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  • Christian Burke

The Napoleon of Notting Hill: The Little Guy’s Fight for Home and Hearth

When we study history, we often hear of great wars between rival cities: Athens against Sparta, Rome against Carthage; and in the medieval world, we see that local lords and families around Europe would constantly struggle for power and influence. Today, we think of wars on a global scale; every conflict threatens to unravel the confusing tapestry of alliances and treaties underlying global politics. For better or worse, powers like the US and the European Union find themselves policing the world, often spending large sums of money on overseas military escapades that have no visible impact on the average citizen. We cannot imagine a world where local politics remains just that: local.

One of the most prominent English writers of the twentieth century, GK Chesterton, noticed the same thing. Over a decade before the outbreak of the first world war, he saw that global politics had rapidly expanded in scope within his lifetime and that the average working class citizen was suffering as a result. He realized that governments first concerned with global affairs are often unfit to meet the needs of common people. He also observed a demise of local spirit; many men focused primarily on large-scale issues, neglecting the concerns of the smaller and more intimate communities which had once given them their identities. So, Chesterton did what he did best: he wrote a book. The result, his 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, is a masterpiece displaying the beauty and importance of localism in politics.

Our hero, Adam Wayne of Notting Hill in London, has become such a fanatic for his neighborhood and its people, and so abhorrent of the modern system which he feels leaves behind local communities like his, that he is willing to die over it. In an inexplicable series of events, he is given the opportunity to do just that. He takes charge of his little district and raises an army of patriotic Notting Hill natives to defend against the neighboring districts of London, who seek to tear down one of Notting Hill’s oldest and poorest streets, Pump Street, and build a highway there. A war strange and fanciful to modern minds ensues, one resembling those old struggles between local lords in medieval Europe, in which, bafflingly, Notting Hill emerges victorious. The little town that nobody took seriously, filled with idealists who were mocked by the rest of England, stands up for itself against all of the forces which seek to destroy it: their glorious red and gold banner shining in the West London sun, led fearlessly in battle by the fanatical military genius of Adam Wayne, the Napoleon of Notting Hill. Pump Street, and its inhabitants and their little shops, are saved.

At first, the reader is made to laugh along with the other Londoners at Chesterton’s bizarre and maniacal Adam Wayne and his beloved Notting Hill. Why is this man willing to risk everything to defend his puny Pump Street? Why does he so love his mediocre town that he is willing to erect banners and emblems celebrating it and carry them off to war? Adam Wayne emphatically gives his answer to all who defy him: “Do you think I have no right to fight for Notting Hill, you whose English government has so often fought for tomfooleries? If, as your rich friends say, there are no gods, and the skies are dark above us, what should a man fight for, but the place where he had the Eden of childhood and the short heaven of first love? If no temples and no scriptures are sacred, what is sacred if a man’s own youth is not sacred?”

While Adam Wayne is, of course, rather extreme, one cannot help but feel touched by his love for his hometown. It may be irrational; but the very strange thing about love is that it is quite often irrational, especially in its purest forms. The love of parents for their children derives not from the use of reason, but is an intense and primal instinct; the old gods loved humanity not because men are worthy, but in spite of the fact that they are sinners and deserve hell. Adam Wayne’s devotion to Notting Hill is of this very same kind. It may be worth considering what the world would look like if we had that same fidelity to our local communities, and were more occupied working for their benefit than with worrying about countrywide elections and overseas conflicts. It is not that these things are unimportant; it is merely that we have lost sight of what, in Chesterton’s view, should be far more important to us.

Chesterton’s own political views are worth discussing if his point is to be understood. While he was staunchly opposed to socialism, he was no supporter of what his close friend Hilaire Belloc called “the evils of industrial capitalism.” Strange to us as it may seem, Chesterton viewed capitalism and communism not as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin. He distrusted both of what we refer to today as “big government” and “big business,” and he portrays private corporations and the British government colluding together to destroy Adam Wayne’s Pump Street in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. He believed there was a third way, which he called distributism. His present disciples define it as based on the principle that “ownership of the means of production should be as widespread as possible rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few owners (Capitalism) or in the hands of state bureaucrats (Socialism).”

While this fascinating economic theory is well worth researching, the key point here is that Cheseterton believed that power should be very widely and locally distributed, and that the industrial system of the past several hundred years has had the opposite result. And in this perhaps lies the great paradox of modern politics. While at first glance it seems as though common folk have more political influence than ever, with widespread voting rights available to everyone regardless of race or gender, the actual balance of power has shifted in the opposite direction; our government is increasingly centralized, and economic might stands largely in the hands of a few corporations. Chesterton feared both capitalism and socialism; the world in which we live resembles a hideous amalgamation of both.

Chesterton’s solution to this was expressed in Adam Wayne’s fanatical love for his little Notting Hill. The author did not believe in revolution or violence; we must not get the wrong idea when we witness Adam Wayne wage war to protect Pump Street. We must instead learn to love our homes with that same burning passion, with that same irrational and unconditional love by which all great things are made. Chesterton did not desire the destruction of the industrial system from the top down, but the construction of a new foundation from the ground up. As we inherit the world of our fathers, we must not forget the homes of our mothers. We must learn to take the old saying “Love thy neighbor” far more literally.


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