Chesterton and the Local


In a typically delightful essay called “What I Found in my Pocket,” G.K. Chesterton refers to "municipal patriotism” as "perhaps the greatest hope of England” (91). By this curious phrase, he means not love of country per se, nor civic machinery as such, but something more like love of the neighborhood. An odd claim, don’t you think? He’s writing during the august reign of George V and all the political stability that era afforded. Chesterton wore a top hat and a cape. Only in a country whose empire spans exotica is dinner dress de rigueur for essayists. The banks of England were the very rock of Providence. Could none of these be reasonably considered the greatest hope of England? Chesterton was also a churchman. Dyed in the wool. An apologist, even. And that for a church still in its ascendancy, before parishioners went to watch television instead, found new gods in pop singers and bad science, and began converting the now-empty churches into pubs and fancy flats. Surely that strong church, light to the nations, would be Albion’s great hope. But no. Bored on a cab ride, the great writer puts his hands in his pocket, pulls out a lot of old train tickets from Battersea, his neighborhood, and nearly weeps for love of his particular pile of London. 

Absurd as it may sound, I know just what he means. Having gone to work in England (2014-2015) I found myself turning out the proverbial pockets all the time, searching for scraps of home. It wasn’t America that I missed. Nor even Seattle, though that sometimes too. Principally, I longed  for Queen Anne, an unexciting neighborhood contrasted with some, but mine. I mention any of this because the locavore movement is still gaining steam, and with it, detractors. “Let us all be citizens of the world,” the globalists say. And “to be local is to be provincial.” And most often, “hipsters suck.” I have never understood the hatred of hipsters. Aren’t they just cleverly dressed people who make conscience-driven consumer choices? The hats are silly, but who can hate someone in a silly hat? (see: Chesterton) Is it the independent businesses that arouse ire? The playing of children’s games in parks? 

The more I see of the world, the less I believe in globalism. The truly international cities I loathe: New York, London. More local character, more distinctives, equal more charm: Dublin, Portland, Boston. Some people try to have it both ways.“Think globally, act locally” opines the bumper sticker. But even that axiom I question. By all means let us act locally (as if we could do otherwise.) But what’s the use of thinking globally? That I am aware of civic unrest in a part of the world I’ll never visit and from which I’ve never met a representative will net either of us exactly what? Is the idea that I’ll lend a hand if possible? So far, and from this vantage, all talk of globalism has led only too handwringing, the indentured servitude of coffee merchants, the destruction of Greece, and the occasional disastrous military intervention. No: the best way is to till the soil on which one was born, to love one’s neighbor, not firstly persons with whom one has no congress. Here I follow Wendell Berry of course, but also Mother Teresa who had it right when asked how she cared for tens of thousands of people, answering, "I didn’t. That would be impossible for one poor woman. I loved the one person standing in front of me.” Or something to that effect.

Elsewhere in the same collection of essays I picked up from a bookshop on the high street in Highgate, Chesterton recalls Walham Green, an indistinct bit of London that serves as an omnibus terminus. He’s on vacation in the picturesque Basque, with friends drinking and talking. Even in that lovely world and fine company, he longs even for the dull bit of planet that, only by knowing it, and walking around it so much, he’s made his. I think that’s wonderful.