Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.

A science fiction novel about prohibition. That is the best way I can find describe this uncannily prophetic and disturbing book.

G. K. Chesterton wrote The Flying Inn in 1914, fully five years before Prohibition in the United States. However, the general movement itself had been in place since the 1840s, and a few members of the British Commonwealth had already taken restrictive measures. (Prince Edward Island and portions of Australia, for example.) However, the book does not limit itself to the prohibition of alcohol as its topic, but takes on a whole host of ills that he felt were related: vegetarianism, higher criticism, and Islam. It is these latter topics that make this book seem to predict current events and currents of thought.

Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors since my teens, when I discovered the Father Brown stories. Like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, he has always seemed to me to be one of the truly audacious, larger than life characters that would be great fun to invite to an otherwise boring dinner party, but a bit dangerous to be around in a brawl - or a war. Churchill, of course, was a driving force behind the Allied victory in World War Two, and saw more clearly than anyone else the menace that Communism, and Stalin in particular, would become. Roosevelt had the vision to establish the National Park system, at the time a revolutionary concept of its own. They will both be remembered for generations. Chesterton, alas, seems to be largely forgotten. Perhaps it is because his writing is unusual. Perhaps it is because he never wielded political power. Perhaps it is because the discussion of great ideas has taken the back seat to the discussion of reality television. Whatever the case is, I find that there are few of my acquaintance who even recognize his name.

There are two phrases that I believe exemplify Chesterton’s impact. Oddly, I heard them both in the context of music, spoken by two different conductors regarding completely different musical works.

For his tendency to come up with outrageous paradoxes, out-of-left-field spins on each issue, and a general bombastic and unpredictable realness, I cannot but think of the description of a big, red, rotten tomato thrown up onto the stage. Mr. K used this to describe a “major-minor” chord in Poulenc’s Gloria.

The second phrase is “a good old fashioned romp,” commonly used by Mr. M to describe the final movement of a typical symphony. Chesterton’s novels have that quality of exuberant, slightly off kilter good spirits. Of good English ale and a song sung at full volume.

The Flying Inn certainly fits both of these descriptions. Phillip Ivywood, a power-hungry aristocrat in Chesterton’s vision of the (not-so-distant) future England, is able to pass a bill effectively prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Well, he doesn’t prohibit it, but he limits it to establishments bearing a proper sign. Which are then prohibited. In this, he is influenced by a Turkish philosopher - or charlatan - who attempts to prove that England was once Muslim, and that everything in existence can be linked to a predecessor in the East.

Humphrey Pump, the owner of a tavern, and Chesterton’s stand-in for the true Englishman becomes reacquainted with his friend Patrick Dalroy, an enormous and fiery Irishman, formerly of the Navy, who tears the sign off of “The Old Ship,” moments before Ivywood is able to confiscate it. Dalroy is essentially Chesterton, except without the self restraint. The two of them set off on the run with a cask of rum and a round of cheese, staying a mere step away from the pursuit.

Along the way, they convert to their cause the poet Dorian Wimpole, Ivywood’s cousin. In true Chesterton fashion, this conversion is accomplished when Pump and Dalroy semi-accidentally steal Wimpole’s car. Eventually, all England rises in revolt against Ivywood, and overwhelms the Islamic army he has raised to subdue England.

Thus, what begins as a farcical romp is transformed into a metaphoric vision at the end. This is true Chesterton, of course. Many of his novels take this turn at the end from a tale that, while fantastic, is at least bound to the earth by a thread; to a completely unexpected, often apocalyptic place, having implications far beyond the bounds of the original story. (The Ball and the Cross, and The Man Who Was Thursday come to mind as other examples.) The rotten tomato is served up, leaving the reader to contemplate exactly what happened, and ponder the implications of Chesterton’s vision.

In order to enjoy Chesterton, one must accept these quirks, and enjoy the ride. Fortunately, great lines abound. Chesterton, despite his seeming randomness, has penetrating insight beyond the surface to the rather unpleasant unacknowledged motives underlying many modern truisms. He reliably goes contrary to the conventional wisdom, completely avoiding the predictable arguments and stalemates. (Chesterton’s takedown of the philosophy of his friend George Bernard Shaw is particularly memorable for making the bold - and true - claim that being “misunderstood” is an advantage, not a disadvantage.)

There are a number of things I took away from this book. First of all, right from the outset, when Chesterton introduces the Turk, Misisra Ammon, he gives a striking example of eisegeses - that is, the process of interpreting a text t in such a way that it introduces one's own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into and onto the text. Ammon makes the claim that all familiar tavern names are derived from Muslim influences. Thus, “The Green Dragon” is not from the legend of St. George, but a corruption of “The Agreeing Dragoman.” As one who has heard a number of examples of truly bad preaching, this whole process is far too familiar. (Worst of all time is probably the use of “it came to pass” as a proof text for trouble never lasting.)

In a related section, Chesterton likewise skewers those who attempt to interpret away the meaning of a text by introducing completely irrelevant social and historical theories to render anything - absolutely anything - as meaningless and utter nonsense.

