for the villain on whom the tale revolved was represented as a theatrical producer on a colossal scale like that of Cochran or Reinhardt. He was represented as doing various unscrupulous things, as is the humble duty of a bad man in what is only meant to be a good story; but not otherwise of any extraordinary depravity, and even adorned with something of the magnanimity suitable to melodrama. I fear I have forgotten his name; perhaps, as the sequel will prove, it is just as well. But let us suppose, for the sake of argument or narrative, that his name in the story was Arthur Mandeville. Now it so happened that there floated about somewhere in the great dust-cloud of atoms drifting round theatrical circles and occasionally or indirectly connected with theatrical or semi-theatrical enterprises, utterly unknown to anybody connected with the serial or the Sunday paper, a private individual whose name actually was Arthur Mandeville. He was not even an actor in any sense of an actor in action; he was certainly not a manager in any ordinary sense of having any theatre to manage; he was no more in any position remotely resembling that of the man in the story than he was the Sultan or the President of the United States. But he was a man who had once, in a series of other small enterprises, paid salaries to some small company of performers and given some small show somewhere. This man brought an action for heavy damages against the paper, on the ground of a malicious and vindictive blasting of his private reputation; and he won it.

The extraordinary thing was that nobody, from first to last, pretended that there had been any attack upon this man at all. The judge, in giving his judgment in the man's favour, upon the law of the matter, repeatedly declared that it had been proved up to the hilt that the lady who wrote the story had never even heard of the gentleman who she was supposed to have pursued with her envenomed darts. But the judge was none the less convinced that, as the law stood, the two coincidences of the name and of some shadowy and temporary point of contact with a similar profession, were enough to constitute a case of libel. A considerable section of the literary world awoke to this state of affairs in a condition of not unnatural alarm. It looked as if the trade of the novelist might well be classed among the dangerous trades, if he could not casually call the drunken sailor by the name of Jack Robinson, without some danger of being fined and sold up by all the Jack Robinsons who may happen to be sailing, or to have sailed, all the seas of the world. The ancient question of what should be done with the drunken sailor, if he invariably took a fancy to avenging himself legally upon anybody who should say "Jack Robinson," gave rise to some considerable literary and journalistic discussion at the time.

I remember, in the course of the controversy, that I suggested that we should have to fall back on some alternative to names, such as numbers, in describing the ringing repartees leading up to the duel in which the subtle and crafty 7991 died upon the sword of the too-impetuous 3893; or the vows breathed by the passionate lips of 771 in the ear of 707. But another way of evading the difficulty, to which I was much more attached, was that of equipping all the characters with names so extraordinary, that it was practically impossible that they could be the real names of any real people anywhere; and by way of illustration I wrote a moving love-scene between Bunchusa Blutterspangle and Splitcat Chintzibobs. Fortunately, for general journalistic convenience, my proposals were not accepted; and a much more practical proposal, invented by my sister-in-law, was carried out with complete success. She republished the whole story in book form; and before doing so went round to a number of leading literary men of the day, especially those she knew best, and obtained their permission to use their names for all the characters in the book; retaining her own name, as a graceful acknowledgment, as the name of the original villain. Anyone curious enough to look up that curiosity of literature, will find the most famous persons figuring on every other page in the humblest or most improbable capacities; a dear old stage-door keeper of the name of Bernard Shaw, a cabman known to his comrades in the cab-shelter as Barry Pain, and many others whom I forget. Some little time afterwards, I think, this extraordinary condition of the law was altered, in a typically English manner; that is, not by anything so logical and pedantic as a new law, but simply by another judge saying that the law meant the exact opposite of what the first judge had said it meant. But this queer little affair has some relevance to more real problems that arose, when we found ourselves more seriously engaged in the same strange field of modern British legalism.

There is no Law of Libel. That is why everybody is so much afraid of it. That is why it is so tremendously and tragically and comically typical of a certain spirit that now fills all our social life and institutions; a spirit at once ingenious and evasive. Strange as it will sound, this is the English way of maintaining a Terror. The Latins, when they do it, do it by rigidity; but we actually do it by laxity. In plain words, we increase the terror of law, by adding to it all the terrors of lawlessness. The machine is felt to be dangerous, not so much because it strikes by rule, as because it strikes at random. Or, at any rate, so far as any opponent looking for logical protection from it can calculate, it strikes at random. This is more true of almost all our laws than of any other laws in Christendom. But even lawyers would almost admit that it has come to be very like the truth about the law of libel. Some definitions of libel are so strict that nobody could really apply them; other parallel definitions are so loose that nobody could imagine to whom they could apply. The result is that libel, if nothing else, has become a mere weapon to crush any criticism of the powers that now rule the State.

