Beware the agent provocateur….
The Man Who was Thursday sat on my shelf for years, and then I recently read about the doings of the Hairies and the infiltration of an anti-fascist organisation by an undercover policeman who subsequently lost his moral bearings. Well it all reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel. So I pulled my copy from the shelf deciding that it was high time I read it.
For those who have not yet heard of the Hairies, this is a term given to the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) members of Special Branch who go undercover as operatives. Known as Hairies because they no longer meet police regulations about their hair, these operatives assume different identities and lives for years, and then they report back on the inner workings on the group or groups they are spying on.
But I digress…back to G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday begins on a London evening with a red-haired poet called Lucian Gregory delivering a lecture on anarchism. He’s challenged by another poet named Gabriel Syme. A battle of words commences and results in Gregory declaring that he will show Syme just how serious his beliefs are. Swearing the rival poet to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme into a cleverly hidden underground passage and from there to a meeting of the Central Anarchist Council. The council is composed of seven men–each one named after a day of the week. But the death of one of the council members has led to a vacancy, and Gregory fully expects to be the next Thursday. His speech, all prepared for the occasion, starts off well:
“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and nowhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists.”
And that’s a very sensible observation. Unfortunately, Gregory’s speech goes downhill from there and rapidly devolves into bizarre comparisons between anarchists and catholics. This sort of talk is hardly going to endear Gregory to a No Gods, No Masters crowd, but it’s Gregory’s assertion that anarchists are “meek” which seals his failed candidacy. What is so surprising is that Syme, who’s revealed himself to Gregory as an undercover police detective, makes a stirring speech to the anarchist council and is promptly elected as the next Thursday.
Oh the irony…But then again how appropos. Here’s Syme to Gregory after revealing that he’s really an undercover policeman–a quote that should give the novel’s sense of absurdity:
“Don’t you see that we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policeman; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come: wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”
The Man Who Was Thursday, according to Kingsley Amis in his introduction is “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” I don’t know what I expected. A mystery perhaps, but Chesterton’s novel, published in 1908, grows increasingly more absurd and is actually very funny in spots. I can see why Kingsley Amis claimed it as one of his all-time favourite novels, but it’s a strange hodge-podge which even includes strains of the occult. Chesterton, apparently, had to address questions regarding the novel’s religious symbolism (which he argued against), and while the religious symbolism is rife throughout the novel, this adds to the absurdity.
The book’s full title is The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and that seems a fairly apt description. No one is who they seem, everyone is lying and as the story continues it does take on a nightmarish almost phantasmagorical element. There seems to be a monstrous plot afoot to take over… exactly nothing. But whose devilish brain is at the core of the plot? Who is providing the dynamite? Who are the good guys? And who are the baddies?
Interestingly Chesterton does not seem to be, in theory at least, opposed to anarchism. Rather the novel seems to imply that anarchism and anarchists are elusive by their very nature and perhaps those who scream their beliefs from the rooftops are …well… nothing but Hairies (or Annas). The Anarchist Council is portrayed as an extremely ineffective, comic bunch and yet there remains a sinister undercurrent. The source of that undercurrent is the heart of this novel.
“But this absurd!” cried the policeman, clasping his hands with an excitement uncommon in persons of his figure and costume, “but this is intolerable! I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re wasting your life. You must, you shall, join our special army against anarchy. Their armies are on our frontiers. Their bolt is ready to fall. A moment more, and you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world.”
“It is a chance not to be missed, certainly,” assented Syme, “but still I do not quite understand. I know as well as anybody that the modern world is full of lawless little men and mad little movements. But, beastly as they are, they generally have the one merit of disagreeing with each other. How can you talk of their leading one army or hurling one bolt. What is this anarchy?”