Shaw, But Not Certain
By ALAN DURBAND (Downing College, Cambridge) T, HE discussion arose while I was trying to snatch an illegal sleep behind the forty-horsepower engine, down at Trencherbone Deep, in the days when I was a Bevin Boy. Snap-time, the colliers' break of twenty-five minutes, was usually spent in slumber, because the atmosphere down at the coal-face was stupefying, and the work there exhausting ; but it was strictly against the rules.
This particular snap-time was disturbed by the presence of the fireman, a small man who had trouble with his dentures. To force his jaw to part company with his nose, they had to be large ; but his were practically unmanageable, and were in his pocket more often than in his mouth. A curiously deferential man was Mr. Lunt—he had the most embarrassing habit of turning to one side and putting his top set in whenever he spoke to me for any length of time. Usually the fireman had duties of his own to attend to at snap, and we fortunately used to see very little of him then, but today he lingered near the forty-horse and got into discussion with the men.
The subject was a somewhat elevated one for the colliers. Sport usually monopolised their interest, and betting slips were scribbled out at snap-time, ready to be sent to the surface on coal-trucks when winding recommenced. On this occasion, however, the conversation was almost literary. I pricked up my ears when I heard Mr. Lunt, on the other side of the great wheel which drove the haulage rope, asking whether anyone had seen Pygmalion, the film at the local cinema that week. Someone had, but many years ago. It was about pygmies.
" Gam ! " said Jed, who drove the forty-horsepower engine, always with his- head resting on the signal bell, because he was deafer than he cared to admit. " Doan't be daft. It canna be. It's be Shakespeare."
Bill Lawrence, the union man, guffawed at this, and Bill Lawrence's guffaws carried weight. Six years at night school, studying the history of the co-operative movement, had given him a special status amongst the men, and in literary matters, as in most others, he was a considerable force.
" Shakespeare be blowed," he said, sitting there, I imagined, like Sophocles. " Shakespeare never wrote Pygmalion. . . ." (Good for you, I thought.) ". . . Shakespeare wrote opera !"
I winced. Nobody would be bold enough to dispute that if I didn't reveal my presence, and correct him myself. But I hesitated to do that, partly because I was comfortably stretched out upon some loose coal, and the effort was too great, and partly because I had learned by experience that, tholigh my fellow miners enjoyed telling me a thing or two, they resented my instructing them. There was never any unpleasantness, you understand ; it was just that I hurt their feelings. I thought in this case it would be wiser to let Bill Lawrence have the floor.
I did, however, venture to look over the top of the engine to see how the men reacted to this information. It was received in respectful silence. For a moment they munched their bread and cheese, and looked at Bill. It appeared that the point was conceded by default.
" Aye," said Tom Bates at last, nodding seriously at the men in turn. " Shakespeare wrote opera right enough."
" Well, mebbe," said Mr. Lunt, not willing to allow the main point to be overlooked. " Mebbe so. But if Shakespeare didn't write it, who did ? "
Bill looked slightly discomfited, and bit into his sandwich deeply to gain time. Jed, who had been offended by Bill's guffaw. and had been thinking very seriously ever since, declared solemnly that he knew it was by someone. " It's be someone," he said, sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, more to enable him to concentrate his thoughts than in the hope that the elusive name should appear at the end of it. " It's be someone famous. Though a doan't rightly know who."
"'Tisn't be nobody," replied Bill Lawrence emphatically, his confidence restored once more. " Whoever heard of anyone writing a picture ? "
" Somebody's got to write the words, Bill," said Enoch Rennie, who was all for moderation, and could see that Bill was getting a little beyond himself. " Somebody's got to write the words."
" Well Shakespeare didn't write them, I know that much." retorted Bill, wisely retreating to safe ground. " If you must know who did, why doan't you ask the little school-teacher ? "
That was me. I'd never taught in my life, but they knew I'd come to the pit straight from school, and would be going to a university when I was released. So I was known as a school- teacher. I pulled my helmet down over my eyes, and tried to make myself even smaller.
" Or Jack Roberts," suggested Tom Bates, much to my relief.
" Aye, Jack Roberts'll know," said Mr. Lunt, who had married Jack's sister, and had a great respect for her family. " Enoch. go. and ask him to come here. He's only working down the brew —he takes his snap in the manhole where the telephone is."
I wondered what Jack would add to the debate. I knew he read Dickens ; he had once given me a copy of Hard Times to read because I'd never heard of Cissy J upp. Jack was the village barber—his front-parlour saloon was open four times a week, and he specialised in what was known as a Boston. Down the pit he was a shotfirer, and always carried a tin of dynamite with him. I heard him coming up the incline with Enoch, proclaiming loudly that George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion. Thank heavens, I thought. I could sleep in peace now, and with a clear conscience. Even Jed was satisfied with Shaw.
" Had his name on the tip of my tongue," he said. " I knewed it was Shaw, but just couldn't think of his name."
" Ast seen the picture, Jack owd chew ? " asked Mr. Lunt familiarly. " Years ago," admitted Jack. " It's an owd film, tha knows."
" Worth seeing ? "
" Aye, for them as likes that kind of picture," answered Jack, fencing judiciously with his interrogator.
" Dost remember what it's about, Jack ? " Mr. Lunt hoped his brother-in-law could complete his virtuoso performance by supplying information of this detailed nature, and so bring honour to the family.
I sat up, brushed the loose coal-dust from the seat of my pit drawers, and put all my trust in Jack to give a fair rendering of the plot. Jack fiddled with his cap-lamp, tried the pilot lamp, and then switched over to the main one. The group around the forty-horse waited, respectfully. I looked at my watch quickly, and was disappointed to find that snap-time was all but over. In another minute, the bell near Jed's ear would ring six times, and the engine would grind into action again. " Aye," said Jack. " It's about a girl. A chap she knows asks her to go for a walk with him in a wood. She says ' Not bloody likely.' . . ."
The bell rang six times in quick succession. I sighed deeply. Mr. Lunt slipped his top set into the palm of his hand. Jed put a fresh chew of tobacco in his mouth, and started the motor up. Jack rose, and made off down the brew. Sounds like a grand picture," said Enoch.
" I told you Shakespeare wrote opera," said Bill Lawrence.