Few people evoke such feelings of devotion and affection in the British public as Stephen Fry. He is the nation’s dream dinner partner, fantasy friend, the thinking fag hag’s crumpet. The main theatre at Bloomsbury was packed full of expectant fans secretly hoping that, at the end of his talk about the short stories of Oscar Wilde, the few minutes it took to get their book signed would be long enough to say something so witty he’d invite them round for a cup of tea later. All of us united in the feeling that we knew him, not just from his decades of TV appearances, radio shows or perpetual twitter updates, but personally, clutching hardback copies of his new book there’s a strange feeling he might actually recognise us.
I used to love Stephen Fry. He was everything teenage me from a headache of a town in the midlands wanted to be; witty sophisticated, English and middleclass. I genuinely thought that once I moved to London our paths would somehow cross and he’d become a benign fairy godfather in my life, doling out advice and witty anecdotes over coffee in his Hampstead kitchen. But then like most teenage crushes once you find out that everybody else had the same fantasy, honesty permitting, I hid my love for the man at the back of the wardrobe like an embarrassing fashion mistake. He changed; became the man responsible for people using unnecessary adjectives in sentences in an attempt to appear witty, the face of exclusive, expensive London that I could just make out through the windows of small restaurants but never enter, he was all the Oxbridge comedy people that were clever and cute and hilarious and worked in Radio 4. He was the world I had wanted and it was full.
The man himself, my dream Dad, arrived on stage looking much slimmer than I remembered less Paddington Bear more city fox. Happily his talk coincided with Oscar Wilde’s 155th birthday, and Stephen took us on a whistle stop tour of Oscar’s life. He had a curious way of describing Wilde’s country of origin, admitting that many people didn’t know that his parents were Irish. Maybe it’s the border county blood in me but that seems to me a particularly odd and ungracious way of describing someone’s place of birth. Since Wilde’s persona was that of an outsider aping and dissecting the superficiality of English culture from that period, dismissing his nationality seems a very shallow way of looking at the man’s work. Cultural colonialism aside, Stephen described his early life in Dublin, as a boy so quick at reading his brother could win bets on his swiftness at finishing books, through to his glamorous life at Oxford where his devotion to aestheticism and flamboyant fashion set him apart from the reigning Victorian conservatism of that time. After a brief fling with poetry and a spell where he seemed to be doomed to be famous for being famous; a gifted raconteur and public speaker but with little substantive to show for his extra ordinary mind, he finally discovered his flair for playwriting. It was unfortunately on the very same evening that the theatre world was standing to ovate the opening night of “The Importance of Being Earnest” that the Marquis of Queensbury; the Dad of dear old Bosie-Oscar’s boyfriend from hell, was writing the note that called him a sodomite, and would result in a disastrous libel case, his conviction for sodomy, two years in hard labour, banishment and lonely death in exile in Paris.
Although it is chiefly as a dramatist that Wilde is remembered this night was to celebrate the other side of Wilde’s personality, glimpsed through the short stories written for his children. It was not for his caustic wit and cutting turn of phrase that he was lovingly remembered by his friends but, preserved in his sad, beautiful tales, his gentleness and kindness. In a week where a national newspaper saw fit to publish a column that seemed to revel in the death of a thirty two year old pop singer, this celebration of compassion seemed fitting.
I of course got my book signed, there’s no point holding a grudge. I asked him to sign it for my godson Setanta and he made the same joke about my uniquely named nephew that I’ve been hearing since his birth. Yes, Stephen, just like the sports channel, no I hope he’s not cancelled either. Ha ha. The notion that is was ancient Celtic name slightly longer than it was a TV station eluding him. He didn’t invite me over for tea; he didn’t ask me to Emma Thompson’s house for a game of charades, he didn’t even adopt me. I didn’t mind anymore. I’m not English and middle class, you see. I’m Irish, just like Oscar Wilde.