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Webb of influence

"When it comes to signed articles, the New Statesman is a mere waste-paper basket for me . . . If you let me loose in the NS [editorials], the effect would be that of unexpected fireworks in Church." So wrote not a cocky journalist in some recent correspondence, but George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, in a 98-year-old letter found slipped into a diary.

His recipient, Beatrice Webb, takes to the page, delivering her own blunt take on the Pygmalion author and early contributor to her magazine:

G B S has in fact injured the New Statesman by his connection with it . . . He used to be a good colleague, genuinely interested in public affairs and a radically kind man. Now he is perverse, irate and despotic in his relations . . . And the quality of his thought is not good.

Webbs on the Web, 9,000 pages of Beatrice Webb's diaries, has been published digitally and in full for the first time by the London School of Economics - co-founded by the Webbs, Shaw and other Fabians in 1895. Fleet Street spats aside, the fascinating diaries cover topical issues with a critical intensity one would expect from the leading social reformer of her day. William Beveridge, we learn in 1931, "heartily dislikes Keynes and regards him as a quack"; both men are "equally aloof from the common man".

Webb's rant on bankers, around that time, is maddeningly resonant today:

[Financiers] first make an appalling mess of their own business - involving their country in loss of business and prestige - and then by the most bare-faced dissimulation and political intrigue they throw out one Cabinet and put in their own nominees in order to recover the cost of their miscalculation by hook or crook from the community as a whole.

And then, of course, there are the warm and soft bits of life: her future husband, Sidney, has a "tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin [and] lack of manner" on first meeting; two years later - inevitable for us, yet read with joy - "We love each other devotedly. Never did I imagine such happiness open to me. May I deserve it."

You can access the full archive at:

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?