Four out of ten
This month’s book club book was very strange. It was by the relatively well-known British author, G K Chesterton. I have no idea how it came about as I wasn’t in attendance last month…but here goes.
It’s worth up front saying that finishing this book was a bit of a challenge: I left my hard copy in a Leeds hotel room – accidentally I might add —but downloaded e-book at the last-minute to finish it. And for some reason it was easier to finish it in a digital format: go figure. I found the book hard graft initially to get into, a difficult book to read for some reason; perhaps it was the language, not sure. Once into it though, the pages turned easily and I finished it with hours to spare, pre book club…even though I wasn’t actually there in person.
First thing to say is that this is a completely mental book. Farcical at every turn, it was almost like an episode of Ripping Yarns with some chapters full on Python-esque thrown in for good measure. It had elements of the surreal; reminding me of a Magritte show I saw in Liverpool a couple of years ago. Bowler hats, steam trains, apples, you get the picture. It also felt satirical but I’m not really sure what about, but more on that later. I also enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of London and skies were very visual and quite lyrical, quite at odds with the rest of the book.
The plot was ludicrous, every move telegraphed at every chapter and certainly to the modern reader it seemed quite eccentric. It was both funny and engaging sporadically and ridiculously old-fashioned. Parts are very Dickensian with echoes of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (perhaps it’s the period) and interesting to note Chesterton had a Dickensian obsession himself, writing a biography of Dickens. As in most Dickens books, London plays a starring role and this book has the city central to the action.
I particularly liked a proto James Bond underground bunker / secret agent entrance to a secret lair —Ian Fleming had clearly read this book as did many Cold War / TV writers…for example the Man from Uncle secret entrance through the laundry business mimicked the grimy boozer tunnel described in the book. At times this book felt quite futuristic for the period it was written.
The final chapter in the book had an otherworldly, almost supernatural feel that had echoes for me of the Master and Margarita party chapter — praise indeed. It was both surreal and druggy. There were also religious references aplenty, both overt and tucked away. From the Old Testament days of creation to Jesus’ quote about having to drink from his cup, I found the collision of religion and anarchy a bit obvious.
It was interesting to think about modern terrorism in the context of the anarchists depcted in this book, would Al Qaeda sympathisers be ignored in the manner of these pseudo terrorists? imagine a similar gathering in a curry house in Bradford talking of bombings…All one has to do these days is say the word bomb or type in the word dynamite to a search engine and alarm bells are triggered.
I then got thinking about ‘hiding in plain view’ and of course it has modern-day resonance…Jimmy Saville, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Cyril Smith, all hiding in plain view using their stature, celebrity, and wealth to conceal their activities. Quite a powerful thought.
I found the anarchists not very anarchistic and to be honest, wasn’t really sure what they were rebelling against. I was puzzled with their quaint club style (more rules it seems than our own book club it seemed) and I wanted to know why were anarchists so prominent in 1908 and what worried that society so? Was it the Russian movement, the build up to WW1 or was it the fragile transition from Victorian old world culture to brave new world of technology and advancement?
Fundamentally I’m left unsure why the intellectuals were seeking to embrace the destruction of society and establishment. Interesting to see in our modern era it seems to me like it’s not esoteric intellectuals who seek the destruction of society as we know it, but religious fundamentalists.
I scored the book a four as for the majority of the book it was simply a farce with clunky exposition, enjoyable to read but the real nuggets were few and far between.