Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

Singing for One’s Supper

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th May, 2017

JF speaking at Newham HustingsThis afternoon I spoke to Kingston U3A about my Life as a Foreign Correspondent — undoubtedly the most popular of all the talks that I have been giving since I joined the lecture circuit a decade or so ago. Most writers and many broadcasters sing for their supper in that way, whether for women’s clubs, Rotary Clubs and other professional bodies and U3A — the University of the Third Age, which has hundreds of thousands of members in Britain (the Kingston branch has well over a thousand). So whereas many people, not least the young, get their information and entertainment online or through their mobile phones or other post-modern platforms, others still want to hear stories from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And it is all about stories. Whether I’m giving a talk directly related to one of my books (such as on Oscar Wilde) or instead recounting my journalistic exploits round the world from the Vietnam War onward, or aspects of modern history and current affairs, such as the so-called Arab Spring, I paint a picture in words, exactly as I do when I am writing a script for Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. Well-delivered, the spoken word can convey so much, without the need for visual illustration.

Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you do it?”, in other words, give talks, which I do mainly in London and the Home Counties, though for several years I lectured on cruise ships as well. “Surely it takes away valuable time from your writing?” Well, yes, up to a point that is true, though writing is a very solitary occupation and it’s good to have a speaking engagement lined up that means I actually do have to shave, get fully dressed and go out into the world and converse with real live people. Besides, these days writers of books, in particular, are urged by their publishers to go out and promote the product, not just at literary festivals, but in other fora, as well as keeping up a visible presence online and on social media. Finally, yes, the money does help. Unless one is fortunate enough to pen a blockbuster, writers’ income from their craft has fallen sharply in recent years. A recent survey by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose Board I sit, discovered through a survey that the average income of writers in the UK is £11,000 a year. That means many are having to survive on much less. So speaking fees (usually calculated on a per capita basis on the size of the expected audience, can make all the difference, even when the group (and therefore the fee) is modest. But I mustn’t grumble. I am one of those writers and broadcasters who actually enjoys giving talks, unlike some of my colleagues who loathe it. So my advice to fellow scribes is: don’t knock it. Be brave! Go with it!

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Oscance: Toasting Oscar and Constance Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th May, 2016

Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd on 29 May 1884 at St. James’s Church, Paddington, a short walk from the bride’s grandfather’s house in Lancaster Gate. For the past dozen years or so, that event has been commemorated at the church with an afternoon ceremony called Oscance, with readings, interviews and performances. But yesterday’s commemoration was special, as it centred on the unveiling by their only grandson, Merlin Holland, of a beautiful memorial to the couple, made by he young letter-cutter, Thomas Sergeant. As one of the Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, I was then asked asked to propose a toast (with prosecco), which I did as follows:

Wilde plaqueEvery time I come to St. James’s, I can feel the presence of Oscar Wilde. Spooky, as Dame Edna Everage would say, though spooky in a most pleasant way. He’s up there somewhere, among the rafters, looking down on us. But he’s not alone, because half concealed behind one of the pillars — not hiding, but watching the proceedings with a wry smile on her face — is Constance. As was mentioned in the reading from Franny Moyle’s biography, Constance was a strong character in her own right — for example, being an active member of the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association — though the drama of Oscar’s later life left her overshadowed. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if the couple had lived a hundred years later, in our own, more liberal age. But maybe there would not have been this more liberal age had it not been for the lesson of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. It is most fitting now that all the planning and commissioning and the tooling of the memorial are complete that Oscar and Constance in the form of the beautiful plaque will now greet everyone who comes into this church and will bid us farewell this afternoon. I therefore ask you to raise your glasses: to Oscar and Constance!

