Jeremy Isaacs is obsessed with Stephen Fry's donation - apparently, my dear, it was enormous
To Adelaide Street for the unveiling of the statue of Oscar Wilde, on the 98th anniversary of his death. It is a very British affair with a melange of the grand, the great and the not-so-good crammed into a paved alley behind St Martin-in-the-Fields. The ceremony itself is the best sort of social comedy, rich in ironies both delicate and indelicate, and one that would almost certainly have drawn half-a-dozen well-turned witticisms from Oscar Wilde himself.
It is, on the whole, rather a tame occasion: thin gruel shot through with a dash of absinthe (a favourite Wilde tipple, which, by serendipity, was yesterday reintroduced for sale in this country for the first time in 80 years). Hatchets are half-buried, redemptions half-redeemed and no one seems to be entirely happy or entirely comfortable. Matthew Parris in the crowd, Peggy Tatchell in the dock, and Mandy Mandelson in the morning papers. Homosexuality and politics; politics and homosexuality. What an enduring and fascinating combination. An opening speech rather lacking in lustre from Jeremy Isaacs, who seems to be primarily concerned with the size of Stephen Fry's donation - apparently, my dear, it was enormous. But he does at least pay generous tribute to Derek Jarman's determination to see a statue to Wilde erected.
I am transported back to the late summer of 1991 when the idea of a statue of Wilde was mooted. Including Derek Jarman, there were about six of us present on that gloriously sunny Friday in September. We had spent the morning with about 40 others protesting outside the Guardian's offices in Farringdon Road, decrying that newspaper's "liberal homophobia". We were Slags - Socialist Lesbians and Gays - and we knew we'd scored a victory when Peter Preston, then the editor, agreed to meet us. We were elated and excited and sat drinking our coffees on an office roof in Mount Pleasant. The tide was turning and we sensed it. The talk turned to Oscar Wilde. "There should be a statue," we said.
We wanted the statue to be of Oscar Wilde in convict dress. Such a statue, we thought, would be a monument to Wilde for the trials he underwent: like being chained and forced to stand for half an hour on the centre platform at Clapham Junction from 2pm to 2.30pm on the rainy afternoon of 20 November 1895, where he endured a public humiliation by a jeering mob. It would be a telling reminder of the homophobia and intolerance that always lurks beneath the surface of British society. Derek was the one with the clout and vision to seize the idea by the scruff of the neck and take it forward.
We didn't get that statue of Wilde. Things have changed for the better, not just since Wilde's own "monstrous martyrdom" of the 1890s, but also since those days of the late 1980s when gay people seemed under attack from all sides by the backlash against Aids, Clause 25 and Clause 28 - both, incidentally, still on the statute book.
But never mind the politics. How nice to see Lord Baker of Dorking, former Tory cabinet minister and more recently a member of the Wilde statue committee, standing smirking behind Jeremy Isaacs. My mind drifts back to the late 1980s, and I wonder idly how Kenneth Baker can reconcile his role in erecting a statue of Wilde, whose work was censored and put on trial for immorality, with his own famous act of censorship when, as education secretary, he attempted to impose a ban on the ILEA to stop it circulating the innocuous Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin.
I rather admire Maggi Hambling's sculpture of Wilde talking and smoking. I also like the quote from Lady Windermere's Fan: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Personally, I would have preferred Wilde's lesser-known but rather more engaging quip: "A dirty mind is a perpetual feast."
Thankfully, no one, least of all Chris Smith, whose speech also lacks lustre, has the bad taste to bring up the S-word. Socialism. We had Wilde the wit, Wilde the dandy, Wilde the playwright, Wilde the poet. But Wilde the socialist? Yes: Oscar Wilde was a passionate and idealistic - if idiosyncratic - socialist. His 1891 essay The Soul of Man under Socialism is about as far from new Labour's rebranded socialism as you can get. Presciently, Wilde distrusted populism, rightly suspecting the presence of tyranny whenever politicians invoke "the people". He was equally clear on what would now be described as welfare reform: "To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting," Wilde wrote. "It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less."
And no one - apart from Wilde's great-grandson, Lucian Holland - has the courage to mention Wilde's homosexuality. The closest Chris Smith comes to the subject is to use the word "diversity". I can't help feeling that this whole affair is a missed opportunity. It could have been a chance to begin a process of healing, of public reparation for the 100-year holocaust of British homosexuals, which began with the trials of Oscar Wilde and involved at least a quarter of a million homosexuals in criminal prosecutions, imprisonment, chemical castration and aversion therapy. Diversity is too small a word.
"What's happening? Who is it?" a breathless young man pushes behind me, straining to see what all the commotion is about. "Oscar Wilde," I say. The name clearly does not strike any chords. "Where is he?" he asks. "In heaven, I hope," I say.