The Unholy One?

Tom Paulin

At 10 – let’s be specific –
at 10 a.m. you’d be sitting in your deckchair
filling pages with shorthand
so I imagine a caption in the News Chronicle
GBS TRAVELS P&O
‘I always work on holiday’
says the world’s most famous author
‘especially if some kind cruise liner pays me’

so there you are in a deckchair
a kind of rational tautology
dry as your deckchair
and like its flat depth
still slightly intriguing
because your plays are engines
each of them equipped with a Möbius strip
instead of a fan belt
– they run on ideas
well they’re powered by will
and opinions

at 12.45
just before a carrot and celery lunch
you hand the stenographer your notebook
she knocks up a typescript
while you munch and read
– it’s as regular as clockwork
this perfection of the plain style
and you’re a zinc stylus
a clone of yourself like your characters
– characters one critic
rightly calls statues without shadows
because to design them
is to be a morse pad
in sea or space
in desert or prairie
– we catch the flickering tick of your message
tick tick tick
a cold tickle
not Rikki tikki
no not quite
– not the nail the mongoose
dancing out of a dark
a dark tattery sugarcane grove
– no your tick is more straightforward
has more the tilt
of a skylight
– a skylight deckchair
and though Joan’s your Antigone
you wrote more like Creon
– wrote that is for what Hegel
calls the daylight gods
– the gods of free self-conscious
social – social and political – life
the gods if you like
of middle-class conversation
its Fabian certainties
its brisk of course
that’s often slightly off course
like the old Belfast story
– that over-troped sea-chestnut
of the liner and the iceberg
– all of which is a way of saying
that your homage to daylight
to claritas
means the gods of family tribe the subconscious
aren’t your sort of thing
– which is why Yeats
dreamed you were a Sing-
er sewing-machine
– he imagined you
as a smiling machine
both a purring cat
and a fixture
– and then in a letter
rejecting John Bull’s Other Island
said you had for the first time
‘a geographical conscience’
– which means your other island
savoured of the earth
had even the oily tremor of bogland
– I guess he meant to imply
that all the rest
– all your other plays – ’ve the buzz
of an early electric razor
that they’re talking heads
with stubble on every chin
– really I think your characters
they feed on something like brillo pads
and emit sparks
from their always mobile mouths
while you patrol them
like the solitary warder
in the civic – civic not lonely tower
at the centre of that immense panopticon
called the Shaw Canon
because reading or watching your work
we’re addressed first by a tannoy
then we enter
your nearly Bauhaus foyer
– nearly because Beatrice Webb
designed its utility furniture
– we look up
and see a security camera on the ceiling
– that’s not fair though
I mean you were the last
person to care about private property
but you watch us
like the panopticon’s warder
– I keep wondering
what you would have said to Bentham
or whether you ever talked
to the autoskeleton in its glass cupboard
– that would’ve been your version
of a Yeatsian séance
– I can see you sending
WB a postcard –
‘Chatting to Bentham yesterday:
he told me
quantity of pleasure being equal
Cathleen ni Houlihan
is as good as Riders to the Sea.
Yours, GBS.
P.S. I was born in Upper Synge Street.’
– now I think of Iris Murdoch’s novels
or those copies of Wisden
sunbaked like yellow biscuits
in Beckett’s Paris flat
and then of that late lovely poem
MacNeice’s ‘Budgie’
where the caged bird with its mirror
is compared to a television
actor admiring himself in the monitor
though to say this
is to sound ungrateful
and that dear GBS
is not what I am
for like Swift you aimed to vex
your audience
– like a mischievous
– a mischeevious boy
you scattered itching powder on your pages
and wrote English
as if it was a form of Esperanto

now I see you
helpless with laughter
as your mother’s coffin
bursts
into what you called beautiful fire
then you phone your broker
and tell him to take out shares
in the crematorium
– but I won’t leave you there
for like an aertex vest
you keep us warm
in a type of shared
schoolroom intelligence
in you opinions
are as common as onions
– Verlaine’s Tennyson
is well Verlaine
compared to you
– you’re the most opinionated writer
who ever lived
perhaps what you tread
is that fine distinction
– a kind of knife edge
between theatre and drama
– Boucicault is theatre
ever so fluent theatre
Martin MacDonagh too is theatre
but let me ask this question
– are you ever dramatic?
– that moment in Heartbreak House
when Hector Hushabye
alias Marcus Darnley
is reported to have been found
as a baby
in an antique chest
one summer morning in a rose garden
after a night
of the most terrible thunderstorm
– that merely narrated moment
it’s a glance at a handbag!
In Earnest
which in turn is an echo
of the satchel that held
the baby Oedipus
in the crooked pass of Kithairon
– his tiny ankles spiked
his cries like a quail’s
– a quail trapped in a net
on Mount Kithairon
– but where does your antique chest take us?
not to blind Oedipus
led by his daughter Antigone
that’s the living ginger
fate destiny
the place where three roads meet
but in you the secular
is taken to the absolute limit
so I see you
not so much beating on heaven’s gate
as taking a centrebit and brace
and drilling at those gates
and as you drill
another Dubliner
– Mr Leopold Bloom
looks on and approves
because Bloom read you
– he read you in a kind of prolepsis
– I mean he read you
even before you’d published
several texts
so it was rather mean of you
never to finish Ulysses
– which means
I should stop gabbing on
and your play should begin