Thursday, May 25, 2006

G. K. Chesterton: The Club of Queer Trades

It was an English crime writer (Reginald Hill perhaps?) who made the point, a good many years ago, that if you spend half an hour or more wandering round a dusty old secondhand-book shop, it is only polite to leave clutching at least a battered paperback. Which is how I came to acquire a copy of G.K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades.

I was going to say that Chesterton is largely forgotten these days, but then I thought I'd better have a look to see if he is still in print, and I typed his name into Amazon. Result: 970 listings! His bestselling book being the Man Who Was Thursday. And The Club of Queer Trades comes in at no. 9, being republished by Dover in 1988.

OK, so he's not as forgotten as I thought. But actually that's not very surprising, when you think about it, because he's really very good.

As usual, Wikipedia provides a handy summary of his life, complete with the standard photo. Well, not quite standard, but all the images of him that you see, on the backs of books and so forth, seem to show him as a fat old man, rather grumpy in appearance. But in reality he must surely have been a good-humoured fellow, because it is said that his writings 'consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour'.

Born in 1874, Chesterton died in 1936. He wrote some 80 books, several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, 4,000 essays, and a stage play. Prolific, in other words. He was also a bit of a 'character' as we used to say in England. He was notoriously absent-minded, usually thinking about his next book, and on one occasion he sent his wife a telegram saying: 'Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?'

The Club of Queer Trades was first published in 1905, when Chesterton was about thirty, and the paperback that I bought was a Penguin edition of 1946. It's a short book, consisting, in effect, of six linked stories.

Within a very few pages you realise that you are in the hands of a master. The writing is witty, clever, and fun. The central pillar of the book is an absurd conceit: that there should exist, somewhere in London, a club which is made up of solely of men who have invented the method by which they make their living. Theirs must be an entirely new trade, not a mere variation on an existing business; and it must be a genuine source of sufficient income to support its inventor.

Hence we come to hear about (among others) the Professional Detainers. Suppose, for example, you wish to have dinner alone with a lady, but you know that she has invited two other gentlemen to dinner also. What could be more convenient than to hire two professional detainers, who will guarantee to detain, by entirely painless means, and without violence, the two other gentlemen whose presence is not desired.

And so on. Obviously, the whole book is based upon this flight of fancy, and credibility is not one of its strong features. But that doesn't matter, because it is obvious from the beginning that the book is simply an entertainment.

Despite its age, I found this book well worth the small sum that I paid for it.

As in the case of many another famous writer of the past, Chesterton fans have formed various societies and web sites to publicise the subject of their admiration. We have the American Chesterton Society; Gilbert, a magazine devoted to Chesterton's ideas, such as traditional morality and Christian orthodoxy; and Chesterton and Friends, a blog about the man and his works.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. Chesterton is undeservedly neglected. The novels and short stories are entertaining, remarkably sensible if you accept their premises (the Father Brown stories are more plausible than Sherlock Holmes, and often have a moral or social point); he has the ability to transform the mundane, especially the dreary city, with the wonder of romance.

Anonymous said...

'Club of Queer Trades' is a lot of fun. Other Chesterton books worth a look are 'The Napoleon of Notting Hill', a weird political fantasy about an elected king of a mini-kingdom inside London; 'The Man Who Was Tuesday', a very black farce about anarchism, assasins and God; 'The Ball and the Cross', about an atheist and a Christian who decide to resolve their argument about the existence or otherwise of God with a duel to the death, but things keep getting in the way; and any good collection of 'Father Brown' stories (the Penguin Classics version in print is a good starting point), where I can only echo what the previous poster said.

Ithiad said...

The BBC adapted this for radio last year back and it was fabulous. Well worth a listen if it reappears on BBC7.