Second Thoughts: In search of Wilde enthusiasm: Neil Bartlett on the inspiration behind Who Was That Man? (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

I NOW THINK the title should be Who Is This Man? since it's really about me, arriving in London a hundred years after Wilde did. Finding that no comprehensive guide book to its astonishing variety of pleasures and identities existed, I wrote myself one, taking his Collected Works as my model. In a way it's my coming-out book, the description of how I worked out who I was.

To write it, I created for myself a life as double as Wilde's; days were spent hunting down gay history in the British Museum catalogue, nights on the Heath, or in a lover's bed, or feeling reckless to the sound of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, then getting home at 2am and sitting up and rereading the Collected Works in a council flat illuminated by the arc lights of a half-built Canary Wharf.

The need to rifle through the store-cupboard of 100-year-old life never felt 'academic'; I did actually need to know how someone else had done all the things I was doing - avoiding arrest, dressing up, faking a series of identities, writing for a living, being a fool for love.

In particular, I needed to find a way of doing these things that wasn't based on an emigration into American culture - moustaches, saunas, San Francisco which was always about essentially forgetting - for the night or for the weekend - what had happened and was happening in this city and this country.

What I assembled for myself was a much older, much stranger, and much darker culture, a whole gallery of glamorous peers and fairy godmothers; the idea of the past as an inspiration, not something to be left behind. That continues to be the source of much of my work, and I still (13 years later) use a constant rereading of Wilde's work as a way of thinking more clearly about our extraordinary lives - I think one of the main reasons why he seems more rather than less like us as the centenary of his destruction approaches is that he uniquely enjoyed changes of fortune and social standing comparable to ours, from elation and achievement and real personal liberation to imprisonment, vilification and loss.

I think I love him particularly at the moment, when The Importance of Being Ernest and An Ideal Husband are once again packing them in, the epitome of respectable West End entertainment, exactly as they did in the original productions, before London read in the papers what Mr Wilde had really been up to. In April 1893 he made a point of refusing to use the back stairs of the Savoy, and made a very public appearance in the foyer with his very beautiful and very young boyfriend.

Nothing we can do or say now can ever really repair the damage which the punishment meted out for that sort of behaviour did to him, and to us. But the fact that in April 1993 his name's back up in lights does make me feel a whole lot better.

Comments