Hilaire Belloc was born on 27 July 1870. He died a couple of weeks before his 83rd birthday, in 1953. To British and American Catholics of those times it would have been unimaginable that one day his name would fade, for he was by far the starriest defender of the Faith, and his books were on the shelf of every literate Catholic – histories, in abundance, travels, poetry, apologetics, economics, politics. I still treasure a bookmark made for me when I was about six, by a teacher, Sister Mary Alban OP, inscribed in her matchless calligraphy , with Belloc’s lines about the grace of God being in courtesy – not always a grace of which he availed himself.
It is now forty years since Belloc’s grandchildren approached me and asked me to write his life. I was an unlikely choice, being the Hon Sec of the Wishy Washy Society, whereas Belloc liked banging the drum.
Remember The Arundel Carol – “May all good fellows who here agree/Drink audit ale in Heaven with me/And may all my enemies go to hell,/ Noel, Noel!”.
I still feel grateful to the family for asking me to chronicle his life . “When I am dead, I hope it may be said/His sins were scarlet but his books were read”. Alas for him, his sins were of a kind we find unpardonable and largely for this reason, the books go unread..
Imagine a modern reader , who had barely heard of him, picking up a volume of Belloc’s verse in a second-hand bookshop . She might be surprised by how good it is. Such a reader might place the poet in the tradition of English pastoral.
Spirits that call and no one answers
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,
And never a ploughman under the sun,
Never a ploughman. Never a one.
But the pessimism of the poem is coming from a different imaginative world than that inhabited by his Prot public-schoolboy “Georgian” contemporaries ,
Likewise the poems seemingly for children are animated by something hard-edged which is at variance with anything we would call either English or Pastoral .They depict children who were incorrigible – Henry King, whose habit of chewing little bits of string led to his grisly fate – “Oh my Friends be warned by me/That Breakfast, Dinner/Lunch and Tea/Are all the human frame requires/With that the Wretched Child expires”. Matilda dies in flames. Jim who did not keep a hold of nurse, is devoured by a lion. Lord Lundy’s inability to restrain tears leads to the anathema of his grandfather –“Sir! You have disappointed us!/We had intended you to be/The next Prime Minister but three:/The stocks were sold: the Press was squared./The middle class was quite prepared./But as it is! My language fails/ Go out and govern New South Wales”.
The child who has absorbed these verses has actually learnt to be subversive. The England depicted, where the “hoary social curse” stinks “a trifle worse/Than in the days of Queen Victoria” is being judged by a quite different value-code. “The moral is, it is indeed/You must not monkey with the Creed”.
Belloc, though for a time a Liberal MP, and though the celebrant of the Sussex pines, was not really English: he was half French . His Englishness was that of the awkward squad: his mother, a redoubtable feminist called Bessie Parkes was descended from the great chemist Joseph Priestley, and from nonconformist radicals. It was through Cardinal Manning she became a Catholic, and it was Manning’s Catholicism , with the social radicalism of Rerum Novarum, and an Ultramontane hope that the Papacy would provide the conscience of Europe, which guided Belloc’s thought.
The book which expounds his political outlook most succinctly is The Servile State (1927), an application of the principles of Leo XIII and Cardinal Manning to the world scene of the 1920s. Faced by the instability of the Capitalist system (he published his book two years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929) and by the social injustices it inevitably produced, he foresaw only three possible solutions. First was Collectivism, the experiment already being tried in Soviet Russia with catastrophic effect. Secondly, the re-establishment of Property by Distributism in which the mass of citizens should severally own the means of production”. (Sometimes nicknamed Three acres and a cow). Third, what he called A Servile State which is really what we live in today.
The twentieth century saw a number of heroic attempts to put the ideas of this great book into practice. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement in the United States springs at once to mind. There was the Ditchling Community in Sussex, where Eric Gill and his Guild of Craft workers put many of Belloc’s views into practice.
Belloc saw that all this political and economic evil went hand in hand and stemmed from the loss of the Catholic faith in Europe .
