Oscar wilde

The English have always loved gossip

Our national conversation is overwhelmed by tittle-tattle, rumour and gossip. Last week, a salacious email listing George Osborne’s alleged improprieties was circulated among the Westminster bubble. Inevitably, it was then circulated to everybody else, too. Meanwhile, the internet is aflutter with rumours about the identity of a BBC journalist who’s alleged to have paid a teenager tens of thousands of pounds for sordid pictures – and this isn’t even the first sex scandal involving a broadcaster this year.  Foreign visitors were amazed at this insatiable desire to ridicule the private follies and foibles of high society Some might think our modern obsession with grubby tales shows a lack of seriousness. But a love

The best Oscar Wilde films

It is 122 years this week since Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde died – in exile, poverty and disgrace – at Paris’s shabby St Germain Hôtel d’Alsace. His last words were said to be: ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us must go.’ Despite Wilde’s precipitous fall from grace and the ignominy heaped upon him (his children had to change their surname to Holland), within a relatively brief time his plays were revived and books reissued to renewed popular acclaim. And more than a century later, that appeal hasn’t faded: this year in England alone, The Importance of Being Earnest toured the north

A ghost at the feast: The LaLee at the Cadogan hotel, reviewed

The Cadogan hotel, Chelsea, is where Oscar Wilde was arrested for sodomy and gross indecency in 1895, in Room 118, which is now memorialised as the site of the arrest. Institutional homophobia is a weird thing to commemorate in fabrics, but everything is a tourist attraction these days. The hotel is a tall red late-Victorian castle incorporating neighbouring houses, one of which belonged to the actress and mistress of Edward VII, Lillie Langtry. It was, then, a hotel for betrayal on the corner of Pont Street. John Betjeman mentions this in his poem ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, and offers disaster PR of a timeless kind:

Xenophobic twaddle: Bush Theatre’s 2036 reviewed

The Bush Theatre’s new strand, 2036, opens with a monologue, Pawn, which takes its name from the most downtrodden piece on the chessboard. The speaker, Jordan, is an amiable dimwit of mixed Trinidadian and South African heritage whose mother explains his background to him like a condescending anthropologist: ‘Trinidad and South Africa are countries with cultures too rich for most people to understand.’ Jordan describes his life in London which consists exclusively of battling oppression. He buys fried chicken from Yusef, a Turkish food-seller, and he learns a greeting in Turkish that Yusef recognises. So Yusef starts to slip him extra portions as a perk. A white teenager hears of

Promising material squandered: BKLYN – The Musical reviewed

BKLYN — The Musical gives itself a headache for no reason. What does ‘BKLYN’ mean? Perhaps it’s a random jumble of letters caused by a muffin landing on the keyboard. A punter who sees the title once and later looks it up online is unlikely to recall the precise order of the letters, and his search will probably fail. And he’ll have trouble discussing the show with his friends because he won’t know how ‘BKLYN’ is pronounced. It turns out that the show’s heroine is called Brooklyn, and the writers decided to capitalise her name and extract three of its letters. Sensible theatre-makers don’t create problems like this for themselves.

Flower power: symbols of romance and revolution

Critics have argued over the meaning of the great golden flower head to which Van Dyck points in his ‘Self-Portrait with a Sunflower’. It probably symbolises the radiant majesty of the painter’s patron, Charles I, but for Van Gogh the sunflower ‘embodied and shouted out yellow, the colour of light, warmth and happiness’. In the Victorian language of flowers the plant denoted pride or haughtiness, but its tendency to turn its head to the sun led Byron’s abject Julia to use its image on a seal for her final letter to Don Juan with the accompanying motto Elle vous suit partout. The sunflower has been adopted as an emblem by

The gloriously indecent life and art of Aubrey Beardsley

Picture the young aspirant with the portfolio of drawings pitching up nervously at the eminent artist’s studio, only to be turned away at the door by a servant; then the master catching up with him, inviting him in and delivering the verdict on his portfolio: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession; but in your case I can do nothing else.’ Within two short years of this fairy-tale meeting in the summer of 1891 between Edward Burne-Jones and the 18-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, the self-taught insurance clerk who had fallen under the Pre-Raphaelite spell had turned himself into the most talked-about artist in London. Van

The internet is taking the joy out of quotations

‘Quotation (n.) — The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.’ Ambrose Bierce said that, or at least wrote it in the Devil’s Dictionary. That was in 1906, and those are words for the ages. In his Rhetoric, centuries before the birth of Christ, Aristotle identified one of the most common and effective ways of making an argument seem stronger. In his section on ‘proofs’ he talked about what he called ‘ancient witnesses’. By this he meant not only the testimony of witnesses such as you might call in court — but the witness borne by proverbs and quotations. Any speaker or writer can get an extra fillip of

A fatal misunderstanding

What is it about Naomi Wolf that inspires such venom? Perhaps that she’s American, brash, media-savvy and not averse to showing off her impressive embonpoint, which might go down badly in academe. But also — she makes mistakes. She made a pretty bad mistake in her very first book, The Beauty Myth, published in l990, by saying that 150,000 women died of anorexia in the US every year — whereas in fact she should have said 150,000 women suffered from anorexia. In this book, she seems to have dropped an even bigger clanger. Matthew Sweet started the ball rolling on his Radio 3 Free Thinking programme, when he told her

No fear | 21 June 2018

Hereditary is the horror film that has been described as a ‘ride of pure terror’ and likened to The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, to which I can say only: in its dreams. Given I’m such a wuss when it comes to anything frightening — the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang still scares the living daylights out of me — I’m rather thankful, but I’m perplexed as to why it received such rave reviews. Ride of pure terror? I’ve had more terrifying rides on the teacups at the fair. I saw it at the paying cinema with my adult son and his girlfriend, who were also bored

