2015 October: Saturday
I had one last brush with Argentina when I thought I had discovered a lost tribe of Wilde’s relations. Checking on Google, I had noticed an entry that read: ‘Col Diego Wilde, a relative of Oscar Wilde’!
What?? Deeply intrigued and with growing excitement I read further.
The search uncovered ever more bizarre information. In the district of Conception del Uruguay (actually in Argentina) there seemed to be an educational establishment called ‘the Oscar Wilde Primary School’ situated about 100 miles north of the town of Fray Bentos.
Col Diego Wilde’s son Eduardo had been a major figure in late 19th century Argentine medicine and politics. In honour of his family’s exploits he had bestowed the name of Wilde on a village near BA. This now formed a large suburb of Greater Buenos Aires and had a population of 65,000 people. There was even a Wilde railway station!
In amazement I contacted Maxine Hanon, perhaps the greatest authority on Argentine immigration history. She brought me back down to earth again. This particular branch of the Wilde family had no connection with the Wildes of Dublin.
The grandson of an amateur actor and prompter at Covent Garden, Wellesley Wilde had been brought to South America by his father James around 1810. Reputedly the godson of the Duke of Wellington (hence the name), Wellesley had decided to rechristen himself ‘Diego’. He joined the army and gained the rank of Colonel before dying of cholera in 1866 during a war with Paraguay. There was only one faint echo of Oscar in all this. During his military campaigns, Diego was well known for his sense of humour and used to produce plays using his soldiers as actors.
RETURN TO URUGUAY
2015 November: Sunday
Returning via the Sea-Cat ferry through the port of Colonia, a Portuguese colonial gem of a town, I arrived back at my hotel room in Montevideo last night. I crashed out about 1am after attempting unsuccessfully to follow the plot of a ‘Downton Abbey’ repeat on the Spanish-speaking TV.
Suddenly I awoke and glanced at the clock. It was 4 40am. Then came the noise of a car revving at high speed along the main Artigas Boulevard around the corner from the hotel. A minute or so later, I heard the sirens of about three police cars screeching along the road presumably in pursuit. About fifteen minutes after that I heard a positive fusillade of gunfire – at least a hundred shots. Then, twenty minutes later, came the sound of another six shots, this time closer to the hotel.
Coming down to breakfast at 7 30pm, I tried to interrogate the receptionist in mime over what had happened. She smiled sweetly, nodded, and pointed me to the dining room coffee pot – her usual practice with the apparently hangover-afflicted. To the end of the stay, this incident remained a total mystery.
I did not have much time to mull it over either. At 9am, I joined the British Society’s outing to the vineyards of Uruguay where I was to perform the third show of the tour. A large coach with an outsize Union Jack blocking out one half of the windscreen drew up at the meeting place on the Artigas Boulevard (now happily clear of bullets).
There were about 25 society members sitting inside and they included their friendly and surprisingly youthful president, Madeleine. She explained that the show would have to be in the open air. Oh dear – a sure recipe for trouble if ever there was one. Never mind, today I would just go with the flow.
We drove off north into the pampas grasslands of the interior for about thirty miles. The countryside was fairly flat with green fields and the occasional palm tree – Norfolk with a hint of the tropics. Near a town called Canelones, the coach turned off the main road and weaved its way along a country lane to a ranch house set in vine fields that stretched to the horizon in all directions. This was our destination, an estate called the Bodega Los Nadies, and its owner Manuel, his wife, and two children stood waving a welcome. We disembarked and settled in for the day.
Manuel was a good host who went to painstaking lengths to describe the cultivation of the vine, to give a practical demonstration of how to train its tendrils on their frames out in the fields, and also, over lunch, to distribute large glasses of his produce.
But, for myself, the main interest lay in his small farmyard attached to the estate. This housed a few animals common to the country dweller but fascinating to an urbanite such as myself – a goat tethered in a field industriously cropping the grass within his allotted range; a cockerel and three hens in an open plan roost; eight geese in a wire netting compound; and, best of all, two wild boars in separate wooden-fenced sties.
I sensed an immediate camaraderie between one of the boars (whom I named Rodney) and myself. After a preliminary stare, he suddenly scampered to where I leant on the side of the sty, placed his two front trotters on the fencing, and, half standing, thrust his snout forward. I reached over and scratched his coarse bristly head. This went down very well and from then on whenever I came near the sty, Rodney would leap up for more. We had bonded. Other members of the party noticed this new friendship and we posed together for photographs.
