Oscar Wilde’s lost years in Reading Gaol are currently brought to light by the fantastic ArtAngel project. Having connections via my prison writing programme for young men, I attempted to gain access to the prison before it closed in 2013. It wasn’t to be. Now, thanks to some very sophisticated creatives, for a short time everyone has a chance to enter the dark world where Wilde composed his last great work. I visited on Saturday, 10 September 2016.
My bag was filled with Wilde for the trip — an early copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and The Decay of Lying — along with some memorabilia & notes from my correspondence & friendship a few years back with Gawain Douglas, Lord Alfred’s great-nephew (and contemporary expert on his family’s long legacy of being known as ‘The Black Douglasses’ – “The mad, bad line from which you are come”).
Back in 1999 or so, I met Oscar’s only grandson, Merlin Holland in New York City, when he launched the publication of the real trial transcripts – the first look at a more accurate account, taken by privately-hired stenographers who sat in the gallery. Holland stated that the texts, owing to possible controversy and political upheaval, had been hidden for almost a century until being dropped off anonymously at the British Museum, who in turn, contacted him.
As we drove the long road to Reading, the rain blew in waves sideways, and I wondered how on earth Wilde — trial over, sentence passed, public humiliation at its peak — survived even the long dreadful journey from London to this place of lost souls.
The main thing about Victorian justice: you are removed.
Once inside the fortified wall, the newbie makes the first-timer mistake: to study the area leading to the belly of the giant beast. In most cases, the only other time, if one is lucky enough, to see this area is after completing his sentence and earning a cautious liberation.
Shortly thereafter, reality sets in. The only thing missing on this visit were the eery hums, bangs and clangings — and loud exclamations from excited inmates of a working jail. Life inside is never silent.
Because the places are designed with deep designs to prevent escape, they deceive, as if something interesting or fantastic will be revealed once inside. The inner circle, the A-list, the private rooms of members-only clubs. Perhaps not deceiving at all.
This exhibition, important (imho) for the artists like Steve McQueen, Ai Weiwei and NYC’s Nan Goldin to participate, is even more significant for the demonstration of the use of such a fantastically macabre space. We pay large sums for the ballet or opera to accomplish the nonfiction contained in these walls, and the realities of the lives that echo in the bricks and mortar.
Jonny & I took our time making our way to the infamous cell “C 3.3.3” – which, according to the plethora of ArtAngel experts on hand for our questions, after several numerical reassignments and reshuffles since 1897 (Wilde’s release), is now “C 2.2” .
Jonathan & I, along with my dear friends Mary, Geraldine and Gaya saw the BAM NYC production of The Judas Kiss by David hare back in May. Although I’d enjoyed it very much, Wilde & Bosie’s written work, and even the poigniant Wilde references in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, it was not until I spent a while in C.3.3.3 that I fully understood the mood of De Profundis, and what little we know of Wilde’s final years upon release.
Then there’s the last thing, the thing that dare not speak its truths: the hanging gardens. In almost every jail in Britain will be the gory legacy of capital punishment. A colleague David Graham Scott, produced a dark documentary short, Hanging With Frank, featuring Frank McKue — one of the last executioners in the UK — who takes us on a tour of the execution chamber, and secret burial places at Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, in 1995 just before the whole thing was dismantled. It would be very similar to the type of thing which occurred at Reading, and certainly while Oscar Wilde was resident. Even the bodies of executed prisoners were not allowed to be returned to their families for burial. Property of the Royal state.
One of the ArtAngel guides pointed out the areas likely to be the walking grounds of spirits past. The strangest part, to me, is these usually seem to be the most well-groomed areas in a jail. Albeit I’ve never seen a bird flying near them. While there are some resources on the history of Reading executions, it seems Her Majesty’s government is still timid about facing the past, just like it’s still timid about issuing a complete apology to Wilde, Alan Turing and others who were imprisoned, and even tortured for being queer — which was part of Nan Goldin’s creative exhibit, featuring an interview 93 year old man convicted of the same ‘gross indecency’ as Wilde who is still campaigning for vindication.
