Monday, September 13, 2010

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton is one of my six all-time favourite authors (the others are JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, John Buchan, PG Wodehouse, and Edmund Spenser, if you must know) and one of the most remarkable writers of the last century. The Napoleon of Notting Hill was the first book of his that I read. When I opened it up, not expecting anything out of the ordinary at all, the first few words knocked my world askew. They read:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong...

For the first couple of minutes I simply couldn't get past those words—sublime, effortless, understated humour. And then, lurking at the back of them, the suggestion that the human race is not alone in the universe. That we aren't the most important beings in the universe. That the writer has another audience.

I was not aware then that Chesterton was a Christian. But I never for a moment thought he was referring to aliens or pagan gods or beasts. One got the eerie feeling that somewhere, St Michael had taken off his bucket-top boots, slung his rapier to one side, and sat down to have a good chuckle over this very book.

That was how my acquaintance with Chesterton began, and I have never been exactly the same since. People now flee whenever they see me approaching with Notting Hill or The Flying Inn under one arm and an evangelistic gleam in my eye. But I digress.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill tells the story of two men, one without a sense of humour and one with little else. It is eighty years into Chesterton's future—making it, coincidentally, the year 1984!--and nothing has changed, save only that everyone has become much more dull. War is abolished; so are weapons, policemen, and patriotism. Everything works as it should, and nobody enjoys life. The monarchy has ceased to be hereditary; instead, kings are chosen at random from the people, with no pomp and no ceremony, and are expected to be dull and respectable until they die.

When the whimsical Mr Auberon Quin, amateur comedian, ascends the throne he sets out deliberately to ensure his reign is one long joke. He devises legends, heroes, and brilliant medieval robes for each suburb of London, deriving a simple, childlike pleasure from the spectacle of his Provosts—dull and respectable gentlemen all—forced to parade around dressed like the sunset and accompanied by heralds and halberdiers.

How was he to know that someone, somewhere, took it all perfectly seriously? The young Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, hasn't got a sense of humour; he doesn't know that this exaggerated patriotism is a joke. To him, his tiny suburb, with its population of grocers, dentists, and maiden ladies, is as solemn and sacred as Rome or Athens.
"My God in Heaven!" he said; "is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who takes Notting Hill seriously?"
"And my God in Heaven!" said Wayne passionately; "is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who does not take it seriously? […] Notting Hill … is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I think it absurd?"
When a group of the other Provosts—the dull, respectable kind—try to build a new road through Notting Hill, they are amazed by Adam Wayne's fierce resistance. It is big business—it has been simmering on financial back burners for ten years—and so Provost Buck of North Kensington decides that enough is enough; if Wayne is mad enough to refuse such a business proposition, if he swears to defend Notting Hill to his last drop of blood—well, Buck is only too keen to grant his wish. And that's how the great war of Notting Hill begins.
"I know of a magic wand, but it is a wand that only one or two may rightly use, and only seldom. It is a fairy wand of great fear, stronger than those who use it...often frightful, often wicked to use. But whatever is touched with it is never again wholly common. Whatever is touched with it takes a magic from outside the world. If I touch, with this fairy wand, the railways and the roads of Notting Hill, men will love them, and be afraid of them for ever...It has made mean landscapes magnificent, and hovels outlast cathedrals. Why should it not make lampposts fairer than Greek lamps, and an omnibus ride like a painted ship? The touch of it is the finger of a strange perfection."
"What is your wand?" cried the King, impatiently.
"There it is," said Wayne; and pointed to the floor, where his sword lay flat and shining.
"The sword!" cried the King; and sprang up straight on the dais.
This is the story of how Adam Wayne touches London—dull, respectable London—with that terrible wand, and how London begins to live again. Do you think this message is perverse and bloodthirsty? Then what about this?
I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king or tinker, that it could really capture.
In The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton argues passionately, not for war and death themselves, but for a right understanding of them. Adam Wayne is mad, unbalanced, because he has no sense of humour; but he is right. You cannot love a thing without being ready to fight for it. You cannot fight for a thing without coming to love it.
Chesterton dares to say: it is better to love hard and fight hard, and live a short and difficult life, than it is never to love nor to fight at all. Think about it.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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