It was only then that the awful truth dawned – it was a gift to any antagonistic caption writer: ‘A Wilde Bore with a Wild Boar’. It was far too neat a link to be resisted. Rodney and I stared at each other in mutual acceptance of the irony.
About 3 30pm I began to prepare for the show. Apart from two chairs there was no set at all. Madeleine and I explored the undergrowth and came across a pile of old wooden crates. Putting one on top of another to form a table, and two on top of a third to form a lectern, we constructed the basics of a Parisian café. The audience sat along the side of the house underneath a veranda roof. This made vocal projection far easier as I could bounce my voice off the wall at their rear.
Behind me stretched the most spectacular stage backdrop I had ever had – a mile of undulating vine bushes and the odd copse of palm trees, while storks and herons drifted across the pale blue sky.
It often happens that a rough performance such as the one in Buenos Aires is followed by a good one and so it happened here. I felt on excellent form and tackled the talk with aplomb. However I had reckoned without the perils of the open air. As a result of my autumn days of faltering memory, I kept a loose-leaf play script lying on top of the lectern in case of emergency. While no problem in a theatre, on the open pampas with a sturdy breeze sweeping across directly from the Andes, hanging on to the fluttering pages became a major distraction. Then the next hurdle appeared in the shape of a small boy who wandered out of the vine bushes behind me and sat on one of my stage chairs. He was followed by his father who walked onstage to reclaim the child.
But these were just minor hiccups in comparison to the geese. And the cockerel. There was an initial silence as they gazed in bafflement across the farmyard at this bizarre intruder on their patch. Then their indignation grew and found expression in a barrage of honking, cackles, hisses, and in the latter’s case, cock-a-doodles. They did not relent in their sustained heckling for the entire show. I found that I had to time my punch lines for when the gander paused for breath. When I reached Oscar’s line about ‘visiting the countryside …….. Once!’ I aimed it with deliberate venom at the cockerel. He crowed back with equal malevolence. Rodney suddenly reared up again, poking his head over the sty wall and directing an indignant glare towards his feathered neighbours. It was to no avail. Still, the human audience seemed to enjoy the battle.
I ended the show and came off stage for an infusion of wine. A lady sympathised with my predicament but added: “You should have shushed them up.”
“Have you ever tried shushing a flock of geese?”
2015 November: Monday
The fourth and last show was to be held in a town called Punta del Estes, a seaside resort about eighty miles east of Montevideo along the River Plate estuary. I had never heard of the place before but as my coach from the capital neared the outskirts I was amazed. The view across the bay was truly spectacular – a seafront line of buildings stretching for a couple of miles and flanked by a forested island out in the estuary. But the seafront was deceptive as the peninsular on which it stood was only a few hundred yards wide. Beyond it lay another bay and the wide horizon of the South Atlantic. It gave the peninsula a dream-like resemblance to a Hollywood film set.
The guidebook information increased this perception of theatricality. It said that normally Punta had a population of 10,000 but numbered 25,000 houses and apartments. During the warm summer months of January and February though, the population rose to 400,000. It seemed that the Brazilians, the Argentines, and even some Europeans, had discovered the place and were busy turning it into a tourist mecca. It was well on the way to becoming another Cancun or Acapulco.
Even out of season there was still a decently-sized crowd of permanent residents, amongst whom I was happy to find my original guides Jonathan and Beatrice. They had arranged for me to stay in their chalet about five miles further out along the Atlantic coast.
Jonathan said: “You’ll love it. It’s really isolated. There are other chalets around but nobody’s there at this time of year. All you can hear is the sound of the ocean breakers. There’s no TV or radio. And no telephone.”
Beatrice added: “There’s no heating. But you can make a fire in the wood burner. Oh, and there’s no water.”
“But there is a well.” Jonathan reassured me. “The district is empty in November but just to be on the safe side don’t answer the door after dark.”
I muttered, only half-jokingly: “This sounds like the opening dialogue in a horror movie.”
However, the chalet turned out to be just as charming as they claimed – a little wooden Swiss fantasy. In the morning I strolled the hundred yards out across the sand dunes and down to the seashore. Then I stood completely alone on a beach that stretched beyond the northern horizon and for all I knew on and on right up to Brazil. A moment for deep breathing and an exhilaration of spirit.
Beach of the South Atlantic, Punta del Estes
Next week on November 6 – the last of Uruguay and meeting the Ambassador.