The Marginalian
The Marginalian

In Which Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw Collide on Their Bicycles

“How many intellectuals does it take to crash two bicycles?” asks Craig Brown in Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — the same wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters that gave us Rudyard Kipling’s warm memories of Mark Twain and Walt Disney’s copyright contentions with Igor Stravinsky — before introducing us to a calamitous encounter between George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. And, yes, it does involve bicycles.

Brown chronicles the unusual encounter, which took place in September of 1895, while the two then-young men were visiting the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at their house in Monmouthshire:

Though aged twenty-nine, he is still learning to ride a bicycle, and is doing so with a recklessness at odds with his usual physical timidity. He regularly falls off at corners, simply because no one has satisfactorily convinced him of the need to lean into them. Faced with a steep downhill slope, he places his feet on the handlebars, and is then unable to steady himself when he hits a bump. Whenever he falls off his bicycle, which is often, he never admits to a mistake, behaving as though it had always been his intention.

“Many of his falls, from which he would prance away crying ‘I am not hurt,’ with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism,” notes his biographer, Michael Holroyd. “The surgery afterwards was an education in itself. Each toss he took was a point scored for one or more of his fads. After one appalling smash (hills, clouds and farmhouses tumbling around drunkenly), he wrote: ‘Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been. Nobody but a teetotaller would have faced a bicycle again for six months.’ After four years of intrepid pedalling, he could claim: ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.'”

Also staying with the Webbs was up-and-coming philosopher Bertrand Russell, twenty-three at the time. Years later, he would come to use the bicycle — like Steve Jobs famously did — as frequent metaphor for his intellectual arguments. In the 1926 treatise Education and the Good Life, for instance, he offers learning to ride a bicycle as an example of overcoming fear by acquiring skill.

But on that particular September afternoon, the bicycle carried an urgency of a far more practical nature for Russell and Shaw, who could’ve used this vintage bike safety manual. Brown details the farcical incident:

The two spindly intellectuals set off on their bicycles through the rolling hills of Monmouthshire. Before long, Bertrand Russell, slightly out in front, stops his bike in the middle of the road in order to read a direction sign and work out which way they should head. Shaw whizzes towards him, fails to keep his eyes on the road, and crashes right into the stationary Russell.

Shaw is hurled through the air and lands flat on his back “twenty feet from the place of the collision,” in Russell’s empirical estimation. Following his normal practice, Shaw picks himself up, behaves as though nothing is wrong, and gets back on his bicycle, which is, like him, miraculously undamaged.

But for Russell, it is a different story. “Russell, fortunately, was not even scratched,” Shaw tells a friend, adding mischievously, “But his knickerbockers were demolished.” Russell’s bicycle is also in a frightful state, and is no longer fit to ride. Russell says of his assailant: “He got up completely unhurt and continued his ride. Whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train.”

Shaw, true to his bravado, reinforces his “victory” in a rascally demonstrative manner:

The train is extremely slow, so Shaw is easily able to outpace it. Never one to let tact get in the way of comedy, he pops up with his bicycle on the platform of every station along the way, putting his head into the carriage to jeer at Russell. “I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism,” suggests Russell sixty years later.

Their relationship never fully recovers, though it bumbles on for half a century or so. Russell concludes that, “When I was young, we all made a show of thinking no better of ourselves than of our neighbours. Shaw found this effort wearisome, and had already given it up when he first burst upon the world. My admiration had limits … it used to be the custom among clever people to say that Shaw was not unusually vain, but unusually candid. I came to think later on that this was a mistake.”

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello goes on to recount such similarly riveting encounters between luminaries like Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol and Jackie O, J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, and a wealth of others.

Published March 22, 2013




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