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The Sins of G K Chesterton. Richard Ingrams. Review.

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 The Sins of G. K. Chesterton. Richard Ingrams. Quartet Books. 2021.

The Chesterbelloc is extinct, but the pantomime elephant still performs. The books of  one half of the duo, C.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), the Napoleon of Notting Hill, (a satirical plea for the break up of Britain) The Flying Inn (a broadside against Vegetarians and anti-drinking Wellness), The Man Who was Thursday (a fable on the doings of the Spy Cops of the Edwardian era), have a modest but appreciative audience. The Father Brown series, based on the detective priest of Kembleford, is televised with the 9th season soon to come. The short exposition on St Thomas Aquinas and his Permanent philosophy is treasured by many Catholics, and has the respect of those outside the Universal Church.  His Charles Dickens (1906), amongst its enduring insights highlighted the writer’s “chief fountain…cheerfulness”, egalitarian radicalism, and the democratic reforms his novels and public stands promoted. The prolific essays “with that fantastic love of paradox which gives pain to so many critics” (The Secret Society of Mankind. 1923) have been harvested for their apothegms. Lines of his poetry, let us say The Rolling English Road and not the “journalistic balladry” (T.S. Elliot) of the White Horse, are cherished.

Chesterton was not that long ago proposed for Sainthood. He was presented, Richard Ingrams writes.  as a “benign genius who had gone through life in a spirit of childlike wonder, untroubled by the worries and doubts that make life difficult for the rest of us.” The co-founder of Private Eye, himself received into the Catholic Faith, wastes no time in demolishing the basis for canonisation. With little effort he finds abundant evidence of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism and portrays a troubling personality.

Ingrams takes to heart Bernard Shaw’s jibe at the bond between Chesterton and Belloc, the Chesterbelloc and extends it. There were “three people who exercised a powerful if not damaging, influence on the course of his career – his brother Cecil, Cecil’s wife Ada (always known as Keith) and, in particular the friend and mentor of both brothers Hillarie Belloc.”.

The Anglo-French writer Belloc is known today chiefly for his Cautionary Tales, in part for his pilgrimage, The Path to Rome (1902) – and unfortunately not for his perceptive account of early French poets, la Pléiade, in Avril (1904). He was also an admirer of Charles Maurras of Action Française, and had a life-long Barrésien nationalism rooted in worship of La Terre et les Morts. “It was the Dreyfus affair which first put in his mind the notion of a threat posed by cosmopolitan (in other words Jewish) finance operating independency of democratic government and threatening all national institutions in France particularly, but also in England.”

Chesterton’s brother Cecil, who had earlier been close to the Fabians and British radicals, teamed up with Belloc. He absorbed his judgement on Dreyfus “ “all the sources of the Hebrew money could do for him was done, with the result that after many vicissitudes and another trial (at which he was again condemned) he received a free pardon.” They expounded an enchanted tale of how the equitable promise of the late Catholic middle age had been ruined during industrialisation, paving for the Servile State and The Party System, with whose acquaintance the one-time Liberal Party member Belloc made during a brief unsuccessful Parliamentary stint (1906 to 1910).

Less interested in their social and political alternative, the ‘distributive’ programme of widened property ownership than in attacking that set up and its underhand deals.  The pair joined in attacking the tyranny of National Insurance schemes, “I think the Insurance Act not only a tyranny, but one of the historic turning points of tyranny like Ship Money or the persecution of Wilkes.” Cecil launched the National League for Clean Government to root out skulduggery. All of this weighed heavily on their, and Gilbert’s, trumpeting of democratic aspirations. They came to consider that the people were being thwarted by powerful underhand forces.

It was the ‘behind the scene” doings of political villains that preoccupied the pair. Anglo-Judaic plutocracy” was soon unearthed at work in the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company scandal, whose details will absorb those interested in such affairs. In their organ the Eye-Witness, which became the New Witness, they expounded the claim that the Marconi contract was the result of conspiracy. There proved no evidence for their allegations. Finally brought to court for Criminal Libel Cecil was found guilty fined £100 with costs, claimed a “victory of sorts”. Ingrams observes that this episode did not fade from their memory. “Marconi had become, like Dreyfus, an idée fixe for Belloc (and consequently for Chesterton).”

Cecil volunteered for the Great War and passed away near the end of the conflict in 1918. Chesterton claimed he had, Ingrams says,  “died a hero ‘in a dark hour of gloom.” The nearest to the truth he can get to the facts is that was ar. “premature death from nephritis brought on by a long route march in the cold and wet – fatal to a man already suffering from chronic kidney disease and, according to Keith, drinking a bottle of wine a day – something that would have aggravated his conditions.”(P 175) Gilbert was “incapable of expressing his grief or even accepting the truth about Cecil’s death” . He wrote an extraordinary Open Letter to Lord Reading. (Rufus Issacs)  casting wild aspersions on the man and his government. It is painful to read.