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Charles Dickens at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th February, 2016

Jeremy ClarkeDickens groupiesCharles Dickens is often thought of as the quintessential Victorian novelist, though his career began before the young Victoria ascended the throne and he died in 1870. There was thus no way that he could ever have visited that most stylish of late Victorian edifices, Alfred Waterhouse’s National Liberal Club (NLC), which was founded in 1882 (though its magnificent premises on the north bank of the River Thames were not completed until five years later)  and to a degree remains a shrine to William Gladstone. However, the Kettner Lunch club — founded by Peter Boizot 42 years ago, originally at Kettner’s in Soho but latterly at the NLC –.has often doffed its cap in the direction of Dickens, but today it offered a special treat in terms of an illustrated lecture on My Boyhood’s Home: Dickens and North Kent by Dr Jeremy Clarke of the Dickens Museum in Rochester. It must be 20 years since I went down to Rochester specifically to see the Dickens collection at the Guildhall Museum and was pleased to know it is going great guns. Even better news was the revelation that Gad’s Hill, Dickens’s rather grand home at Higham, which has for some time been used as a school, may revert wholly to being a place for Dickens fans to make a pilgrimage. Though my own great literary love, Oscar Wilde, had a poor view of Dickens — thinking him old fashioned and at times mawkish — in fact the two of them were the real godfathers of modernism, at least insofar as we now see literature as much about the writer as about the text. Moreover, both were phenomenal self-promoters who also engaged directly with their public. No wonder Oscar was a little jealous of Charles, though I have to day that one’s admiration is somewhat dimmed by the fact that Dickens treated his wife even more shamefully than Wilde did his.

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Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd December, 2014

Maggi HamblingI used to see Maggi Hambling quite often with our mutual friend George Melly when he was such a fixture of Soho and London’s bohemia, so it was good to catch up with her again at the private view of her Walls of Water monotypes at Marlborough Fine Art in Albermarle Street this evening. I can never visit Albermarle Sreet without remembering that it was there that the seeds of Oscar Wilde’s downfall were sown, at the now defunct Albermarle Club, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a card for Oscar at the porter’s lodge, accusing him of posing as a somdomite (sic). Maggi of course made a wonderful reclining statue of Wilde, which is located near Charing Cross Station, and in which his spirit is reclining half out of his coffin, a cigarette nonchalently held aloft — though philistines kept nicking the statue’s cigarette, so it is no longer replaced. Maggi Hambling, like David Hockney, is a great believer in the freedom to smoke, so I was not at all surprised when she lit up in Marlborough Fine Art tonight, doubtless to the dismay of the gallery. The large selection of black and white monotypes on show are in parallel to a larger-scale exhibition on currently at the National Gallery, again all about water. This has been a leitmotif of Maggi’s work recently, as if the crashing waves along the Suffolk coast that is so dear to her have some mystical power communicating not just the force of nature but also an interface between life and death, maybe sometimes even summoning memories of Maggi’s departed muse, Henrietta Moraes.

[photo: iapfineart.com]

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Remembering Donald Sinden

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th September, 2014

Donald SindenDonald Sinden 1Donald Sinden was one of those rare actors who excelled in both comedy and tragedy, and offstage he was a brilliant performer as well. He liked to assume the role of a scatty old man — while retaining his rich, fruity intonation — while in fact he kept his marbles more or less up to the end, succumbing to cancer at age 90. We first met when both of us were made honorary Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, which both produces scholarly articles on the Irish playwright and organises very special social events. But whereas I have only written about Wilde, Donald had a more intriguing connection, having as a young man befriended Oscar ‘s nemesis, “Bosie” Douglas. But I usually saw Donald at the Garrick Club, where he was the doyen of the actor members. Indeed, most unusually a room was named after him there while he was still alive. He enjoyed giving guided tours of some of the great pictures there, mixing real erudition with an impish sense of humour, which caught out many an unwary visitor. His impersonations of preposterous characters were a joy.

