Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

12 March 2012

As Oscar Would Have Said - Chris Cairns Must Be Squeaky Clean

It's always a dangerous course to sue for libel because, in doing so, one leaves one's self open to penetrating attacks from the defence. They will be so deeply searching that any hint of a stain in the plaintiff's past will be brought into the light of day and will both weaken him and strengthen the defendant. Indeed it's possible that the plaintiff might himself end up as a defendant.

Take the case of Oscar Wilde, he had little choice but to defend himself if he was to have any hope of preserving his reputation and career. We recall that he was certainly not a cricket match fixer, but despite having a wife and children, he was an active homosexual, a condition which, because it merited obloquy and certain imprisonment in the late nineteenth century, was carefully ignored by the establishment unless revealed in public to be so scandalous that arrest and charge were unavoidable.

Oscar’s favourite boyish bed friend was a certain Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas whom he first met in 1891. So in love with ‘Bosie’ was Oscar that he described him, typically indiscreetly, as ‘... quite like a narcissus - so white and gold... he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa and I worship him.’

The young man’s father was none other than the Marquess of Queensberry, a domineering control-freak whose lasting claim to fame is his authorship of the Queensberry rules for boxing. Pugilistic and disputatious by nature he was incensed by what he saw as Oscar’s homosexual manipulation of his ‘innocent’ son, and being a true eccentric he constantly threw out slanderous and libellous taunts against Wilde with the objective of goading the playwright into a reaction.

Following a confrontation with Queensberry, Wilde wrote to Bosie: ‘... your father... had stood uttering every foul word his mind could think of... and afterwards he went from restaurant to restaurant looking for me... to insult me before the whole world, and in such a manner that if I retaliated I would be ruined, and if I did not retaliate I would be ruined also.’

Oscar took his first fatal steps on the road to ruin when in February 1895 Queensberry left a card with the porter of Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, upon which was written ‘To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.’ [sic] The fact that the Marquess appeared semi-literate did nothing to stop Wilde from retaliating. His lawyer ominously advised him that his suit would succeed ‘if you are innocent’; but his friends, the gay and straight literati who surrounded him at the peak of his career, were not so sanguine. Indeed, the notorious Frank Harris counselled Wilde to ‘...drop it at once... go abroad... and take your wife with you.’ (No doubt she was expected to stand by her man.)

The trial of the Marquess of Queensberry for libelling Oscar Wilde commenced on 3 April but it was not long before the tables were turned and the proceedings deteriorated into what was effectively the first trial of Oscar Wilde; Queensberry’s lawyers had uncovered a string of homosexual encounters and when it became clear that a number of rent-boys and others were standing by to confirm the truth of Queensberry’s ‘libel’ Wilde’s case collapsed.

Within three days the jury at the Old Bailey found Queensberry ‘not guilty’. Thus Wilde, espousing a strategy of attack being the best form of defence, had lost mightily. There was more to come, the knives were out; at 6.10pm that same day, at the Cadogan Hotel, whence he had taken himself after the trial, he was arrested by two detectives on a charge of committing ‘indecent acts’.

Wilde was tried in a court whose proceedings swung between his haughty wit and his intolerable humiliation. He was eventually sentenced to two years hard labour and imprisoned in Pentonville, then Wandsworth, and finally Reading where, as occupant of cell No. C.3.3., he wrote his deeply touching ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. Released in 1897, his health was ruined; he died ‘beyond my means’ in a sleazy Paris hotel apartment three-and-a-half years later aged 47.

Poor Oscar, his downfall was ultimately triggered when, fatefully, he sued Lord Queensberry for a libel he knew to be true. In that case the disastrous reversal of events was immediate and devastating. Oscar's case proves that if you’re going to sue it’s as well to be unassailably innocent of the libel.

Remember, Oscar's lawyer advised him that his suit would succeed ‘if you are innocent’; I imagine Chris Cairns's lawyers have advised him similarly and, if he is unassailably innocent (and I sincerely hope he will be proved so) he will succeed in London's rigorous courts.


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By Don Donovan