The World of : Hilaire Belloc



I am not a Catholic nor I hope a reactionary. Oddly, two of my favourite English poets are both and neither of them was born English. That is, Thomas Stearns Eliot  and Joseph Hilaire Pierre RenĂ© Belloc. This is a bit about the latter. Now, here is a man who enjoyed his pint. 

He overcame this triple handicap to become a satirist, poet, politician, writer and soldier, in my view never quite making the first grade at any of them. I know his poetry best and sometimes indulge in it when in the mood for sentimental doggerel. The subject matter appealed more than the style and is why I have added this post. 'Nuff respect, as the locals hereabouts might say. Now, he is probably best known for his Children's rhymes, which were often cautionary in a proper Catholic sense. "Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion". 

What qualifies him for the award of a post here is his stature as a saint among pootlers and a man who loved a pint to boot. Mind, it is unlikely I would have enjoyed sharing it with him and, believe me, I am not fussy. Maybe he was the least liberal person ever to become a Liberal MP.  

Viewed from the gallows platform of 21st Century righteousness, if alive now, he would be cancelled, de-platformed and locked up. Not a man short of opinions on just about everything, H.G Wells commented that talking with him was 'like arguing with a hailstorm". In his early years he seems to have been virulently anti-Semitic but there is some evidence that he softened his views when he saw how it manifested in practice. Also a monster? Perhaps. But it's a good job he didn't have a twitter account. We don't allow people to change their mind these days do we? (Full confession. I used to live South of the Thames). 

But the real gems are his books on trips on foot across the Southern English Downs and in Sussex in particular. One was effectively an imagined pub crawl below the South Downs with three companions, the Poet, the Sailor and Grizzlebeard, who could well have been his alter-egos!  Another was on the 'old road' between Winchester and Canterbury. 

The Four Men: A Farrago 

The Sussex folk singer Bob Copper published a 'footsteps' book on the route. I hope he fared better than I did. In February 1974, a bit of a hippy, freezing cold, with minimal kit and sleeping rough, I set off on the route. My only memories are the pain of nails coming through the soles of my cheap Hawkins boots and the greeting at the bar of the Washington Inn. Belloc had penned a song with the line 'the swipes they pull in at the Washington Inn are the very best beer I know'. I turned up to find it only served Watneys and a greeting (triggered by my period style lack of a hair cut) of 'what can I do for you Madam'. My response fitted the age and my age and I happily left him to clean up the mess. I don't think the pub is there now. Good. 

Belloc's wanderings are partly travelogue and I think partly invention. They are a hymn of remembrance of the simple delights of the countryside and how you might best appreciate them. They paint a sepia-tinted picture of Edwardian England. Some are available free to download on Project Gutenberg. Have a dip. Or check the three verses from Song of the South Country that I have pasted in at the end of the post. Sophisticated they are not. Love song they might be. They bring to my mind a picture of an old man crying into his pint over the lost, sunlit world of his younger days. It is sentimental doggerel, but then I would turf Wordsworth into that hat as well, wandering around as lonely as a cloud, in nauseating anticipation of the prancing Fotherington Thomas.

He made his money from his books but didn't restrict himself to a life as a Sussex Rambler. Heaven forbid. Thanks perhaps to getting in some marching practice in the French Army, he walked from France to Rome and walked halfway across the USA to visit the girl he later married. 

Even as a lower order politician he fought some good fights. Hansard records his contribution to a debate in Parliament in 1906 on the Pure Beer Bill. This followed some alleged poisoning incidents in which one of the accused brewers used the wonderful defence that he used "no more than the usual proportion of arsenic."

It was argued that "it was impossible to tell the difference between beer brewed from malt and hops and beer brewed in other fashions" but that you could ask for "good English beer by special contract" Belloc agreed. He said had gone to Arundel and asked at the brewery for "English beer made out of English malt and hops?" They said, "You can. It is a little more trouble, and you will have to pay a little more for it, but others are asking for it." His view was that you couldn't judge a beer by its chemistry but only by its effect on your constitution. You see, he could even have picked an argument at a CAMRA meeting. 

The South Country. 

When I am living in the Midlands
That are sodden and unkind,
I light my lamp in the evening:
My work is left behind;
And the great hills of the South Country
Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it's there walking in the high woods
That I could wish to be,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me.

The men that live in North England
I saw them for a day:
Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,
Their skies are fast and grey;
From their castle-walls a man may see
The mountains far away.

The men that live in West England
They see the Severn strong,
A-rolling on rough water brown
Light aspen leaves along.
They have the secret of the Rocks,
And the oldest kind of song.

But the men that live in the South Country
Are the kindest and most wise,
They get their laughter from the loud surf,
And the faith in their happy eyes
Comes surely from our Sister the Spring
When over the sea she flies;
The violets suddenly bloom at her feet,
She blesses us with surprise.

I never get between the pines
But I smell the Sussex air;
Nor I never come on a belt of sand
But my home is there.
And along the sky the line of the Downs
So noble and so bare.

A lost thing could I never find,
Nor a broken thing mend:
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get towards the end.
Who will there be to comfort me
Or who will be my friend?

I will gather and carefully make my friends
Of the men of the Sussex Weald;
They watch the stars from silent folds,
They stiffly plough the field.
By them and the God of the South Country
My poor soul shall be healed.

If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.

I will hold my house in the high wood
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.


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