Another great takedown is also far ahead of its time. Again, this was written in 1914, not 1965:

[Dalroy speaking:] “I think modern people have somehow got their minds all wrong about human life. They seem to expect what Nature has never promised; and then try to ruin all that nature has really given. At all those atheist chapels of Ivywood’s they’re always talking of Peace, Perfect Peace, and Utter Peace, and Universal Joy and souls that beat as one. But they don’t look any more cheerful than anyone else; and the next thing they do is to start smashing a thousand good jokes and good stores and good songs and good friendships by pulling down ‘The Old Ship’. Now it seems to me that this is asking for too much and getting too little. I don’t know whether God means a man to have happiness in that All in All and Utterly Utter sense of happiness...I can’t pretend to Peace and Joy, and all the rest of it, particularly in this original briar-patch. I haven’t been happy, Hump, but I have had a jolly time.”

This ties in with several other passages where Chesterton is able to expand on this idea.

Later, after several scenes in which it is revealed that Ivywood is advocating vegetarianism, Dalroy and Pump discuss the poet Wimpole.

“But what’s odd about them is that they try to be simple and never clear away a single thing that’s complicated. If they have to choose between beef and pickles, they always abolish the beef. If they have to choose between a meadow and a motor, they forbid the meadow. Shall I tell you the secret? These men only surrender the things that bind them to other men. Go and dine with a temperance millionaire and you won’t find he’s abolished the hors d’oeuvres or the five courses or even the coffee. What he’s abolished is the port and sherry, because poor men like that as well as rich. Go a step farther, and you won’t find he’s abolished the fine silver forks and spoons, but he’s abolished the meat, because poor men like meat–when they can get it. Go a step farther, and you won’t find he goes without gardens or gorgeous rooms, which poor men can’t enjoy at all. But you will find he boasts of early rising, because sleep is a thing poor men can still enjoy. About the only thing they can still enjoy. Nobody ever heard of a modern philanthropist giving up petrol or typewriting or troops of servants. No, no! What he gives up must be some simple and universal thing. He will give up beef or beer or sleep–because these pleasures remind him that he is only a man.”

At this point, I am risking offending some of my family and friends. So, therefore, I will acknowledge that many have legitimate dietary issues, and note that I generally attempt to work around them.

Chesterton’s point here, however, is spot-on. It is my observation that many, perhaps most, of the current dietary trends are expensive. Furthermore, they tend to preclude eating with ordinary, “lesser” people. For example the “Atkins” diet is high in expensive meats and proteins, and low in inexpensive carbohydrates. You know, the things that have sustained those unable to afford regular meat, for centuries. Likewise, the “only organic, free range, etcetera” has the effect of limiting those one eats with. In my opinion, this is at heart a feature, not a bug. Finally, the most modern obsession, the gluten free lifestyle combines the expense of the Atkins approach with the “we can’t trust anyone else’s food” of the organic only diet. The net result is to cut off the sharing of food - our oldest and most significant source of fellowship with our fellow humans.

But Chesterton doesn’t stop here in his lampooning of health fads. Certainly not! Later, our heroes encounter a utopian community founded on the belief that drinking only “mountain milk” will extend life to extreme old age. This group was founded by a snake oil salesman - who perhaps originally believed his own pitch.

“Then, unfortunately, he came across the institution called Death, and began to argue with it. Not seeing any rational explanation of this custom of dying, so prevalent among his fellow-citizens, he concluded that it was merely traditional (which he thought meant "effete"), and began to think of nothing but ways of evading or delaying it. This had a rather narrowing effect on him, and he lost much of that acrid ardour which had humanised the atheism of his youth, when he would almost have committed suicide for the pleasure of taunting God with not being there. His later idealism grew more and more into materialism and consisted of his changing hypotheses and discoveries about the healthiest foods...It was during his prolonged stay in England that he chanced on the instance of the longevity of milk consumers, and built on it a theory which was, at the beginning at least, sincere. Unfortunately it was also successful: wealth flowed in to the inventor and proprietor of Mountain Milk, and he began to feel a fourth and last enthusiasm, which, also, can come late in life and have a narrowing effect on the mind.”

This, of course, had a result which is all too predictable for those of us who have seen (and tasted) far too many snake oil dietary plans. (See note below.)

“He attracted many pupils and backers among the wealthy and influential; young men who were, so to speak, training for extreme old age, infant old men, embryo nonagenarians. It would be an exaggeration to say that they watched joyfully for the first white hair as Fascination Fledgeby watched for his first whisker; but it is quite true to say that they seemed to have scorned the beauty of woman and the feasting of friends and, above all, the old idea of death with glory; in comparison with this vision of the sports of second childhood.”

Dalroy, after dispensing some of the rum, reveals the doctor as one interested in money, diluting the milk with water to make a greater profit.

“Why should I respect you because you are fastidious about food, that your poor old digestion may outlive the hearts of better men? Why should you be the god of this valley, whose god is your belly, merely because you do not even love your god, but only fear him? Go home to your prayers, old man; for all men shall die.”

