Today is the birthday (1856) of George Bernard Shaw, who preferred simply Bernard Shaw but is often referred to now as Shaw or GBS. He was an Irish playwright, critic and polemicist whose influence on Western theatre, culture and politics has extended from the 1880s to the present day. He wrote more than sixty plays, including perennial favorites such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). Pygmalion was the basis for My Fair Lady, of course. Shaw was the leading dramatist of his generation, and is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize in Literature, and an Oscar.
Shaw was born in Dublin, and moved to London in 1876, where he struggled to establish himself as a writer and novelist. By the mid-1880s he had become a respected theatre and music critic. Following a political awakening, he joined the gradualist Fabian Society and became its most prominent pamphleteer. Shaw had been writing plays for years before his first public success, Arms and the Man in 1894. He sought to introduce a new realism into English-language drama, using his plays as vehicles to disseminate his political, social and religious ideas. By the early 20th century his reputation as a dramatist was secured with a series of critical and popular successes that included Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Caesar and Cleopatra.
Shaw’s views were, let us say, controversial. On the more mundane side, he wanted a reform of the system of writing English, including an end to the use of the apostrophe. One certainly can’t quarrel with his demonstrations that English spelling lacks logic, and is an impediment to literacy. He promoted eugenics, and opposed vaccination and organized religion. He courted unpopularity by denouncing both sides in the First World War as equally culpable, and castigated British policy on Ireland in the postwar period. By the late 1920s he spoke favorably of dictatorships on the right and left, expressing admiration for both Mussolini and Stalin. In the final decade of his life he was largely a recluse, but continued to write prolifically. He refused all state honors including the Order of Merit in 1946.
I don’t believe that there is any need to ramble on about Shaw’s life nor his beliefs. I’m not particularly keen on his plays, but I do like In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, because it’s his opportunity to explore key themes of the Enlightenment period. It’s a discussion play in which the issues of nature, power, and leadership are debated between King Charles II (‘Mr Rowley’), Isaac Newton, George Fox and the artist Godfrey Kneller, with interventions by three of the king’s mistresses (Barbara Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland; Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Nell Gwynn) as well as his queen, Catherine of Braganza.
This little exchange at the beginning gives the flavor:
MRS BASHAM. And you have been sitting out there forgetting everything else since breakfast. However, since you have one of your calculating fits on I wonder would you mind doing a little sum for me to check the washing bill. How much is three times seven?
NEWTON. Three times seven? Oh, that is quite easy.
MRS BASHAM. I suppose it is to you, sir; but it beats me. At school I got as far as addition and subtraction; but I never could do multiplication or division.
NEWTON. Why, neither could I: I was too lazy. But they are quite unnecessary: addition and subtraction are quite sufficient. You add the logarithms of the numbers; and the antilogarithm of the sum of the two is the answer. Let me see: three times seven? The logarithm of three must be decimal four seven seven or thereabouts.The logarithm of seven is, say, decimal eight four five. That makes one decimal three two two, doesnt it? What’s the antilogarithm of one decimal three two two? Well, it must be less than twentytwo and more than twenty. You will be safe if you put it down as–
SALLY. Please, maam, Jack says it’s twentyone.
NEWTON. Extraordinary! Here was I blundering over this simple problem for a whole minute; and this uneducated fish hawker solves it in a flash! He is a better mathematician than I.
Let me add a few more quotes from Shaw’s other works that I like:
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.
Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
The man with a toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty-stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man.
A broken heart is a very pleasant complaint for a man in London if he has a comfortable income.
Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.
Human beings are the only animals of which I am thoroughly and cravenly afraid.
Atrocities are not less atrocities when they occur in laboratories and are called medical research.
There is no sincerer love than the love of food.
The last quote is often repeated. Shaw was well known for his vegetarianism, inspired by his desire to avoid harm to animals. In his day his avoidance of meat was heavily remarked upon because it was so unusual. I had no luck discovering what, if any, was Shaw’s favorite dish, but I figured an Irish vegetarian dish would be suitable.
In digging I found this 8th century Irish poem, “The Hermit’s Song” or “Marbán to Guaire” all about wild foods in Ireland:
To what meals the woods invite me
There are water, herbs and cresses,
A clutch of eggs, sweet mast and honey
Are my meat,
Heathberries and whortleberries for a sweet.
All that one could ask for comfort
Round me grows,
There are hips and haws and strawberries,
Nuts and sloes.
And when summer spreads its mantle
What a sight!
Marjoram and leeks and pignuts,
Pignuts are mentioned at the tail end, so let’s begin there. The pignut, Conopodium majus is a small perennial herb, whose underground part resembles a chestnut and is sometimes eaten as a wild or cultivated root vegetable. The plant has many English names (many of them shared with Bunium bulbocastanum, a related plant with similar appearance and uses) including kippernut, cipernut, arnut, jarnut, hawknut, earth chestnut, groundnut, and earthnut. From its popularity with pigs come the names pignut, hognut, and more indirectly Saint Anthony’s nut, for Anthony the Great or Anthony of Padua, both patron saints of swineherds. The plant is common through much of Europe and parts of North Africa. It grows in woods and fields, and is an indicator of long-established grassland.
Pignuts are favorites of wild food foragers. You can find a good description here:
Pignuts remind me a little of Jerusalem artichokes although they are smaller and the taste is rather different. Because I love leeks so much and because marjoram, leeks, and pignuts are mentioned in the same line in the poem, why not make a soup of all three. I’d normally use chicken stock as the base but because I want to be vegetarian here I’ll use vegetable stock. Quantities are not important as long as you have equal portions of pignuts and leeks. Jerusalem artichokes or salsify will work in place of pignuts, but will have to be cut into chunks.
© Pignut and Leek Soup
½ kg pignuts, washed and peeled
½ kg leeks, washed and sliced thickly
fresh marjoram, finely shopped
salt and pepper
Place the pignuts in a heavy pot and cover with stock. Season to taste with marjoram, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add the leeks and cook for another 15 minutes or so. Add more stock if needed, but don’t make the soup too thin. Cooking times really depend on how you like your vegetables. I like mine al dente. Add more fresh marjoram at the very end, and serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.