The Weasel

To mark the rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde the Weasel family tries his favourite tipple, absinthe, on sale again after 80 years
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The Independent Culture
I RATHER fell for Oscar last week. Maggi Hambling's controversial sculpture opposite Charing Cross station is an endearing likeness of the decayed genius, with astrakhan collar and verdant boutonniere (Wilde maintained that a buttonhole was "the only connection between art and nature"). I'm not sure that the great aesthete would have approved of a sculpture that also functions as a public bench ("All art is quite useless"), but it's a safe bet that he would have enjoyed the attention currently being paid to him .

However, the new memorial is not the only place in London where devotees can pay tribute to our wittiest playwright. Proudly wearing their green carnations, members of the Oscar Wilde Society meet twice a year for dinner at the Cadogan Hotel. Located on the cusp of Chelsea and Knightsbridge - a notoriously disreputable district - this 65-room establishment is pretty much unchanged since Victorian times. Following the collapse of his ill-judged libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, Wilde was arrested here in 1895 - a moment that inspired one of John Betjeman's best known poems: "Mr Wilde, we 'ave come for tew take yew/Where felons and criminals dwell./We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly/For this is the Cadogan Hotel." Dedicated fans with pounds 250 to spare may even spend the night in room No 118, where the dread event took place. The privilege of staying in the Oscar Wilde Room costs an additional pounds 20 above the normal double-room rate, but guests do receive a complimentary copy of his works.

I think the hotel is pushing it a bit to say that "the poet and playwright was actually staying at the Cadogan when he was arrested". According to Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography, it was the ignoble Bosie who stayed in the hotel for five weeks. Wilde (who preferred the Savoy) was there for only a few hours. He passed the time drinking hock and seltzer in an agony of indecision about whether to flee the country. Ellmann notes: "A half-packed suitcase lay on the bed, emblem of contradictory impulses." The room has contracted somewhat in the course of this century. But "the Nottingham lace of the curtains", a detail remarked on by Betjeman, has the same floral pattern through which Wilde may have seen plainclothes detectives gathered on the pavement opposite. "It's mainly Americans who like to stay here," said Greg Harris, the assistant manager of the Cadogan. "Some people find it a bit eerie."

Though the hotel now boasts of its association with the disgraced artist, this was not always so. When Wilde was released on bail after his first trial for gross indecency resulted in a hung jury, no hotel in London would accept him as a guest.

IT'S BEEN a healthy week for decadence. Not only is Oscar resurrected, but so is his favourite tipple. After an 80-year gap, you can once again buy absinthe in Britain. Containing 70 per cent alcohol, the Czech-made potion retails for a modest pounds 40 a bottle. Always ahead of the game, we have had a bottle of this legendary grog, reputed to possess hallucinogenic properties, in Weasel Villas for donkey's years. I emitted a crow of delight which scared the bejazus out of Mrs W when I spotted it in a Lisbon shop window.

Though containing a modest 50 per cent alcohol, the Portuguese version did cost only eight quid. Having lugged the poisoned chalice home, I gleefully uncorked La Fee Verte (the Green Fairy). Not a success. I must admit that the tasting notes of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight ("It looks and tastes like Vosene") were not far off the mark, so the absinthe joined the dusty army of alcoholic souvenirs in our cluttered drinks cupboard.

The unpalatable nature of absinthe is scarcely surprising when you learn that its main flavouring is wormwood (whence "vermouth" is derived), a herb used for centuries as a vermifuge. The fin-de-siecle decadents may have gone mad and died young, but at least they were worm-free. Prompted by this week's absinthe craziness, Mrs W and I had another bash. The recipe I followed involved sugar (a good idea) and setting fire to the stuff (not a good idea). Looking not dissimilar to the morose topers in Degas's masterpiece l'Absinthe, the Weasel family hit the bottle. I didn't think it was too impossibly bad this time - a bit like green Chartreuse, if undeniably soapy. No bizarre, unnatural visions, however, unless you count Mrs W's grimace.

YOU'LL HAVE seen the new social classification whereby the topmost rung of the British class system is occupied by captains of industry, newspaper editors and restaurateurs. Though I rarely get to meet such luminaries, I'm sure every man-jack (and woman-jack) is an ice-cool intellect, filled to the scuppers with energy, ambition, determination and other qualities in short supply in Weasel Villas. An intriguing insight into this creme de la creme is provided by The Star Chefs Cookbook by Richard Bramble (Blake, pounds 25), in which Michelin-starred chefs explain the reasons for their souffle-style rise to fame. "I am a moron. I drive like a maniac. The world do not go quick enough for me," opines Jean-Christophe Novelli.

We also learn that Raymond Blanc is "not old but has already suffered a stroke", that Nico Ladenis "does not cook any more because the stress is bad for his heart", and that John Burton-Race is "fitted with a pacemaker for a stress-related problem which means his heart could stop beating on his next breath".

Perhaps not so ice-cool, but still intellects, surely? You can judge yourself with this billet-doux by Michel Roux: "I catch myself smiling at her, a discreet, furtive smile which I have secretly harboured for longer than I can remember. I felt its first feeble flickerings in adolescence; over the years it has heated into an incandescent furnace... Inspired by my thoughts, my fingers model and caress her, apply a hint of make-up with the touch of a piping cone." He is, of course, referring to a pudding.

HOW SAD to see a great mind in decline. In last week's Spectator, Paul Johnson recalled his unease at waking up in an airport and not knowing where he was: "Signs, advertisements gave no clue. The people I saw were all nationalities and none. I might have been anywhere in the world." (It turned out to be Singapore.) The eminent wordsmith may like to know that he is not the only one to suffer confusion in an airport. In fact, Brigid Brophy based an entire novel on the phenomenon. But it is far worse for the protagonist of In Transit, who is not only unsure of location, but also uncertain of his or her gender. Not, I would imagine, a problem that afflicts Mr Johnson.

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