During a Mediterranean cruise on May 13, 1934, the great English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, accompanied by his wife Frances, who usually travelled with him, arrived in Malta from Syracuse on board the steamer Knight of Malta.
Those 30 minutes I spent with him, that man so small in his greatness, I think I will never forget- Michael Galea
The Chestertons’ visit was given very little coverage by the island’s newspapers, except for the Italian-language daily Malta and the Catholic Action paper, Leħen is-Sewwa. This latter paper, while welcoming G.K. Chesterton “on behalf of Catholic Malta”, published a long biographical article on the writer; it was signed “M.C.”, presumably Mikiel Caruana, then president of the Circolo Gioventù Cattolica of Valletta and very active in journalism and in Catholic Action.
Chesterton, then 60, and his wife stayed at the Osborne Hotel in Valletta. At this time he was suffering from severe arthritis.
Malta, while welcoming Chesterton warmly to the island, wished him a quick recovery. The Catholic Action Group of Sliema offered him flowers, which he greatly appreciated, and this apart from many greetings he received from several well-wishers.
Members of the Circolo Gioventù Cattolica also offered prayers and Holy Communion for his recovery.
In a letter of thanks, Chesterton said he greatly appreciated their gesture, saying it was “a sign of the brotherhood of the faith throughout the world”.
Archbishop Maurus Caruana, who called on him, was deeply impressed by Chesterton’s personality – a man full of wisdom yet with the heart of a child, always lively and jovial.
During his Malta visit, illness robbed Chesterton of the tribute which all Maltese lovers of Engish literature would have paid him. As it were, very few people had the opportunity to meet him.
The national poet, Mgr Carmelo Psaila, better known as Dun Karm, was one of Chesterton’s greatest admirers. Dun Karm did not fail to pay him a visit and jotted down his impression of that meeting:
“When I entered he gave me his hand. I took it and spontaneously I pressed it hard. He offered me a cigar. I thanked him and told him that I am a non-smoker. We talked about the weather which happened to be humid and out of season.
“Knowing that he was not feeling well, I asked him about his health. He was unsteady on his feet and could not walk properly. We then talked about his books which he have in the Bibliotheca (Dun Karm was then assistant librarian at the National Library) and on contemporary English Catholic writers.
“When I asked him about his journey, he told me he had planned to go to Palestine; from Syracuse he had in mind to go to North Africa and continue his journey to the Levant. As his feet did not help him much, he decided to come to Malta and thence (return) home.
“‘It is a great pity,’ I told him, ‘that you could not fulfil your wish and visit the land where Our Lord lived; on the other hand it is a pleasure that Malta had the fortune to welcome you in her arms’. He smiled.
“Before leaving I suggested that, if he felt fit enough, he should visit the Bibliotheca, to which he replied that he would try to do his best.
“Without letting him stand up from his chair, we shook hands, and I said to him, Saħħa! He stared at me, but when I told him it is our customary way of bidding farewell and explained its meaning, he laughed, pressed my hand again and we parted. Those 30 minutes I spent with him, that man so small in greatness, were most pleasant and, I think, I will never forget them.”
The Chestertons left Malta on May 23, 1934, on board the P&O ship Strathaird. On leaving Malta, G.K. Chesterton and his greatest friend Hilaire Belloc, were made knights of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Pius XI for their services to the Church as writers.
A local correspondent wrote: “If ever an honour was deserved, Chesterton deserved his.”
Chesterton died at his country home in Beaconsfield on June 14, 1936. He was 62. His wife Frances wrote: “He was only really ill for a week, though he had not been well for the last two years. He died as he would have wished, with his brain and sword and pen all at their best.”
The news of Chesterton’s death was carried in the Maltese newspapers the next day.
Chesterton was born in London in 1874. He was educated at St Paul’s School and studied art at the Slade School and Literature at University College, London.
He has been described as a literary critic, author of verse, essays, short stories, detective fiction, philosopher, biographer; he wrote works for the theatre and on Christian apologetics. As a journalist he wrote on political and social subjects. He was an ardent defender of tradition, private property and the family. As early as 1919 he prophesied that Communism would not achieve revolutionary democracy but lead to bureaucracy.
Chesterton was a master of ballads. I still remember at school his classic Lepanto (1911).
On August 20, 1915, when World War I had been raging for over a year, the Daily Malta Chronicle published a “forceful graphic and touching letter” in which Chesterton “eloquently and impressively pleads the case of heroic little Belgium”.
Chesterton was one of the greatest thinkers of his time and is still widely read in our times.
A landmark in Chesterton’s life was his conversion to Catholicism in 1922. His writings influenced various prominent intellectuals, including Mahatma Gandhi and C.S. Lewis. He fostered respect towards his agnostic adversaries George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
G.K., as Chesterton was popularly known, was described as follows:
“A big man, physically as well as mentally… when he laughed his frame shook. His immense physical bulk, flapping hat and large cloak made him almost a figure of legend…. He loved good company, enjoyed a rousing song, relish ed a vulgar joke, drank good beer when he could get it and preferred bad beer to no beer a all…
“His laughter could be heard several houses away… He was an enormous man, nearly six feet tall and weighing something around 20 stone (127 kilos), and his huge head was covered with a tousled mane of pale yellow hair.
“His gigantic figure was made more gigantic by the loose voluminous black clothes he usually wore, a sort of cloak, or ulster flapping like a sail as he surged forward.
“Every now and then the incredible protruding slope of his immense stomach would be seen tightly encased in an enormous lack waistcoat with innumerable buttons, and he usually wore a vast black crumpled sombrero with a wide brim that bent up and down in unexpected places.”
To mark the 75th anniversary of Chesterton’s death, Fr Ian Boyd and Prof. Dermot Quinn, two eminent American scholars from Seton Hall, New Jersey, will be speaking at a conference entitled ‘Chesterton as a Journalist’. The conference will be held on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Erin Serracino Inglott Hall of the University of Malta, Msida, in collaboration with the University’s Department of English.
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