INTRODUCTION TO ‘CIDER WITH BOSIE’
THE ‘ROUND THE WORLD WITH OSCAR WILDE’ JOURNALS
Neil J Titley as Oscar Wilde
“Get yer bleedin’ ‘air cut! Who d’yer fink you are? Oscar bleedin’ Wilde?!!”
It was on an Army Cadet Corps parade ground that I first came across the name that was to change my life. At the time it meant absolutely nothing at all. However, anybody who apparently had upset the bawling drill sergeant would appear to be on the right track.
Later, in a dusty corner of the school library, I noticed a book entitled ‘The Life of Oscar Wilde’ by Hesketh Pearson. Obviously, the same man who had roused the wrath of the military hair stylist. When the librarian greeted my choice with a sigh and an evasive “Oh, you shouldn’t really read that”, the fuse was lit.
The Pearson book led to ‘The Complete Works of…’, ‘The Collected Letters of…’, and a series of biographies that, curiously, have never quite recaptured the sheer exhilaration of reading Pearson. For he had introduced me to the glories of a writer of whom I have never tired. Wilde was – and is – such good fun. Nobody has undermined the absurdities of society, the pomposities of authority, or the self-serving illusions by which we live so hilariously as Oscar. And very few have lived a life so luridly dramatic either.
Not long afterwards, I came across what was to become the second signpost to the future. It was a badly scratched vinyl LP entitled ‘The Importance of Being Oscar by Michael MacLiammoir: Part One’. I did not find Part Two for another thirty years but what I heard was more than enough. It was a resounding cascade of Wilde’s words delivered in MacLiammoir’s inimitable ripe-plum Irish brogue (he had overcome the misfortune of being born in the London district of Willesden with consummate ease), and he was simply brilliant. Over his lifetime, he gave about 1,400 performances of this celebration of Wilde’s life, and it stands as a unique achievement. Even more, he showed what it was possible to achieve in solo theatre.
However, it was to be another sixteen years before these early encounters were to evolve into the creation of what then became a way of life, and a further fifteen years before leading on to the events described in these journals.
My intervening career pattern might best be described as eclectic, involving periods of work as Santa Claus in a department store, kitchen porter, Parisian pavement artist’s lookout, barristers’ clerk, road sweeper, film extra, shop assistant, factory conveyor belt plastic flowerpot sorter, local council tree lopper and rubbish lorry assistant, tractor driver, hotel swimming pool lifeguard, lavatory cleaner, vat stirrer in a rhubarb canning factory, derrick hand on a drilling rig, sandal maker, road mender, plasterers’ labourer, office block messenger, rock group roadie, chemical factory worker, bootlegger, mackerel fisherman with the Cornish fishing fleet, milkman and, most prestigious of all, gardener to George Harrison during the glory days of the Beatles. Amidst this kaleidoscope of activity, I managed to include what turned out to be two very useful rest and recreation breaks at a couple of colleges. In short, I indulged in what was (and probably still is) the conventional life-style of the resting actor.
Then, in March 1978, Michael MacLiammoir died leaving a sad but obvious void. That summer I wrote a script that encompassed most of Wilde’s life and great lines within a theatrical format. 1898 seemed to be the right year in which to place the play as it allowed the character to reflect on nearly his whole life; and a Parisian café seemed to be the obvious setting. After eight months of research and writing I completed a ninety minute (later shortened to fifty minute) monologue entitled ‘Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes’.
NJT as Oscar Wilde 1984
A brief description. The set is bare except for a table and two chairs. On the table are the basic props – a wine bottle, two glasses, a burning candle set in a saucer, a photograph, a lighter and five cigarettes. The play begins in darkness with the Intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ playing in the background. ‘Wilde’ walks onstage in full white (but grubby) evening dress and picks up the photograph.
‘One should not play Narcissus to a photograph. Even water is treacherous. The eyes of those who love you are the only mirror.’
