Opinion & Features

On the trail of that GKC quote

GK Chesterton: ominous prescience (Getty)

Of all the wonderful Chesterton quotations, perhaps the finest and best known is the following. The Times, having posed the question “What’s wrong with the world today?”, received the immortal reply:

Dear sir,
I am.
Yours, GK Chesterton

It is hardly surprising that the line, expressing a profound (and profoundly Christian) truth with such pithiness and wit, is so loved and repeated. Indeed, it seems the purest slice of Chestertoniana, as though the great man’s expansive spirit had been distilled into epigram form. Even with the original question, the whole thing fits easily into a single tweet.

The trouble is, no one has been able to pin down exactly when Chesterton said it. As explained by the estimable American Chesterton Society website’s FAQs:

This story has been repeated so often about Chesterton that we suspect it is true. Also, it seems it is never told about anyone other than Chesterton. What we have not found, however, is any documentary evidence for it. It may indeed be from The Times, as the story is usually told, but no one has taken the trouble to go through the back issues and find a copy of the actual letter. It has also been attributed to other papers, but again, no proof.

The plot is rather thickened by the fact that Chesterton published a book in 1910 called What’s Wrong with the World? This is sometimes assumed to be a full-length extrapolation of his famous mea maxima culpa. Yet, while that book might be many things, a more detailed version of GKC’s great “I am”, it certainly isn’t.

In these heady days of searchable digital archives, it shouldn’t be so difficult to solve the puzzle once and for all. With the right institutional subscriptions, it’s feasible to trawl not just the back catalogue of the Times, but also hundreds upon hundreds of other newspapers and magazines at the same time. And so that’s precisely what I set out to do.

Fortunately, searching for various combinations and permutations of “Chesterton”, “wrong”, “world”, and/or “I am” is rather a fun way to spend an evening. I turned up some genuine doozies.

In April 1929, Chesterton and four others wrote to the Times, responding to calls for the abolition of pubs in poor, urban areas. They pointed out that, given the cramped and squalid conditions of much of London housing, public houses “remain the only means of social intercourse for vast numbers”. Urging improvement, not abolition, of the backstreet boozer, they suggested that “good, well-cooked food served in pleasant surroundings and at a suitable price … will make the public house a centre of rational social discourse instead of a mere drinkshop.” GK Chesterton, spiritual godfather of the Wetherspoon? Santo subito!

On a more sober note, in April 1933 he wrote again to The Times, this time answering critics who “wonder where I pick up the strange fancy that the Hitlerites are as warlike as they say they are, as Nationalist and Imperialist as they say they are, and how a whole torrent of sabres, iron helmets, weapons, and war-songs can have suggested to my suspicious mind a hint of militarism”.

He continues in this vein for some paragraphs, before noting with ominous prescience: “Does anybody with his five wits suppose that this spirit can be expanded without a world war? That is the only catastrophe I am here concerned to avoid.”

Evidently, then, Chesterton was not shy of alerting Times readers to what he felt was “wrong with the world”. But what of that famous terse missive?

It isn’t there. In fact, not only is it not there (either in the Times or anywhere else), but also there is nothing remotely like it. No, as is so often the case with these things, prolix original version, giving the basic gist, to be later honed in the retelling. No anecdote from a contemporary, ascribing the bon mot to GKC. No reference to it in any of the many obituaries of him published in 1936. Not even a similar-ish letter, to a similar-ish question, from someone else, to which the Chesterton brand could attach itself. Nothing. At least, not until the late 20th century, when the story suddenly starts appearing, fully formed yet unattributed.

Now, there are some caveats to make here. Digital archives are not always perfect (though the Times’s seems very good). And maybe, just maybe, the phrasing of the original has some quirks that slipped past my various search strategies. Nevertheless, I’m going to call this one.

The fabled Times letter is about as authentic to GK Chesterton as “preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary” is to St Francis of Assisi.

That said, if any reader can prove me wrong, I would be only too delighted to take them out for “good, well-cooked food served in pleasant surroundings and at a suitable price” at a Wetherspoon pub of their choice.

Stephen Bullivant is professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald