Monday, October 8, 2007

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G K Chesterton

Written in 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984. However, this is not a brutal Orwell-like dystopian vision of the future. 1984 is exactly the same as 1904, but duller. The population has accepted the concept of evolution so completely that revolution is no longer relevant, and therefore nothing changes.
England no longer has elections for political power; instead the country is run by a monarchy where a member of the population is picked at random to succeed to the throne. It is hoped that the seriousness of the post will keep people who are picked to be King on the straight and narrow.
It is a system that works; one day is very much like the next and the country is trundling along without much colour or life, to the extent that a man dressed in a green uniform walking down a London street causes a stir. The man is the ex-president of Nicaragua, a country which attempted to hold out against this tyranny of mediocrity in the last war that the world knew. He meets three of the central characters of the book: little Auberon Quin who talks nonsense to the bemusement of his rather stupid and bluff friend Lambert, and the annoyance of his politically astute and ambitious friend Barker. It is the ex-President of Nicaragua who, as well as astonishing Lambert and Barker with his patriotism for a country that no longer exists, realises what Quin is.
'"He is a man I think," he said, "who cares for nothing but a joke. He is dangerous man."'
The new king is picked and it is Auberon Quin; King Auberon ascends to the throne, with the one aim of squeezing some amusement out of the country. He comes up with the idea of turning the boroughs of London into feudal states ruled by Provosts, picked at random like the king, who are to be constantly accompanied by trumpeting heralds and flags, and have to pay homage to their liege.
The scene is ridiculous, as Quin intends; some ten years later when they have all come together at Court, Quin is in his element. The Provosts, business men and politicians, stand before him uncomfortable with the archaic costumes and forms of speech when trying to discuss something as mundane as road development, and the heralds that accompany them slouch around the sides, smirking at the proceedings. It is all very amusing, until-

'Enter a lunatic'.
'...these Notting Hill halberdiers in their red tunics belted with gold had the air rather of an absurd gravity. They seemed, so to speak, to be taking part in the joke. They marched and wheeled into position with an almost startling dignity and discipline...the big blue eyes of Adam Wayne never changed, and he called out in an odd, boyish voice down the hall-
"I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have - my sword."
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
"I beg your pardon," said the King, blankly.'

Adam Wayne is the new provost of Notting Hill but he does not see the joke; he believes fervently in Notting Hill, in its beauty, its feudal rights, its allegiance to the crown, and he is prepared to go to battle to defend it against the road developers. Notting Hill will fight the rest of London!
The novel builds up through Quin's ridiculous proceedings, to the monumental changes that begin to occur to the country as Notting Hill goes to war; it is a great story and very enjoyable.
The style of the prose is most definitely Edwardian - very English, very male (I don't remember a single female character appearing in it), and down to Earth. The narration takes the tone of a detached, amused observer with a wry, tongue-in-cheek manner, which the character of Quin reflects throughout the story. Quin takes nothing seriously, and is staggered by Wayne who is very serious. Even more staggering to him is how Wayne's romantic patriotism takes hold; the point of the joke was that no one should take it seriously. When everyone takes it seriously, life is irrevocably changed.
The battle scenes are both ridiculous and fantastic, set in ordinary London streets among familiar objects; despite generally not being a fan of battle scenes I was on the edge of my seat, willing the Notting Hill-ites on in their desparate fight against the other boroughs and modernity.
The novel touched a part of me that yearns for the romantic and chivalrous, that part of me that loves the pre-Raphaelite painters, Scott and Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
Although the novel is not as dark or foreboding as visions of the future like 1984 or Brave New World, it has a serious message: it says that one man's seriousness and love for his land can change everything. My volume had a newspaper article from 1921 tucked into the front cover, which says that it was the Irish Republican leader Michael Collins' favourite book. I can understand why.

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