Short and sweet: A wonderful story, full of startling Chesterton prescience and hitting on his favorite themes of the common man versus the aristocracy, the joys of simple, concrete life and the insanity of the modern age.
I’d never heard of this novel before it was suggested for our Chesterton Reading Group last month. First published in January, 1914, The Flying Inn is set in some slightly future England, where, due to the support of the aristocracy, specifically a powerful Lord Ivywood, Islam is making serious inroads into English life.
Let that sink in: Chesterton, writing in 1913, before the Great War, has Islam threatening normal English life, aided by muddle-headed English Progressives and other rich people. Chesterton does this kind of crystal ball gazing all the time. It is a little unnerving.
The story begins with Joan Brett, a lovely, melancholy young woman, walking along the beach, half listening to an array of quack street preachers, each with his spot from which to harangue the holiday crowds. She eventually stops before a colorful Turkish quack, who, like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding showing how every word has a Greek origin, claims that all English inns – think pubs – are really derived from and named according to things found in Islam.
She is the only one listening to his heavily accented expostulations, although he carries on as if speaking to a vast crowd. As tea time approaches and the crowd thins out, just as the Turk begins trying to formulate an Islamic etymology for the local pub, The Old Ship. The quack admits that the old ship presents a challenge to his thesis, so has spoken with the proprietor, a Mr. Pump, in an effort to overcome this. The Old Ship had been named in anticipation of the return of a Captain Dalroy, a good friend of Pump, who was expected any minute to arrive – from Turkey.
Joan, it appears, is also a friend of Mr. Pump and is also awaiting the return of Captain Dalroy.
Captain Patrick Dalroy, a very large and redheaded Irishman, left the English navy due to England’s treatment of Ireland, and became, as the result of numerous adventures, the King of Ithaca. This little kingdom consisted of all the Christian rebels still holding out against the Turks, as the Great Powers had decided that peace with Turkey was worth the sacrifice of any number of small Christian nations in its sphere.
Dalroy, following the wishes of his people to end the war, first appears negotiating surrender on a little Greek island with representatives of the Great Powers: Lord Ivywood “the English Minister, was probably the handsomest man in England,” and Dr. Gluck, “the German Minister, whose face had nothing German about it; neither the German vision nor the German sleep…. his scarlet lips never moved in speech,” as well a representative of the Turks, Oman Pasha, ” …equally famous for his courage in war and his cruelty in peace; but who carried on his brow a scar from Patrick’s sword, taken after three hours’ mortal combat—and taken without spite or shame, be it said, for the Turk is always at his best in that game.”
Dalroy knows that he cannot fight all of Europe as well as the Turks, and has resigned himself to the surrender his people had accepted, even if the terms – the Turks will keep all the women and girls they’ve captured and enslaved, an issue Lord Ivywood sees as just a quibble – enrage him. The whole scene shows the state of affairs under the realpolitik of the Concert of Europe: the little people are willingly sacrificed by the powerful in pursuit of the appearance of peace. Dalroy does what his people want, but first, while the horrible terms to which he cannot object are being read, he rips from the ground the olive trees at hand and tosses them into the sea. He ignores the diplomats, shakes hands with Pasha, and heads back to his ship and to England, to the inn named the Old Ship.
Eventually, the Turkish quack and Lord Ivywood unite, after a fashion, to impose Prohibition on England, and ban all inns. When the authorities arrive to impose this new law on the Old Ship, Patrick rips the inn’s sign out of the ground, and he and Mr. Pump escape with the last barrel of good rum and a large wheel of cheese.
The new law allows for an exception: inns displaying their sign may sell alcoholic beverages, on the presumption they have gotten some sort of exemption. Dalroy and Pump proceed to create the Flying Inn, arriving unannounced at some out of the way place or other, Dalroy sticking the sign of the Old Ship into the ground. A crowd of thirsty commoners soon gathers; the police don’t know what to do, and Dalroy and Pump, after dispensing a little rum and cheese, make their escape. Lord Ivywood, an ambitious and hard man, makes it his crusade to stop them.
In other words, classic fabulous and slapstick Chesterton. Any more detail would be spoilers. We have ambition and hypocrisy exposed, battles fought, songs sung, the working man rising up, Islam revealing itself, and true love – a wonderful, outrageous story. Highly recommended. You can download it free or read it on line here.