The Spice of Life and Other Essays/The Comic Constable

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Some little time ago a small, strange incident occurred to me which is not without its application to the history and quality of this country. I was sitting quietly in rustic retirement, endeavouring to feel as bucolic as possible, when I was summoned to the telephone, not perhaps the most bucolic of institutions. Nor, indeed, was it the voice of any other alehouse gaffer that addressed me through the instrument, but the voice of a man I know on one of the big London dailies.

He said, "We hear you've been made Constable of Beaconsfield."

I said, "Then your hearing is defective."

He said after a pause. "Well, but haven't you been made Constable of Beaconsfield?" "Why, of course not," I said. "Have you been made Pope of Rome? Am I a person whom any sane men (except perhaps the criminals) would want to have for a constable?"

"Well," replied my friend doubtfully, "It's down in the `Daily Gazette', anyhow. `Mr. G. K. Chesterton has been nominated as a Parish Constable of Beaconsfield."'

"And a jolly good joke, too," I answered. "I thought you had a more vivid and vulgar sense of humour."

"We may take it, then, that the thing is a hoax?" said the inquisitor. "You may indeed," I said, "and apparently a successful one." I then hung up the receiver and went back and tried to feel bucolic again.

When I had tried for three minutes the telephone rang again. A well-known weekly illustrated paper had important business with me.

"We hear," said a grave voice, "that you are now Parish Constable of Beaconsfield, and any experiences of yours in that capacity -"

"I am not Parish Constable of Beaconsfield," I cried in a tearful rage, "nor am I Senior Wrangler, nor Gold Stick in Waiting, nor the Grand Lama, nor the Living Skeleton, nor the Derby Favourite, nor the Queen of Love and Beauty at an approaching tournament. Has the human race lost all notion of a joke?"

I went back somewhat impatiently to my bucolic efforts; and then another bell rang, this time the front-door bell. I was informed that the representative of yet a third paper (an illustrated daily this time) had come down all the way from London with a camera to photograph me as a Parish Constable. I do not know whether he thought to find me in some flamboyant uniform, with feathers and epaulettes, or whether he merely wished to snapshot the new and rapturous expression of my face after receiving the appointment. Anyhow, I told him he was welcome to photograph me as much as he chose in the character of "The Man Who is not Parish Constable of Beaconsfield." He photographed me in a number of highly unconstabulary attitudes (calculated in themselves to refute the slander), and then he went away.

It happened that about a quarter of an hour afterwards a local Beaconsfield acquaintance dropped in for ten minutes' talk, and to him I recounted with mingled entertainment and fury how all these experienced journalists had been taken in by a joke that seemed to me as obvious as anything in a comic paper. "I suppose," I said, "that whenever Punch playfully suggests I caused the earthquake at San Francisco by sitting down in Beaconsfield, I shall have to write to The Times about it, and clear my character.

My local friend listened with interest to the farce, laughed at the inquiring newspaper, was amiably amused at the disappointed photographer, and at the end said very quietly and casually, "All the same, you know, you are nominated as a Parish Constable of Beaconsfield.”

I turned, stiff with astonishment; I saw the shocking sincerity in his eyes,

"But this is madness," I cried, "It must be a joke."

"If it is," he said, apologetically, "it is a joke written up on the church door."

My wits were scattered to the four winds; I collected them with difficulty. I could not fancy that those who go to a modern parish church would permit such a thing as a practical joke in the porch. It was no time for half measures, but rather for desperate ones. It was clearly necessary to go to church.

My friend and I walked to the stone entrance of that strong and fine building, and there, sure enough, stood in cold print the openly crazy statement that some five men, including Mr. G. K. Chesterton, had been nominated as Parish Constables, and that objections to them would be entertained. Unless Englishmen have lost their historic fire, those objections should be prompt and overwhelming. On the way back my friend fortified and consoled me by describing the institution which had thus forcibly descended on me like an extinguisher. I have since received a letter from a kind correspondent including much the same technicalities, for which I am very grateful; but at the time the explanation was a little confusing. The only thing I clearly remember out of the tangle of rules is this; that I must not go officially beyond the bounds of my Constablewick, "except in hot pursuit of a fugitive." I may be enticed to toss myself over a spiked wall into Middlesex; but only if a fleet-footed burglar has tossed himself over it before my eyes. I may be observed any day leaping across the Thames into Berkshire, but only when some panting bigamist has leapt it just before me. I can most earnestly and even austerely promise that on ordinary occasions I shall permit myself no such impetuous trespass.

But we will not dwell upon the duties, because there are no duties; nor upon the salary, because there is no salary; nor upon the uniform (the only thing I really regret) because, alas! there is no uniform. But if we consider the thing itself, and why so wild a joke ever came to be possible as the present writer being a constable, we may find ourselves facing some rather curious and interesting elements in the old life of England. The institution of the Parish Constable dates from the time when there was no official and efficient police; but when there was a great deal of incidental local sentiment and local self-government. In short, the Parish Constable belongs to another age, when there was not really such a thing as a constable, but when there was such a thing as a parish. The very form of his appointment breathes of a somewhat breezier age; for (as in my own case) he is not even asked if he will stand. This suggests the jolly time when there was no nonsense about wanting to serve your country; no buying of peerages by breeding cattle; no climbing into rich idleness by means of `polite work'.

Doubtless it is august and dignified to be a constable. So it is august and dignified to be a juryman; for to be a juryman is to be a judge, but in nothing is the jury system more medieval (that is, more human) than in the fact that it takes for granted that every good man will primarily care more for his babies or his bullocks than for the codes and thrones of legality; and that, therefore, he must be summoned to a jury. That is perhaps what Christ meant when he described the Kingdom of Heaven as sending into the highways and byeways, and compelling them to come in; perhaps He meant that if you want the simple and modest mortal you must call him. However this may be with the Kingdom of Heaven, it is assuredly so with the Kingdom of Earth. The other method leaves us open to that offensive class which comes without being called, the vulgarly and basely ambitious, who are already destroying England.

The other element in the case is so very long that I will here make it very short. The Parish Constable, nominated by a District Council, is one of the very few reminders of a certain natural notion of self-government which modern science and modern discipline have made very difficult to retain. For the present I will put it merely in this way: What would any six streets in Hoxton or Whitechapel give if they could elect (however indirectly) the policeman who should stand at the street corner?