My enthusiasm for George Bernard Shaw dates from 1950, when I was 12. On my way home from school it was my habit to buy a copy of the Star, one of London’s three evening papers, principally to check the cricket scores. One afternoon the front-page splash carried the bold headline: BERNARD SHAW DEAD. At the age of 94 he had fallen off a ladder while pruning his cherry tree, and he did not recover.
I reasoned that a man who warranted front-page treatment must be a writer of consequence, so I resolved to discover more. In a second-hand bookshop I found a copy of Everybody’s Political What’s What, written in 1944, and began to read.
I found it riveting. The first chapter is entitled ‘Is human nature incurably depraved?’ and begins: ‘If it is, reading this book will be a waste of time, and it should be exchanged at once for a detective story or some pleasant classic, depending on your taste.’ How better to grab the attention of a boy just starting to realize that politics is fairly important, and that trying to get to grips with it could be entertaining as well as instructive? The book’s style, though mischievous, is trenchant and persuasive. Shaw was nearly 90 when he wrote it, yet he had retained the clarity that, as I would discover, imbues his books, his plays and their long, argumentative prefaces.
Everybody’s Political What’s What covers all conceivable (and some barely conceivable) aspects of public policy. Shaw was a Fabian socialist of a distinctive genre. He supported equality and democracy but was sharply critical of the political party system and of most professions, including medicine, banking, religion, economics and any activity connected to warfare. I quickly decided that his political views would be mine as well. He had addressed many of those themes in his plays, which I began to buy in the maroon and white uniform Penguin Plays editions – still in print, although now in a different livery
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