Monday, July 17, 2006

GBS @ 150

It is now 150 years since the birth of George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and various plans are underway in Ireland to commemorate the great man.

Apart from a general awareness of his existence and of his contribution to Anglo-Irish literature, I have had three personal experiences which relate to him (sort of).

My Fair Lady

In his will, GBS left the proceeds from his works to a number of institutions, among them the National Gallery of Ireland. The amount involved increased significantly with the success of "My Fair Lady" which was based on his play "Pgymalion".

It is reported that, of the institutions benefitting from his will, only the National Gallery of Ireland realised its entitlement in full. As I remember it, the money was used to finance a substantial extension to the Gallery. At this time, a statue of GBS residing in the obscurity of the Gallery's basement was relocated to outside the south eastern corner of the Gallery, to which it was a striking addition. I photographed it as part of my general photo-romp through the city (see photo). When the money was spent, and the extension constructed, the statue vanished from its outdoor pedestal. I was originally cynical about this turnabout: out of the basement, into the lawn, gone from the lawn. I have learned, since originally writing this post in June, that the story is a bit more complicated and not at all uncomplimentary to the Gallery.

It appears that GBS took umbrage that this fine statue was wasting its sweetness in the basement and attempted to have it put on display. The Gallery, at that time, had a policy which limited displays to people already dead. Shaw, however reluctantly, understood this and commented that it would "all shut up OK" by which he presumably meant when he was dead. Meanwhile, when John White became curator, the statue was put on display outside, where it remained for thirty years. Unfortunately it then started to weather and was brought back inside for restoration and a coat of wax.

Now that the Gallery is honouring the author in this commemorative year, the statue is the centrepiece of the current exhibition. Fair dues.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the statue in the first photo above has its back turned to the national parliament building where the level of mastery of the English language still leaves a lot to be desired.

Phonetic English

GBS took a great interest in the English alphabet and offered a significant prize for anyone who could come up with a phonetic alphabet to replace the existing rather ramshackle arrangements.

As someone who has tried to teach English to foreigners (who else), I have every sympathy with this approach. English pronounciation is appallingly difficult to learn and can be perfected only by rote. Even then it is rampant with distinctions based on location (an enriching element) and on class (a disgrace).

A competition was announced 1957 and 450 entries were received in the course of 1958. No single entry was deemed winner and the prize was shared by four contestants. Penguin Books published a version of Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" in parallel text as an aid to learning the new alphabet.

You covered up the new text, translated the standard English text, and then compared your results with the "official" version. I had a go at it and was quite impressed at its economy and consistency. However, try as I did, I could never quite get it quite right. I found this very discouraging until I realised that the phonetic alphabet reflected the phonetics of the author or standard-maker and his pronounciation of certain words were not the same as mine. Standard English spelling has now been accepted as representing a range of different pronounciations and introducing a new standard would open up a pandora's box.

The new alphabet never caught on and one of the contestants described it as "a slimming down of written English to the point of anorexia". You can go into more detail here.

Central Model School

The final connection between me and him seems to be the Dublin Central Model School. This is a remnant of a daring experiment in the 1800s of which only very few remain today. Virtually all of the primary school sector was owned and managed by the Churches (overwhelmingly the Roman Catholic Church) despite being financed for the greater part by the State (taxpayer). The Central Model School, in contrast, is owned and directly managed by the Department of Education.

GBS "studied" there for some seven months in 1869. I taught there for some ten days in 1966. It is an open question as to which of us was most affected by the experience. I was certainly shattered by it and, now that I have mentioned it, will write it up in the near future.


Happy birthday George, ní bheidh do leithéid ann arís.

UPDATE 26/7/2016

Hard to believe it is ten years since I did the post above and that it is 160 years today since the birth of the great man.

I just came back to report that the statue is now reposing in the foyer of the Gallery for all to see. I'm not sure if it will be a permanent feature there as the internal decor is a bit fluid due to extensive renovations of the Gallery itself.

Wishing the great man another Happy Birthday, this time on the day.


Anonymous said...

Would be interested to hear of the teaching days....


Anonymous said...

They probably compare quite well with your bro-in-law's experiences in Rutland Street.

Anonymous said...

first I heard of your teaching days POD. well covered up.

Póló said...

Wrote up Central Model School as promised.