An Irishman's Diary: George Bernard Shaw blows his horn
GBS letter reveals his ‘Jeremy Clarkson’ side
‘The letter reads like an Edwardian version of a Jeremy Clarkson rant on the BBC’s Top Gear programme. Shaw complains that the car “only holds two people, whereas it ought to hold three comfortably for the horse power”.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A dramatic account of the perils and frustrations of the early days of motoring written by George Bernard Shaw has come to light. A previously unpublished letter written by the Irish playwright in 1909 reveals that he was an “early adopter” of the automobile when it was still a relatively new-fangled invention.
Shaw wrote to a friend, Mervyn O’Gorman, a well-known engineer, in January 1909 after driving to Shropshire from London – a distance of 160 miles. The car – a French-made “De Dietrich” model – had tested his patience. Among its “glaring defects” were an “inaccessible” gearbox; a petrol tank so difficult to fill that the manoeuvre would require the skills of a “professional conjuror like Cinquevalli”; and headlamps which were “beyond profanity”.
The letter reads like an Edwardian version of a Jeremy Clarkson rant on the BBC’s Top Gear programme. Shaw complains that the car “only holds two people, whereas it ought to hold three comfortably for the horse power” and compared it unfavourably to “Maythorn’s bodies on Fiats [which] hold three luxuriously”.
He complains to his correspondent that Todd & Wright in London, which had built the coachwork for the car, “never made a motor body before, and are under the impression that the function of the machinery is purely ornamental”.
His annoyance at “the placing of the acetylenes” – the carbide gas lamps on the front of the car – made him “doubt whether Todd can be sane or Wright sober”. The lights were placed so high that “they strike pedestrians blind” and were “too high for signpost reading” but were, at least, “admirable for detecting policemen concealed in trees”.
Shaw had reason to be wary of the police. He admits to driving in a “furious or unskilful” manner and of already having had “about six accidents”. While “several of them” were his own fault, he blamed his wife and gardener for others. He hoped that a “tradesman whose wheel I nudged the day before yesterday” had not been “calm enough to take my number”.
He had already requested and received a claim form from his unnamed insurance company, but regarded its detailed questioning about the nature of the incidents to be in “bad taste”. Shaw makes what may be the first reference to the concept of the no-claims bonus. He had just discovered that if he made a claim the insurance would charge him “10 per cent more next year”.
Shaw wasn’t entirely critical of the car and, on the “credit side of the account”, noted, “the driving seat is very comfortable and the wind screen handy and efficient”.
The five-page handwritten letter has been acquired by Galway-based rare book and manuscript dealer Tomás Kenny who said: “Ordinarily, letters which surface show an author as we might expect to know him, talking about his work; however this shows Shaw the person, in a new and highly-entertaining light – and is written with his trademark wit to boot”. In a distinctly Shavian twist, the letter is now for sale for €2,750. The old buffer would be amused. Shaw was a prodigious correspondent who, during a very long life, wrote thousands of letters – many of which are now in museums and university libraries.
Despite his socialist views and communist sympathies, Shaw was a wealthy man and among the few who could afford the luxury of motoring during the early years of the 20th century.
Still widely regarded as one of Ireland’s literary greats, he lived most of his life in England. Born in Synge Street, Dublin, on July 26th, 1856 and educated at Wesley College, GBS moved to London at the age of 20 – to follow his mother, who had left his father.
He achieved great success as a writer; co-founded the London School of Economics; married an Irish woman, Charlotte Payne-Townshend; and lived at Ayot St Lawrence, a village in Hertfordshire, in a house now known as Shaw’s Corner, where he died on November 2nd, 1950, aged 94.
George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize (for Literature in 1925) and an Oscar (in 1938 for his screenplay adaptation of his play Pygmalion which was later re-made as My Fair Lady ). He was best-known for his plays including Mrs Warren’s Profession ; Arms and the Man ; John Bull’s Other Island ; Saint Joan ; and You Never Can Tell .