For The Sins Chesterton had not recovered from the Libel Court Case. He wished to “elevate Cecil to the status of a crusading champion”. But he “had witnessed his dearly loved brother being brutally exposed as a liar and a racist and finally being humiliated, forced to withdraw the charge of a corrupt contract, and condemned by the judge for his ‘incredible ignorance of business and prejudice.’”

Ingrams judges that Chesterton was unable to come to terms with Cecil’s passing. The writer had inherited his “father’s neurosis.” He had a “terror of death”, and reluctance “to confront antagonism, disputes and unpleasantness. These psychological traits may have furthered his path towards death in 1936.

This study continues, with the story of Chesterton’s 1920s and early 1930s activities – the creation and quarrels of the micro-party the Distributionist League and G.K.’s Weekly, “Chesterton’s Potty Little Paper”. There is one stand out thread, and that is a simple one  “So far from condemning past pogroms or future persecutions Chesterton and Belloc (both highly respected proponents of Christianity) helped to promote a conception of Jews as foreigners and aliens (or worse) thus fostering, in Britain, a more tolerant attitude towards Nazi barbarities than might otherwise have prevailed.” A sign of his indulgence towards fascism in Italy and feebleness was a failure to make a clear condemnation of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.

At the end of this charge-sheet Ingrams pays a muted tribute “Whatever his failings they cannot detract from Chesterton’s undoubted genius, least of his humility”. Yet consummate talent and a humble character are not qualities demanded for the author of some good and memorable writings, the works Chesterton laid before us. There remains one point, the prejudice firmly established in the pages of The Sins.. If before and after his entry into the Catholic Church in 1922 Chesterton had a “strong sense of the physical nature of evil” some sins seemed to have passed him by.

For those who doubt the depths to which the writer could sink when expounding on ‘Jewish Question’ this will set them clear:

The New Jerusalem Author: G. K. Chesterton. 1920.

“First, the Jews already exercise colossal cosmopolitan financial power. And second, the modern societies they live in also grant them vital forms of national political power. Here the vagrant is already as rich as a miser and the vagrant is actually made a mayor. As will be seen shortly, there is a Jewish side of the story, which leads really to the same ending of the story; but the truth stated here is quite independent of any sympathetic or unsympathetic view of the race in question. It is a question of fact, which a sensible Jew can afford to recognise, and which the most sensible Jews do very definitely recognise. It is really irrational for anybody to pretend that the Jews are only a curious sect of Englishmen, like the Plymouth Brothers or the Seventh Day Baptists, in the face of such a simple fact as the family of Rothschild. Nobody can pretend that such an English sect can establish five brothers, or even cousins, in the five great capitals of Europe. Nobody can pretend that the Seventh Day Baptists are the seven grandchildren of one grandfather, scattered systematically among the warring nations of the earth. Nobody thinks the Plymouth Brothers are literally brothers, or that they are likely to be quite as powerful in Paris or in Petrograd as in Plymouth.

The Jewish problem can be stated very simply after all. It is normal for the nation to contain the family. With the Jews the family is generally divided among the nations. This may not appear to matter to those who do not believe in nations, those who really think there ought not to be any nations. But I literally fail to understand anybody who does believe in patriotism thinking that this state of affairs can be consistent with it. It is in its nature intolerable, from a national standpoint, that a man admittedly powerful in one nation should be bound to a man equally powerful in another nation, by ties more private and personal even than nationality. Even when the purpose is not any sort of treachery, the very position is a sort of treason. Given the passionately patriotic peoples of the west of Europe especially, the state of things cannot conceivably be satisfactory to a patriot. But least of all can it conceivably be satisfactory to a Jewish patriot; by which I do not mean a sham Englishman or a sham Frenchman, but a man who is sincerely patriotic for the historic and highly civilised nation of the Jews.

For what may be criticised here as Anti-Semitism is only the negative side of Zionism. For the sake of convenience I have begun by stating it in terms of the universal popular impression which some call a popular prejudice. But such a truth of differentiation is equally true on both its different sides. Suppose somebody proposes to mix up England and America, under some absurd name like the Anglo-Saxon Empire. One man may say, “Why should the jolly English inns and villages be swamped by these priggish provincial Yankees?” Another may say, “Why should the real democracy of a young country be tied to your snobbish old squirarchy?” But both these views are only versions of the same view of a great American: “God never made one people good enough to rule another.”


Written by Andrew Coates

November 16, 2021 at 1:52 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Of course, Ingrams himself was something of an antisemite, as became increasingly apparent in his later writings for the Independent.

