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An Old Man’s Dreams

Enda O’Doherty writes: I used to wonder at what point in my life I would cease to have recurring dreams that seemed to relate to anxieties normally associated with the teenage years and early twenties. In these nocturnal wanderings it seems it is May, or June, or even July, and the university final exams are in September. Will I be able, I wonder, will I have time to cram my head with half a dozen gargantuan English novels ‑ Tom Jones, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, a few more - and what in under Christ can I do about Ulysses? – and then work out a line on them that will impress, even perhaps slightly seduce the examiners? Well maybe ... maybe. It can be done, theoretically. If I am systematic, if I start now, immediately, this minute ... but then there’s the poetry too; the late Augustans and suchlike, George Crabbe: good God, I was always a bit better with novels ... 

Sometimes in my dreams it is the case that there is just one more small but vital thing I need to do to complete my course and be awarded my BA - but perhaps it's not a case of just any old degree but the degree I think I might have got if only I’d worked a bit harder. Curiously, this seems to involve going back to secondary school and sitting one subject again for my A-levels (usually French), no doubt so that I can qualify for an honours degree course and get the requisite degree and then go on to postgraduate study and then perhaps wangle an academic job and so the whole dream/nightmare can be prolonged forever. But how long have I been trying to get this degree, which is normally awarded after three years of study? Well in the dream, where usually I am still a youngish man, it seems like six or seven years, though it could be eight or nine, and of course if I am still dreaming it, in a sense it is well over forty years. (The greatest concentration of horror in the dreams involves the fear of having to walk back in again, every September, through the Bishop Street school gates and up the long walks of St Columb's, year after year, aged nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three  ...)

But, hey, perhaps it might be possible to avoid renewing acquaintance with my French teacher, Mr Bonner, who I've always felt never liked me anyway, and avoid going back to school altogether and study for the exam quietly on my own? A brilliant idea, but my parents are absolutely bound to find out I'm not turning up for school. If only they weren’t so unreasonable, so conventional, such bourgeois sticklers for doing everything by the book. Can’t they see that I find the whole thing highly embarrassing? For Christ's sake I'm the only one in Bonner's class with white hair.

As I say, I used to wonder, but I now know that I’ll be dreaming that dream in the old people’s home, and probably on into the hospice. There is no escaping the past, unless Dr Freud and his fellows can help me. But do I want to be told what it’s really about, what it all means? Probably not.


Towards the end of his long life (in 1949) George Bernard Shaw reflected on his good fortune in escaping the fate of remaining, as he was briefly in his youth, a clerk:

You cannot make a Bedouin a clerk. But you can make an Englishman a clerk quite easily. All you have to do is to drop him into a middle-class family, with a father who cannot afford to keep him nor afford to give him capital to start with, nor to carry his education beyond reading, writing and ciphering, but who would feel disgraced if his son became a mechanic. Given these circumstances, what can the poor wretch do but become a clerk?
I became a clerk myself. An uncle, who, as a high official in a Government department, had exceptional opportunities of obliging people, not to mention obstructing them if he disliked them, easily obtained for me a stool in a very genteel office; and I should have been there still if I had not broken loose in defiance of all prudence, and become a professional man of genius ...
I sometimes dream that I am back in that office again, bothered by a consciousness that a long period has elapsed during which I have neglected my most important duties. I have drawn no money at the bank in the mornings, nor lodged any in the afternoons. I have paid no insurance premiums, nor head-rents, nor mortgage interests. Whole estates must have been sold up, widows and orphans left to starve, mortgages foreclosed, and the landed gentry of Ireland abandoned to general ruin, confusion, and anarchy; all through my unaccountable omission of my daily duties for years and years, during which, equally unaccountably, neither I nor anyone else in the office has aged by a single day. I generally wake in the act of asking my principals, with the authority which belongs to my later years, whether they realize what has happened, and whether they propose to leave so disgracefully untrustworthy a person as myself in a position of such responsibility.

Shaw’s dream interests me not just because the experiences and anxieties of youth stayed with him, or with his subconscious, to the end, but also because, though I have never had any bad dreams about it, a few years after being awarded that BA (which took me an only mildly reprehensible four years instead of the prescribed three) and then, two years later, an MA (“William Langland’s Politics”, a confident youthful Marxist-flavoured sketch, since you ask), I became a clerk myself, in the personnel department of the Department of Social Welfare in Townsend Street in central Dublin. Among my duties, not all that removed from Shaw’s settling of insurance premiums and head-rents, was the appointment of temporary part-time cleaners to provincial social welfare offices, a process which required a testimonial from the local Garda superintendent as to the absolutely blameless and non-subversive character of the Lady with the Mop and ultimately the signature of the Minister, and which sometimes took nearly a year to complete. All in all it was a gentle, if not one hundred per cent genteel, place to work and at morning coffee break, if you admitted under questioning that you had missed Rich Man, Poor Man on television the previous night, your colleagues would selflessly bring you through it, scene by scene, even line by line. Eventually, soon enough, however, it was time to move on, and so I did, like Shaw in defiance of all prudence, though not, I am afraid, to become a professional man of genius.

Poor old GBS, dreaming or day-dreaming to the end, fell from a tree in his garden while pruning it in September 1950 and died, aged ninety-four, a number of weeks later, on this day.

19/3/2020

A version of this post was first published on November 2nd, 2014, Shaw having died on November 2nd, 1950. Image: GBS in his garden: don’t sit under the apple tree.