Archive for the ‘sussex’ Tag

Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

Coincidences No.s 208, 209 and 210 – Sussex

Coincidence No. 208 – Kemptown

I’m sitting at this café in Kemptown, Brighton when I hear a familiar voice. I look round and the face is familiar too. I ask this young woman: “Excuse me but do you have some kind of clothes business in Camden Town? were are you in a film a while ago? “ At first Camden Town doesn’t ring much of a bell with her and I say sorry my mistake. Then she suddenly realises that she took premises temporarily in Camden Town sometime ago and that she is the woman I’m thinking of. She was in a documentary I commissioned a couple of years ago about psychedelics. I know her voice and face not from any direct contact but because I heard and saw her over and over in the editing process.

I didn’t even know she had anything to do with Brighton and associated her with Camden Town and somewhere up north where her accent comes from. 

Mind-Explorers-Poster real stories little dot studios documentary

Coincidence No. 209 – Saltdean & Lewes

My old friend N comes to visit me in Brighton. First thing in the morning I take him to Saltdean for a swim (which is something of an adventure as he hasn’t swum in UK waters for over two decades, he prefers hotter climes). As we walk to the beach we pass the Lido (opened by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) in 1938). “What does Lido actually mean?” asks N (i.e. specifically). “Is it always like this?” I say that I think it’s usually a 1930s large open-air pool like this, although I was taken to Ruislip Lido as a child and that, from memory, was more of a lake.

a public open-air swimming pool or bathing beach 

At N’s request we go to Lewes in the afternoon in search of a second-hand bookshop. We go to the excellent Bow Windows in the high street. We browse, masked up, in the stifling heatwave heat. I examine a Graham Greene novel, one of the first books I lift from the shelf (are you allowed to actually lift books in the Covid era?). It is The Comedians (1966) set in Haiti. The hotel in the story is called Hotel Lido.

I speak to Enfant Terrible No. 2 in the evening. I ask what he’s been doing with his day in this heat. He has been down to Crouch End Lido he informs me, which is full of “old people” (i.e. 30 plus) doing lanes and, post-Lockdown, none of the young yahoos that used to be there seem to have registered the reopening, all of which pleases him.

Coincidence No. 209b – Saltdean & London

Walking beside Saltdean Lido to the beach I notice the name of the makers of the old pale blue iron railings sloping down to the pedestrian tunnel: J. Every, Lewes

At the spot where I normally park in front of our house in London N2 is a metal plate by the drain. It is made by J. Every, Lewes. The drain itself is made by J. Gibb & Co. Ltd., London. Why did London Borough of Barnet go all the way to Lewes for its drain stuff?

Coincidence No. 210 – Rottingdean

I am starting to read the new novel by Ali Smith, Summer. It just came out a few days ago and I have read and enjoyed Spring and Autumn (the latter for our book group which is where I first came across her). I read these sentences: 

She already knows she is never going to have children. Why would you bring a child into a catastrophe? It would be like giving birth to a child in a prison cell. 

This last sentence reminds me of a programme I heard a few days before on BBC Radio 4 about women giving birth in prison. I remember that I was approaching the traffic lights in Rottingdean when I was listening to it. Rottingdean is the village beside where I now live much of the time in Brighton.

Then comes the next sentence which I have not yet read or glimpsed:

And Brighton’s a good place, one of the best in the country for green things, the only place in the whole of the UK with a green MP

I had no idea the novel was set in Brighton until that moment. This sentence is the first reference to it.