Point of redemption: the victory of the books. The layers of entendre within this journey were not lost on me. Only recently, Her Majesty’s government attempted to ban books in prisons. It didn’t work. So, a cell of an unjustifiably infamous homosexual and justifiably famous writer, displaying the books he was allowed to read as a window on the outside world was particularly tasty to me.
What I found fantastic about this well informed-yet-renegade exhibition and use of space was how tactile it was allowed to be. Pieces and parts, signs and significant bits of the jail remain in tact. The odor of damp which permeates most public buildings has not been eradicated. The scrapes and scratches, and remnants of posters and blue tack a public craves to investigate invites the curious to observe at will.
While we learned the facility has an uncertain future, it does enjoy Grade II listed status. However, the word down the corridors was fearful that it may be quickly offloaded to the cult of luxury developers, or relegated to the committees for further study.
Personally, I’d rather they raise the place to the ground before allowing some wealthy Philistine who couldn’t recite one line of Oscar Wilde’s work, to rent C.3.3.3, or any other room, for some perverted sense of privilege.
See this exhibition now, while the prison doors are open.
-MLB London 11 September 2016
Thanks to my dear friend Jay Blotcher, for hipping me to this!
all images ©Martin Belk
Dad, called Marty, used to go out with a gal named Mary June. We hung out at weekends when it was Dad’s turn to keep me and my sister. Mary June had a son too. She worked at the local radio station, making the shows with the DJs, which I thought was a big deal. I always wanted to be a DJ. A real one — not the kind they have today — the kind that sat alone, in their little rooms surrounded by metal and vinyl, making the world happen in the minds of their listeners.
Later, after Dad’d moved on, Mary June moved into the same apartment complex where we lived. The complex: the place where the new swathes of divorcées now allowed to show their faces in public and us, their kids, went-to for a home — and they were real homes — not these cheap builds they have today — the kind of place where, despite the best efforts of the Holy people, folks of all rank and register, craft and colour mixed and mingled. Mind, I didn’t say ‘blend,’ the word is mingle — shared, exchanged, collaborated & conspired to a respectable semblance of happiness in a place reserved for those with nowhere else, really, to go.
What festered there fed my mind: without Mary June, I’d have never heard of Supertramp — “You’ve never heard of SUPERTRAMP!?!” Bloody well right. Without the black kids, I’d never appreciated Bootsy Collins or dancing the ‘Bus Stop’ — “You can’t do the BUS STOP!?” Not yet. There was even a woman, Marlene, who’d get merry and blast Janis Joplin from one end of the street to the other. And without the geeky kids from up north, I’d’ve never heard of the Human League. “You’ve…” ok, you get it. I got it. And although I was born appreciating a good hustle, something new awakened at my ripe age of 13, and I wanted to know shit — to read between the lines and lyrics. And it was good.
Once, I sat in Mary June’s living room, amongst her massive record collection, studying the front of an album while she went the kitchen. I remember not wanting to be caught surveying the art so intently — nonetheless she whipped back and did — I shuffled ashamed, but she reassured: “Oh, that’s fine, I like to be very familiar with my album covers” — the graceful permission to be curious — which must always, without fail, come from a neutral source.
So when I hear all this broken-home bawling, and consider my own — it recently occurred to me that all might not have been so terribly, absolutely unfortunate. Marty’d left early on, but I wasn’t abandoned. The things I learned in my neighbourhood of misfits and wayward people inform me to this day. I wish I could turn on Soul Train or Bandstand this Saturday morning, & play it real loud with the windows ajar — it used to be guaranteed to attract visitors. It was more fun than staring at the internet.
OK, so everybody been wanting me to read – well, here it is, raw, & unedited:
May 5th, Alig’s liberation day. Lately I’ve seen more rah-rah stomach-turning web posts for Michael Alig to start some lame-assed revival party than I care to count. Please, for the love of all things not yet devoured by the corporate culture world, just say: NO.
