The man who was GKC's champion

JACK CARRIGAN

He describes himself as '87 and crumbling by the minute'. But Aidan Mackey is a revered figure.

When I ask Aidan Mackey if I can interview him he responds: "In two hours I shall be 87 and crumbling by the minute." Thus it is that I quickly jump into my car on a drizzly morning to visit him. For those unacquainted with him—and there can't be many as his circle of friends is global—Mackey is a leading authority on the life and writings of G K Chesterton.

How did this youngest of seven, from a small terraced house in Manchester, a member of the "respectable working class", who had to leave school aged 14, come to occupy this position of eminence? Growing up in a secure, close Catholic home mattered, followed by Mount Carmel Catholic Boys School "where we were taught to appreciate the classics and to respect authority".

Mackey had an early and abiding love of Keats. Aged 17, he blew six shillings (most of his wages) on a five-volume collected edition. In 1970, as happens at some stage to all book lovers, he lent a volume to a friend who lost it. The guardian angel of literary mishaps found him the same copy 36 years later in a bookshop in Walsingham.

Aidan Mackey's life has followed a trajectory of benign interventions. At 14 and working as a copy boy in the newspaper office of Kemsley House, he was deep into Richmal Crompton when his older brother, Frank, with typical fraternal kindliness, told him: "Get that great snout of yours out of that rubbish and read something worthwhile!" Mackey smiles at the memory. Frank lent him Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. It was "the first adult book I had read. I instantly wanted to know what else he had written and to read more."

Since that memorable encounter Mackey has made the furthering of GKC's robust and paradoxical genius his life's passion. Naturally this ran alongside ordinary life: at first running the Manchester bookshop of Burns, Oates and Washbourne and then, after the War, in which he served as an RAF radio operator in West Africa, working as a schoolmaster. He joined the ex-servicemen's speeded-up training course and after 10 minutes at the front of his first class, "I knew this was my life". He introduced his classes to Chesterton's Essays and tells me with justified pleasure that old pupils write to him years later to thank him for the introduction.

It was at the bookshop that he met his wife of 64 years, Doreen. She enters the sitting-room as we are talking to tell me that while Aidan was in Africa in 1943 she discovered a book on Chesterton by his brother, Cecil, that Mackey did not possess.

"He married me to get that book," she adds mischievously. Her husband courteously corrects her: "That was only 50 per cent of the reason. The other 50 per cent was that I wanted your tea ration!" He is still a keen tea drinker, though he has cut down from the 29 cups that Doreen served him one evening along with their parish priest.

Behind Mackey's spare and upright figure (the exact opposite of his famously portly hero) and retired schoolmasterly aspect lurks a romantic. He tells me that in 1946, just before being demobbed, he hitched from his RAF base in Wiltshire to Chesterton's old home in Beaconsfield, Top Meadow, and gazed at the house from the gates.

"I did not dare ring the bell."

Later, he and his family were to become good friends with Dorothy Collins, GKC's secretary and then literary executor after his death in 1936. After her own death in the 1980s he acquired many of Chesterton's own books. Pointing to a crammed bookcase he tells me it contains 155 books and pamphlets written by Chesterton. Many are first editions. Another full bookcase contains volumes to which GKC contributed introductions and essays. Taking me to his little study I find it is a further repository of Chestertoniana: there are framed sketches on the walls (Chesterton, like his own father, was a skilled illustrator) as well as GKC's certificate on becoming a Knight of St Gregory, signed by the then Cardinal Pacelli, later Pius XII. There is also Chesterton's deed box, full of old, unpublished sepia photographs of him and his circle.

"He married me to get that book," she adds mischievously. Her husband courteously corrects her: "That was only 50 per cent of the reason. The other 50 per cent was that I wanted your tea ration!"

All of this memorabilia, lovingly acquired over a lifetime, will, Mackey tells me, eventually go to the Chesterton Institute in Jericho, Oxford. This took over from the Chesterton Study Centre, founded by him in the 1970s. He was also a founder member of the Chesterton Society in 1974, of which there are now branches all over the world. Why did Chesterton's writings, full of so much sanity, energy, wisdom and humour, fall out of fashion, I ask.

Mackey corrects me: "The literary critics may have ignored him but he always remained popular with ordinary people."

He adds: "There were 19 volumes of Chesterton's writings in print and in demand at Burns and Oates' bookshop in 1947. And this was at a time of severe paper rationing."

Before our meeting is concluded my host insists on giving me lunch at a 16th-century inn near where he lives; it is the kind of place his mentor and literary hero would have loved, full of genial company and the smell of wood smoke. We eat shank of lamb while Mackey emphasises that he has never intended his Chesterton researches to be simply a private literary exercise.

"I began a Distributist Association in Manchester in 1948, to spread his ideas on self-sufficiency, social justice and the rights of families," he explains. These ideas, he reminds me, are more pertinent than ever "now that Communism has been proved bankrupt and since the recent collapse in global capitalism". We discuss the current ills of our society and I ask him what he would do if he were prime minister. The answer comes back swiftly and unhesitatingly: "Before anything else I would set about reclaiming our national sovereignty." Driving back to his home we discover we have both fallen foul of speed cameras. I also note that the wing mirrors on his elderly car are held together, as are my own, with brown tape. But our conversation is not allowed to stray far from Chesterton. Even as I admire his garden, Mackey points to a flourishing honeysuckle and tells me that it is a cutting from the honeysuckle at Top Meadow "which came from Frances Chesterton's wedding bouquet in 1901".

He is keen to propagate more than cuttings—indeed he wants to graft Chesterton's vision of society wherever it will grow. He informs me that there is a lively Chesterton Study Centre in Sierra Leone, helping local people set up small, co-operative businesses.

This scheme is so obviously dear to Mackey's heart that if anyone is interested in learning more about this small but beautiful enterprise they should contact the "Honourable Organiser", a man of 87 (but not, in my opinion, crumbling) through The Catholic Herald office: telephone 020 7448 3602, or email editorial@catholicherald.co.uk with "Chesterton Study Centre" in the subject line.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jack Carrigan. "The man who was GKC's champion." The Catholic Herald (January 8, 2010).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Herald, Britain's leading Catholic newspaper.

THE AUTHOR

Jack Carrigan writes for The Catholic Herald.

Copyright © 2010 The Catholic Herald




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