    Jim Denham

    November 16, 2021 at 2:15 pm

  2. Yes, I also noticed a lurking strain of anti-Semitism in Private Eye under Ingrams’ editorship, not least in the parody of Weidenfeld and Nicholson as ‘Snipcock and Tweed’. More of the public school type of insult than GK’s pathological hatred of Jews, but nasty all the same.

    Dr Paul

    November 16, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    • Ingram’s dislike was noticed long ago in William Donaldson’s novel Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen (1975). The book (by a fellow veteran of the satire boom) says something on the lines that Ingrams spends time in the bath every morning thinking of a Jewish figure in public life to attack.

      I could have added the below to the review but did not want to make it longer:

      Review: Is Chesterton exposé 
an act of atonement? Daniel Johnson

      A great writer’s failings are laid bare with a hint of ambivalence.

      “What makes the former Private Eye editor Ingrams’s indictment of Chesterton so damning is that he is himself a lifelong anti-Zionist. A decade ago, he was still suggesting that Jewish defenders of Israel should always identify themselves as such, “otherwise the idea gains ground that Israel has a fifth column of politicians, commentators, businessmen, etc, in this country… all seeking…to excuse or explain away Israeli atrocities.” This outburst prompted Howard Jacobson to comment that perhaps Israel’s critics should likewise declare whether they were antisemites.

      Could the author of this book have since suffered a crisis of conscience? Is it even possible that, by arraigning Chesterton for his undeniable (though oft-denied) antisemitism, he is also discreetly atoning for the sins of Richard Ingrams?”


      Andrew Coates

      November 16, 2021 at 3:48 pm

  3. I knew that Belloc was an anti-Semite, but I didn’t know Chesterton was one as well, although I should have guessed that.

    The Spanish Prisoner

    November 16, 2021 at 2:50 pm

  4. Private Eye also employed Paul Foot who believed that Israel, alone among nations, shouldn’t have the right to exist and wasn’t above the odd Anti Semitic trope or two.


    November 16, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    • Paul Foot’s advice to Tam Dayell: don’t say “Jews”, say “Zionists.”

      In the bourgeois press, as well as Socialist Worker, Paul Foot made virulently anti-Israeli polemics, in support of the proposition that a solution to the Middle-East conflict must involve the destruction of Israel. His advice in the Guardian to Tam Dalyell MP that he should have denounced “Zionists” and not, as he had, “Jews” around Tony Blair, and nobody could then call him an anti-semite, was particularly crass and worth reproducing here:

      Paul Foot’s column in the Guardian, 14 May 2003

      Is Tam Dalyell anti-semitic? My first job as a young feature writer on the Scottish Daily Record 41 years ago was to interview the Labour candidate at a parliamentary by-election in West Lothian, an engag ing Old Etonian who lived in a castle. I liked him at once (and have liked him ever since) but was rather surprised when he told me a few months later that there was only one socialist country on earth: Israel.
      Obviously, Tam has changed his mind since, and obviously he is wrong to complain about Jewish pressure on Blair and Bush when he means Zionist pressure. But that’s a mistake that is constantly encouraged by the Zionists.

      The most honourable and principled Jews, here, in Israel and everywhere else, are those who oppose the imperialist and racist policies of successive Israeli governments. It was a Palestinian Jew, Tony Cliff, who convinced me very early in life that the six-day Israeli war in 1967 was a war of conquest and occupation that woul d make it easier for US billionaires to keep their fingers on the region’s oil.

      When I wrote in this column not long ago about the discrepancy in reactions to UN resolutions against Israel and against Iraq, I was surprised to read a rebuttal from a rep resentative of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board was set up in 1760 to “protect, support and defend the interests and religious rights and customs of the Jewish community in the UK”.

      There are lots of Jews in Britain who are bitterly opposed to the loathsome Israeli occupation of other peoples’ countries and the grotesque violence it involves. Are their interests also protected and defended by the Board of Deputies? If not, are the deputies guilty of making the mistake for which they denounce Tam Dalyell?

      Jim Denham

      November 17, 2021 at 10:11 am

  5. An interesting one. At a very young age I’d read and indeed re-read Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill (an experience made flesh when becoming a local councillor), the Man Who Was Thursday (made real by the material in the Spycops case) and the Flying Inn (A book that would never get published today) I have never read any of the Father Brown oeuvre I admit, but I’ve met admirers. Chesterton was anti-Semitic. One of his wider family kindred morphed into A K Chesterton the founder and financial backer of the National Front.

    But Richard Ingrams ? I don’t think we need to say the Jury are out. They are not and are back in court. Here’s one review of the Chesterton book, by the Irish writer Richard Waghorne; “Richard Ingrams is an experienced editor and a published author. He has also dealt with accusations of antisemitism before. In the same 2010 history of English antisemitism which criticised Chesterton, Anthony Julius describes the early Private Eye under Ingrams as publishing a cartoon of a “City of London Festival of Money” featuring “the Church of St Simeon Goldberg-by-Expenses”.

