'The Riddle of the Ivy' is taken from 'Tremendous Trifles', a book of short stories by G.K.Chesterton, each of which was originally published in the early twentieth century in the American 'Daily News'. In the Preface to the book, Chesterton writes ...'None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don't let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see the startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.'
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) - taking a stroll in Brighton
'The Riddle of the Ivy'
More than a month ago, when I was leaving London for a holiday, a friend walked into my flat in Battersea and found me surrounded with half-packed luggage.
“You seem to be off on your travels,” he said. “Where are you going?”
With a strap between my teeth, I replied, “To Battersea.”
“The wit of your remark,” he said, “wholly escapes me.”
“I am going to Battersea,” I repeated, “to Battersea via Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. My remark contained no wit. It contained simply the truth. I am going to wander over the whole world until once more I find Battersea. Somewhere in the seas of sunset or of sunrise, somewhere in the ultimate archipelago of the earth, there is one little island which I wish to find: an island with low green hills and great white cliffs. Travellers tell me that it is called England (Scotch travellers tell me that it is called Britain), and there is a rumour that somewhere in the heart of it there is a beautiful place called Battersea.”
“I suppose it is unnecessary to tell you,” said my friend with an air of intellectual comparison, “that this is Battersea”
“It is quite unnecessary,” I said, “and it is spiritually untrue. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair; because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. Now I warn you that this Gladstone bag is compact and heavy, and that if you utter that word ‘paradox’, I shall hurl it at your head. I did not make the world, and I did not make it paradoxical. It is not my fault, it is the truth, that the only way to go to England is to go away from it.”
But when, after only a month’s travelling, I did come back to England, I was startled to find that I had told the exact truth. England did break on me at once beautifully new and beautifully old. To land at Dover is the right way to approach England (most things that are hackneyed are right), for then you see first the full, soft gardens of Kent, which are, perhaps, an exaggeration, but still a typical exaggeration, of the rich rusticity of England. As it happened, also, a fellow traveller with whom I had fallen into conversation felt the same freshness, though for another cause. She was an American lady who had seen Europe, and had never yet seen England, and she expressed her enthusiasm in that simple and splendid way which is natural to Americans, who are the most idealistic people in the whole world. Their only danger is that the idealist can easily become the idolator. And the American has become so idealistic that he even idealises money. But (to quote a very able writer of American short stories) that is another story.
“I have never been in England before,” said the American lady, “yet it is so pretty that I feel as if I have been away from it for a long time.”
“So you have,” I said, “you have been away for three hundred years.”
“What a lot of ivy you have,” she said, “it covers the churches and it buries the houses. We have ivy, but I have never seen it grow like that.”
“I am interested to hear it,” I replied, for I am making a little list of all the things that are really better in England. Even a month on the Continent, combined with intelligence, will teach you that there are many things that are better abroad. All the things that the Daily Mail calls English are better abroad. But there are things entirely English and entirely good. Kippers, for instance, and Free Trade, and front gardens and individual liberty, and the Elizabethan drama, and hansom cabs, and cricket, and Mr. Will Crooks. Above all, there is the happy and holy custom of eating a heavy breakfast. I cannot imagine that Shakespeare began the day with rolls and coffee, like a Frenchman or a German. Surely he began with bacon or bloaters. In fact, a light bursts upon me; for the first time I see the real meaning of Mrs Gallup and the Great Cipher. It is merely a mistake in the matter of a capital letter. I withdraw my objections; I accept everything; bacon did write Shakespeare.”
“I cannot look at anything but the ivy,” she said, “it looks so comfortable.”
While she looked at the ivy, I opened for the first time for many weeks an English newspaper, and I read a speech of Mr Balfour in which he said that the House of Lords ought to be preserved because it represented something in the nature of permanent public opinion of England, above the ebb and flow of the Parties. Now Mr Balfour is a perfectly sincere patriot, a man who, from his own point of view, thinks long and seriously about the public needs, and he is, moreover, a man of entirely exceptional intellectual power.
Rt Hon Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) . 1st Earl of Balfour.
But alas, in spite of all this, when I had read that speech I thought with a heavy heart that there was just one more thing that I had to add to the list of the specially English things, such as kippers and cricket; I had to add the specially English kind of humbug. In France things are attacked and defended for what they are. The Catholic Church is attacked because it is Catholic, and defended because it is Catholic. The Republic is defended because it is Republican, and attacked because it is Republican. But here is the ablest of English politicians consoling everybody by telling them that the House of Lords is not really the House of Lords, but something quite different; that the foolish, accidental peers whom he meets every night are in some mysterious way experts upon the psychology of the democracy; that if you want to know what the very poor want you must ask the very rich, and that if you want the truth about Hoxton you must ask for it at Hatfield. If the Conservative defender of the House of Lords were a logical French politician he would simply be a liar. But being an English politician he is simply a poet. The English love of believing that all is as it should be, the English optimism combined with the strong English imagination, is too much even for the obvious facts. In a cold, scientific sense, of course, Mr. Balfour knows that nearly all the Lords who are not Lords by accident are Lords by bribery. He knows, and (as Mr Belloc excellently said) everybody in Parliament knows the very names of the Peers who have purchased their Peerages. But the glamour of comfort, the pleasure of reassuring himself and reassuring others, is too strong for this original knowledge; at last it fades from him, and he sincerely and earnestly calls on Englishmen to join with him in admiring an august and public-spirited Senate, having wholly forgotten that the Senate really consists of idiots whom he has himself despised; and adventurers whom he has himself ennobled.
“Your ivy is so beautifully soft and thick,” said the American lady, “it seems to cover almost everything. It must be the most poetical thing in England.”
“It is very beautiful,” I said, “and, as you say, it is very English. Charles Dickens, who was almost more English than England, wrote one of his rare poems about the beauty of ivy. Yes, by all means let us admire the ivy, so deep, so warm, so full of a genial gloom and a grotesque tenderness. Let us admire the ivy, and let us pray to God in His mercy that it may not kill the tree.”
NB. 'Structural strength of a tree can be overwhelmed by aggressive ivy growth leading to death directly or by opportunistic disease' - 'Several ivy species have become a seriously invasive to property' (wikipedia).
An ivy-covered apartment house in Cambridge, Massachusetts (ack. Daderot (Wikipedia))
Mr Will Crooks - Londoner, born 1852 died 1921 London. Member of Parliament, noted trade-unionist and Labour politician, member of the Fabian Society. Particularly remembered for his campaign work against poverty and inequality, notably with regard to reform and improved conditions for those in the 'Poor House'. (wikipedia)
Mr Will Crooks - by Spy 'Leslie Ward' -Vanity Fair (April 1905)
Mrs Elizabeth Gallup - born 1848 Paris, died 1934 New York. American educator and exponent of Francis Bacon as the true author of much of Shakespeare's work. She based her belief on the basis that a 'biliteral cipher' was used in the original printing of these works, to conceal messages concerning the authorship, and other statements about the secret history of the times. (wikipedia) (Her views were clearly not shared by GKC!)
Portrait of Elizabeth Gallup as a young woman - taken from the frontispiece to 'Concerning the Bi-Literal Cipher'
'If a sinner, though he may not as yet have given up his sin, endeavours to do so, and for this purpose seeks the help of Mary, this good Mother will not fail to assist him, and enable him to recover the grace of God.'
Ack. 'Thoughts from St Alphonsus'
Crowning of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven - Diego Velazquez (1645)