The lights come up and the next twenty five minutes are taken up with a verbal attack on a variety of targets including Switzerland, biographers, English novels, critics, journalism, British artists, teachers, actors, America, German composers, and hard work. This is followed by a sharp downturn in the atmosphere as ‘Wilde’ describes his experiences in jail – the hunger, humiliation, and inhumanity – reaching a tragic climax when he talks of his legal banishment from seeing his children again. Then the mood lightens as he comments on his life in self-imposed exile. As the end approaches, the lights dim and the music of the Intermezzo returns. After speaking the last lines:
‘When the last, last trumpet sounds, I shall turn and whisper to Robbie Ross – Robbie, Robbie, let us pretend we do not hear it’.
‘Wilde’ blows out the candle and walks offstage.
The trick is that first you reassure your audience – then you charm them – then you make them laugh – then you make them cry – finally you stir and ennoble them. All in fifty minutes.
So far, so good. Then came the problem of how to transform a rickety rehearsal in a North London bed-sit to theatrical recognition. This proved to be a hard road that began at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979. It managed to survive an initial critical attack from ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper to emerge as a minor Fringe success.
This was followed by an interim period of hawking the show around a variety of British local theatres, arts centres and festivals, until in 1981 I managed to land a two-week gig at the Kings Head Theatre Club in Islington.
Due presumably to a dearth of other shows opening in London that week, the first performance was attended by some of the top British theatre critics. Such luminaries as Charles Spencer, then of the London Evening Standard, Ned Chaillet of The Times, and Sheridan Morley of Punch magazine gave the show a resounding thumbs-up. The tide had turned.
London Evening Standard review
The next decade was spent touring around Britain, including long summer seasons embedded in the pubs of Stratford-on-Avon where it was possible to shepherd the many ticket-less Shakespearian fans to the Wildean fold.
Concentrating on Irish literature, I began to create other solo shows – one on Brendan Behan, another on Bernard Shaw called ‘Shaw’s Corner’ (eventually televised starring Dermot Walsh), and one on Oliver St John Gogarty. This last show did not survive long due to the problem that almost nobody outside of Ireland had ever heard of Gogarty.
However, by the early 1990s both the Wilde show and myself were beginning to run out of steam. A fall off in possible venues, financial woes, and a major relationship breakdown had led to a general feeling of malaise. Then someone suggested ‘why not try abroad?’
Oddly enough, such an idea had not occurred to me before. The problems of organisation and promotion even in Britain had been enormous; plus the language barrier; then also the financial tightrope of performing in a foreign country had seemed to be an absurd risk. I had no agent; the British Council was, and remained, oblivious to my activities; but most of all was my blanket ignorance, in practical terms, of ‘abroad’. Despite the hundreds of performances that had taken place since 1979, I had not been outside the British Isles for 24 years! Almost a quarter of a century.
Nevertheless, the more I thought about it, the more interesting it sounded. It was the sheer effrontery of picking a country, virtually at random, and then just going there and seeing what happened. What would the world know of or make of Oscar Wilde? There was a real sense of adventure to it because conditions at the time were not favourable.
Although modern technology had certainly become a factor in the world, I knew nothing of it and cared less. I did not own a computer till 2001, or have a mobile phone (I still don’t in 2017). Therefore I still relied on hand-written letters and landline telephones, and it was eight years later before e-mails became part of my life.
Then there was the money side of it; I had always lived hand to mouth. It was not just a case of not having a credit or debit card – I didn’t even have a bank account. So if things went wrong, there was no safety net.
Also, I would have to travel and perform alone – that made basic sense. If two people were on the trip, you would double the expense and halve the profit.
Lastly, there was the almost complete lack of support from any official bodies, either British or foreign. No grants, no introductions, no sponsors – you are on your own.
It meant that I would have to rely on what abilities, persona and, above all, health that I possessed. This was not such solid ground as it might have been. I do like a drink. It provides the reward for effort, is a marvellous companion to contemplation, and has fuelled some of life’s most extraordinary exploits. I endorse the graffiti I once saw chalked on a wall outside a Dublin pub: ‘Alcohol – because no great story ever began with someone eating a lettuce salad.’
