Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Thursday 8 March 2012

Joe Pearce on Belloc...

Joe Pearce published his biography of Belloc some years ago now. I have just come across, again, Stuart Milson's nice little review:

Old Thunder? A Life of Hilaire Belloc: Joseph Pearce
(Harper Collins, London 2002, hb, 318 pages, £20) Reviewed by: Stuart Milson

Joseph Pearce has emerged as one of Britain's most prolific biographers of leading twentieth century writers. A self-confessed 'angry young man' in his early days, Pearce has made a journey from idealistic political involvement to the world of serious literature, and has worked hard to establish (what is now) a considerable reputation as a writer. He first gained attention back in 1996 for his substantial biography of G K Chesterton, and has produced books on Tolkien and the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yet Pearce, a Roman Catholic convert, does not merely seek to provide a conventional biographical study of his subjects. Instead, a special thread and emphasis emerges in his work - that of an individual writer's adherence to faith and spirituality in an era where materialism and the self have all but replaced organised religion.

Pearce's latest foray is a life of the Catholic writer, poet, one-time Liberal MP, traveller, romantic, debator, World War 1 British propagandist, epicurean and beer-drinking Sussex loyalist, Hilaire Belloc. Yet Belloc was born in the village of La Celle Saint Cloud, near Paris, on 27 July 1870. And although his name is synonymous with the county of Sussex, with that of his friend G K Chesterton and with a mystical English ruralism, Belloc emerges as a truly international figure - a sort of cross-Channel, Anglo-Gallic prophet of a noble Europe of faith, based on the principles of Catholicism and a near-mediaeval obedience to God. Indeed, one clergyman was startled to hear Belloc (the apparent embodiment of Cobbett or John Bull) delivering an oration to a London Eucharistic Congress in fluent French!

If Belloc was difficult to pin down, he was also one of those people who seemed to fill every moment of his life with activity. If he was not travelling by foot across the American or European continents, he was always speaking in debates, or writing for newspapers and journals, or throwing himself into this or that cause as if the whole world depended upon it. After the death of G K Chesterton, Belloc (his own powers at their lowest ebb) took on the task of running his old friend's magazine, G K's Weekly. He did this, not for money or glory, but to honour the man who had always been at his side. Belloc, anxious for copy, wrote to his son, Peter: 'Send us short stuff ... under whatever pen name you use. We pay nothing: I get nothing: we are all in the soup: but it's great fun'.

Names such as George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells also figure prominently in Pearce's story, and Belloc is often to be found locked in debate with those two exponents of socialism and scientific rationalism. In the following passage, the biographer's interest in the importance of faiith (and Belloc's importance as a writer who expounded it) is clear: 'The whole of Wells's vision of history was anathema to Belloc. He objected to his tacitly anti-Christian stance ... Wells believed that human "progress" was blind and beneficial; unshakeable, unstoppable and utterly inexorable. History was the product of invisible and immutable evolutionary forces that were coming to fruition in the twentieth century." Yet Wells ended his life in deep disillusionment, with Belloc - the opponent of all that the twentieth century came to stand for - pursuing him to the last. Science had not ended war, poverty or 'irrationalism', and the cold light of a laboratory could not satisfy the needs of the human soul. At the end, notes Pearce, Wells was defeated, not by Belloc, but by the intervention of reality. Unlike the socialist writer, Hilaire rejected the fanaticism of grand, man-made schemes, denouncing both rapacious capitalism and the mechanical, anonymous, ants' nest of communism.

For Belloc, the key to life was to be found in a small French church, or with his beloved wife Elodie and their children, or in a pint of ale brewed by county men and drunk with reverence in a hallowed inn deep in the Sussex countryside. As Belloc himself put it in the following 'touching couplet': 'French is my heart and loyal and sincere / Is, and shall be, my love of British beer'.

A heady brew, Joseph Pearce's detailed and engrossing biography brings Belloc very much to life again - a worthwhile thing in an age where not thinking too much (except about money) is increasingly the rule.


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