Magazine article The Spectator

Remarkable Friendship

Magazine article The Spectator

Remarkable Friendship

Article excerpt

The prolific writer and columnist AX Wilson has forged a deep friendship with the boxer Mike Tyson. They spend hours, days even in each other's company discussing literature, philosophy, art and music as well as the finer points of pugilism. Despite minor disputations over say, the Baconian Theory, Wilson believing that Shakespeare was indeed the author of his works while Tyson plumps for Francis Bacon, the relationship has endured. The novelist emerged from this particular argument with his ears intact while Tyson thought it might add some depth to his already impressive and nose-flattening onetwo.

Far-fetched, I hear you ask? Yes, and of course it isn't true. But many must have felt something similar when, in the late 1920s, it emerged that George Bernard Shaw had become devoted to the great American prizefighter Gene Tunney, twice heavyweight champion of the world. Of course, Tunney was no Tyson; he had a brain for one thing, loving literature and classical music for which he was much derided by the American boxing press as a `freak of nature', the then equivalent, no doubt, of being a big girl's blouse.

The story of this remarkable friendship was told in The Master and the Boy on Radio Four this week (Monday), part of a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of Shaw's death at the age of 94. Radio Three broadcast one of his plays and Radio Four mounted several programmes about the great old wit, thinker and polymath. The Master and the Boy, though, was a gem. It was presented by Tunney's son Jay who told us that his father, the son of an immigrant Irish stevedore, applied a scientific method of boxing, separating his brain from his body and being able to observe his own performance in the ring dispassionately.

As it happened GBS was a boxing fan and had written a novel about the sport called Cashel Byron's Profession which, like his other four novels, had not been a success. The eponymous hero was, like Tunney, an intellectual boxer who had married an English heiress, ending up as an MP. Tunney had married an American heiress from Connecticut. Hollywood wanted to film the book with Tunney playing Cashel Byron but the boxer turned it down, dismissing the character as 'a soap box orator bore'.

The press seized on this comment and eagerly sought Shaw's response, expecting, as Jay Tunney put it, a scathing, Shavian blast at the prizefighter who dared to take a fling at a Shavian tome. Shaw, though, replied, `Did Tunney actually say those things? …

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