Light pollution, a frequent reminder of excessive use of fuel and power, obscures night skies for many people in the UK, which also deprives them numinously of one of the joys of living and wonder of appreciation of all the wildlife, trees, and plants and crops affected and even dependent on the hours of darkness...
Light pollution, a frequent reminder of excessive use of fuel and power, obscures night skies for many people in the UK, which also deprives them numinously of one of the joys of living and wonder of appreciation of all the wildlife, trees, and plants and crops affected and even dependent on the hours of darkness. However, some people can still site the Plough, the Pointers of which line up with the Pole Star, Polaris, in Ursa Minor, The Little Bear, Observers in the USA know the Plough as the Big Dipper, so they call Ursa Minor the Little Dipper from its similar ladle-like form. The firmament in the southern hemisphere presents a different picture. The Summer Triangle rides high in the northern heavens, VEGA commanding one of its points.
Its all easy to say now: we can turn up the night sky on the computer or TV at any time of day, but our forebears, purposefully but probably uncomfortably surveying the changes of scene were stimulated by what they saw into lucubration, theorizing, and the beginnings of epidemiology and the scientific associations they descried on the basis of contemporaneous knowledge and myth; and most notably the beginnings of migration, navigation, and exploration.
Polaris shines overhead at the North Pole at the moment, year in, year out, night and day. It is aligned with the Earth’s axis of rotation, so it appears to stay fixed in position, as the planet turns once each day. However, as all navigators appreciate, the axis wobbles (or precesses), shifting against the more distant stars at the pace of the Moon’s breadth per lifetime and tracing a 47º wide circle over a period of some 25,700 years. Other stars, including VEGA will be involved in the galactic dance and in AD 14000, VEGA will nearly replace Polaris overhead at the North Pole.
In many ways we’d like to record the extinction of our VEGA, job done. However, one star is beginning to assert itself in the limelight: an article in the Independent on 21 July 2007 reported that “two plays by an Irish writer whose reputation took a tumble in the 1950s, have been revived simultaneously in British theatres, to wild acclaim. His 1923 drama Saint Joan, which once seemed like a literary curiosity from a forgotten age, is back on the London stage and is being seen as a thoroughly modern, topical and disturbing statement about religious fundamentalism.” That writer was GBS - George Bernard Shaw. The other play currently revived is Pygmalion, enjoying success at a theatre in Bath.
GBS’s 90th birthday in 1946 was celebrated by a Penguin issue of the Shaw Million – 10 works in editions of 100,000. They sold out in just 6 weeks. He died in 1950 and declined in esteem as the British theatre was “turned upside down by the rise of Samuel Beckett, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and others, whose characters suffered from an inability, to express themselves lucidly, and the drama was what remained unsaid.” Nonetheless, Pygmalion was tuned into My Fair Lady, a musical with enormous success and some fine tunes and brilliant acting. Some of Shaw’s estate went on charitable causes, one of which – seeing that the plot concerned “speaking proper” and linguistic and social inferences – left money for reform of English spelling. In 1977 John Osborne really looked back in anger, railing against a critic “who persisted in believing that Shaw was a very great dramatist”. Osborne said: “It is clearer to me than ever that Shaw is the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to gull a timid critic or foul a dull public. He writes like a Pakistani who had learnt English when he was 12 years old… I have read these plays, watched them, indeed toured as an actor in them – they are posturing wind and rubbish.” Oscar Wild, a rival of Shaw’s, also put GBS and his output down, albeit in fewer words. Nearly all of Shaw’s plays and literary pieces touch on present day challenges: in Lysistrata, it was women’s demonstrations and resistance to their men’s resort to wars: in the Black Girl’s Search for God he entered topical areas of controversy, and in Pygmalion he had Eliza Doolittle voicing a resounding and demotic “Not Bloody Likely”, which may sound mild today but shocked the London stage – and without asterisks or beeps – as sharply as a string of 4-letter oaths might upset Palm Court gentility today.
Soon after Saint Joan Shaw received a Nobel Prize for Literature. “When he began writing in the 1890s he had to struggle for recognition because he breached accepted dramatic conventions and introduced controversial topics such as prostitution. Even when his work was better understood and his wit appreciated, his socialist and pro-feminist opinions still had the ability to shock. Nonetheless, a new version of Shaw’s 1930 play Man and Superman recently given in California inspired a critic to describe the play as “a superlative production of Shaw’s diabolically difficult comedy of manners, nothing short of awe-inspiring.” The play had been cropped from the original 5-hour script to 3 hours and 10 minutes to make it easier for the audience: Shaw’s plays certainly gave good value in prefaces (one longer than the whole play), wordage, and stage directions.
The appreciation in the Independent – perhaps significantly – overlooked GBS as a veggie with a gift for witticisms in defence of all his campaigns that would outdo a chorus of modern PR merchants. His postcards were notable for their cogency. He was one of the literary Bloomsbury Set and the Fabians who then – and still – interpret radical ideas into political action. He consorted with doctors and their dilemmas in the medical salons of the day, debating the merits of what we know now as antibiotic therapy and immunization – “stimulating the phagocytes” entered the language as a term still relevant in the workings of prophylaxis. Gandhi was in London in Shaw’s time and Sir Stafford Cripps, who was a Chancellor of the Exchequer and involved in the independence of India, was a Fabian who, like others in the movement, repaired for lively conferences and veggie fare at Beatrice Webb house in Surrey. Shearn’s, a greengrocer in Tottenham Court Road, near Heal’s, captured the veggie spirit with restaurants above the shop offering raw cuisine, Bircher Benner style or traditional veggie, as well as takeaways, among them mock turkeys and ducks fashioned from nutmeat to grace the veggie’s tables. And a restaurant at the corner of Leicester Square and Whitcombe Street, called VEGA, was the place “up west” for London veggies to indulge themselves in style. Alas, those premises have been absorbed into a McDonald’s.
The veggie scene was lively in those days. While VEGA survives in new guises it struggles to gain the pole position of influence that veggie persuasions exerted. Other environmental and social issues have taken the limelight. However, this VEGA is determined not to be outshone until the job is done – before AD 14000.
GBS ended his life being given liver extract for his pernicious anemia. Like many elderly men – and he was over 90 by this time – he had lost the ability to absorb vitamin B12. Resort to the old fashioned injections of liver extract seemed odd when alternative sources of B12 suitable for the treatment were available, but he was by then unable to ripost and the press had a field day. Just last week, VEGA attended this year’s Nutrition Society conference, held at the University of Coleraine, where questions of supplementation and fortification of food were discussed, especially in the contexts of enrichments of flour and bakery products with B-vitamins and the biochemistry and measurement of levels of folate, vitamins B2 and B12 and of the amino acid homocysteine and the incidence of neurological effects were discussed. Veggie’s blood levels of B12 are generally not very high even when they consume fortified foods, so, like other populations of age-related deficiency, memory might be harmed. Parallel and concurrent effects might also occur with dietary imbalances of omega 3 and omega 6 unsaturated fats. GBS survived to a ripe old age with a sharp mind and memory, but these are subjects engaging VEGA’s interest in work commissioned by the Food Standards Agency. Shaw’s pronouncements and trends in the health food movement in the inter-war years must have prompted the oft-quoted remark of an eminent medical author of a nutritional text book that “vegetarians are full of wind and self-righteousness.” We hope we can surpass such dismissals but we could do with writers, speakers, and journalists with the confident aptness that he commanded.