Peter Robinson’s poem about Reading Gaol being put up for sale (‘A Ballad Footnote’), with its associations of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, depicts an eerie, unsettling landscape, depopulated and filled with theatrical light effects – sunset, neon and a moon that is ‘gibbous’, a word that jogs us into thinking of ‘gibbet’ and the condemned convict Wilde featured in his ballad. Robinson’s focus is the gaol, and at a time of national lockdown, the sale of an epitome of lockdowns is an irony that Oscar in particular would have appreciated.
The poem made me think of incarceration in general and how lucky I am during this pandemic to enjoy the space and freedom that was out of reach of Wilde in his enforced confinement in Reading. Unlike his prison yard, my own, here in West Cork, stretches for a statutory five miles over boggy fields almost in every direction; and his ‘little tent of blue’ is a pinprick compared with my daily panorama of grey.
Wilde’s first experience of incarceration actually occurred in 1864 when he was nine years old – not for the ‘gross indecency’ that landed him in Reading Gaol, but for being the right age to be sent to boarding school: Portora Royal in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. There he would have experienced a typically Victorian school regime, centred on the Classics, cold showers and canings; as in Reading Gaol, he would also have seen little tents of blue – through high classroom windows – as well as, by compensation, generous vistas of mud on the rugby pitch. Perhaps Portora was the perfect Prep School for his boarding years in Reading?
As it happened, my father, Brian Harpur, also went to Portora (in the late 1920s) and would have experienced something similar to Wilde’s school regime (sadly my dad was six years too late to play cricket with another Portorian, Samuel Beckett). After his time at Portora, my father remained a loyal alumnus – to such an extent that in 1971 we spent a couple of days of a family holiday there on the vacated school premises. I can still remember walking into what was the ‘guest accommodation’: a line of six iron beds, beautifully made up … in the sanatorium. I half expected Florence Nightingale to read us a bedtime story.
I recently wrote a poem about that holiday, as part of a sequence about my own ‘incarceration’ in a boarding school in Surrey in the 1970s. For me, the holiday is a reminder that lockdown is not just a physical phenomenon, but also a psychological reality in which we are constricted by the roles expected of us, or which we adopt through necessity.
We’re like a troupe of travelling players
the six of us rehearsing holiday roles
as we motor through the Irish midlands
the sky blended with a layer of turf smoke.
At Enniskillen we enter Dad’s old school
out-of-term deserted, a huge sepulchre,
headmaster with a warm off-duty smile
showing us our rooms in the sanatorium
then guiding us like prospective parents
to classrooms, dining hall; conjuring up
Beckett vulpine in his cricket flannels
and Oscar Wilde casting pearls to swine
while Dad slips back some forty years –
me a mere three weeks – to homesickness.
Next day a change of emptiness: Lough Erne,
headmaster’s boat, glare-induced smiles
islands gliding past us on the water
Dad acting the husband without a mistress,
Mum the unsuspecting wife.
Next day sickness strikes, a tummy bug,
and it’s like a scene from Endgame
all six of us in the sanatorium moaning
like mourners, and none of us knowing
this will be our last family holiday,
and all of us knowing.
‘Portora Royal’ is from James Harpur’s book, The Examined Life, published by Two Rivers Press in April 2021.