I came into theatre too late for the incestuously camp generations of Coward, Rattigan, and Binkie Beaumont. I came from the age of Richard Harris and Richard Burton, when Peter O’Toole, still dressed as Shylock, used to run across the road from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the Dirty Duck pub for a beer at the interval, and Hugh Griffiths was renowned for drinking seven pints each evening before performing Falstaff and then downing genuine mugs of sherry on stage during the show itself. I arrived in the heyday of the Celtic drunks. And thoroughly enjoyed it. However I had reached an age when its debilitating effects were becoming increasingly obvious.
The Dirty Duck, Stratford-on-Avon and its residents
by Anthony John
Despite these caveats, the idea still lingered, then blossomed. One cannot live one’s life entirely seeking safety. What the hell – on behalf of all the over-drinking, over-smoking, over-weight, over-the-hill and under-funded, I’d do it. One of Oscar’s sayings sealed the resolve:
‘Most people nowadays die of a creeping common sense’.
One might die of exhaustion or murder or alcohol poisoning but I was determined that it wouldn’t be from common sense.
Therefore over the next thirteen years I set off to a variety of countries to try my luck. Some were easier than others. Sometimes the tours were aided by having friends and promoters already in place; once a government itself helped out. On four trips my son came with me as back up. And I was constantly amazed at the sheer volume of goodwill that I received almost everywhere. Other spots proved more difficult and on two trips the shows never happened at all. One tour ended in disgrace, another very nearly ended in prison, and a third included a suicide bomb attack.
Despite the chaotic conditions of many of these travels, I did manage to keep writing a daily journal. It became the one constant in the confusion and at the end it was the one witness. And now it has become this blog.
To write anything in essence autobiographical does seem to be an act of brazen hubris. Then again, by taking a one-man show around the world, I suppose I crossed that line some time ago. And nobody else can write it.
Nevertheless, in recording the story I faced some problems, the greatest of which was its relevance. Anyone writing anything that claims to resemble, however remotely, a travel book in the 21st century soon finds that it is almost impossible to follow any trail that is not strewn with the orange peel and empty sun cream bottles of a thousand previous writers. Everybody travels these days. You arrive in a gaucho bar in rural Paraguay only to find yourself sitting next to a couple who live in the same street and are on convivial terms with your cousin. It’s like Columbus landing in the New World only to find a tapas restaurant on the beach. So what new can be said?
Then again, my visits were very short, sometimes only a few days. How could I pontificate on a city or a country on the basis of not much more than a stopover?
Also, these trips were spread over 25 years and places change fast. For instance, Prague is now a thoroughly sophisticated city. In 1993, it was not. In 1999 the Republic of Ireland was still basking in its role of the Celtic Tiger unaware of the looming bank crash of 2008. Any impressions I recorded were outdated within a year, sometimes within a week.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, my views are of their own specific place and time – the liberal-left attitudes of turn-of-the-century North London, with a decided bias towards the spirit of the 1960s. In other words, profoundly irritating to most of the world’s population.
In rebuttal to the charge that this book simply retraces overly well-worn paths, I can point to my trip around Ireland. It was a very conscious effort to follow in the footsteps of Tony Hawks and his famous fridge but it ended with entirely different results. Each visitor arrives with a different viewpoint and each departs with a different experience. The interaction of travel is infinite.
The accusation of ‘what right have I to cast judgement on a place when I’ve only been there a few days’ does have merit to it. But it is quite easy to take the pulse of a city, to recognise its pace, to hear the way it breathes. In a week you can get to know half a town, but then admittedly it does take a lifetime to get to know the other half.
It is true that travellers who try to use this book as an up-to-date guide will end in a frightful mess. For instance, the trip to Hong Kong preceded the Chinese takeover of the colony, and the tour of the USA occurred prior to the events of 9-11. If they use it as a reminiscence of recent history they may enjoy it as it was intended. These journals are old snapshots and no more or less.
To the final point, I can only plead guilty and admit that in the end my judgements merely reflect myself. As Wilde observed:
‘Criticism is the highest form of autobiography’.
Over the years, the experiences were often trying and occasionally terrifying. Because of this, I have on occasion been accused of courage. I can assure anybody interested that this is far from the truth – I possess a caution bordering on paranoia. This is not so much cowardice as a finely tuned respect for one’s personal survival. However, there is one image that I have found to be so inspiring that it provided a replacement for bravery.
