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Grand Old Man: G.K. Chesterton 

Throughout my life I have felt a little ashamed that I have never got to grips with the work of G.K. Chesterton. It was not just that, like him, I was a Catholic writer, journalist and occasional apologist but we were both sons of Beaconsfield-Chesterton by adoption, I by birth. I came into the world in St Joseph's nursing home, opened by Chesterton, and was baptised by the parish priest, Monsignor Smith, who gave Chesterton the last rites. 

One reason for my neglect, I suspect, was the taint of anti-Semitism that was attached to him and to his friend Hilaire Belloc. Another is Chesterton's style. T.S. Eliot complained that it was "exasperating to the last point of endurance" and Ian Ker, the author of this superb new biography of Chesterton, concedes that his "generous" use of paradox is likely to "irritate the reader". However Ker, the author of the definitive biography of Cardinal Newman and The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, also believes that Chesterton should be recognised as "the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages', and particularly Newman" and one of England's "greatest literary critics".

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born into a respectable, middle-class family living in Kensington; his father ran the firm of estate agents that still bears the family name. He was educated at St Paul's. Ker sees some significance in the fact that he "never suffered the trauma of leaving home at an early age" and was spared the horrors of boarding at an English public school. Chesterton was "sleepily indifferent to what went on in class" and at the Slade School of Art, part of University College, Chesterton attended more lectures on history and English than on art. His first job was in publishing, editing books and reviewing manuscripts. He acknowledged that he knew next to nothing about literature "but the vast mass of literary people know less". 

Chesterton began writing as a freelance journalist, revealing a talent for satirical verse and trenchant polemic. Opposition to the Boer war led to a regular column on the Daily News, a paper financed by the pacifist Quaker chocolate magnate, George Cadbury. While still in his twenties, he married a slightly older woman, Frances Blogg, who came from Chiswick's "arty-crafty" Bedford Park. They were unable to have children — a great sadness to them both — though it is difficult to envisage how Frances would have managed a family when Chesterton was so demanding. Six foot two, and soon overweight, Chesterton was unable to tie his own tie or shoe-laces and had to be shaved by a barber every day.  Frances "acted in effect as both her husband's valet and secretary". His helplessness, Ker tells us, was the "sheer absent-mindedness of a mind totally detached from immediate practicalities and constantly engaged in thought", but also the symptom of a deep flaw in his otherwise engaging character.  

Chesterton's literary and journalistic output was phenomenal: besides his columns in the Daily News and articles in his brother's review, and later his own mouthpiece, G.K.'s Weekly, he wrote novels and detective stories — notably the extremely popular Father Brown series. Ker regards him as "surely the most ingenious of detective story writers" but concedes that "the Father Brown stories are certainly not the most important of Chesterton's writings".  Nor were his novels, such as The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man who was Thursday, more than vehicles for his ideas: Chesterton "was not really interested in the imaginative creation of fictional characters that was the work of a novelist". 

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