Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From Mrs. Cecil Chesterton (J.K. Prothero)

The news that G.K.C. is dead must come as a hurt to his fellow men of all sorts and conditions, to thousands whom he could not have known but who learnt to regard him with intimate affection and admiration. There are those who must mourn him as a great poet, as a famous writer, but how many are there who, apart from his fame, will miss him as an infinitely understanding, kindly friend, as ready to unloose his matchless imagination for the diversion of a little child or an inconsiderable acquaintance as the entertainment of a waiting universe.

His voice on the air, full and deep and rounded, with that incomparable chuckle which circled the world with laughter, was always the signal for a family gathering. He never lectured or talked down to people, he was at one with them in a marvellous sort of fireside intimacy - an intimacy which radiated from his unequalled fantasies, his saitre, essays and unexpected novels. There are so many small people - small, that is to say, in the sense that they have no public life - who owe a great deal to his marvellous capacity for bringing out the best in them. His greatness never overshadowed the individuality of anyone, but was rather the kindly warmth that draws from hidden sources a sudden burgeoning of confidence.

His associates and those who worked for and with him had a sense of happiness in their relationship. Charmingly and outrageously absent-minded, with an incorrigible habit of mislaying things G.K. was amazedly grateful when resourceful secretaries came to the rescue. I remember those devoted competent young people - Kathleen Cheshire, Bunny Dunham, and, lastly, Dorothy Collins who, perhaps, more than all of them understood and ministered to his genius and tactfully enforced his literary committments.

But though I know and appreciate all these different sides, I think of Gilbert more intimately and clearly as a Fleet Street journalist who, like me, knew the adventures, the disappointments, the thrills and joy of companionship that go to its make-up. I see G.K. in his favourite wine bar with polished barrels and oak tables, turning out reams of copy in that decorate caligraphy reminiscent of a medieval missal. Over a glass of Burgundy he would look up with a sudden glaem and give out sparkling gems like my favourite lines: -

"I don't care where the water goes,
If it doesn't get into the wine."

He had the inborn capacity of the true journalist and could write anywhere and everywhere, on an omnibus, in an A.B.C. shop or at an office table. I recall the picturesque figure, with flowing cape and swordstick, hailing a taxi with a spacious gesture - to take him possibly just across the road. he might want the Daily Telegraph, the Cheshire Cheese, or the Daily News - and what were taxis for but to convey him thither. Time and distance were inconsiderable items to the G.K.C. of those days, and of time as of money he was always lavish. The veriest penny-a-liner could always go to him for copy and get it, red hot, with the incomparable sense of news that is the birthright of the journalist. And when, alas, Fleet Street knew him less often in the flesh, his absence did not rid him of his pensioners. Broken-down pressmen, the erstwhile newspaper seller and the man who had been "told by Mr. Chesterton to call" still trailed their way knowing they would not leave empty-handed "the night they went to Beaconsfield by way of Bethnal Green."

I see him as I first met him, at a meeting of The Moderns - his splendid leonine head flung back, his voice pealing throuhg the small back room in a Fleet Street alley, in a brilliant paradox, a scintillating epigram. We were a Debating Society and met to hammer at each other on the problems of the day, the possibilities of tomorrow. It was a mixed lot who gathered at these discussions - there was Cecil, the antithesis of his brother, politically speaking, with his keen brain and relentless logic; Conrad Noel the red and revolutionary padre, Louis McQuilland, Bill Titterton, my brother Charles Sheridan Jones, and others of the glorious company of the New Witness.

His zest for life, I think, made him such a good companion. A hard worker, he entered into school-boy games with that serious delight which animates his unforgettable ballads of the Simple Life. I love to think of Gilbert in one of his bursts of high spirits, sitting at a Mock Trial in Judge's wig and gown, and laying down the law with a quick wit that never overlaid his perception of the part. A great man of letters, yes, but an incomparable playboy whose very zest sharpened his senses of the serious issues of life and his never ending campaign for justice, sincerity and truth.

His exit to me rings down the curtain on an era of high spirits, full of gallantry and comradeship - Cecil, the man who would not know fear; his old friend and controversial sparring partner Clifford Sharp; Stacey Aumonier, the beloved vagabond; C.K. Scott Moncrieff, soldier and satirist; Tommy Pope, round faced and full of fun; and Thomas Seccombe, kindliest of critics. All, all are gone, the old familiar faces. And yet they still are with me, glad ghosts who haunt the Fleet Street we all loved.

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