This is harsh to be sure. I think it needs to be said in our own age, 100 years later. We fear death, and we wish to elevate ourselves above the “common people.” So we cling to whatever makes us feel better. Our gods are our bellies and our vanity. We wish to ignore that we all shall die. 

I will note as well that, just as in our actual experience with prohibition, Chesterton correctly envisions the exceptions by which the wealthy and privileged are able to obtain alcohol without violating the law. In the actual event, a certain, rather strong (and expensive) Scotch Whisky, Laphroaig, remained legal as a “medicine.” With access to the right doctor, one could obtain a prescription. Chesterton laid the entire scenario out in the book, and correctly observes the rank hypocrisy of the privileged classes.

Again, Chesterton ties all of this together through his use of Ivywood as the instigator and embodiment of the overarching philosophy. Eventually, Ivywood seems to be advocating a return to polygamy and child marriage, claiming that Ammon is correct that women are most free under the laws of Islam.

In the most revealing statement, near the end of the book, Ivywood posits that there is something higher than love, at least the love of the lover or the love of love itself. However, in contrast to the Christian view of the nature of ultimate love being that of the Divine, Ivywood considers the ultimate to be the love of fate. This is the ideal of Nietzche: a delight in destiny is the mark of the hero. This doesn’t exactly work as he tries to woo his woman, but it certainly rings true as the undergirding of much of the evil of the twentieth century, and perhaps of the history of the world.

“I am not ashamed of my laurels, I see no meaning in what these Christians call humility. I will be the greatest man in the world if I can; and I think I can. Therefore, something that is higher than love itself, Fate and what is fitting, make it right that I should wed the most beautiful woman in the world. And she stands among the peacocks and is more beautiful and more proud than they."

And ultimately, this speaks to the urge to “remake the world,” as Ivywood puts it. It is the arrogance that one is above, that one is the “ubermensch,” that one can evade the common fate of man.

Whether you agree with it or not, Chesterton makes a compelling argument that all of these are related. The wish to deny the pleasure of alcohol to the masses, the use of diet to sever the link with “lesser” humanity, and the urge to remake the world. It is the same spirit that says, “I thank God I am not like other men.”

This book is both fun and compelling. It certainly feels predictive of our own time and issues, while remaining firmly rooted in Chesterton’s ideal of the soul of the English people. Agree, disagree, or otherwise, it is a good starting point for further discussion of the nature of the instinct toward prohibition and its common root in snobbery and arrogance.

Note on the musical connections:
Poulenc Gloria (Listen for the chord at 0:43)


I always enjoyed the conducting of Mr. M prior to his retirement. Two of my favorite “romps” are the following.

The Finale from Haydn’s final symphony, #104 is a perfect example of fun that is almost, but not quite, out of control. This is probably my favorite Haydn symphony, although it is impossible to decide. This movement is, without a doubt, one of my favorite symphonic moments of all time. 

Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings is one of my favorite chamber works, containing much of the pain of the destruction of Hungary, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Bartok finds release in the final movement. While the pain is still there, there is an ecstasy of joy and love that comes through in this thrilling performance. 

Note on dietary nonsense: I was a sickly child, and my mother tried all kinds of stuff to improve my health. Some of this was beneficial: I still love vegetables, and learned to cook good food from scratch. I also drink water, rarely sugared drinks, and so forth. Other stuff was benign, but a bit unpalatable, such as experiments with carrot and other juices. Some was downright dangerous, such as kombucha tea, which has been linked to neurological damage. 

Again, I acknowledge the good in attempting to have a healthy diet and lifestyle - I certainly make that attempt myself. However, I see an unhealthy distrust of anything mainstream in these movements, a tendency to ascribe everything to a "drug company conspiracy," and the promise that the fad of the day will cure everything. 

The point here is that one tends to ignore facts in the search for health and/or immortality. A quick perusal of the literature in support of these fads quickly reveals a casual disregard for basic facts of chemistry and biology, but it is impossible to argue with the true believer.


  1. Ahh, it's been way too long since I read this one. (I love the poems in it, too: "Ivywood, Lord Ivywood, he rots the oak as ivy would . . . " "They haven't got no noses, the fallen sons of Eve . . . ")

    I concur on the dietary points. Gluttony is not just the sin of eating too much; it is elevating the body and its needs out of its place. Diet and exercise and abstention can be their own form of gluttony when they become an end instead of a means.

    In addition to the elitist attitude I am highly skeptical of the ultra-primitivist attitude of many current diet fads--as if the discovery of agriculture, or fire, is where human beings got off track. Chesterton had a deep appreciation for human beings, which included human progress. I can't find the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of "If you go out to the wildest meadow, you will find the simplest and most natural child playing at railway trains." Particularly appropriate when "the simple life" has become its own form of elitism.

    1. I knew I was forgetting something. I should have mentioned the songs and poems! I agree with you on the ultra-primitivist idea as well. Despite 200 years of research and observation debunking the idea of the noble savage, we are still enthralled with the idea.

      I cannot tell you how much it thrills me to discover someone else who has read this.