Prior to lockdown, I was interviewed by the sartorially splendid Darcy Sullivan for the equally dandified spring edition of ‘The Chap.’ Darcy asked some unusually pertinent questions that included a fine quota of Thunder’s related queries and also provided the opportunity to recollect seeing Quentin Crisp in conversation at the Royal Court in Liverpool. Crisp was the first author I’d seen address an audience and he was as you might expect, very witty and engaging. He was also most gracious when the time came for me to get a copy of ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ signed. Pete Burns was also getting his copy signed. Both gone now in the twinkling of gloriously painted eyes that recall the mad decadent verse of Edmund Gosse:
‘Prince-jewellers, whose facet-rhymes combine/ All hues that glow, all rays that shift & shine/ Farewell thy song is sung, thy splendour fled.’……….
Moments away from the snarling frenzy of traffic on the main road and into the quieter arteries of Bloomsbury, a sense of the past still lingers. Once an oasis of creative bohemia, the area has managed to hang on to its identity, there are second- hand book shops, coffee bars where you can hear Jonathan Richman and Roy Orbison whilst corner pubs feature some of the original Victorian exteriors, sea green and damson purple tiles glimmering in the late afternoon sun as they have done for the last century or so. I am nervous and suggest to my companions, ‘Lord’ & ‘Lady’ Darcy that we venture to the small park on the next block from ‘Gays the Word’ bookshop, where we will be launching ‘Incurable’ – the selected writings of Lionel Johnson, featuring a biographical essay and some photographs as old as the pubs. (Available via Strange Attractor Press.) I wonder if Lionel, a desperate tippler, ever drank round here. The vast Gothic hulk, The Russell Hotel, probably belonged to the family of one of his dearest friends, Francis, Earl Russell. It is a fascinating monolith, the exterior decorated with plump garlanded cherubs and shell-shocked Merlads coiled around lights that no longer work. How fantastic it must have once looked, like a magical ship sailing on a sea of night.
London has become a very difficult place to live in, uncomfortable, over-priced, and competitive – circumstances keep me here but it also has so many poetic ghosts fluttering around like spectral white moths that I am inclined to stay until I too join them. It is nearly twilight, the day giving itself up to the evening and I’ve begun to procrastinate – part of the pre-event ritual. I insist politely that we stop off at the little park to watch the last of the sun’s rays glancing off the leaves on the tall trees, like tiny golden darts. Lord Darcy, dashing dandy about town, press officer for the Oscar Wilde society, who will be asking the questions that need to be asked, reminds me that we really should convene to ‘Gays the Word.’
I’ve done many literary events over the years but none have been as enjoyable as this one or as thoughtfully prepared, a big thank you to Uli who did all the organising. What makes an evening special? The venue has much to do with it, ‘Gay’s the Word’ being a historical and community landmark, as well as a Queer safe space and a very fine bookshop. The audience are brimming with good-will; Jamie from Strange Attractor gives a stirring speech about how independent publishers and independent bookshops are part of the same precious fabric. Lord Darcy’s moustache is impeccable as is his knowledge of Oscar Wilde. One of the microphone’s break, but that happens at every event, usually I blame the ghost of Johnny Thunders but tonight it’s Lionel Johnson being the little trickster, despite his melancholy visage on multiple copies of ‘Incurable’ taking up most of the shop window display. The past always interweaves with the future, however, and just as we are about to start, Walter Lure arrives with Mick Rossi, currently playing in Walter’s LAMF band. I cannot believe that a Heartbreaker has attended one of my gigs!! But stranger things have happened. They always do.
Of the one thing that Lionel Johnson was certain, it is that we all fall under the heel of history to be as mist. Even in life, Lionel was particularly misty and acutely morbid, haunting boneyards as a schoolboy, not out of any ghoulish proclivity but to find the answers to eternity: ‘I have tried, oh, so earnestly tried, in utter faith to make the dead hear me, feel for me, comfort me.’ Thankfully, he was met with silence, aside from his footsteps echoing on ancient stone in the mausoleum and charnel houses of Winchester & Oxford. Only the best for Lionel! One senses through his poems and letters that he had presumed always to be ill-fated. Perhaps a doctor had muttered bleak predictions on encountering a child so unbelievably ethereal in comparison to his robust brothers, who like their father, would achieve military renown. Alas, Lionel because of his drinking, didn’t achieve literary longevity although he was well-regarded, no lesser than his old friend and associate, W.B Yeats publishing a selection of his poetry whilst T.S Eliot was an admirer but then Johnson simply petered out, like one of those candles he carried on his midnight cemetery flits.
In part, the Wilde juggernaut has driven rough-shod over any awkward blips in the myth making, Lionel Johnson, enigmatic and fey, elusive and reclusive, has been the will-o’-the-wisp in the drawing room at Oscar’s house in Tite Street. But it’s not easy pinning down someone who was a ghost in life. The theft of a considerable amount of correspondence between Lionel and Lord Alfred Douglas would have gone some way to redressing the balance, of fleshing out their ‘special’ friendship as well as possibly giving a different perspective on ‘Bad Boy Bosie’ who couldn’t help be what he was – a fraught, spoilt, love-hungry, profligate aristocrat. That which made him appealing to Oscar Wilde, also made him appalling.
The secrets that Douglas and Johnson shared will most probably remain that way. Thankfully, Lionel Johnson can still speak to us, through his poetry and essays. Which is why Alan Contreras’ generous and thoughtful write up in no lesser publication than The Gay & Lesbian review is all the more important, for it gives Lionel, silenced by time and circumstances, a voice once again.