Sunday, 29 May 2011

Alexander Men and G.K.Chesterton

Today is the birthday of English author G.K. Chesterton, inventor of English detective Father Brown. The Father Brown stories were the favourite light reading (along with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple) of Father Alexander Men, the reforming Russian Orthdox priest who I was privileged to meet and who was murdered - probably by agents of the state church - on Sept 10 1990, five months after he had baptised my elder daughter Abi. Father Alexander was on his way to take morning service at his church in the village of Novaya Derevnya ('New Village') northeast of Moscow not far from the seat of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate at Sergiev Posad - the equivalent of our Canterbury, when (deducing from the evidence) he was stopped and asked a question which caused him to open his briefcase and put on his spectacles. He was mortally injured by a skilled blow to the back of the head, probably with a sappers' spade, a sharp instrument used by the (then) Soviet, now Russian, Special Forces. The story of his life and samples of his work are to be found in Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century: the life and work of Alexander Men co-edited by myself and Ann Shukman (now of nearby Elshieshields, Lochmaben)and published in the UK by SCM Press in 1996. The book is for sale in Creativity , Well St, Moffat or direct from me. I also co-wrote with Russian theatre director Mark Rozovsky a play about the affair based on T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral called A Russian Rehearsal which was put on at the equivalent of Moscow's West End at the Theatre At the Nikitsky Gates and which continues to tour as part of that theatre's repertory. Sadly, T.S. Eliot's widow Valerie forbids its performance outside Russia because she does not allow the use of any of her late husband's texts in other work. Anyway, back to GKC, who was born Gilbert Keith Chesterton in London (1874). He was a large man, well over six feet, and rotund. He disagreed sharply with many people, most notably H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but he was so agreeable and full of good humor that he kept them as close friends. He was also remarkably prolific, writing fast and scarcely editing what he wrote. He considered himself primarily a journalist, and he wrote 4,000 newspaper essays; he also wrote some 80 books -- books of fiction, criticism, literary biography, and theology -- as well as several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, and several plays. His best-known character is Father Brown, a detective-slash-priest, who features in several short stories. He dabbled in the occult as a young man, and he and his brother tried out the Ouija board, but eventually he returned to the Church of England, and converted to Catholicism later in life; his thoughts on religion influenced much of his writing. His book The Everlasting Man (1925) contributed to C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity.
George Bernard Shaw was his good friend and verbal sparring partner. They rarely agreed on anything, but disagreed amicably. Chesterton wrote of Shaw, a modernist, in Heretics (1905): "If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby."
He made his points with wit and paradox, and in such a large body of work, there is no shortage of quotable material:
"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane." (Orthodoxy, 1908)
"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." (Tremendous Trifles, 1909)
"Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it." (The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908)
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."
(The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)
(information about G.K.Chesterton courtesy of The Writer's Almanac)

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