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Subtitled ‘A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde’, Neil Bartlett’s first book is both a testament to the legacy of Wilde and an insight into the author’s love-hate relationship with the man he once described as his patron saint.
Published in 1988, it’s also a portrait of gay life in London a century after Wilde’s fall from grace. The late ’80s was a time of virulent and often violent homophobia, as the gay liberation of the ’70s was overshadowed by a knee-jerk return to ‘traditional family values’, the scaremongering of Section 28 and the threat of AIDS. It was during this time that a gay friend of mine had graffiti daubed on his front door – “GAY – Got AIDS Yet?” He didn’t, not then. But a few years later he was dead.
Despite all this, Bartlett finds beauty and bravery in the brutal social landscape, cruising the streets where Wilde once walked and reimagining the men who dared to live and love here many years before. He writes about Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, but also about cross-dressers Fanny and Stella, and others who challenged the social conventions of the day, risking arrest and imprisonment.
This is also a book about the present, as experienced by the author at the time. The gift – or ‘present’ – Bartlett offers Mr Oscar Wilde is his own story. He writes movingly about his experience of coming to London and attempting to fit in, as generations of gay men did before him. “I don’t think anybody’s life changes as fast as a gay man’s when he moves to a big city... What I’ve done, I suppose, is to connect my life to other lives, even buildings and streets, that had an existence prior to mine. And now, gradually, I’ve come to understand that I am connected with other men’s lives, men living in London with me. Or with other, dead Londoners. That’s the story.”
Later he observes, “There is a very specific sense of gay history in which nothing really happens until such time as you identify yourself as a gay man. We are born late. Much of my life didn’t start until I was nineteen.” As it happens, nineteen was the age at which I also publicly identified myself as a gay man for the first time. And yes, it did feel like being born late. That’s the reason, I think, that gay men in their ’20s and ’30s can often seem immature. We’re making up for lost time.
This is an astonishing book – deeply personal, powerfully political and defiantly queer in its claiming of history.