Art Deco Sussex

Bexhill-on-Sea to Brighton, east to west 23.vii.18

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - interior staircase

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior seaside

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior staircase

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - interior staircase

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - interior staircase

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior artist painter

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior staircase landside

Staircase, landside

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - interior staircase landside

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex - exterior staircase

58 South Cliff, Bexhill

58 South Cliff, Bexhill

58 South Cliff, Bexhill

58 South Cliff, Bexhill

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

from the beach

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

The Sandcastle, Pevensey, East Sussex art deco house

Embassy Court Brighton flats apartments

Embassy Court, Brighton

 

Triangulating History

22.vii.18

The river ouse at rodmell sussex virgina woolf

This I reckon is the spot (River Ouse, Rodmell)

I went to visit Monk’s House, Virginia & Leonard Woolf’s cottage in the quiet East Sussex village of Rodmell. I was here years ago with Una and it left an impression, I was happy to return. Because I arrived before opening time (the cottage is now looked after by the National Trust) I sat reading for an hour in the nearby local churchyard, St Peter’s. At noon I had a look around the gardens with its view of the South Downs and then had a look around Virginia’s bedroom, with its monk-like single bed and set of Shakespeare beautifully bound by her, and a wander through the ground floor rooms of the cottage, with paintings by Leonard’s shared woman (post-Virginia), Trekkie Parsons, who split her week between Leonard and her husband at the marital home nearby. All par for the Bloomsbury course.

st peters church rodmell east sussex

St Peter’s churchyard, Rodmell

Of course Bloomsbury is rich in colourful tales, none less fascinating than the one the National Trust volunteer at the entrance to the cottage reminded me of, the way she eventually killed herself by walking from the cottage to the river Ouse, just beyond Monk’s House’s grounds, put stones in her pockets and walked in, drowning in what a local told me is a river with strong tidal currents. Not that day – in the midst of a heatwave there was barely enough water to immerse yourself in, the level less than half-way to the line marked by green vestiges of the high water mark.

IMG_4340 garden of monks house rodmell virginia woolf

Leonard & Virginia’s beloved garden, Monk’s House, Rodmell – St Peter’s in the background

I decided to go find the spot, mainly because I wanted to walk by the river which I really love, rather than for ghoulish motivations. That no-one seemed to know where the actual spot was was more of a prompt.

view from St Peters church rodmell sussex

view from Rodmell (St Peter’s churchyard)

I’ve done this kind of triangulation of history before. Two memorable ones include figuring out where Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence in 1916 and standing there exactly 100 years to the minute after that momentous event. And working out where Tony Visconti and his lover kissed by the Berlin Wall, a moment immortalised in David Bowie’s Heroes. In the latter case, my estimation was subsequently confirmed as correct.

thistles at southease east sussex by river ouse

The start of the river path at Southease

For this one I went down to Southease, the adjacent hamlet, and walked down to the river under the blazing summer sun. I walked along the raised embankment back in the direction of Rodmell. By using the spire of St Peter’s I was able to align myself with the garden of Monk’s House and there is only one natural path to that spot along the edge of a field which must have been pretty much adjoining the Woolf’s land. On the basis that Virginia would have wanted to just get to the river and do the deed the place where she walked into the river is the spot shown in the first picture above.

A very resonant and tragic act in a very beautiful and peaceful place.

river ouse at rodmell sussex southease

Coincidences No. 347, 348 & 349

No. 347 Steyning, Sussex

I am reading a book about the Preraphaelites (William Gaunt’s The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy) – it mentions how one of Rossetti’s models claimed to be from Steyning but referred to it being in Surrey (when in fact it is in Sussex), casting doubt on her veracity. (Time seems to have proved she was telling the truth as she now has a blue plaque in the small rural Sussex town).

The next day I am at my book group when one of my friends mentions he’s just had a great weekend away in a house located in a place called Steyning.

dante gabriel Rossetti-Fanny-Cornforth model painter preraphaelite

Fanny Cornforth by DG Rossetti

No.348 FML

I am running a workshop on short form film-making in Helsinki and one of the participants suggests #FML as the title for their film. I can’t recall what it stands for (despite being an occasional collector of TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms) and having FML in my lists).

That night I am watching 13 Reasons Why in my hotel room and the key characters use the term – repeatedly. It means “Fuck My Life”.

13 reasons why protagonists

No.349 Brittle Bone

I am standing in the bathroom writing an email about a wrong master for my Real Stories commission Brittle Bone Rapper being used in a showreel.

As I click send the words “brittle bone” come up on the Radio 4 programme that is playing on the radio.

 

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