Tuesday 22 February 2011

"The Club of Queer Trades" by G.K. Chesterton

It is difficult today to realise just what a colossal figure Chesterton was in his time, both literally (he was six foot four and 21 stone) and figuratively, in literary society. It has been estimated that he wrote over 4,000 essays as well as hundreds of poems and short stories. In addition he was a playwright, a Catholic theologian, a social commentator, a book reviewer, a historian, and a contributor of various sections of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He was also a considerable wit. One example, surely worthy of Groucho Marx, will suffice: "women say they don't want to be dictated to, and then become stenographers".

Yet today he is remembered largely for his Father Brown stories. A shame, since he also wrote about 80 other books, one of which, The Club of Queer Trades, dates from 1905. What a pity that we can no longer use words like "gay" and "queer" in their original sense. Both had precise meanings which are almost impossible to capture with other words. In Chesterton's time, "queer", particularly when used in the north of England, meant unusual but in a rather strange and eccentric sense, with overtones of something that might also be slightly sinister or worthy of suspicion.

The book, alas, now comes across as rather dated, but more for its subject matter than its language. To qualify for membership of the eponymous club you must have a distinct and unique calling which is a profession rather than a hobby. You must actually make your living at it. It is here that the period quality starts to creak a little in modern eyes. Would it ever really have been possible to make a living by delaying people from setting out to dinner parties so that one gentleman who had been invited could propose marriage to the hostess?

G.K. Chesterton is undoubtedly unfairly neglected today, and overdue for a revival, but perhaps this is not the book with which to do it. The Man Who Was Thursday may be a better place to start.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Back from holiday

Just back from a wonderful holiday in India, so normal service will be resumed! In the meantime a quick plug for Parisians by Graham Robb, which was one of my holiday reads. It is my favourite sort of history: all sorts of quirky facts and connections coupled with individual human stories. I never knew, for example, that both The Count of Monte Cristo and La Vie de Boheme (and thus La Boheme) were based on true stories. I particularly liked Robb's description of Paris as a city for lovers who also have jobs and families.