The good, the indifferent and the simply awful

‘There is only one thing worse than homosexual art,’ the painter Patrick Procktor was once heard to declare at a private view in the 1960s. ‘And that’s heterosexual art.’ It would have been intriguing to hear his views on Queer British Art at Tate Britain. All the more so since it includes several of his own works, including a fine line-drawing study of the playwright Joe Orton, completely naked except for his socks — which he kept on because he felt they were sexy — and reclining somewhat in the manner of Manet’s Olympia. In fact, many of those included might have had reservations — Oscar Wilde, for example, one

Love at first bite

Legends cling to Bram Stoker’s life. One interesting cluster centres on his wife, Florence. She was judged, in her high years, a supreme London beauty. She preserved her Dresden perfection by denying her husband conjugal access. Bram consoled himself with warmer but more dangerous ladies of the night; such satisfactions came at greater cost than a few sovereigns. According to David J. Skal, a quarter of men of Stoker’s bohemian class (including all of those central to his book) were infected with syphilis. And Bram? Skal thinks so too. Florence Balcombe, when a young Dublin beauty, was courted by Oscar Wilde as well as Bram. Oscar she was not inclined

Why didn’t I celebrate Oscar Wilde’s birthday?

On Wednesday 19 October at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London, a reception was held to celebrate Oscar Wilde’s birthday. Invited by the excellent Gyles Brandreth, I arrived in good time. But as I approached the doors of the reception room, something stopped me. These are the facts. But what is the explanation? A few months ago Boris Johnson wrote two newspaper columns, one in favour of a proposition, one against. As an exercise in clearing one’s mind, the approach has much to commend it. So, to clear my own mind, let me try the same plan. There follow two alternative submissions of the diary item that

The laureate of repression

In 1927, while delivering the lectures that would later be published as Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster made a shy attempt to get to know his Cambridge neighbour, the classical scholar A.E. Housman. At first all appeared to be going well. After one lecture the two men dined together, and Housman told Forster ‘with a twinkle’ that he enjoyed visiting Paris ‘to be in unrespectable company’. Emboldened by this confession, Forster ‘ventured to climb the forbidding staircase’ that led to Housman’s rooms in Trinity College. The door was firmly closed against him. He left a visiting card; it was equally firmly ignored. What might have been the start of

Modernist cul-de-sac

The intransigence of Maxwell Davies, Boulez and Stockhausen is coming home to roost. Here were three composers, famous if not exactly popular, who called many shots by the time they died yet whose works were little loved in their lifetimes by the concert-going public and stand little chance of performance now they are dead. How was such imbalance possible? The intransigence had a lot to do with it. People thrill to a bold stance, and they don’t come much bolder than Boulez and Stockhausen in the Sixties. To be fair, Max was a very British version of this attitude. When Boulez died, the French press focused on a national hero

Comic relief | 7 April 2016

Comic opera is no laughing matter. Seriously, when was the last time you laughed out loud in the opera house? The vocal slapstick of Gianni Schicchi, laid on six banana skins deep? The farcical plot convulsions of Il barbiere? What about the arrival of Mozart’s ‘Albanians’ in Così? (Oh, those moustaches! Oh, those naughty boys!) It’s all about as spontaneous as a health-and-safety briefing, and almost as funny. Thank goodness, then, for Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest — an opera that’s dangerously, anarchically hilarious. The project sounds like a joke in itself. Have you heard the one about the Irish composer who tried to improve on Oscar Wilde?

Among the snobs, slobs and scolds

The author of this jam-packed treasure trove has been a film critic at the New York Times since 2000 and is also professor of film criticism at Wesleyan University. As if these platforms weren’t enough, he’s now written a book about the tangled worlds of films, books, music, paintings and criticism, dragging in Aristotle, Pope, Plato, Matthew Arnold, Isaiah Berlin and millions of others — but not, alas, my former next-door neighbour, the wonderfully controversial Brian Sewell. Crammed in alongside George Orwell’s ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy’ and H. L. Mencken’s ‘Literature always thrives best in an atmosphere of hearty strife,’ the author’s own views often hit hardest.

Why I’m in love with Róisín Murphy

Róisín Murphy, the Irish singer-songwriter, is currently touring Europe with her Mercury Prize-shortlisted new album, Hairless Toys. The album, with its odd disco-grooves, dub rhythms and dark, loopy synth sounds, combines pop futurism with a retrospective 1970s edge. The album is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an older woman looking back on her life. ‘The things I’ve seen’, the 42-year-old Murphy sings, in a mournful whisper. Why ‘the Irish Grace Jones’ (as Vanity Fair called Murphy) is not better known outside her native Ireland is a mystery. On stage Murphy is supremely powerful because she knows how to keep still. She thinks about the slightest raising

Diary – 29 October 2015

I’m counting ‘Wows!’ Suddenly everyone is using this irritating expletive expressing incredulity, amazement and nothing at all. I’ve heard it from the lips of daughters in law, professors of literature, rabbis and housewives. No doubt at least one priest has said it after a particularly lurid confession. It is spreading like leprosy over ordinary discourse and will, in time, die out like ‘Zounds’ or ‘Gee whizz’. I wonder if it will turn up as an anachronism in Downton Abbey? I saw on television the other night a superb production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with great performances from David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson. The adaptation was impeccable and

Come rain or shine

‘Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr Worthing,’ pleads Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.’ Weatherland would make Gwendolen very nervous indeed. Our observations of the sky, Alexandra Harris reveals in this extended outlook, have always meant something else. Weatherland is a literary biography of the climate. Beginning with the Fall (in the Biblical rather than the autumnal sense) and ending with Alice Oswald, Harris condenses 2,000 years of weather ‘as it is recreated in the human imagination’. It is the weather-consciousness of