Sunday 29 April 2012

My father and George Bernard Shaw

My father's first job was as a delivery boy for Sainsbury's and on his bicycle one day he knocked down George Bernard Shaw in about 1935 or 1936. This is my family's only brush with a literary giant. My father told me Shaw retired to Ayot St. Lawrence shortly after. 

Alex Woodcock-Clarke trumped this by telling me that his stepmother's uncle, Lord Howard de Walden, on his first day in Germany in 1931 ran over Hitler. How curious, I thought, that not only that the history of the world would have been so very different had his Lordship killed Hitler but Howard de Walden would have been consumed by guilt about it till his dying day. 

Though when I said this to Alex, he said, 'That doesn't sound like him.'

My father's collision with Shaw brings to my mind Alan Bennett delivering meat to T.S.Eliot's mother-in-law. He has often told this story and did so here in a lecture:

I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher, and as a boy, I sometimes used to go out with the orders, delivering the meat. One of our customers was a nice woman called Mrs Fletcher, and I used to go to her house and she had a daughter called Valerie. Valerie went to London and became a secretary and she got a job with a publishing firm and did well in the firm, and became secretary to the chairman, whom she eventually married. Now the publishing firm was Faber and Faber, and the chairman was T.S. Eliot. So there was a time early in life when I thought my only connection with literature would be that I once delivered meat to T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law.
Some time after that, when we'd left the shop but were still living in Leeds, my mother came in one day and said, 'I ran into Mrs Fletcher down the road. Nice woman. She was with a tall fella, elderly, very refined. She introduced me and he passed the time of day,' and it was only some time afterwards that I realized that without it being the most seminal encounter in Western literature, my mother had met T.S. Eliot. 

Bennett adds:

...if we take T.S. Eliot to represent Art and Literature and Culture and everything in the upper case, my mother indefatigably in the lower case to represent life, then it seems to me that what I've written teeters rather indecisively between the two. 

The Oldie, a paper I do not read, apparently ran a riveting series of articles in which members of the public talked about their chance meetings with the famous. They were collected in a book and I read a review of it by Craig Brown. You could read a three volume biography of Anthony Powell and know him less well than you do after reading this story, as retold by Brown:

A plumber recalls being called out to fix a burst pipe for the novelist Anthony Powell. The plumber rang the doorbell. "An elderly man opened the door and looked at me quizzically. 'Yes,' he said. 'How can I help you?'

'Hello,' I smiled, thinking that my overalls, the toolbox in my hand and my van behind me would make my quest obvious. 'Well?' he said.

'Mr Powell?' I asked. (I pronounced the name Pow-well.) 'There is no one here of that name,' he intoned."

The plumber apologises and drives off, imagining that he has come to the wrong house. After driving around in the snow for 20 minutes, he is directed back to the same house. The same man opened the door. "This time I tried a different tack. 'Does a Mr Powell live here?' 'No,' he said. 'However, do you mean Pole?' I nodded. 'Ah! Then go round to the back door, the leak is in the kitchen.'

My great-uncle Joe once got talking to a nice cove on a park bench who turned out to be Delius.

1 comment:

  1. A friend of a friend told me that as a boy he collided with GBS on the steps of the BM - perhaps GBS was accident-prone.
    I served Valerie Eliot in Harrods.