Editor's note:

Some days, you just need a good vis­it with G.K. Chester­ton. If today is one of those days for you, enjoy. If it is not … real­ly? … well, please read on anyway.

No one but GKC could turn a train ride with noth­ing to read into an adven­ture in pick­pock­et­ing (his own pock­ets, no less!) with such delight­ful results. What’s in your pocket?

—Renovaré Team

I have only once in my life picked a pock­et, and then (per­haps through some absent-mind­ed­ness) I picked my own. My act can real­ly with some rea­son be so described. For in tak­ing things out of my own pock­et I had at least one of the more tense and quiv­er­ing emo­tions of the thief; I had a com­plete igno­rance and a pro­found curios­i­ty as to what I should find there. Per­haps it would be the exag­ger­a­tion of eulo­gy to call me a tidy per­son. But I can always pret­ty sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly account for all my pos­ses­sions. I can always tell where they are, and what I have done with them, so long as I can keep them out of my pock­ets. If once any­thing slips into those unknown abysses, I wave it a sad Vir­gilian farewell. I sup­pose that the things that I have dropped into my pock­ets are still there; the same pre­sump­tion applies to the things that I have dropped into the sea. But I regard the rich­es stored in both these bot­tom­less chasms with the same rev­er­ent igno­rance. They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I sup­pose that on the same occa­sion long strings of extra­or­di­nary things will come run­ning out of my pock­ets. But I have quite for­got­ten what any of them are; and there is real­ly noth­ing (except­ing the mon­ey) that I shall be at all sur­prised at find­ing among them.

.….

Such at least has hith­er­to been my state of inno­cence. I here only wish briefly to recall the spe­cial, extra­or­di­nary, and hith­er­to unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances which led me in cold blood, and being of sound mind, to turn out my pock­ets. I was locked up in a third-class car­riage for a rather long jour­ney. The time was towards evening, but it might have been any­thing, for every­thing resem­bling earth or sky or light or shade was paint­ed out as if with a great wet brush by an unshift­ing sheet of quite colour­less rain. I had no books or news­pa­pers. I had not even a pen­cil and a scrap of paper with which to write a reli­gious epic. There were no adver­tise­ments on the walls of the car­riage, oth­er­wise I could have plunged into the study, for any col­lec­tion of print­ed words is quite enough to sug­gest infi­nite com­plex­i­ties of men­tal inge­nu­ity. When I find myself oppo­site the words Sun­light Soap” I can exhaust all the aspects of Sun Wor­ship, Apol­lo, and Sum­mer poet­ry before I go on to the less con­ge­nial sub­ject of soap. But there was no print­ed word or pic­ture any­where; there was noth­ing but blank wood inside the car­riage and blank wet with­out. Now I deny most ener­get­i­cal­ly that any­thing is, or can be, unin­ter­est­ing. So I stared at the joints of the walls and seats, and began think­ing hard on the fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject of wood. Just as I had begun to realise why, per­haps, it was that Christ was a car­pen­ter, rather than a brick­lay­er, or a bak­er, or any­thing else, I sud­den­ly start­ed upright, and remem­bered my pock­ets. I was car­ry­ing about with me an unknown trea­sury. I had a British Muse­um and a South Kens­ing­ton col­lec­tion of unknown curios hung all over me in dif­fer­ent places. I began to take the things out.

.….

The first thing I came upon con­sist­ed of piles and heaps of Bat­tersea tram tick­ets. There were enough to equip a paper chase. They shook down in show­ers like con­fet­ti. Pri­mar­i­ly, of course, they touched my patri­ot­ic emo­tions, and brought tears to my eyes; also they pro­vid­ed me with the print­ed mat­ter I required, for I found on the back of them some short but strik­ing lit­tle sci­en­tif­ic essays about some kind of pill. Com­par­a­tive­ly speak­ing, in my then des­ti­tu­tion, those tick­ets might be regard­ed as a small but well-cho­sen sci­en­tif­ic library. Should my rail­way jour­ney con­tin­ue (which seemed like­ly at the time) for a few months longer, I could imag­ine myself throw­ing myself into the con­tro­ver­sial aspects of the pill, com­pos­ing replies and rejoin­ders pro and con upon the data fur­nished to me. But after all it was the sym­bol­ic qual­i­ty of the tick­ets that moved me most. For as cer­tain­ly as the cross of St. George means Eng­lish patri­o­tism, those scraps of paper meant all that munic­i­pal patri­o­tism which is now, per­haps, the great­est hope of England.

The next thing that I took out was a pock­et-knife. A pock­et-knife, I need hard­ly say, would require a thick book full of moral med­i­ta­tions all to itself. A knife typ­i­fies one of the most pri­ma­ry of those prac­ti­cal ori­gins upon which as upon low, thick pil­lows all our human civil­i­sa­tion repos­es. Met­als, the mys­tery of the thing called iron and of the thing called steel, led me off half-dazed into a kind of dream. I saw into the intrails of dim, damp wood, where the first man among all the com­mon stones found the strange stone. I saw a vague and vio­lent bat­tle, in which stone axes broke and stone knives were splin­tered against some­thing shin­ing and new in the hand of one des­per­ate man. I heard all the ham­mers on all the anvils of the earth. I saw all the swords of Feu­dal and all the weals of Indus­tri­al war. For the knife is only a short sword; and the pock­et-knife is a secret sword. I opened it and looked at that bril­liant and ter­ri­ble tongue which we call a blade; and I thought that per­haps it was the sym­bol of the old­est of the needs of man. The next moment I knew that I was wrong; for the thing that came next out of my pock­et was a box of match­es. Then I saw fire, which is stronger even than steel, the old, fierce female thing, the thing we all love, but dare not touch.

The next thing I found was a piece of chalk; and I saw in it all the art and all the fres­coes of the world. The next was a coin of a very mod­est val­ue; and I saw in it not only the image and super­scrip­tion of our own Cae­sar, but all gov­ern­ment and order since the world began. But I have not space to say what were the items in the long and splen­did pro­ces­sion of poet­i­cal sym­bols that came pour­ing out. I can­not tell you all the things that were in my pock­et. I can tell you one thing, how­ev­er, that I could not find in my pock­et. I allude to my rail­way ticket.

What I Found in My Pock­et” is excerpt­ed from Tremen­dous Tri­fles (1909), in the pub­lic domain via Project Guten­berg.

Join the 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion. Cur­rent­ly under­way and runs through May 2021.

Learn More >