The Road to Roundabout

Hibbs coughed considerately and said, “Of course all our things came from the East, and” – and he paused, being suddenly unable to remember anything but curry; to which he was very rightly attached. He then remembered Christianity, and mentioned that too.

I’m surprised that none of the right-wing Islamophobes seems to have found his way to G. K. Chesterton’s 1914 novel The Flying Inn (read it online or buy it), the tale of an alliance between Islamic radicals and left-wing progressives to impose Shari‘a law on Britain.

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s target, of course, was the progressives rather than the Muslims; rather than imagining an Islamic Menace, he was simply poking fun at progressives’ enthusiasm for paternalistic legislation in general and alcohol prohibition in particular by comparing it to the Islamic ban on alcohol. The whole book is a satire on what Hayek would later call “constructivist rationalism,” or the impulse to “straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard [i.e., the particularities of local tradition] made.”

The book is excellent fun, and I’m rather glad it hasn’t yet been pressed into the service of evil. My favourite passage occurs in the back rooms of Parliament, between Lord Ivywood, who favours prohibition, and his cousin Dorian Wimpole, who opposes it:

“It’s awfully jolly that we’ve met. I suppose you’ve come up to make a speech. I should like to hear it. We haven’t always agreed; but, by God, if there’s anything good left in literature it’s your speeches reported in a newspaper. … Do let me hear your speech! I’ve got a seat upstairs, you know.”

“If you wish it,” said Ivywood hurriedly, “but I shan’t make much of a speech to-night.” And he looked at the wall behind Wimpole’s head with thunderous wrinkles thickening on his brow. It was essential to his brilliant and rapid scheme, of course, that the Commons should make no comment at all on his little alteration in the law. …

“It’s about this public-house affair of yours, I suppose. I’d like to hear you speak on that. P’raps I’ll speak myself. I’ve been thinking about it a good deal all day, and a good deal of last night, too. Now, here’s what I should say to the House, if I were you. To begin with, can you abolish the public-house? Are you important enough now to abolish the public-house? … You will abolish ale! … The fate of the Inn is to be settled in that hot little room upstairs! Take care its fate and yours are not settled in the Inn. Take care Englishmen don’t sit in judgment on you as they do on many another corpse at an inquest – at a common public-house! Take care that the one tavern that is really neglected and shut up and passed like a house of pestilence is not the tavern in which I drink to-night, and that merely because it is the worst tavern on the King’s highway. Take care this place where we sit does not get a name like any pub where sailors are hocussed or girls debauched. That is what I shall say to them,” said he, rising cheerfully, “that’s what I shall say. …”

Lord Ivywood was observing him with a deathly quietude; another idea had come into his fertile mind. He knew his cousin, though excited, was not in the least intoxicated; he knew he was quite capable of making a speech and even a good one. He knew that any speech, good or bad, would wreck his whole plan and send the wild inn flying again. But the orator had resumed his seat and drained his glass, passing a hand across his brow. And he remembered that a man who keeps a vigil in a wood all night and drinks wine on the following evening is liable to an accident that is not drunkenness, but something much healthier.

“I suppose your speech will come on pretty soon,” said Dorian, looking at the table. “You’ll let me know when it does, of course. Really and truly, I don’t want to miss it. And I’ve forgotten all the ways here, and feel pretty tired. You’ll let me know?”

“Yes,” said Lord Ivywood.

Stillness fell along all the rooms until Lord Ivywood broke it by saying:

“Debate is a most necessary thing; but there are times when it rather impedes than assists parliamentary government.”

He received no reply. Dorian still sat as if looking at the table, but his eyelids had lightly fallen; he was asleep. Almost at the same moment the Member of Government, who was nearly asleep, appeared at the entrance of the long room and made some sort of weary signal.

Philip Ivywood raised himself on his crutch and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping man. Then he and his crutch trailed out of the long room, leaving the sleeping man behind. Nor was that the only thing that he left behind. He also left behind an unlighted cigarette and his honour and all the England of his father’s; everything that could really distinguish that high house beside the river from any tavern for the hocussing of sailors. He went upstairs and did his business in twenty minutes in the only speech he had ever delivered without any trace of eloquence. And from that hour forth he was the naked fanatic; and could feed on nothing but the future.


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5 Responses to The Road to Roundabout

  1. MagnusGoddmunsson August 28, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    I’m reading the Innocence of Father Brown, and my Zeus! What a fine writer! I regret to haven’t read him earlier.

    • Gary Chartier August 28, 2010 at 7:27 am #

      FWIW, my favorite contemporary English libertarian (he calls himself an “anarcho-conservative”), Stephen R. L. Clark, has written a fine overview of Chesterton’s work and thought. If you like Father Brown and think you’d like to dig into the rest of Chesterton’s stuff, you might like this, too:

      • Roderick August 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

        I highly recommend Chesterton’s writings generally, both fiction (e.g., The Ball and the Cross, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, all the Father Brown stories, etc., etc.) and nonfiction (e.g., Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Dumb Ox, etc., etc.). (Which doesn’t mean I always agree with him, good lord no.)

        A perhaps surprising fan of Chesterton’s is David Friedman; see the last chapter of Machinery of Freedom, now gloriously online.

        • Gary Chartier August 28, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

          Related, perhaps, to DFF’s interest in recreational mediaevalism?

  2. Roderick September 2, 2010 at 12:50 am #

    Jesse Walker tells me that this piece of his on The Flying Inn did get noticed by a few right-wing Islamophobe sites when it came out, so they haven’t missed their opportunity entirely.

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