All this must be kept in mind, when we come to more crucial and exciting events in connection with the Eyewitness; I only mention this incident here to indicate the lively manner in which the lady in question conducted the endless comedy of Fleet Street. In connection with the paper above mentioned, of which my brother was first the sub-editor and then the editor, there were a hundred such anecdotes and amusing episodes. I fancy I can trace the lady's hand, as well as the editor's, in one of the most admirably absurd correspondences I have ever seen in the columns of journalism. It all began, if I remember right, with my brother writing something about the meeting between H. G. Wells and Booker Washington, the famous Negro publicist in America, in which some doubt was thrown on how far Mr. Wells understood the difficulties of Mr. Washington, and by inference those of the White South in which he worked. This view was enforced and exaggerated in a letter dated from Bexley, which warned everybody of the real dangers of racial admixture and intermarriage; it was signed "White Man." This produced a fiery letter from Mr. Wells, humorously headed, "The White Man of Bexley," as if the man were a sort of monster. Mr. Wells said he did not know what life was like "among the pure whites of Bexley," but that elsewhere meeting people did not always mean marrying them; "The etiquette is calmer." Then, I think, a real Negro intervened in the debate about his nature and destiny; and signed his letter, "Black Man." Then came a more detached query, I should guess from some Brahmin or Parsee student at some college, pointing out that the racial problem was not confined to the races of Africa; and asking what view was taken of intermarriage with the races of Asia. He signed his letter "Brown Man." Finally, there appeared a letter, of which I remember almost every word; for it was short and simple and touching in its appeal to larger and more tolerant ideals. It ran, I think, as follows:

  "Sir,
  May I express my regret that you should continue a correspondence which
causes considerable pain to many innocent persons who, by no fault
of their own, but by the iron laws of nature, inherit a complexion
uncommon among their fellow-creatures and attractive only to the elite.
Surely we can forget all these differences; and, whatever our
race or colour, work hand in hand for the broadening of the
brotherhood of humanity.
      Yours faithfully,
            Mauve Man with Green Spots."

This correspondence then ceased.

There were indeed other correspondences which seemed as if they would never cease. To few correspondents was given such power as that of the Mauve Man to paralyse all others with a sense that it was impossible to say or do any more. Some of these controversies are referred to in other connections in this book; some of them, like my own intermittent controversy with Mr. Bernard Shaw, have been going on at intervals for the greater part of our lives. But the controversy to which my sister-in-law was most deeply and warmly committed, as being connected with the work that has since made her so deservedly famous, was the protection of the homes of the poor, especially against an interference more insulting than indifference: the great uniting indignation of our otherwise often diverse group.

She was married to my brother just before he went to the War, in a little Roman Catholic church off Fleet Street; for he was already of that communion. He was twice invalided home; he volunteered three times for the Front and the third time met his death. In another chapter I shall deal with him more individually, and especially with that rarer sort of courage which he showed in politics, under instant threats of imprisonment and ruin. While in the trenches he wrote an excellent History of America and a bacchanalian ballade addressed to his fellow-soldiers, and having the refrain, "It was in Fleet Street that I learnt to drink." Even his Bohemian loyalty to the legend of the Street of Adventure would hardly have stretched itself to saying, "It was in Fleet Street that I learnt to think." For indeed he learnt to think in the nursery; and he was one of those who carry a sort of innocence of intellectual intensity through all things in life, whether they are in Fleet Street or at the Front. And my thoughts go back to poor Stephen and many noble madmen I knew, who had that quality, when I recall those lines one of our friends wrote about the Fanatic, or the man who wanted to keep his word; "That great word that every man gave God before his life began;" and who also, it will be remembered, "Had two witnesses to swear he kept it once in Berkeley Square; where hardly anything survives." For though my brother was the most good-humoured person I ever knew, and could live in good fellowship with absolutely anybody, not only the merely dirty but the really vulgar, what was really deepest in him was a steep and even staggering obstinacy.

  He kept his word as none but he
  Could keep it; and as did not we,
  And round him while he kept his word
  Today's diseased and faithless herd,
  A moment loud, a moment strong,
  But foul for ever, rolled along.