By HAROLD NICOLSON
DURING the past week I have been reading with mixed feelings the obituaries published in honour of Bernard ' Shaw. It is in any case a dikult, and in some instances an obnoxious, task to condense into a certain number of printed lines the actions and attitudes of a person who has lived for three generations upon this changing earth. My sympathies went out to those who were confronted with the problem of how to deal con- veniently with this astonishing conjunction of boyishness and longevity, with the contrast between ninety years of mischief and the ultimate solemnity of death. On the whole, I felt, the necro- logues worked admirably Some of the articles, it is true, had about them a sense of the rechauffe, having been preserved for all those years in an obituary file ; others displayed a certain strain in seeking to treat this most irreverent man reverently and, while not departing from veracity, to make the very most of all favourable fact. I was shocked, however, to observe that one newspaper, on the very morning of Shaw's death, printed an article written about him many years ago by Mr. H. G. Wells This doubly posthumous diatribe, this phial of venom preserved for all these years on ice, did not, of course, either detract from or add to the feelings of respectful regret aroused by the death of the great Irishman ; but the article did certainly do damage to the memory of H. G. Wells. For my own and subsequent generations the names of these iconoclasts have been linked inseparably as two of the main destructive and forma- tive influences of our younger years. It was unpleasant to be thus startled by the spurt of Wells's tetchy animosity, exploding, like some delayed action bomb, from the grave. Bernard Shaw, although he delighted in verbal combat, was utterly devoid of animosity ; his gift for forgiving was one of the finest moral gifts that he possessed. His errors of taste, and they were flamboyant and frequent, may have outraged our habits of thought ; but they did not wound our deeper sensibilities. He would have been incapable of the enormity of leaving behind him, for posthumous publication, a sly and angry denigration of a friend.
* * * * I was shocked by this episode. Although I scarcely knew Bernard Shaw, I had, and retain, a vivid affection for H. G. Wells. I admired his energy of mind ; I was stimulated by his restless wrong-headedness ; I enjoyed his irritable egoism. But I was obliged to recognise that there existed in his character a fibre of jealousy, even of rancour, and it war sad indeed to be reminded of this regrettable component so long after his death. Wells was unable to conduct his battles and campaigns with the light-hearted
cy fantasy that robbed even the most rocious utterances of Bernard Shaw of all malignity. Although haw was in so many ways a deeply serious person and profoundly generous, he embarked on his crusades in a mood of uproarious high spirits. In a delightful middle article which The Times published last Saturday a catalogue was given of some at least of the innumerable letters which, over the space of more than half a ceatury, Bernard Shaw despatched to that great journal. " It is hard," the article stated, "to think of any other contributor to the correspondence columns of The Times who over so many years wrote more wisely, more wildly, or in such indefatigable high spirits." Shaw, being the gadfly of his age, would in any conjuncture carefully assess what the ordinary, sen- sible citizen was thinking and then remind him that what he was thinking might be ordinary but was assuredly not sensible. Some- times, as The Times remarks, the gadfly flew fantastic flights, as when he defended the Italian invasion of Ethiopia or eulogised Stalin as the apostle of peace. .Biatthe sting of the gadfly, although
it would startle us to alertness, never left a wound. , * ' * * * I remember on one occasion H. G. Wells telling me that although Shaw possessed an amazing gift for the theatre, although he had said and written many witty things, he was fundamentally devoid of a sense of humour. This remark was occasioned by a not
uninteresting episode. I had been invited to a luncheon party, and found that my fellow-guests were Shaw, Wells, Max Beerbohm and, if I recollect rightly, George Moore and Reginald Turner. The discussion turned upon the subject of fame. They were all agreed that it was pleasant to be famous in so far as eminence was a tribute to work well accomplished and a symbol of money honour- ably earned. But they complained, in tones of anguished protest, of the "many penalties that the goddess imposed. There were the ardent foreigners, distinguished or undistinguished, who flocked to London and demanded interviews as a right. There were young and eager university graduates who wrote appealing letters ask- ing to be assisted in the preparation of a thesis. There were the autograph-hunters, the most senseless and rapacious of the human breed. There were the admirers who dawdled behind on public occasions and fixed upon one their cod-like eyes. There were letters from bibliographers asking what was the month of publication of an article written in 1898; anthologists who demanded to excise long passages from one's works ; Germans, Austrians and Scan- dinavians who insisted upon translation rights ; and, above all, those lice who cluster upon the locks of literature and write to the eminent expecting to be told what exactly is the meaning of a passage written twenty years ago and how it is to be reconciled with a wholly contradictory statement written last January. As the cata- logue of penalties continued, Shaw bowed his head into his hands in despair.
In my modest corner I had followed this conversation in silent awe. Then one of them turned to me, as the only infamous person present, and asked me what I thought about fame. I said that, in so far as it was the symbol of success, I wanted fame, not with any passionate longing, but with quite continuous desire. It would be agreeable, I suggested, never to have to explain oneself ; to be certain, when one went to Copenhagen or Cairo, that there would be at least some of the more enlightened and instructed citizens who would have read °Vs books and who would express a wish to meet one. This remark provoked on the part of my fellow-guests a deep communal groan, indicative of how much they had suffered, in Cairo and Copenhagen, from people who admired their books. "But," I said, "I should never desire to be so famous as to be recognised in public places. It would be torture for me if I could not enter a restaurant, or ride upon a bus, or embark on a journey, without strangers whispering together and pointing with their digits. Of all the penalties a enormous fame that surely must be the most atrocious." This rediark caused a momentary hush. Wells said that he was seldom recognised in public ; Moore said that he was often recognised, but did not mind ; Turner said that, even if he were recognised, nobody would know- who he was ; and Max Beerbohm (again if my memory does not betray me) said absolutely nothing at all. It was then that Shaw intervened. "Torture," he said, "torture is the word. I cannot walk down Bond Street without at least six zanies stopping to stare." "Would it not," asked Wells innocently," ease yOur pain, G. B. S., if you ceased to dress like a wolf in Jaeger clothing and shaved your beard?" Shaw crumpled at this remark : he subsided. "It was Ada Leverson who said that," he mumbled. He was obviously annoyed. "You see," said Wells afterwards, "he lacks a sense of humour."
Is it not enough, therefore, to observe the fantasy of one's fellows and to describe that fantasy in sparkling terms ? Is it not enough to delight in making- and recounting excellent jokes about oneself ? Must we always, everywhere, be uproariously amused when someone scores a hit against our little vanities ? I resented Wells's remark. The occasion for me was august ; I felt that Wells had displayed no sense of occasion ; I felt that funny people ought not to make personal remarks about the eminent. But I was amused none the less: I fear I was amused.