by H. R. F. KEATING
WHY wasn't G. K. Chesterton Irish? The question occurred to me last Saturday as I watched James Cameron taking a long look at the Ireland of today as part of his occasional series Cameron Country and recalled an extremely odd piece I had seen a few days earlier on the novelist, poet and controversialist of yesteryear.
This was an edition of the BBC's late-night, mid-week religious programme Viewpoint (late-night because it is religious: mid-week to show BBCTV as not being religious on Sundays only). It set out in a most praiseworthy way to give us in 20 minutes a little anthology of Chesterton's writings designed to put over his vision of our drab world as topsyturvied into radiance.
Excellently chosen. too. the extracts were, familiar to many of us like the poem-becomehymn, "Oh. God of earth and altar," others more recondite but equally light-shedding like the paragraphs from his letter telling his mother he had moved from Anglo-Catholicism to the Church.
So far so splendid. And how were we given these pieces? They were read to us by John Sharp got up with the utmost care to look like the late G.K.C. himself, Obviously immense pains had been taken over this both by producer and actor. The setting seemed to be the authentic stuffily cluttered study Chesterton used in his lifetime. Mr. Sharp looked uncannily like the real photographs of Chesterton we had had behind the titles, and never once did he fail to pronounce "gone" as "gawp" and "offas "awf."
He was G. K. Chesterton. Except that he was not. He was an actor. He was a very skilful actor doing his wonderful G. K. Chesterton. And the meaning of the words he was so carefully imitating and so cunningly reading (real coughs and all) went for practically nothing.
Typical this of an attitude that permeates ninety per cent. I sometimes think, of religious television. You can hear the programme planners, "Oh, my God" (religious publicists are professionally full of profanities), "we've got some mildly theological stuff to putout. How in hell's name can we jazz it up?"
It never seems to occur to them that a writer like Chesterton, set aside a little oldfashionedness, makes his own points quite magnificently. All that is needed is to have someone, or perhaps two people for variety's sake, to read these words aloud, paying full and utter attention just to what they are saying. No costumes, no wigs, no characteristic heavy waddling: just words.
When with a great amount
of unnecessary effort I was able to attend to these words of Chesterton's, the splendid old character was amply there all the way on from the opening recollections of his father's toy theatre and its tuppencecoloured cardboard hero. Chesterton himself was more than tuppence-coloured: he was fourpence-coloured and witty, loquacious and paradoxical.
In short, a typical Irishman. Only if ever a man was English it was the poet of "the rolling English road." When came to • watch "St. Patrick's Progress," as James Cameron's piece was sub-titled, I thought I saw just what it was that made the Catholic romantic man different from the Catholic romantic country.
The Radio Times indicated that Mr, Cameron's piece was going to show the sad progress of a land that gained its freedom in a wild moment of splendour and has steadily sunk into the prosaic ever
since. But Mr. Cameron is hooked on Ireland, and Ireland, wonderful ambiguous Ireland of old, took over his programme.
In consequence what emerged was anything but a plain line of progress, or decline. It was, as might have been expected, a mass of contradictions.
It .was the Ireland of the old ways, passionately evoked in the opening interview by a patriot charmer windswept in a rowing-boat who had me regretting in an instant that she seemed to be married and that I am. It was the Ireland of the new ways, instantly described in one quick shot of the tangled television aerials of Dublin yearningly seeking an alien culture.
It was traditional Ireland, seen in sequence of small boys flopping to their knees and banging through the Hail Mary and broad-banded bishops at a recess in a meeting of the hierarchy seizing eagerly on homely tea and tobacco. It was the new Ireland, seen as a raucous microphone-enamoured dance session in a Tipperary village indistinguishable from Top of the Pops.
And both aspects were presented as simultaneously true. Other countries in the world may also nurture the ability to think two contradictory things at the same time. but they were never so passionately thought and so utterly contradictory as the things the Irishman simultaneously holds true.
So here is the difference between that Irishman. Catholic and romance-soaked, and
G. K. Chesterton, romantic and Catholicism-soaked. Chesterton, the Englishman, liked things clear-cut, even though he generally preferred to switch them round and look at them as cut-clear: your Irishman can only live in his soft-day mists even if he has to carry them around in his head.
Could be good
Tuesday, BBC-1: "Winter in Moscow." Third part of Malcolm Muggeridge's intermittent screen biography. Judging by the earlier instalments, will be good.
Thursday, BBC-1: "For Final Glory." Richard Holloway, young Scottish Episcopalian priest, once noted as a Glasgow protester, talks about the danger of confusing social utopianism with Christianity.
Thursday, BBC-2: "The Last of the Polymaths." A look at the late .1. B. S. Haldane, misguided perhaps, maddening no doubt, marvellous as showing what a man can do.