1996 January: Thursday
I set the alarm clock especially carefully prior to the afternoon sleep. I really needed a good performance tonight. After all, despite the review, the show last Sunday night had been mediocre, and I didn’t even want to think about Monday night.
Waking in good time, I took a taxi to the South Island School. Founded in 1977, this establishment was truly international, containing pupils from 35 different nationalities. As I walked in, I saw an immediate difference to the average British list of school rules. One notice proclaimed:
‘Note that the Amber, Red, and Black Rainstorm Warnings are independent of other warnings, e.g. landslip or typhoon warnings’.
Life as a Hong Kong school kid sounded rather adventurous. It also provided a vastly more credible range of excuses than the English ‘dog ate my homework’ ploy. ‘A mud slide swept away my homework’ would be MUCH better!
I was greeted by a friendly teacher called Sheila who told me that the sixth form were eager to see the show as they were studying Wilde as an A Level exam text. In my experience, studying anything as an exam text is the kiss of death – an opinion, incidentally, with which Oscar himself heartily agreed.
Sheila led me off down a maze of school corridors to the ‘dressing room’. This turned out to be a large gymnasium. It was the first dressing room I’d had that came complete with its own parallel bars, punch bag, and vaulting horse. Just what your average Oscar Wilde impersonator required. No mirror though.
At 7 55pm, a knock sounded on the gymnasium door: “Two minute call, Mr Titley.” The footsteps echoed away outside. I made the last adjustments and set off. The problem was that Sheila had led me here but there was no one to guide me back. I wandered irresolutely along a few corridors but nothing looked familiar. Spotting a small schoolboy, I asked the whereabouts of the theatre. He looked puzzled then led me down more corridors and pointed at a door. I opened it and found a deserted library.
This was getting ridiculous – I remembered a scene in the film ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ where a similar situation had occurred; the rock band had got lost beneath the stage. Oh Jesus, not another cock-up! After the events of Monday, I just did not need this.
Hurrying back, I began to open doors at random – classrooms, a broom cupboard, the main kitchens. I finally found myself back at the main school entrance. There was only one option – I rang the bell. A bald teacher emerged and looked blankly at me. In full Wildean make-up and costume, I suppose I was an unusual visitor. He guffawed loudly at my explanation, then led me to the theatre wings. Oh well, my time-keeping was improving – only ten minutes late for this one.
I was not keen on shows for schools; I usually found that Wilde was a bit too sophisticated for them. To my surprise, however, this performance took off from the start. There was even a ripple of amusement at the opening crack about the French police. The bald teacher, who had decided generously to join the audience, was a wonderful cheerleader – he really got them going. When I came to the line – ‘Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching” – the explosion of laughter was so loud that I fluffed the next line. I headed on – this was fun. It was outstandingly the best show of the tour.
I returned to the stage for the question-and-answer session and relaxed. A young man asked:
“Why does Wilde’s humour still amuse us?”
Bloody hell, out first ball! This was going to be trickier than I thought.
“Do you know, I haven’t the faintest idea.”
I waffled on about Oscar’s unusual talent for creating jokes in the 1890s that were still relevant and funny in the 1990s, but basically the question was unanswerable.
“If we knew what the secret of comedy was, maybe it would cease to exist.”
A Chinese girl asked the next one: “What would Wilde’s life be like if he were alive today?”
Before I could reply, a large male teacher in the front row (who turned out to be in charge of the English Department) interjected: “If he were alive today, he’d probably die of AIDS”.
Feeling slightly resentful of this intrusion by brute realism, I decided to take him down a peg.
“Yes, I suppose he would. And on that cheery note……”
Amid a roar of laughter from the students, the teacher subsided.
Another Chinese girl asked a detailed question about the gay subtext in Wilde’s plays. It was all the rage at the time in the Eng Litt biz.
I replied: “Well, firstly, I’m not too sure Oscar would appreciate being locked into the cobwebbed museum of literary exam boards”, (another muttered protest from the large teacher), “But the very fact that you can interpret his plays in different ways shows that his work will last. Like Shakespeare, you can mangle his ideas any which way you like, but the text remains. It’s the plays that you can’t re-interpret that die.
“I think each age produces the interpretation that appeals to it. That’s why I don’t think that you can take any one reading of it as gospel. Don’t take literary criticism too seriously. As Oscar said, criticism is the highest form of autobiography – it says far more about the critic than the writer.
“Anyway, in thirty years’ time, literary research will probably discover that Oscar was just a repressed heterosexual”.
Despite an ostentatious silence from the Head of English, I left South Island School hoping that, with any luck, their exam essays might be a bit sprightlier than the norm.
By 10 30pm, I was back in Repulse Bay. The flat being empty, I went for a walk alone along the beach. At the western end I found a bar with a terrace; the last surviving part of the old Repulse Bay Hotel. It looked expensive, but I was in the money now. I sat outside and ordered a beer.
A warm breeze rustled the palm trees; the beach stretched out towards the darkness of the bay and the faint white crests of the lapping waves; the light from the bar windows illuminated two fake Grecian statues in front of me, one with a pink laurel wreath hanging lopsidedly from its head; soft MOR music – Belinda Carlisle – played in the distance; a glass of first rate German lager on the table. Financially secure and a good performance under my belt at last. It was a fine moment, tinged with the strange but unavoidable itch of regret that I always felt at the end of a tour. I ordered another lager.
Hong Kong was a contradictory place. It was not all money grubbing; it tempered greed with grace. In an interview concerning the inevitable departure of the UK from the colony in twelve months’ time, the Governor Chris Patten had said that when the band played Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ on the last day: “I will have a dreadful time trying to hold back the tears”. I could see why the Brits had become fond of ‘Honkers’.
1996 January: Friday
Settling back in the aircraft, I discovered that the return flight to London was going to take fourteen hours, two more than the outgoing flight – this discrepancy was because we were flying against the prevailing westerly winds. I never realised that wind direction could have such an effect on an airliner.
Earlier in the day I had gone out to buy trinkets and decided to get a decorated scroll. The stallholder asked: “Do you want to buy the scroll for Good Luck? Or the scroll for Long Life?”
A difficult philosophical decision to make in the middle of a Chinese street market?
[South China Morning Post: June 1996:
‘An alcohol-related “dentist-chair” stunt in a Hong Kong bar during the English football team’s Euro 96 preparations has put Paul Gascoigne on the front pages of the newspapers back in Britain. There are the pictures of Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham and Steve McManaman the worse for drink, their shirts torn, in a Hong Kong bar. Worse still are pictures of Gascoigne and Sheringham strapped into a bar’s antique dentist’s chair while booze was poured down their throats. Also, controversially, they caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to in-flight televisions in a Cathey Pacific first class cabin during a drunken binge.’
It appeared that I was not the only one to fall foul of jet-lag.
Chris Patten, thankfully, managed a more dignified exit.]
Hong Kong scroll