Just get me out of Poets' Corner

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The Independent Online
Today we bring you an exclusive interview with the late Oscar Wilde.

Mr Wilde, I believe congratulations are in order. You have finally been installed in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Well, it has come a little late to give me any personal pleasure. I would prefer to have been installed in Westminster Abbey during my own lifetime. Indeed, I would like to have been admitted to anywhere in England during the last part ot my life.

Yes, I am afraid that social intolerance was rampant in your day.

Ah, but only in England. In Paris, where I breathed my last, one was allowed to do anything. Except perhaps in the kitchen. In Paris in 1900 one could live in sin with the younger son of a coachman and no eyebrows were raised, but if you served a bad sauce you would be thought very vulgar. I think the French have things more in proportion than we do. And remember that it has taken you nearly 100 years to admit me to Westminster Abbey, whereas I was received into the Catholic Church even before I died. Westminster Cathedral seems to have more tolerance than Westminster Abbey.

On the other hand, there is no Poets' Corner in Westminster Cathedral.

You seem to think that Poets' Corner shows the English to be a race who love writers. I see it differently. I see it as a sign that the English prefer their writers dead. When a writer is alive he can embarrass them by behaving in a human way. Dead, they can safely become a commodity.

A commodity?

Certainly. Books have always been a commodity for the English. Politicians like to carve up literature and call it heritage. Teachers do the same, but call it education. Even tourist entrepreneurs will do the same.

In what way?

Oh, they will label parts of England as Hardy's Wessex, or Shakespeare's Stratford or Wordsworth's Lakes, and then stand back and sell tickets as people flock in. No matter that not one in 100 of the visitors has ever read a Hardy novel. No matter that Hardy's Wessex is not to be found on the face of this earth, but only in his books.

Is there anywhere that could be called Wilde's England?

Wilde's Caf Royal, perhaps. Or Wilde's Reading Jail. But the public can only enter Reading Jail after being condemned to penal servitude, which is a high price to pay just to see my old cell. And I fear that not many of the denizens of Reading Jail are interested in things literary. They were not in my day, at any rate. Although I am told that nowadays it is quite fashionable for prisoners to burn down their own prisons which, considering how ugly prisons are, shows a most unexpected level of aesthetic taste on their part.

Well, at least you now have a small part of Westminster Abbey to call your own.

I would prefer not to. Being installed in Poets' Corner is almost as bad as being installed on the English examination syllabus. In my life I was the sort of person that parents warned their children against. Now, parents encourage their children to study my works. I think I preferred the first state. In any case, I am not sure why I am being installed in Poets' Corner. Why Poets? I wrote some poetry, to be sure, but everyone writes some poetry. It gives one something to be ashamed of in later life. But I am not remembered as a poet. Why am I not in Dramatists' Corner? Or Critics' Corner? Or even Conversationalists' Corner?

Well, because there is no such thing as a corner for talking.

There you are quite wrong. Have you forgotten Speaker's Corner? Only in England would such a thing as Speaker's Corner be possible. In Dublin, every shop, every bar, every corner of every bar is a speaker's corner, a place where you can speak your mind and get listened to. But in England there is only one such place. They set aside one corner of Hyde Park and say, "Here you can stand up and say things that do not matter to people who do not matter", and they call it democracy, and they wonder why British democracy is so admired in Britain and so laughed at in the rest of the world. In fact, Speaker's Corner is exactly like Shakespeare's Stratford. It is known about, and visited, only by Americans.

What about Prime Minister's Question Time? Is that not democracy in action?

If it were called Prime Minister's Answer Time, it might be.

Well, if you are not happy to be in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, where would you rather be?

My wishes are modest. I would prefer to be in St Peter's in Rome, in Saints' Corner.

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