10 NOVEMBER 1950, Page 6

Bernard Shaw


WHAT was Bernard Shaw like 7-This is the question I have been most often asked, and it is the question I find hardest to answer. What was he like ? He was, at one and the same time, the most engaging and the most infuriating man I have ever known ; but he was infuriating only as a public figure, never, in my knowledge of him, as a personal friend. He could be terri- fyingly frank, and some people, whose vanity he disturbed, thought him cruel ; but he was not cruel, though I can understand touchy and pretentious people believing that he was. Those who detested him were seldom personally acquainted with him. I sometimes heard from a man in America who never in his life saw Shaw, but foamed at the mouth when his name was mentioned. Those who knew him well allowed none of his quirks and intellectual acrobatics to diminish their regard for him. Almost all his friends were of long standing, though his interest in life was strong enough to make him eager- to meet young people and to make new acquaintances. He was exceptionally kind, but kind without being sentimental, and he did not demonstrate his emotions. I remember hearing a foolish fellow charge him with meanness. "You never see his name in a public subscription list!" "No, indeed, you don't," I replied, " but you'll see it at the foot of many an unadvertised cheque for a man In need!" Shaw, I haven't the slightest doubt, gave away far more than a tiffie of his income, but only the recipients of his charity knew about it. He was indiscreet in his conversation, revealing many things that ought not to have been revealed, but he was silent as the grave about his benefactions.

He sometimes seemed to be cruel, because he had scarcely any reticence about what are called private feelings. He seemed to think that reticence was an unworthy thing, that to hoard up one's life to oneself was almost as mean as if a scientist, having discovered, say, a cure for cancer, should use it only for the benefit of his rela- tives. Shaw was intensely interested in people, and the things they did, and eager to learn why they behaved as they did. It is true that he sometimes used a person's confidences for the purpose of pleasantry—he could not resist a good story, and was apt to embellish it—but he did not do this for any mean reason. There was no meanness in Shaw, absolutely none. He is the only man I have ever known of whom that could be said. When he told a story that might have wounded the person about whom it was told, he did so, not to mock the man or hurt him, but to point a tale or to .add to the gaiety of conversation. He simply could not understand anybody resenting an entertaining revelation. His frankness was almost scarifying ; but he was frank because he thought it better to tell people the truth than to involve Them in long, obscure dodgings of it.

His mind was terribly tidy—old-maidish, he himself called it— and he was scrupulously clean both in body and in mind. In bodily cleanness he was as fastidious as General Booth ; in mental cleanness he was far more fastidious than Tolstoy. During more than forty years' knowledge of him I never beard him use an improper word or tell what is called a dirty story. He himself declared that he was deeply shocked by some of the words used by-James Joyce in Ulysses. Lady Chatterley's Lover, if he had read it, would have horrified him. But he was not addicted much to novels. He liked to read plays, but was bored by novels. In spite of his fastidious- ness, however, he was the most shocking conversationalist I have ever listened to, and would say things that might be expected to throw routine people into convulsions without, however, appearing to know that he was saying anything unusual. It is true that he made disrupting remarks in a highly entertaining way, and could leave you, if you were not a mass of unsavoury inhibitions and routine thoughts, immensely interested. He was exceptionally stimulating in his talk, even when he was unconvincing and flippant, and he enjoyed his own conversation as much as did his audience, thought be was a better listener than is commonly believed. While I was in a hospital in London in 1918 he came to see me. F shared a room with two officers, one of whom had been a pre-war N.C.O. and the other an apprentice compositor. They were simple men who may have heard of -Shaw, but had certainly no knowledge of his work. He sat down and talked sedition for a couple of hours! For .weeks after his departure my comrades used to say to me, "When's your friend Shaw coming again ? they had enjoyed his talk so much. That was the effect he nearly always had on people. There were, of courSe, irreconcilables, but they were few. He had invented a public figure so remote from the pleasant and most likable person who was Shaw that those who met him for the first time, and expected to be flung into a rage by his bad or outrageous manners, were so overcome by his grace of spirit and his courtesy that they nearly ended by thinking that no one but Shaw had, any manners at all.

He was a shy man. I remember, early in our 'acquaintance, seeing him enter a room which he had expected'to find unoccupied and, discovering several people in it, blushing like an embarrassed girl. He was always a little ungainly at first meetings. That was because he was essentially solitary. His recreations—reading, swimming, long walks—were all solitary recreations. It was no trouble to him to be alone: it was sometimes a trouble to him to be with other people. But anyone who concludes from that statement that he had no gift for friendship will conclude very wrongly. He had many friends, and they were devoted to him. But he did not need people.- His friends were seldom such as one might expect the friends of a dramatist to be. He cared little fog the company of authors and had few friends among them. Those writers he knew and liked best were people of his own sociological sort.

