5 Days Remaining

Saturday 10th
posted by Paddy McGuffin in Features

The Paddy McGuffin column

It is curious how — if you are of a certain warped mindset, as your scribe most assuredly is, and has medical certificates to prove it — the most trivial of news items can give you pause for thought.

On occasion just such a scrap of what many would regard as little more than tomorrow’s fish wrappings can encapsulate a whole multiverse of thought and opinion through no intentional skill of the author themselves.

In fact the individual in question would probably be bemused and not a little disturbed to realise what unbidden power they possess and become reticent about wielding their quill in future. Or, more likely with hacks, claim that was their intention all along and bask in their ill-gotten glory.

Or maybe this column just thinks about things too much.

Either way while sifting through this week’s news a particular item leapt out at it, like a festive chugger outside a shopping centre.

The piece itself was little to write home about. A pedestrianly straight report regarding the auctioning off of the key to a certain notorious jail cell previously employed for the detention of a certain involuntary guest of her majesty’s pleasure at a custodial institution in Berkshire.

Basically, they’re flogging off the key to Oscar Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol. The same dismal holding pen in which he plaintively wrote of that “tent of blue that prisoners call the sky.”

A somewhat morbid lot on which to bid — an item integrally involved in the unjust incarceration of a man of no small genius, a term of imprisonment which destroyed his physical and mental health and significantly contributed to his early death — although it will no doubt fetch a small fortune when it goes under the hammer.

For Wildean scholars, and the merely ghoulish, it will be the subject of great interest presumably.

If it is indeed the real artefact and not the opening device for a Victorian privy it certainly has a degree of historical significance.

But it is what it says about our present epoch that intrigued me.

Wilde, it would be fair to say, wound up a great many people in his day. It was in many ways his raison d’etre and his downfall.

His only “crime,” however, was to fall in love with a younger member of the same sex (and crucially a junior member of the aristocracy) who capriciously sold him down the river to save his own skin and family reputation.

If it had been the other way round the toff would have been briefly admonished then forgiven his “youthful high jinks” and probably gone on the grand tour until all the fuss had died down.

Plus ca change…

Many will no doubt see the item in question as an example of a bygone era and pat themselves on the back for being more enlightened and “tolerant” than their puritanical forebears.

But I have news for you. Things ain’t changed that much.

While quite rightly, and hideously belatedly, homosexuality is no longer a crime in this country — although sadly it remains so in many others — gay people are still having to fight for the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts and continue to suffer stigma and abuse.

Abuse which is frequently and outrageously regarded as less of an offence than other hate crimes.

Hate is hate and bigotry is bigotry pure and simple. You don’t get to pick and choose.

What two consenting adults do is no business of anyone else’s and especially not the main perpetrators and inculcators of such prejudicial faux moralising — the church hierarchy and other arch conservatives, who let’s face it are on rather shaky ground here.

Condemning the love of two people of the same sex as immoral yet turning a blind eye to decades if not centuries of rampant child abuse perpetrated by their own does not just smack of double-standards it positively screams it.

But as previously mentioned the severity of Wilde’s conviction was probably not entirely due to his sexuality but also his inability to resist skewering hypocrisy and stupidity everywhere he found it, and he had an unerring ability to sniff it out, particularly that of his so-called “betters.”

He just couldn’t help himself even in the face of extreme adversity and to his own undoubted detriment. Take for example his wonderful riposte on being informed that he was to detained at her majesty’s pleasure: “If this is the way she treats her prisoners she doesn’t deserve to have any.”

Great line, but not exactly helpful to his situation.

Don’t get me wrong Wilde was no radical, although he did flirt with socialism for a time but in his insistence on doing things his own way, his cocking a snook at social conventions and refusal to censor himself he was in his own idiosyncratic way a rebel and a free thinker.

If Wilde were around today he would be forgiven for casting a jaundiced eye around him and postulating that little had altered since the Victorian era.

The vast gulf between rich and poor is comparable, the politics of the workhouse reigns, illnesses such as rickets, scurvy and malnutrition are making a comeback and we have a geriatric monarch with no discernible sense of humour on the throne.

Our civil liberties and right to free speech are being curtailed on a daily basis with the authorities claiming it is for our own protection with a patronising paternalism that Wilde would have recognised all too well.

While Oscar would not of course be jailed for his sexuality in this country today, if things carry on the way they are going, in a few years he could well have found himself banged up just for taking the piss.

To paraphrase the man himself: “If this is the way the government treats its citizens, it doesn’t deserve to have any.”