    A tenth anniversary collection of Private Eye cartoons Ingrams edited contained other examples with Jewish references. While a 1994 biography of Ingrams, Lord of the Gnomes, by Harry Thompson, with which he appears to have cooperated, contains the index entry “accused of anti-Semitism” for his name and a variety of page references at which different episodes are discussed. A 2003 Guardian column by Ingrams opened with the remark: “I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it.”

    Reviewers do well to review books rather than writers, but it is hard not to wonder if this overstated roughing up of GK Chesterton really has nothing to do with at least a bit of a bad conscience on the part of its author.”

    David Walsh

    November 16, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    • It is over-stated, not in the sense that it is in the slightest bit wrong to attack his anti-Semitic passages, or politics more broadly, but because, as Waghorne says, it does not really talk about the books he wrote, apart from a sneer at Father Brown,

      “Just as the characters can be visualised as Chesterton drawings so the settings of the Father Brown stories often call to mind the toy theatre which so fascinated Chesterton from childhood onwards. The landscapes or streetscapes are pictured like stage scenery than realistic settings…In the mind’s eye the curtain raises on the stage of the toy theatre and the drama begins.” (Pages 42 -3).

      Both Chesterton and Belloc rather turned their noses up at the Nesta Webster full blown conspiracy theorising, with charts, diagrams and links, ” Nesta Helen Webster (née Bevan, 24 August 1876 – 16 May 1960) was an English author and far-right conspiracy theorist, who promoted antisemitic canards and revived theories about the Illuminati. She claimed that the secret society’s members were occultists, plotting communist world domination, through a Jewish cabal, the Masons and Jesuits.[2][4] She blamed the group for events including the French Revolution, 1848 Revolution, the First World War, and the Bolshevik Revolution.[5] Her writing influenced later conspiracy theories and ideologies, including American anti-communism (particularly the John Birch Society) and the militia movement.”

      But now you mention it, A.K. Chesterton (first cousin once removed of the author and poet G. K. Chesterton) did not,


      A. K. CHESTERTON (1965).

      “It is exasperating to the author, and so it may be to the reader, that the makers of the conspiracy have to be given some general name, such as the Money Power, or the Power Elite, or the manipulators of international policy. As they do not name themselves, and as they work sometimes in one combination, sometimes in another, and as — like the rest of humanity— they are often rent by internal dissension and by rival bids for power, I do not know’ of any way of avoiding this difficulty. One can but vary the message contained in Holy Writ and say : “By their policy objectives shall ye know them”. Several of the agents and agencies are not thus hidden, and these I have duly named. ”


      Andrew Coates

      November 16, 2021 at 7:22 pm

  6. Off topic but the SWP’s resident “China Expert” Simon Gilbert has replied to a letter criticizing the SWP’s orginal claim that Taiwan “is clearly part of China” (their words). Gilbert took over this “China Expert ” role from Charlie Hoare who left the SWP to join RS21 after “Delta”. The Letter in this weeks Socialist Worker is a dog’s breakfast to put it mildly. It loftily declares that Socialists should support Taiwan’s right to self determination then proceeds to argue against its own position with caveats and obfuscation. It states that independence will lead to war and violence but when has that ever been a barrier to nations obtaining independence? If it was then the great Empires would still exist. Algeria? Vietnam?. At the end it degenerates into identity politics (big in the SWP nowadays) by saying that the Taiwanese are mostly Han anyway so don’t deserve independence. It really is a shocking letter and raises more questions than answers. Basically it is saying that the SWP supports Beijing’s “One China” policy without openly saying so. Chris Harman would never have allowed something like that to be published. Shows the decline of this Party theoretically.


    November 17, 2021 at 4:28 am

  7. Good piece. As Jim says, Ingrams wasn’t free of antisemitism himself, so it’s rather refreshing he’s picked up on Chesterton’s. As far as I can remember in Ingrams’s (good) biography of Cobden, his antisemitism was barely mentioned either. As for Chesterton it was a disease. Orwell said he dragged it into everything, and that’s true – I picked up an essay about divorce, and sure enough, quite irrelevantly, he had something to say about Jews. If he wrote about a strike, and someone involved in it was called Montefiore, this became relevant. I supposed it did got with his idea of rootedness and Mad Merry Englandism.

    There’s a lot in Chesterton to like – some of the poems, and essays – as you say, he’s good on Dickens. He is very readable. His democratic instincts and gusto are attractive – which he saw as a counterblast to the bleak modernism and nihilism of artists of his time. But much of his rhetoric is creating straw men and aunt sallies that he can knock over with flourishes and panache.


    November 18, 2021 at 6:05 pm

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