Matthew Parris

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

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

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 could follow the first two paragraphs above.

Version One

[CONTINUES] [NEW PAR] I struggle to explain. All these years — decades — of pushing hopelessly against an epoch whose face was set against us. I had almost despaired: thought nothing could change. Then everything did. So fast. There was something dreamlike in this now–fashionable scene. Smart people pushed past me. There was air-kissing, there was laughter. Was I dreaming? Had I fallen asleep after yet another dismal evening at yet another 1980s Tory conference: yet again in Blackpool, directing yet again the little gaggle of embarrassed conference-goers to our fringe event that the conference guide refused to list: down the stairs at a cheap hotel where the signs I’d handwritten (‘CGHE’ — we didn’t want the word ‘homosexual’ spelt out) pointed?

And now this. All credit to Gyles, a stalwart who even before it was fashionable supported our cause in Commons votes — but who now brings a dash of establishment glamour. Only last year he got the Duchess of Cornwall along for the same event…

And what’s this? Entering the busy room was a bishop in all his purple, offered a glass of champagne from a handsome waiter’s tray. In Blackpool it had been crisps and warm white wine — and that unsettling fellow with an untucked shirt who haunted our fringe event every year, spooking our attempts to feel mainstream and respectable. Now bishops and peers and government ministers graced Gyles’s gathering.

Would Peter Tatchell feel comfortable at this reception? No. Does that matter? No. Peter’s a hero, but heroes are for epochs as horses are for courses. A change has come. Tatchell helped bring it, but that work is done. Here on Park Lane we were celebrating. And if some of those celebrating would not have been with us in the difficult days, then praise be! We have brought them over.

I looked into the mêlée: a room full of goodwill and friendliness and, yes, maybe a touch of wanting to be seen: a touch of the ‘darling — everyone was there’ … but that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Great that everyone was there. Better than those grim Blackpool gatherings when nobody was there, and the few that were didn’t want to be seen?

A super party organised by an admirable man, and packed with top people. Wilde would have adored every minute. After a long battle, we’ve arrived at last. Even bishops. So, happy birthday, Oscar — but allow me to peek in at the jolly crowd, as it were, unseen; whisper a contented ‘mission accomplished’, then tiptoe away: to toast success quietly, and alone. [ENDS]

Version Two

[CONTINUES] …I struggle to explain. Where were these people when we needed them? Where were they when Oscar, whose birthday they were now toasting, needed them? Where were they when he stood in the dock? Where were they when the door to his cell in Reading Gaol locked shut?

I think it was the bishop that proved the last straw. You could spot the purple at once. There he was at the Grosvenor House, a glass in his hand amid all those braying people as the champagne flowed. Yes I realise — you’ve no need to tell me — that there were Anglican churchmen who supported our cause from the start. It’s possible, even likely, that this cleric had fought alongside the best of us; possible, even likely, that he had always spoken out. I doubt he took any part in the Church of England’s campaign against equal marriage. Perhaps his voice has joined the outcry in Belize against the finally unsuccessful Anglican campaign to stop the decriminalisation of homosexuality…

But, oh, I don’t know, just seeing a bishop, and remembering what the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have done to hurt us over the years, and still do, suddenly enraged me. The church will turn, of course. It will turn late, but it will turn. It will turn in our favour as the English establishment has turned — the English establishment, with its marvellous, self-serving capacity to sniff change in the wind, and change with it. Do these people believe — really believe — anything? Or do they just know when to duck?

The braying seemed to grow louder. Darling, everyone was there. No, don’t knock Gyles: he was with our campaign before the Hooray people would touch the issue, and if he’s bringing the Hooray people on board — well, why complain? Besides, let’s not kid ourselves Oscar was some kind of gay liberationist. Wilde sought pleasure, not justice. Tatchell would have horrified him. Oscar would have been networking happily among the grand here. Oscar with a placard on a gay pride march? It defies the imagination.

It’s just that — oh, I don’t know — after all, if same-sex love had been easier then, I’d be dead now. But it was so bloody wretched in the 1980s: Tory friends advising me to leave this issue alone. The closed doors, ministerial brick walls, heart-rending letters from gay men, frightened teenagers, lonely bank clerks entrapped by the police.

And now this, this Babylon, this celebrity fizz. As though none of that ever happened. As though this crowd had always thought what they think now. They probably think they did.

Am I bitter? Yes. I paused at the doors, and turned back, hardly knowing why.

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