It is to be found in the National Gallery in London (or more prosaically google it) and it is a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir called ‘The First Outing’. It is a portrait of a young girl, aged about twelve, clutching a posy of flowers, and waiting for her first theatre show to begin, while an indifferent audience chats around her. It is a painting that should be hung in every Green Room of every theatre in the world and etched in the brain of every performer. It says that no matter how dire the money is, no matter how bored you are with the run or your role, no matter how dissatisfied with your performance you are, no matter how hostile the audience might be, no matter how bad the reviews have been, no matter how horrible the conditions are, and no matter how ill you feel – remember that somewhere out front there is innocence and expectation and hope. And, in the teeth of cynicism, that’s why we do it.
The journals do not follow a chronological pattern. In reality, the African tour preceded the Americas tours, and the Indian tours succeeded the one to Mexico/Belize. In these journals they don’t. However Prague was indeed the first attempt to take Oscar global.
Unfortunately it failed abysmally.
FIRST PRAGUE – THE NUNS AND THE RUSSIAN ARMY
PRAGUE – March 1993
City of Prague map
My first choice in the attempt to promote Oscar Wilde around the world was as random as it was unsuccessful. It combined a complete ignorance of the country together with a total lack of any local connections. My appreciation of Czechoslovakia and its capital Prague was almost on the level of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his comment in 1938 that it was ‘a faraway country of whose people we know nothing’. However, on a vague impulse, and even vaguer memories of Carpathian werewolf myths and Cold War spy thrillers, I decided that Prague was to be the launch pad.
March 1993: Sunday
So in March 1993 I found myself on a plane bound for the city with a suitcase containing the Wilde costume, and a copy of ‘Noel Coward’s Diaries’, (I was writing an essay on him). I had made some effort to the extent of buying a Berlitz guidebook, and on the flight I did my best to catch up on relevant information.
Firstly, it transpired that the country to which I was travelling no longer existed. Two months previously, Czechoslovakia had split in two, with the eastern half becoming an entirely new nation called Slovakia. This had left the western half with a bit of a problem. The President, the playwright Vaclav Havel, had announced that he adamantly refused to become the President of a country called ‘Czecho’. Hence its new title: ‘The Czech Republic’. I rather liked the sound of Havel – he understood the poetry of words.
Also, it appeared that English and Czech share only three words, namely, ‘robot’, ‘pistol’, and ‘dollar’. While this did provide me with an initial toehold in the Czech language, I found it difficult to foresee the circumstances in which I could combine these words into anything useful. Unless I became a futuristic bank robber?
Browsing through the Berlitz ‘Historical Notes’, I found that about 80% of Czech historical personages seem to have been called Wenceslas. One of the few Czech kings not to be called Wenceslas had the depressing title of Ladislav the Posthumous. Still, as he reigned for eighteen years, it seems it didn’t get him down too much.
Lastly, I learnt that Prague’s first potatoes were transported there by Irish monks.
Armed with this information. I landed at Ruzyne Airport.
Prague Castle Hill
Viewing the city buildings from the bus window was like driving across the surface of an enormous fried egg. The outer ring of post-war Communist-built suburbs was simply hideous; rows of grimy concrete barracks set in a sort of mildewed Legoland. Whatever one might say about Karl Marx, no one can accuse him of wasting his time on architecture.
However, the ‘yolk’ of central Prague proved to be an entirely different matter. It was still grimy and the odd ‘missing tooth’ gap appeared along the street facades, but the initial impression was that of an orgy of extravagant Baroque. It was a Mozart concerto frozen into stone.
By 3pm, I found the hotel. The afternoon was chilly and grey. Other than a projecting sign, nothing else signified that this was a hotel. It was just a heavy wooden door set an otherwise blank high wall that extended along most of the narrow street. The oak creaked as I turned the doorknob and entered a small dimly lit hall. The air inside seemed to be brooding on past grievances.
The mood lightened slightly with the arrival of the desk clerk; he was an amiable young man who spoke good English. Flicking through his hand-written ledger, he located my name and booking and reached for the room keys. I then became aware that there were two nuns standing behind me. The clerk handed them the keys. The first nun silently gestured at me to follow her, while the second nun took up position as the rear guard. The journey to the room entailed the unlocking, then relocking, of five different sets of doors along literally four hundred yards of stone flagged corridors and right-angled flights of stairs. It felt like we were in an Escher painting.