The ideas of The Servile State, so distrustful both of the tyranny of state and of market, are echoed in many of the encyclicals of John Paul II . Whether there would be much chance of Belloc’ s histories enjoying widespread popularity again, one rather doubts. They were composed at lightning rate: he wrote the life of James II in a fortnight on a holiday in North Africa, with no books to hand. The best of the historical books relate to France. His history of Paris, which gives out in the 18th century, is packed with good stuff. The revolutionary histories – the Life of Danton in particular – are marvellous.
Rereading the chatty travel-books, notably The Path to Rome, when he walked to the Eternal City opining on everything under the sun, and The Cruise of the Nona, his book about sailing (he was a passionate yachtsman) , has been disillusioning . I found the former arch and purple prosy, and the latter – despite its many sad beauties, blustering and absurd.
No, worse than absurd. For here one comes to the core difficulty, and the reason why the Church in our day has distanced itself both from what Belloc stood for and his way of standing for it.
What I first found most attractive about Belloc’s Defence of the Catholic Faith , still has enormous appeal. He propounded not the inner life, but the Catholic Thing, “the Thing that is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our Pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still maintain”.
If you value the common European heritage from “the pagans on whom we all repose) to Dante , from St Benedict to St Dominic , from Aquinas to John Paul II, there is something obviously attractive about the Bellocian catchphrase , “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith”.
But, but, but….when you read The Cruise of the Nona, with its adulation of Mussolini, its casual antisemitism, then you realize it is not just Belloc you are finding repellent: it is a whole mindset, exemplified , distinctively but not uniquely French , which carries along with its piety a bundle of odious falsehoods and sheer nastiness.
Before I researched this article, I’d promised myself not to express priggish horror at Belloc’s unreconstructed views, picked up when doing his National Service in the French Army, in the 1890s . Why not just celebrate Belloc the elegist, , the humorist ,the tramp who in the Path to Rome was a sort of Edwardian Jack Kerouac, the yachtsman who gazed with such lyricism and such heart break at the sea, “the common sacrament of this world?” Why not just cast out the slimy dark bilge water gurgling around in the stern of his old boat the Nona and bucket out the filth, without mention, into the ocean? And the answer must be, that, in his lifetime, Belloc was not just a supremely entertaining journalist-poet. He had also set up his brass plate as a Catholic apologist and as he banged the drum for “Europe and the Faith”, he dragged all his less salubrious prejudices into the foreground, actually making them part and parcel of his defence of Catholicism itself.
The anti-semitism can not be overlooked. The Cruise of the Nona , published in 1925, still persists, against all the contrary evidence then available , in proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus. If the familiar pattern – hatred of the “Money Power”, distrust of international capital, slithering into the bullyism of antisemitic cliché , – could be detached from Belloc’s Catholicism, one could , almost, laugh it off as an ugly period detail. These horrible ideas, however, persist to this day. Consider the underbelly of Le Pen’s Front National.
Belloc himself was not a Nazi, if only because he detested Germans even more than he disliked Jews . He was the first British journalist to denounce the Pope, Pius XII, for not doing more to protest against the Hitler regime and in particular the persecution, later massacre, of the Jews. But I never found a scintilla of evidence that Belloc could see a connection between the sort of anti-semitic views he expressed throughout his life, and the horrors of the Third Reich.
The pilgrim Church went on a very long journey after 1945 towards a discovery of how true Pius XI’s words had been, that we are all spiritual semites. The present Holy Father, with his call to everyone to read the Scriptures, could not be further from Belloc who dismissed the Epistles of Paul as those of a “muddly old yid”.
I do not want, however, to end negatively.
In early life he had dreamed of being a don at Oxford and he never forgave All Souls’ for not giving him a fellowship. Thank God they didn’t. He rampaged off, after Oxford, to become one of the great men of Fleet Street , absurdly opinionated, drunken, sometimes hilarious and sometimes hectoring. He was a better writer in every way than his chum Chesterton. For one thing, you sense in his writing, especially in the funny verses, a deep sense of life’s cruelty and sorrow. In his religion, Belloc was honest enough to find no consolation for this sorrow, which stemmed from the loss of his wife and two beloved sons. Apart from the sea, it was drinking and laughing with friends which brought consolation. I find that – and his absolute absence of humbug – very sympathetic.
From quiet homes and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
This article was written for The Tablet, and appears in their issue of 24th July 2020.