“Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?”:  Boris Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and the Case of the Deadly Prime Minister

“A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered.”  With that intriguing overthrow of conventional wisdom opens “The Fad of the Fisherman,” a short story by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1921.  “If it is clean out of the course of things,” Chesterton expounds, “and has apparently no causes and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it; and it remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident long after.  It drifts apart like a forgotten dream….”

A contemporary illustration for Chesterton’s story by William Hatherell, showing the “extraordinary” incident.

In light of the extraordinary and memorable events unfolding over the last few days like a crumpled serviette disclosing the spat-out remains of a prolonged Partygate feast – the rules-breaking incident that contributed to the eventual if only reluctantly heeded call for the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the notion that something might be “too extraordinary to be remembered” does not quite ring true.  So much in politics these days is head-scratchingly, gut-churningly out of the ordinary, the Trump Presidency and its aftermath being a prime example.  And yet, the violation of established codes of conduct have become so flagrant and frequent that we, or some – or, I suspect, many – of us no longer recognize them to be unprecedented, unethical or unconstitutional.

It now takes greater effort to remember, if ever we knew, what once were assumed to be formal matters of procedure and protocol.  And we struggle as well to connect the tell-tale dots that, if they were examined closely – like some seemingly random Rorschach blots – and in relation to each other, might enable us not only to arrive at the “causes” – the egoistic and downright egomaniacal roots – of socio-political developments but also to realize the “consequences” of our inattention to pattern-forming details whose neglect profoundly compromises our ability to draw meaningful inferences from the reality of facts and fictions with which we are confronted: the erosion of trust in political figures who, instead of serving their country, help themselves and cling to power as if they were absolute monarchs.  How reassuring, then, are the ratiocinations that bring many a murder mystery to its logical if not always satisfactory conclusion.

It is the conclusion rather than the opening lines of Chesterton’s story – a story involving the unlawful actions of a Prime Minister – that brought to mind the astonishment with which I first reached it – a solution that I, appropriating shelved products of popular culture rather than reviewing them, am under no compulsion to withhold.  The by me highly anticipated conclusion to Mr. Johnson’s sorry and increasingly sordid Downing Street saga, meanwhile, remains unknown while I am writing this, the 822nd entry in my journal.  I might as well say it flat out: the Prime Minister in Chesterton’s story is a murderer who gets away with his crime.

As I keep saying, there is no escaping the present.  Writings by dead authors who had no knowledge of us now living can nonetheless bring that now forcefully to mind; and however questionable presentism – the imposing of latter-day views on works from bygone eras – may be from the perspective of historians whose chief role is to represent the past, the aim of this journal is to approach the present obliquely through irreverent games of association.

That the world has changed dramatically since “The Fad of the Fisherman” first reached the public by way of monthly periodicals – to be subsequently collected among other adventures featuring amateur detective Horne Fisher in Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922) – is hardly in need of substantiation.  Back then, the liberal and radical David Lloyd George served as British Prime Minister, which is crucial to our appreciation of Chesterton’s choice of murderer, a man whose criminal actions he justifies.

The world has also changed dramatically since I first came across “The Fad of the Fisherman,” in 2016, when it appeared in Serpents in Eden, an anthology of mystery and detective fiction edited by crime writer Martin Edwards and published by the British Library at the height of the divisive and deceptive Brexit campaign that would catapult the former London Mayor into the role of Prime Minister of a divided Kingdom delivering a promise to the alleged majority that Brexiteers had duped into believing to the better – even the only – choice for Britain.

In his brief introduction to “The Fad of the Fisherman,” Edwards calls the story “a good illustration of the author’s interest in politics and hostility towards corrupt capitalists.”  It strikes me that this is just the kind of tale we need at this time – or at all times, really.

“The Fad of the Fisherman,” opens with the arrival of Harold March, a “rising political journalist” with a mission to “interview various political celebrities,” at the country seat of an influential industrialist.  What makes the hoped-for interview all the more promising is the fact that the industrialist is currently being visited by the Prime Minister.  

Combining business with pleasure, March is traveling by boat.  On his river journey, he witnesses a curious incident of a man leaping from an approaching boat onto a bridge, his feet briefly suspended in mid-air – the extraordinary occurrence that would slip his mind until the death of the man of industry he came to interview suggests to him that what he might have been witnessing is the escape of the killer.

March’s friend is the amateur sleuth – and avid reader of “cheap murder stories” – Horne Fisher, a man accustomed to dining with the ostensibly great and good.  Fisher had intended to join March on the river but ends up travelling by train instead.  Chesterton’s omniscient narrator tells us that Fisher

did not particularly like or dislike the prime minister; but he intensely disliked the alternative of a few hours on the train.  Nevertheless, he accepted Prime Ministers as he accepted railway trains; as part of a system which he at least was not the revolutionist sent on earth to destroy.

Fisher is clearly no anarchist; but his socialist views are on prominent display.  Commenting on the wealthy owner of the country seat, who indulges in his passion for angling and the myth of thereby fending for himself, Fisher scoffs:

Does he explain how he blows all the glass and stabs all the upholstery  […] and makes all the silver forks, and grows all the grapes and peaches, and designs all the patterns on the carpet is? I’ve always heard he was a busy man.

“We’re all really dependent in nearly everything, and we all make a fuss about being independent and something,” Fisher observes.  As it turns out, the Prime Minister was “dependent” on the industrialist of whose influence he rids himself by force.  

Chesterton lets the murderer dash off – the man jumping onto the bridge having been yet another victim of the industrialist – so that he may give a to him liberating speech denouncing “[c]orrupt financiers” and extolling the virtues of “heroic peasants.” Horne Fisher, who solves the murder but absolves the murderer, reasons that

the thing is horrible. But other things are horrible, too. If some obscure man had been hag-ridden by a blackmailer and had his family life ruined, you wouldn’t think the murder of his persecutor the most inexcusable of murders.  Is it any worse when a whole great nation is set free as well as a family? […T]he slavery that held [the Prime Minister] and his country was a thousand times less justifiable.

Chesterton would not have concluded his story in this way had a man like Boris Johnson – rather than David Lloyd George – been Prime Minster.  As those feet March observes dangling from the bridge reminded me, we should have seen coming what ultimately caused Johnson to promise that he leave office: the “extraordinary” moment, back in 2012, when the future Prime Minister was, like Chesterton’s runaway suspect, suspended in the air, dangling from a zip wire in Victoria Park.  Playing the fool, Manhattan-born Johnson fooled many of us while he was preparing to aim higher and land a position that would extend his reach from London to all of Britain and the world beyond.

In Chesterton’s story, the metaphorical “big fish” that did “break the line and get away” was a corrupt financier.  Today’s “big fish” are Presidents and Prime Ministers – men who “break the line” along with the law … and manage to “get away” in plain sight.

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