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Remembering Peter Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th July, 2014

Peter DayThe publisher, editor and longtime English PEN activist Peter Day, who has died, could on occasions be extremely sharp-tongued, but at heart he was a man of immense human kindness. He particularly sprang into action whenever any of his friends was ill. When our mutual friend, the late novelist Francis King, was in deteriorating health, Peter virtually moved in to look after him. I first met Peter through English PEN, when we were both serving on that writers’ body’s executive committee, he ex officio as the editor of International PEN’s newsletter. Later, he would edit the first paperback edition of my book on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and André Gide, André & Oscar; he was a joy to work with, meticulous but also deeply supportive  and it helped that several of our working sessions were conducted over lunch at his flat up in the tower of a gothic block of flats in Shepherd’s Bush. He loved to entertain, but was an eccentric host, especially at his dinner parties at the table in his kitchen. He insisted on washing up between each course, which was distinctly disconcerting, and in order to make sure that people didn’t stay too long, Peter had his lights on automatic timers so that after 10pm they used to go off, one by one. Only the most thick-skinned guest failed to get the message. In his latter years, Peter moved into Charterhouse, the residential accommodation for distressed gentlefolk. The rule there was that everyone had a set place allocated at the communal dining tables, so one’s neighbours at meal times were always the same until one died, yet to my surprise Peter adapted to this somewhat monastic lifestyle with remarkable good faith.

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Donald Sinden at 90

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th November, 2013

Before I left London on my latest foreign lecture tour I was delighted to join the celebrations marking the actor Donald Sinden’s 90th birthday at the Garrick Club in Covent Garden. He has lost none of his impish sense of humour and is one of those thespians who has won thousands of admirers. His voice is unmistakable and even the slightest anecdote becomes a memorable performance when he delivers it. Along with fellow Garrick member Stephen Fry, Donald and I are honorary Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, but whereas I have merely written about the great playwright and social reformer, and Stephen impersonated him, Donald encountered Oscar’s nemesis Bosie Douglas when he was a lad – an encounter he enjoys recalling with particular relish. Very unusually, the Garrick renamed one of its function rooms in Donald’s honour, and it was a most merited accolade.

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Fanny, Stella and Mr Gladstone

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th July, 2013

William GladstoneFanny & StellaThough the Oscar Wilde trials are often seen as the archetypal Victorian scandal, there was an earlier cause for outrage, even more titillating to the general public: the 1870 trial of the transvestite and occasional prostitute Ernest Boulton and various of his associates, on the then extremely serious charge of sodomy. For years “Stella” — as Ernest called himself — and his bosom pal, “Fanny” (Frederick Park), cruised London’s theatres and strutted their stuff around town, turning heads and, in the case of the decidedly prettier Stella, winning hearts right across the social spectrum. Indeed, Stella at one time entered a sham marriage with Lord Arthur Clinton, MP, godson of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Not surprisingly, Fanny, Stella and many of those involved with them ended up having problems with the law, but it was interesting that when the net closed round them (save for Lord Arthur, who had conveniently died of scarlet fever — or so it was claimed) their actual trial showed British justice at its best, in that defence counsel (much aided by Boulton’s adoring mother, who was Stella’s biggest fan) demolished the prosecution’s case and the jury of 12 good men and true took less than an hour to declare all the defendants not guilty. Perhaps that is one reason why Oscar Wilde assumed wrongly 25 years later that he would get off too. If as a teenager in Ireland he didn’t hear of the crossdressers’ case he would almost certainly have heard of Stella or even seen her perform — still in drag — on the stage in London, where she acted in coy entertainments with one of her brothers for many years, after a short period of exile in America. Interestingly, these shows were far better received up North than they were in the South. The extraordinary tale of Boulton, Park and their cohorts is amusingly, even shockingly, recounted in Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna (Faber & Faber, £16.99). As with his earlier provocative book on the “secret life” of Oscar Wilde, McKenna is not afraid of over-egging the pudding for dramatic effect or of speculating, but the core of the book is founded on serious research. Obviously, he cannot have known exactly what was going through Stella’s mind in her outrageous guises and adventures, but he takes the reader along as a willing accomplice, not sparing us even the most lurid medical details at times. I would love to know what Gladstone himself actually thought about Stella and her ilk; he must have come across some of the female impersonators who loitered in the West End along with the ladies of the night, who he liked to invite back to his home in Carlton House Terrace for a wholesome talk. There is no record that he ever invited Stella back, but it is a deliciously transgressive thought.