The Alig murder story is akin to 9/11 for NYC culturists – we all had a connection, we all remember hearing the news, we all saw the various iterations to come like Disco Bloodbath. In the past few weeks Michael Musto sums up more than a few and also has some cautious comments on associated trends. Me? I was sitting at the computer in 1996, working on the Squeezebox! invites when an email popped up that Freeze had been arrested and Angel was confirmed missing – which triggered a memory from months earlier which struck me strange. [Read more…]
OK. So, EV-e-r-yone’s an “artist.” EV-e-r-yone’s “famous.” Hooray. The outcome: sweet fuck-all to watch on TV, 95% of theatre is a mere heroin pill for the masses, two generations of stupid people who can’t look up from their i(diot)phones and the film industry stuck in a time warp on an exploding Christmas tree with tits.
Fame. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin. The world got Warhol’s quote wrong. I don’t think he meant ‘every single person (individual) would be famous for exactly fifteen minutes.’ Instead, he had a perspective from the top of fame: that, everybody, collectively, will be famous for a period of fifteen minutes. And collectively, they have been. Fame is over. Bieber’s in jail. Winehouse is dead. Madonna is still aging.
I used to produce Squeezebox! (which was, according to Jon Waters, the best club ever, in New York) during one of the most fertile eras of unprecendented creativity that New York City will never see again. What’s the secret? You may ask. How do you nurture a collective of scenes which yield the most productive, robust collection of contributions modern humanity has seen?
Here’s my top five:
1. Participate. You cannot accomplish anything by being a consumer. Money is useless. Buy your outfit in the superstore called your brain. Every single person in a place like Squeezebox!, Jackie 60, CBGB, Danceteria, Mudd Club – (fuck it read my first book for the laundry list) – plays an integral, key role.
2. Forget ‘icons.‘ I’ll never forget how peculiar I felt, and still feel, when I noticed people like Waters, Debbie Harry, RuPaul, Joey Ramone, and many others making room for new people, imperfect people, experimental people. The challenge is to recognize, accept, and do something with it. I’ve never, in 30 years of being involved in real culture, seen anyone worthy of being called ‘icon’ dismiss another person for trying anything creative – as long as it comes from an honest place.
3. It’s not about ‘me.’ This one’s easy. Every single scene, album, theatre production, music show, book, song or party worthy of a warm-air fart is a group effort. Bianca Jagger would never have road to Danceteria on a white horse without Steve Rubell and company. The Sex Pistols would never have wailed-together a punk anthem if they hadn’t seen the Ramones. We’d have never accomplished the first internet show at Squeezebox! without the 8-10 regular producers and a swarm of the partners.
4. Persistence is key. You’ll hear about the ‘legendary’ nights, performances and parties. The internet is splitting at the seams with ‘iconic’ shite. By the time you get to the awards shows, or big arenas, it’s all anticipated and incredibly boring. What’s more worthwhile, are the slow nights. The off-nights. The times when the crowds just don’t show up. That’s when, if you’re absolutely lucky, the hosts, performers, audeinces, participants-all reach deeper, work harder, and bring forth greatness – & that’s where you learn. I’ve seen Mx Justin V Bond go from a five-seater to Carnegie Hall. Hedwig went from our stages to Off-Broadway, and opens on Broadway this March.
5. Don’t Dream It Be It. If Rocky Horror can teach you anything, it is this statement. No matter if you’re in Kentucky or Catalonia: walk like a singer. Talk like a writer. Move like a painter. Fill your own shoes & the world will follow. My friend Varda started her singing career with Bette Midler in the queer saunas of the NYC 1960s, and went on to open for Bob Dylan, and now in her eighties, remains in character in Paris – hosting parties and dinners, and getting around the active art scene – with, character.
And if I were going to include a ‘6’, it would be: Stay home. London, New York, LA, Paris…they’re all, in the words of William Gibson, “cooked”. The world ain’t gonna change if people don’t change it. The world, in the broad sense, that is.
Mark Twain was inspired to write by a river he called home. Georgia O’Keeffe made flowers in a desert, and her Alfred Stieglitz shot the sky. AE Houseman write abotu a lad from Shropshire, and even Rimbaud’s Season in Hell was largely spent on the Belgian border.
Now, go get a copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, sit down, and stay there, until you can answer the question:
“What have I come to say?”