Eventually we reached the destination. The lead nun unlocked the door and gave a bleak nod of permission for me to enter. Still in silence, they melted back into the gloom. I sat on the bed and began to shake with laughter. Somehow, I’d managed to book myself into a nunnery!
Prague Castle at night
Later I discovered the situation to be even more bizarre. Prior to the end of Communist rule, the ‘hotel’ had been the secret police interrogation headquarters. During the political upheaval, it had been turned into a convent. The nuns still inhabited half of it, while the rest of the building had become a youth hostel. My room looked about the size of a prison cell. Which I suppose on reflection, it originally was. And they hadn’t exactly splashed out much on renovation either.
Still, at least I had achieved the first rule of travel – to establish a base camp. The second is to find a congenial bar.
By 7pm, darkness had fallen, and I spent an hour wandering through the shadowy side alleys of the Old Town. The main illuminations were wall lanterns, each casting out a half circle of light on to the street below. There was a distinct feeling of ‘The Third Man’ about the city – I half expected to meet Orson Welles trying to flog black market nylons.
I finally settled in what Berlitz described as a 13th century bar called U Medviku (translated as ‘The Little Bears’). It was a small beer hall with long trestle tables, and what seemed like a mostly German clientele. I sat down, ordered a beer, and thus discovered one of the glories of Czech culture. At some stage, an American company had bought the rights to the name ‘Budweiser’, a brew to which I had never been partial. I now found the Czech ‘Budweiser’. The difference between the Czech and American versions was that between a Derby winner and a spavined nag.
After a few pints, my optimism about the Wilde show blossomed. The vital ingredient, if it were to succeed, was to find a theatre or at least a theatre space somewhere near the centre of town. Then I could advertise the show by ruthlessly leafleting the tourist traps. It had worked before in England and I felt sure it could work here. So the next step had to be to scour the city for a venue. It surely couldn’t be that difficult?
After a few more pints, I returned to the convent. The journey to the bedroom proved to be tricky. This time, there were no nuns for guidance; I was somewhat befuddled with Budweiser; and, as I couldn’t locate any light switches, it was undertaken in total darkness. Fumbling with the various sets of keys, and hopelessly lost at one point, I decided that in future I would need to unravel a ball of twine to get me in and out of the place. It was not difficult to understand where Kafka had got his inspiration.
March 1993: Monday
The following morning, I unlocked my way down to the hotel café; the atmosphere was drastically different. The hostel had filled up in my absence and the room was completely jammed with chubby, mid-teen German girls. Collecting a plate of salami for breakfast, I elbowed my way to a seat. Unshaven and with the definable reek of the previous night’s beer hanging about me, I felt like a particularly unsavoury vicar in a kindergarten.
On the wall of the café there was a colour photograph of Prince Charles visiting the area in December 1992 and looking frozen. Mournfully Royal, with his ears bright red from the cold, and obviously being terribly nice about it all.
At 10am, I stepped into the street and went to look at the city. It was immediately obvious that a great many other people had had the same idea.
Given the devastation that occurred in most of Northern Europe from Rotterdam to Minsk, central Prague had been extraordinarily lucky. Somehow during its long history it had managed to avoid being destroyed by fire, war, or property developers. The result was a town with centuries of architectural strata stretching from Medieval to Macdonalds. Another result, of course, was that it had become as big a tourist attraction as Venice. The resident population of Prague was one million. Even at this early stage of post-Cold War travel, visitor numbers had reached over eighty million a year – up from twenty million in 1989.
The main streets bustled with traders attempting to pluck a punter from the streams of pedestrians that steadily trooped past. Apart from the ubiquitous currency-exchangers and the cigarette carton-sellers, most of the merchandise consisted of Cossack hats, Russian dolls, bits of Soviet military regalia, and tables filled with hammer-and-sickle medals. It looked like the loot abandoned by a retreating army.