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Merlin Holland after Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th October, 2012

When Merlin Holland was invited to the United States some years ago to give a lecture on his grandfather, Oscar Wilde, the woman at immigration at JFK asked him what claim he had to be an authority on the Irish playwright. Merlin confessed the blood link, at which point the immigration officer — rather surprisingly, perhaps — said, ‘Oh, when Oscar Wilde came to America didn’t he say “I have nothing to declare but my genius!”? So what do you have to declare?’ Merlin replied, ‘only my albatross.’ And indeed for much of his adult life being Wilde’s only grandchild did weigh like an albatross on his shoulders. Fortunately, in a more liberal age than that his father Vyvyan lived in Merlin did not have to confront acrimony or shame; on the contrary, Wilde is now such a cultural icon that the problem is more one of heightened expectation. At times Merlin feels like a letterbox receiving Oscar’s undelivered mail. All these points came out this evening at the 21st annual Oscar Wilde birthday dinner put on by the Oscar Wilde Society (OWS) at the National Liberal Club, at which Merlin was the guest speaker, giving a preview of his next book, After Wilde, which will recount aspects of the Wilde legacy as experienced by him and his family. The OWS Chairman, Don Mead, had been trying to get Merlin — who now lives in France — to address such a dinner for several years, so finally ‘bagging’ him for this sell-out occasion was a triumph, and he did not disappoint. He is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to his grandfather’s life and works, for which all serious Wildean scholars must be truly grateful. I certainly benefited from his help and advice when I was writing my three books about Oscar and his coterie. Being a stickler didn’t always make Merlin popular however; he has pointed out errors and possibly unfounded speculation in Richard Ellmann’s classic biography of Wilde, for example. Those shortcomings (some of which could be put down to the fact that Ellmann was dying of motor-neurone disease while trying to complete his book) have been scrupulously analysed and corrected by the German schollar Horst Schroeder, who fittingly introduced Merlin this evening. The thanks were given in a bravura performance by Gyles Brandreth, who has been making a good living from a series of detective novels based on the conceit of implications of the friendship between Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. At least Brandreth makes no bones about fabricating his stories, and he has certainly added to the gaiety of Wildean circles.

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A Night at the Green Carnation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th January, 2012

As a convinced Wildean (celebrating beauty and social justice in all their forms) since my Oxford days and as a sometime chronicler of Soho’s bohemian history, I’m surprised at myself that I had never been to the Green Carnation bar/club in Greek Street until last night — or indeed heard of it. Maybe it hasn’t been in existence for very long, as I have walked down that street so many times and it’s only a few doors along from the Gay Hussar (no pun intended) Hungarian restaurant, long a haunt of Labour politicos in particular. But it was at the Green Carnation that the LibDems’ national group for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender issues last night had their pre-winter conference social to limber them up for their business session at the party headquarters later today, which I will be attending in my function as a Vice President. Formerly known as Delga, LGBT+LDs have made great progress both within the party and now within government in promoting minority rights. Until his shock defeat in May 2010, Dr Evan Harris (MP for Oxford West and Abingdon) was a huge support, and in Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities at the Home Office, the cause now has someone at the heart of government, moreover not only with the backing of Nick Clegg and the rest of the LibDem team but also of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Gay marriage has been one of the top campaigning issues for LGBT+LDs, alongside the lifting of the ban on gay men giving blood, and it is to Mr Cameron’s credit that he has come out strongly for the former, despite the growls from his back woodsmen in the Houses of Parliament, not to mention the extraordinary comment earlier this week from the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said that the Prime Minister was acting like a dictator by promoting the issue. Oscar Wilde himself would doubtless have savoured the era we live in today in Britain and so much of the European Union, Latin America and beyond, where sexuality is no longer seen as a litmus test of respectability, or indeed acceptability, and where we celebrate diversity. The Queen recently received the credentials of a Latin American ambassador who went to Buckingham Palace with his male civil partner. Good for her, good for Britain, and good for true liberalism, which judges people on their character and their humanity, not on their sexual orientation or living arrangements.

Links: http://lgbtlibdems.org.uk  and www.greencarnationsoho.co.uk

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