I used to wonder at what point in my life I would cease to have recurring dreams which appeared to pertain to anxieties normally associated with the teenage years and early twenties. In these nocturnal wanderings it typically emerges ‑ though there are variations ‑ that there is just one more small thing that I still need to do to complete my course and be awarded my BA degree, or perhaps the degree that I think I deserve. But curiously, it seems to involve going back to school and sitting one subject again for my A-levels (usually French), no doubt so that I can gain access to an honours stream and get the requisite degree and then go on to postgraduate study so that the whole thing can be prolonged forever. How long have I been trying to get this degree, normally awarded after three years of study? Well, 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 more like forty years. Certainly I will be the only one in Mr Bonner’s A-stream French class with white hair. Or would it be possible to avoid Mr Bonner altogether and do the thing on my own? Good idea, but my parents are almost bound to find out. If only they weren’t so unreasonable, such sticklers for doing everything by the book. Can’t they see that I find the whole thing very embarrassing?
As I say, I used to wonder, but I now know that I’ll be dreaming that dream in the old people’s home, or in the hospice. There is no escape from the past, unless Dr Freud and his fellows can help me. But do I want to know what it’s all really about? 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) and then, two years later, an MA (“William Langland’s Politics” 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 the approval of the local Garda superintendent and ultimately the signature of the Minister and which sometimes took a year to complete. All in all it was a jolly enough place to work and at morning coffee break, if you admitted that you had missed Rich Man, Poor Man on television the previous night, your colleagues would selflessly bring you through it, scene by scene and line by line. Eventually, however, it was time to move on, and so I did, in defiance of all prudence, though not, I am afraid, to become a professional man of genius.
Poor old GBS, dreaming to the end, fell from a tree in his garden while pruning it in September 1950 and died, aged ninety-four, a few weeks later on this day.