Research Trip Part II

Discussion with Dr. Baker –

Baker Book

Cover of David Baker’s 1996 biography of A.K. Chesterton

On August 15th I had the chance to sit down with AK Chesterton’s biographer Dr. David L. Baker and ask him about his research. It is rare that you get the chance talk with another historian about their work directly. It’s like coming to face to face to the historiography in a certain sense. Over coffee Dr. Baker and I discussed Chesterton’s background and personal life. We also talked about how he constructed his biography of Chesterton. I wanted to know if Dr. Baker had left anything out in his biography of AK Chesterton, and if he was to rewrite it today what he would change. Baker wrote his dissertation 1982 and the book Ideology of Obsession: A.K. Chesterton and British Fascism was published in 1996. A substantial period of time has elapsed since the biography was released and it seems to me that Chesterton is ready for a second look by a new generation of historians.

My interest in Chesterton’s career seemed to please Dr. Baker. He told me that I was fortunate in the sense that there are many new primary sources available to historians today that were not available to him in the 1980s.

Here are a few of the questions I asked Dr. Baker: (I paraphrased these from my notes of the discussion and are not verbatim responses. I did not have the benefit of a tape recorder at the time.)

“Would you add anything to your biography if you wrote it today?”

Baker remarked that he would have liked to use more of Roger Griffin’s methodology, specifically his concept of “palingenetic ultranationalism” worked out in The Nature of Fascism (1991).

“In the Chesterton Collection there is a letter from his wife Doris to you about a recurring dream he had. He imagined himself crawling over the bodies of his comrades during the First World War. How much do you think the Great War affected Chesterton’s mental health?”

A smile for today

A satirical cartoon lampooning Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists from 1960.

Baker said that he could not remember the letter specifically, but believes that AK’s experiences in the Great War both in Africa and on the Western Front contributed his right wing views. Chesterton championed a kind of “soldier’s socialism” that valued imperial duty and sacrifice above all else. Wartime trauma on body and mind forced him (like many others of his generation) to seek meaning in the conflict. The war forever alienated him from the rest of society. Veterans’ alienation is best illustrated through the war poetry of Sassoon and Graves. Like the war poets, Chesterton channeled his estrangement from society into his art. Unlike the war poets, Chesterton’s frustration with interwar society metastasized into fascism through his association with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.

“What was Chesterton’s philosophical basis for his beliefs?”

Chesterton was unique in the sense that he found his political inspiration from the great writers of English literature. An Anglophile through and through, he was  enamored with the mythic quality of Shakespeare described by the scholar G. Wilson Knight. He was also drew inspiration from the writings of Shelley and Carlyle.

“What about women in the League of Empire Loyalists?”

Chesterton actively supported Rosine de Bounevialle and Leslie Green to run for political office as Loyalist candidates. He also sought women heckle prominent politicians and rival political groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Baker also pointed out that women have been historically well represented in the extreme right, providing the example of Nesta Webster, a famous conspiratorial writer and contemporary of Chesterton.

“Why was Chesterton allowed to participate in the Second World War? Why was he not detained like Oswald Mosley and their contemporaries?”

Baker was not able to answer this question for me, but he advised me to check out all the resources available through the Freedom of Information Act. At the time he wrote his biography, there were few government documents available. He suggested that I make a request for documents from the Ministry of Defence and attempt to access Chesterton’s service records from 1940 to 1943.

Since speaking to Dr. Baker earlier this month, I have filled out the necessary forms for the MoD request on Chesterton. It will be interesting to see what his files reveal in the coming weeks and months.

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England Research Trip Part I

This is part one of a three part blog post about my trip to England with the Villanova’s Summer Research Grant program.

Research Trip Part I.

Getting there –

I arrived at the University of Bath around noon on Monday the eleventh. The university is a quick ten minute bus ride up the hill from the center of town. The campus is built in the Brutalist style – enormous concrete buildings with little teeny tiny windows. It’s the sort of place that Corbusier would have liked. I like it too.

“You aren’t even the farthest person to look at the Chesterton collection,” Lizzie Richmond, the archivist at Bath, told me. “There was a student from Australia that came to look at it last year.”

Australians? So much for getting there first. Lizzie informed me that since the archive was brought to University of Bath in 2009 several researchers have been in to see AK Chesterton’s papers. In fact, Chesterton was the most popular collection at the library.

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Lizzie Richmond and her assistant Adrian Nardone.

