Chris Hare has done us all a great service by writing on Belloc. His book, Hilaire Belloc: the politics of living, which came out late last year, ought to serve as a welcome invitation to those readers of today who have not yet taken up any of Belloc’s works. For reasons quite complex and largely unjustified, Belloc’s reputation has fallen significantly below that of his Catholic and other contemporaries over the last few decades. We have just passed the seventieth anniversary of Belloc’s death (on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 16 July 1953) and there was no discernible murmur of recognition or commemoration. Apart from an ongoing general rustle of appreciation among those who recall with affection his comic verse (mainly the Cautionary Tales for Children), and especially among younger generations, he is almost unknown. Thankfully, he is probably still well enough known among the people of his beloved County of Sussex, more so than anywhere else in the UK (which would please him), in large part because of the enthusiastic endeavours of Chris Hare and his friends who keep his memory alive there; and his name can still be found bruited about online among fervent co-religionists (especially in the US) who cling to some of his more political and polemical works with avidity. But outside these groups he is but a dimly remembered name.
Perhaps this is the fate of most of those men who are greater than any one of their books, or even greater than the sum of all their writings. Sublime works often live on, carrying their creator in their wake as something more than just a name. In Belloc’s case, it is impossible to point to any of his books and say: “Here is the entire man!”. Even placing perhaps his three greatest single works on top of each other – The Path to Rome, The Four Men and The Cruise of the Nona – I would assert that the pile reaches barely to Belloc’s waist. One finds the real Belloc through a wide reading of his variegated works and then becomes enchanted by him, perhaps even more so than with his writings; those books then remain one of the best ways to keep company with him and to hear him speak. There is wisdom, humour, beauty, wit and understanding in his books; but behind all of these things, giving them spirit and substance is the figure, the personality: Belloc himself – a man, with faults of course, but with great gifts, who lived a life of travel, tragedy, some disillusionment and much intellectual combat, and who met with exhaustion at the end. Belloc is why we read Belloc (which makes him stand out from many other authors, whose writings I may admire or feel deeply about, for whom I feel only a gentle warmth at best).
And Chris Hare has done a particular service by showing us this man – Ecce homo! – in a personal and affectionate way that I believe no-one has done so well since the superb memoir written by J B Morton only a few years after Belloc’s death. For he has weaved a very personal note through Belloc’s life and writings and delivered a candid exposition of the man which should charm even the sceptic and quite possibly the foe.
For Chris Hare, whom I must here admit to having known for pretty much 20 years through membership of the Hilaire Belloc Society, sets out in his short introduction to the book some of his own circumstances which echo Belloc’s – his disillusionment with party politics and, more importantly his own family’s tragedy – and how through the latter in particular he has been drawn closer to Belloc whose writings helped support and sustain him at critical times. In many ways, the introduction sets the tone for the book as a whole – it is an admirable precis of the author’s intentions and is both candid and clear. Given the way in which some of Belloc’s works (often not his best, and ironically some of his most dated) are considered close to Holy Writ by that aforementioned clique of Catholic controversialists – and given how disparaged he has been by many of those who ought to have loved him most (other co-religionists, now rather liberal and priggish), Chris Hare’s admission that he has come not to apologise for Belloc but to write of him “warts and all” is very welcome and – frankly, in the context – disarming.
The book is set out thematically – it is not intended as a biography, as Chris Hare makes clear at the outset – and deals with the personality of Belloc, his faith and early founding in classical literature, history and myth, his love and evocation of landscape and the importance to him of sacred places, his engagement with world of politics, as an MP and as a writer, speaker and thinker, his widely-held reputation as an anti-Semite, his experience of and response to the conflicts of the Boer War, Great War and Second World War, and finally his declining years and how he foresaw so vividly in his writings as a young man the loss and waning of powers that accompanies the journey into old age. Almost every page carries at least one, often extended, citation either from one of Belloc’s books or letters, or a description of an encounter with Belloc from a contemporary. When I would give a talk on Belloc, I would similarly festoon my speech with extensive excerpts: there is no better encounter with the man now than through the medium of his prose and verse and through the reminiscences of those who met him in life. We are not just our own narratives, we are our voice and thoughts, our aspect and our gait; and our words and the recounting of our encounters with others will reveal more about ourselves than any summary of biographical details can.
And Chris Hare has chosen these excepts with care and with an eye – and ear (Belloc’s own writings can read beautifully) – for how well they reflect upon the themes he has set out, and in particular for how, even within something as dry as Belloc’s political thinking, there is still a man, feeling and breathing and giving life to what might otherwise seem at times but dusty words.
His chapter on landscape and place, which focuses on The Four Men, was one in which I particularly delighted – not least because of all of Belloc’s single works it is the one which most captured my sensibilities while a young man at university and to this day remains that which is most imprinted upon my spirit. This fictional, almost dream-like, narrative of an autumnal walk across Sussex by the four men of the title, Grizzlebeard, the Sailor, the Poet and Myself (an Everyman of sorts) is deeply embedded in that blessed County’s countryside in the years just before the Great War – to such an extent that, as Chris Hare rightly points out, its landscape is in many ways the fifth companion of the book: such is the evocation of place in this story by turns whimsical, melancholic, riotous, satirical, elegiac, comic and poetic, that the reader feels in a very particular way that he is accompanying the four men across the fields, through the woods and down the lanes (and into the inns!) of the story with a vividness that very few other books can give.
And this rootedness in place allows all the discursive twists and turns of the conversation between the characters to somehow remain tethered to the real – so that, just as the reader can feel the chill drizzle of the evening or smell the woodfires, he can also feel the emotions that are poured out in the companions’ tales together. As Chris Hare points out elsewhere in the book, while Sussex was a very special place for Belloc – from his childhood memories of Nomansland near Slindon to his dozen-or-so married then more numerous widowed years at Kingsland, Shipley, many of Belloc’s essays feature a sacred or holy or blessed place sometimes reached only in dreams – an adumbration, or foreshadowing, of Paradise: of that patria of final peace and rest and happiness, reference to which in those last lines of the Benediction hymn, O Salutaris Hostia, would bring Belloc to the point of tears. Place, its evocation and suggestiveness, features prominently in another chapter of this book, entitled “An enduring faith”, which intelligently explores the tensions within and nuances of Belloc’s faith and spiritual temperament.
Whereas significant attention has been given to Belloc’s political, social, economic and to some extent historical thought, less has been written about his other works. In so many ways, there is a lot still to unpack from these less didactic writings, material that often seems casual (like his essays) but into which he poured himself and his thoughts and feelings in a very intense way. And, more suggestively than explicitly, Chris Hare’s book opens up that possibility of new avenues of approach to Belloc the man – renewing, or revivifying the knowledge and memory of him and his works, to try and explain how they can sustain and feed the spirit and mind, of how a man now seventy years dead can yet still keep us company along a road much of which will have been familiar to him, through the pangs of youth, the quiet joys of settled life, and towards our final end, a journey with all of its accompanying joys, frustrations, small triumphs and sometimes deep tragedies.
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