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The Riddle of the Ivy

More than a month ago, when I was leaving London for a holiday,
a friend walked into my flat in Battersea and found me surrounded
with half-packed luggage.

"You seem to be off on your travels," he said. "Where are you going?"

With a strap between my teeth I replied, "To Battersea."

"The wit of your remark," he said, "wholly escapes me."

"I am going to Battersea," I repeated, "to Battersea viā Paris, Belfort,
Heidelberg, and Frankfort. My remark contained no wit. It contained
simply the truth. I am going to wander over the whole world until once
more I find Battersea. Somewhere in the seas of sunset or of sunrise,
somewhere in the ultimate archipelago of the earth, there is one little
island which I wish to find: an island with low green hills and great
white cliffs. Travellers tell me that it is called England (Scotch
travellers tell me that it is called Britain), and there is a rumour
that somewhere in the heart of it there is a beautiful place called
Battersea."

"I suppose it is unnecessary to tell you," said my friend,
with an air of intellectual comparison, "that this is Battersea?"

"It is quite unnecessary," I said, "and it is spiritually untrue.
I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or
any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair:
because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes.
The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that
is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays.
Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose
that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both;
but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea.
The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land;
it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.
Now I warn you that this Gladstone bag is compact and heavy,
and that if you utter that word 'paradox' I shall hurl it at your head.
I did not make the world, and I did not make it paradoxical.
It is not my fault, it is the truth, that the only way to go
to England is to go away from it."

But when, after only a month's travelling, I did come back
to England, I was startled to find that I had told the exact truth.
England did break on me at once beautifully new and beautifully old.
To land at Dover is the right way to approach England (most things
that are hackneyed are right), for then you see first the full,
soft gardens of Kent, which are, perhaps, an exaggeration,
but still a typical exaggeration, of the rich rusticity of England.
As it happened, also, a fellow-traveller with whom I had fallen
into conversation felt the same freshness, though for another cause.
She was an American lady who had seen Europe, and had
never yet seen England, and she expressed her enthusiasm
in that simple and splendid way which is natural to Americans,
who are the most idealistic people in the whole world.
Their only danger is that the idealist can easily become the idolator.
And the American has become so idealistic that he even idealises money.
But (to quote a very able writer of American short stories)
that is another story.

"I have never been in England before," said the American lady,
"yet it is so pretty that I feel as if I have been away from it
for a long time."

"So you have," I said; "you have been away for three hundred years."

"What a lot of ivy you have," she said. "It covers the churches
and it buries the houses. We have ivy; but I have never seen it
grow like that."

"I am interested to hear it," I replied, "for I am making a little
list of all the things that are really better in England.
Even a month on the Continent, combined with intelligence,
will teach you that there are many things that are better abroad.
All the things that the DAILY MAIL calls English are better abroad.
But there are things entirely English and entirely good.
Kippers, for instance, and Free Trade, and front gardens,
and individual liberty, and the Elizabethan drama, and hansom cabs,
and cricket, and Mr. Will Crooks. Above all, there is the happy
and holy custom of eating a heavy breakfast. I cannot imagine that
Shakespeare began the day with rolls and coffee, like a Frenchman
or a German. Surely he began with bacon or bloaters. In fact, a
light bursts upon me; for the first time I see the real meaning of
Mrs. Gallup and the Great Cipher. It is merely a mistake in the
matter of a capital letter. I withdraw my objections; I accept
everything; bacon did write Shakespeare."

"I cannot look at anything but the ivy," she said,
"it looks so comfortable."

While she looked at the ivy I opened for the first time for many
weeks an English newspaper, and I read a speech of Mr. Balfour
in which he said that the House of Lords ought to be preserved
because it represented something in the nature of permanent public
opinion of England, above the ebb and flow of the parties.
Now Mr. Balfour is a perfectly sincere patriot, a man who, from his
own point of view, thinks long and seriously about the public needs,
and he is, moreover, a man of entirely exceptionable intellectual power.
But alas, in spite of all this, when I had read that speech I
thought with a heavy heart that there was one more thing that I had
to add to the list of the specially English things, such as kippers
and cricket; I had to add the specially English kind of humbug.
In France things are attacked and defended for what they are.
The Catholic Church is attacked because it is Catholic,
and defended because it is Catholic. The Republic is defended
because it is Republican, and attacked because it is Republican.
But here is the ablest of English politicians consoling everybody
by telling them that the House of Lords is not really the House
of Lords, but something quite different, that the foolish accidental
peers whom he meets every night are in some mysterious way experts
upon the psychology of the democracy; that if you want to know
what the very poor want you must ask the very rich, and that if you
want the truth about Hoxton, you must ask for it at Hatfield.
If the Conservative defender of the House of Lords were a logical
French politician he would simply be a liar. But being an English
politician he is simply a poet. The English love of believing that
all is as it should be, the English optimism combined with the strong
English imagination, is too much even for the obvious facts.
In a cold, scientific sense, of course, Mr. Balfour knows that nearly
all the Lords who are not Lords by accident are Lords by bribery.
He knows, and (as Mr. Belloc excellently said) everybody in Parliament
knows the very names of the peers who have purchased their peerages.
But the glamour of comfort, the pleasure of reassuring himself
and reassuring others, is too strong for this original knowledge;
at last it fades from him, and he sincerely and earnestly
calls on Englishmen to join with him in admiring an august and
public-spirited Senate, having wholly forgotten that the Senate
really consists of idiots whom he has himself despised;
and adventurers whom he has himself ennobled.

"Your ivy is so beautifully soft and thick," said the American lady,
"it seems to cover almost everything. It must be the most poetical
thing in England."

"It is very beautiful," I said, "and, as you say, it is very English.
Charles Dickens, who was almost more English than England,
wrote one of his rare poems about the beauty of ivy.
Yes, by all means let us admire the ivy, so deep, so warm,
so full of a genial gloom and a grotesque tenderness.
Let us admire the ivy; and let us pray to God in His mercy
that it may not kill the tree."

Gilbert Keith Chesterton