Why Chesterton? –

Chesterton’s work is not always fun to read. His political writing full of paranoid and accusatory rants. Traitors are everywhere. Sometimes its hard to find anyone that isn’t a traitor in Chesterton’s mind. He weaves his extremist yarns through the politics of the British Empire, then in inexorable decline. A lot of his writing is like this. Neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists have adopted much of Chesterton’s writing as their own over the years as a result. With the important exception of the British Empire thing, that’s all Chesterton. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Chesterton was a political provocateur. Much of what he wrote about was offensive to people in his own day, and is certainly offensive to contemporary notions of political correctness. Whether we like it or not, the right-wing fringe in which Chesterton inspired is a significant to the political history of Britain, Europe, United States, and Southern Africa. Chesterton has had an enormous transnational footprint that has only recently been recognized. His politics aren’t the politics of elections or campaigns, or even political parties as such. It’s more direct action oriented and has been underappreciated by historians. By blurring the lines between British politics of empire and the European fascist tradition, he became an effective propagandist who is still  read today.  

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AK Chesterton during the First World War

The Chesterton collection tells the story of a South Africa miner’s son, decorated First World War soldier, and journalist. He was also cousin of the writer G.K. Chesterton and idolized his relative for much of his life. That’s not to mention his career as London playwright and propagandist for Sir Oswald Mosley. He was also the ghost writer for Lord Beaverbrook’s autobiography. Throughout his life, Chesterton’s South African background amplified his claim to an English identity. Chesterton, in describing his own complicated relationship to Englishness said, “England is the land of my aspiration and my race, as well as most of my adult life, but by birth I belong to Africa.”In studying Chesterton’s life, I believe it is possible to learn how decolonization radicalized British identity in the 1950s and 1960s.

Chesterton made it his life’s mission to defend what he thought England was, the British Isles, Oceania, and Southern Africa — the regions we would call now the British Commonwealth. In doing so, Chesterton invented the “political stunt” by publicly humiliating politicians (usually pusillanimous Tory MPs), the contemporary conspiracy theory, and laid the ideological foundation for extremist groups like the National Front.

Access to documents –

My access to documents at Bath was satisfactory. The collection was well thought out and organized so I could get to specific documents quickly and easily. I was not held to any photography restrictions aside from signing a release. It was a simple matter to match the images I took with the catalog numbers provided in the guide.

 The collection has a wide array of primary sources available for the researcher to explore, including pamphlets, correspondence, and newspaper articles pertaining to Chesterton’s organization, The League of Empire Loyalists. The collection also spans a thirty to forty year period, from the early 1930s through the 1970s. I benefited from the field notes collected by Dr. David L. Baker while preparing his biography Ideology of an Obsession in the late 1970s. Baker’s interviews and field notes make up the first part of the collection. Interviews are invaluable because they give insight into Chesterton’s life from the people who knew him personally, including his wife Doris Chesterton. Bath’s collection also possesses a copy of Chesterton’s unpublished autobiography, “Blame Not My Lute” and his account of the British campaign in East Africa during WWII, All Aboard for Addis: A Personal Record of the Campaign in Abyssinia and Somaliland.

Note on sources –

The collection is made up of a lot of sources that Chesterton controlled himself, like his memoirs, newspapers, and political manifestos. He was about to project a particular public image that may not be entirely accurate. His writings give him a lot of control over how historians interpret him, because there are very few other sources for material available. Besides the notes from Dr. Baker, the Chesterton collection presents only one side of the Chesterton story. I was cognizant of this limitation in the collection, so I  made arrangements to meet with Dr. Baker in person (which I will detail in the next part of this blog) and to look at government documents on Chesterton at the National Archives. I will talk about how the sources I found at the National Archives at Kew complicated and contradicted the things I found at Bath in part three.

Results –

The first four days of my research trip to England were very productive. I was able to take over 1500 pictures with my camera over a four-day period without too much trouble. I took home hundreds of documents and I will be reading through what I found for weeks/months to come.

I want to thank Lizzie and Adrian for helping me at Bath. Dr. Roger Eatwell was also extremely helpful in getting me in to contact with Dr. Baker. I want to thank Dr. Graham Macklin from University of Huddersfield for telling me about the sources available at Bath, including “Blame Not My Lute.” I also I want thank Dr. Baker, formally of the University of Warwick, for meeting with me to discuss my Chesterton project.