Then, in a back street near the main station, I came across exactly that. Three young Russian soldiers, unarmed but still in uniform, were picking their way through a rubbish skip. One of them pulled out a broken TV, examined it carefully, then threw it back into the garbage. Firstly, I thought that the Russian Army had left the country three years previously – obviously not. Secondly, if they were reduced to scavenging in skips, what were the levels of army pay like? Or were they simply deserters?
Demo in Wenceslas Sq, Prague
Wencelas Square, which was not so much a square as a short boulevard, was reputed to be the Champs Elysee of Prague. It reminded me more of oil-boom Aberdeen – the logos of multi-national corporations plastered over dour but stately 19th century mansion blocks. That same faded grandeur but with garish Americana rammed on top.
At some point during the reconnaissance, I passed the Klement Gottwald Museum. As the museum had been closed down and presumably unused, I momentarily considered if it might be a possible venue for Wilde. Gottwald had been the Stalinist ruler of Czechoslovakia up till 1953. He was one of those elderly thugs in hats and overcoats at the May Day Parades who used to stare glumly out from the podium. They always reminded me of a dejected bus queue. I decided against it; Oscar and Gottwald were not exactly soul mates.
The Old Town Square, as I turned a corner, was lit suddenly with an exhilarating shaft of sunshine. It was about the same size as Moscow’s Red Square (info via Berlitz), and surrounded by a breath-taking panorama of pastel Renaissance houses and spiky church spires. It was Walt Disney’s vision of Olde Europe brought to life.
Old Town Sq, Prague – Jan Hus statue
Apart from a large statue of the Protestant martyr Jan Hus in one corner, the main decoration of the Square was a fifteenth century astronomical clock half way up the Town Hall tower. Its complex design displayed the cosmos, the position of the sun and moon, a calendar dial, and moving statues of the apostles to strike each hour. It was impressive enough. The only problem was that I, at least, could not work out what the current time was.
The Astronomical Clock, Prague
Down another side street, I passed a splendidly decorated shop frontage, framed with majestic crests and curlicues, that easily could have graced London’s Burlington Arcade. However, displayed in the window were just two objects for sale – a banana and a car jack.
Reaching the River Vitava by the afternoon, I had my first glimpse of the Charles Bridge, named after the great King Charles (who, as usual, had been born with the name Wencelas). Built in 1400 and with Gothic towers at each end, the bridge side parapets were lined with about thirty of Prague’s saints and heroes. The first statue was that of St Ivo, the patron saint of lawyers, standing with outstretched palm; appropriately enough, as one cynic commented.
The bridge had at least fifteen arches and extended for over five hundred yards to the far shore. It was pedestrian-only; a wise move given the huge number of tourists wandering to and fro across the river. Amidst the various peddlers on either side, one busker was playing Mozart on a violin while, twenty yards further on, another busker was playing Mozart on a mouth organ.
This evidence of high culture was balanced by a poster attached to St Ludmilla’s statue advertising a performance next month by the rock star Eric Burden.
A further poster, this time dangling from the neck of St Cyril, caused a double-take. It read ‘THE FRANZ KAFKA DISCO. TONITE – 9pm!’ Hmm? Well, I suppose you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Iron Maiden at the Franz Kafka Disco. (I later found that, aside from this heavy metal connection, Kafka seemed an ambivalent figure in the Czech pantheon. He wrote in German and wasn’t even translated into Czech until after his death.)
I wandered back to the hotel. After one day of observation, the impression I had of early 1990s Prague was one of utterly confused transition. One sight summed it up – an aging Soviet Red Star painted on to a crumbling medieval wall and half obscured by a gaudy Marlboro Cigarettes poster.
The day had been an eye-opener but I was no nearer acquiring a theatre, and only six more days to complete the mission. That evening, I sat at the hostel bar and talked with the reception clerk Androj, now in his alternative role as the barman. I told him about the Oscar show and my need to find a venue. His face lit up.
“Oh, you should go to the Divadlo Ne Zabradski. The Theatre on the Balustrade. It’s near the Charles Bridge.” He wrote down the name of a connection there: ‘Vladimir Marek’.
Fantastic! I’d got the break I needed
Next Tuesday 13 June – Second Prague – The Good Soldier Svejk and the Prostitutes