An Alternative To History
“I have always found that an obstinate adherence to one’s preferred notions of the way things ought to have been is a fine substitute for the way things actually occured.” Wilde often said, especially when faced with the stubborn obstacle of the facts of a particular matter. “In fact,” he would continue, “I would go as far as to say that on occassion, a beautiful and satisfying lie is a fine alternative to history.”
These were not, you might imagine, the words of a man who had often found events playing out in his favour, but our imaginations often run away with us, and in this case, yours would have been quite wrong. Wilde had lived the life of a fortunate man, as he would often tell you, if you allowed him the indulgence.
I had made this exceptional gentleman’s acquaintance some six months previous, at the hotel which served as his home from home, and my writer’s retreat. We oftentimes found ourselves walking the promenade in the late afternoon, or braving the thirty-nine steps down to the pillbox in the stiff autumn winds that came in off the English Channel.
Wilde had told me, shortly after we met, about the concrete bunkers, and the fact that they had never been used.
“Hitler was a funny little fellow,” he had explained, before adding, almost sadly, “we’d done for him long before he ever reached our shores.”
At first, it was strange for me to hear about such things – over in America, the whole affair had passed me by. But to hear Wilde tell it, and he told it well, if things had gone down another path, the whole world might have known about it – even as far as the lost colonies in Australasia.
“Poor Adolf’s problem from the off was his repression, you see,” he had explained. “He was a man at war with himself. His desires fought with his inflexible beliefs, and made him a dreadful, red-faced and rigid bore of a man.”
“I guess that’s what happens when a fellow falls foul of the God delusion.” I had remarked, flippant in my youth, and eager to ingratiate myself to the star of stage and screen. “An army built on religion is built on a shaky foundation, indeed.”
He had clucked and patted my head, and I had flushed red with embarassment.
“One should take care when making broad statements about religion. The word itself holds no presumption of a god, for a start.” He had explained. “And after all, a self-righteous man can make a religion of most anything.”
“It was Hitler’s inner-conflict that made him easy to lead and mislead and trick, and it was his army’s faith in their leader that led them astray.” He had looked out at the slate-grey sea. “Anyone can have faith in something that isn’t real… A man who allows himself to believe in anything can believe in something wrong. Better to believe in nothing much at all, and take pleasure in one’s entropy.” He had said.
Wilde was a joyful man, but like all men of imagination, he was prone to moments of melancholy. He had long since retired, and sometimes it was clear that his addiction to the camera had not yet subsided. Most often, though, his moments of sadness found their catalyst not in the past – and never in regret – but in an existential fear of how fragile the laws of cause and effect that governed our world made that past.
“This wonderful, noisy and vibrant life might never have happened, but for a few key moments in time, my dear boy.” He would say, most often when shoulders high in a fine smoking jacket, and nose deep in a fine brandy, in the clubhouse of our hotel. “We English, sixty or so years back, could never have outwitted the Nazis. Goodness knows, we might never have outsmarted our own fate, if our lips had stayed stiff and up, and we had kept ourselves too upright to see where our collective feet were heading.”
Every sentence he spoke opened up the world a little for me. After all, we had no sense of these things in Chicago – as far as culture goes, where England went, America followed – we never really thought to ask the reasons why. And most of the things he talked about had happened before I was old enough to know any different, though it was hard to imagine a time when Buck Wilde, the crown prince of English cinema, wasn’t on our cinema screens.
“A plague!” He would say. “A plague of the most virulent kind swept it’s way through the cities of my fathers. A child at the time, I knew little of it – the adults never spoke of the infection, and though it might have at the time seemed that it was for fear of scarring my innocence, it has since come clear that it was a subject avoided when they were alone together, also.
But the secrecy failed to stop the spread. It was a rutting disease, you see – spread from one lover to another by the act of sexual congress, and if the human condition – the mammal condition in fact – has proven one thing, it is that regardless of social nicety or taboo, people will have sex with people. And more often than not, with other people, too.
The more stock a culture puts in propriety and social graces, the dirtier it’s underbelly. The English were the most decent and gentlemanly of all races. And of course, that meant that the English were the dirtiest of buggers, too. A coin that always shows it’s smartest side will oft be rusty underneath.
So many people died, though, that eventually we had to change. England had to change. Taboo became a notion we could ill-afford – it had become obvious that the fucking wouldn’t stop, but the secrecy surrounding it could not remain.
And do you know, once the conversation began, and the people were forced to air their dirtiest of laundry, it changed everything. The hipocrisies on which the prevailing English character sustained faltered and perished in redundancy. We acknowledged our wily, street-grubby core, and revelled in it, but now in daylight found it tempered in a way that it had never been in the dirt. We became a nation with fewer extremes, and more simple pleasures.
And thank goodness, because if the country hadn’t found it’s collective, and unrepressed libidio, erotica might never have found it’s way to Ealing, and I might never have made it to the silver screen. And without that long and illustrious career, this brandy would be of a much meaner quality indeed!”
It was a wonder to me that I had not known these stories before Wilde had told me them, but a trip to the library had borne him out. It had never occured to me before that the way things are was not the way that they had always been.
Sometimes, we would just sit, and Wilde would look at the sky, and after long periods of silence, he would imagine futures, and other pasts, and other nows that might have been. And I would listen to my friend, the only actor I had ever met, as he told me the truth, and told me lies.
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