He liked H. G. Wells immensely, despite the frequency with which Wells quarrelled with him. They proved beyond a doubt that it does not take two to make a quarrel. Shaw never quarrelled with anybody. People quarrelled with him. He had no rancour, and rarely harboured resentment, though he maintained his argument and firmly defended his faith. Indeed, I only knew him to express resentment once: he had hoped to be made a member of the Irish Convention in 1916, and was bitterly angry with .Asquith for not appointing .him; a foolish failure by Asquith, for Shaw in his middle years was a very good committee man. Considering how nervous his temperament was, he had extraordinary control of him- self and seemed imperturbable. Yet he was a nervous man and a very sensitive man. He was ashamed of his sensitive feelings, and created a great deal of antipathy to himself by his efforts to conceal his pain. I know that Shaw was deeply moved when, during the first war, he visited France and saw the headless body of a soldier. But he would not admit that he had been moved, and on his return to London wrote a flippant article in the Daily Chronicle about "a gentleman who had lost his head," which gave great pain and offence to thousands of readers. Shaw often did that sort of thing: laughed, lest he should be found in tears; a foolish habit which brought him much misunderstanding and dislike.

Of all the people he knew, I think he liked most Sidney and Beatrice Webb, William Archer and G. K. Chesterton. He loved Chesterton, as who didn't? These four were totally unlike himself in every respect ; but his affection for them, and their affection for him, was immea,surable. He greatly, admired T. E. Lawrence, and got on with J. M. Barrie and Arthur Pinero better than might reason- ably have been expected. He was not fond of Irish authors, generally speaking, and had illimitable contempt for George Moore. Wilde was never a friend of his—they rarely met, not more than, perhaps, half a-dozen times—and he had a temperate liking for Yeats. He was more akin to "A. E." than to any other Irish author, But the Irishman he liked most was Sir Horace Plunkett. Hi8 happiest associations were with people of that-sort, men and women who were trying to remake their world. He seemed indifferent ti)

the loss of his friendship with Granville-Barker, for which he was entirely to blame, but I remember once, when I was taking him to lunch with Clemence Dane in Devonshire, that as we passed the end of a road, and I said to him, "Harley Granville-Barker lives up there," he looked along it a little wistfully and said, "Oh, Harley! " in a tone I'd never heard him use before. He had never been inside that house.

His devotion to his wife was profound. The feeling which existed between them is indescribable. He said once, "If Charlotte were dying, I know an infallible way of restoring her to health! " "What's that ? " I enquired. "I'd take to my bed and say I was dying! " he replied. And Charlotte would have come out of the grave if he had needed her. His solitude, after her death, was terrible. He missed her far more than any of his friends had imagined he would. She hated publicity, and was amusing about his love of it. "You know, St. John," she said to me, "I think G. B. S. rather likes publicity! " All her married life she had tried to persuade him to be present in the drawing- room to receive his guests, but all her married life she had failed. Hc liked to make an entrance, she said. Anyone who thinks that Charlotte Shaw was a doormat is a fool. She refused to have Frank Harris in her house, and G. B. S., to save trouble, had to tell Harris this, amazing Harris, who could not understand, any more than Shaw, why anybody should ever be shocked at anything.

Shaw's delicacy in kindness was surprising. So was his per- sistence. He would do more for his friends than they would do for themselves, and he had a singularly felicitous way of conferring a benefit on a man, so that the man thought that lie was conferring it on Shaw. Here is a letter he wrote to a musician, now dead, who had fallen into trouble :

"My dear —, I have just heard that you are going into the hands of the surgeons. As I have been in those hands myself for a couple of months, I know what that means— among other things, a lot of expense. You will need two nurses at first ; for if you try to do with one, Mrs. — will break down ; and then matters will be worse than ever. Now, as you are not an opera singer, but an artist, the value of whose work is necessarily understood only by a very few people, I know, being an artist myself, that it is just as likely as not that all this expense is coming on you at just the most inconvenient moment. Consequently, you may as well know that I am rather in luck myself, as my last play has been very successful in America, and I have more money lying unused at the bank than I shall want this year. I pledge you my word that it will make absolutely no difference to me if I trans- fer £50 to your credit until you sell a harpsichord or get in your next season's harvest. The only person who will feel the loss will be my banker ; and he can afford it better than either of us. If by good luck, you are rolling in wealth, you will excuse me for proposing this arrangement, as I hope me need not stand on ceremony with one another. If not, send me a wire, with the address of your bank, and I will lodge the £50 (or more, if necessary) by return of post. As soon as you can be moved, get away into the country. It is the cheapest plan in the end, because you will mend so much faster in the fresh air. An operation, as I have found, is not as bad for an over- worked artist as it is for most people. It stops the overwork and keeps one in bed. Most of us, after 20 years' work or so, want six weeks in bed ; and anything that forces us to take it is a blessing in disguise. . . ."

Only a noble nature could have composed such a letter as that. It almost caused the musician to retire on Shaw, who, despite that, did not weary in well-doing, but went extraordinarily out of his way to try to put opportunities of earning money in that musician's way.

This was a great man, the quickest-witted man I have ever known, and a brave man. Shaw would give charity : but he never accepted any. A proud Irish Protestant, and, because he was a proud Irish Protestant, an aristocrat in his heart, he lived always on the top of his form. He was that oddity, a Socialist who ought to have been a prominent member of the Society of Individualists ; but he was a Socialist only because he wished to see the world freed from the drudgery of chores, and every man in it able to go about his own business, unimpeded by mean labour. His respect for. dictators was unbounded : his contempt for democracy beyond belief. That is why he was a Fabian