by Pam Hobbs, pictures by Michael Algar

When searching for Britain's greatest wit in 2007, a television station polled 3,000 comedy fans. Names thrown into the ring were as memorable as Spike Milligan (who has on his tombstone "I told you I was ill") playwright Noel Coward, and Sir Winston Churchill. The winner though was Oscar Wilde, who died more than a century ago but whose caustic witticisms are repeated to this day.

Nobody could be more pleased with the contest's outcome than Alan Titchard.. Chief researcher of the Oscar Wilde Society, he also escorts Saturday morning walking tours of Oscar Wilde's London - where the author lived for most of his adult life, insulted almost everyone he had contact with, and wrote plays that continue to be staged in this city's best theatres.

I have to admit I wasn't at all keen to get out of bed on the wet Saturday morning I had decided to join Alan.. But when I made the effort, and battled heavy winds in my walk to the station, I realized I was in luck. The inclement weather worked to my advantage in that our group numbered no more than ten, assembled to walk in the steps of the flamboyant, controversial Oscar Wilde.

Wearing a large black hat at a rakish angle, a red brocade waistcoat beneath his black suit, and a green carnation in his lapel, our guide is no less dandified than Oscar himself. His theatrical presentation dramatizes his narration enormously. He knows all the right quotes to make us laugh. And, bless him, from time to time, he even gets us out of the rain.

We start with a capsule history of Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde who was born in Dublin in l854. His father was a surgeon oculist, knighted ten years after Oscar's birth; his mother an eccentric poetess and avowed Irish nationalist. From all accounts young Wilde was a large ungainly boy, who loathed sports and loved to read. Shortly before his seventeenth birthday he won a scholarship to Dublin's Trinity College, then went on to Oxford where he became a brilliant classical scholar.

On arriving in London, 24 years old Oscar gave its citizens an inkling of his wit when asked what he wanted to be. "God only knows" he replied. "Somehow or other I'll be famous. If I can't be famous I'll be notorious." And so he was. A great self-publicist and an enthralling raconteur, he presented himself as the Apostle of Aestheticism.

If Oscar was around now, surely he would be the supreme ruler of television chat shows. Truly, he was a man born before his time, in stuffy Victorian England where he thumbed his nose at the rules, created his own fashions and said things like "work is the curse of the drinking classes... I will never put off til tomorrow what I can possibly do the day after... I can resist everything except temptation." Long before his plays brought him literary success, he was celebrated as a conversationalist. He loved the glamour surrounding London's rich and famous, saying he would rather sit down to a bad meal with a stupid aristocrat than have a good meal with an intelligent tradesman. In his early writings about celebrities, he is accredited with introducing the phrase "Beautiful People" to describe them.

Our first stop is Albermarle Street where Alan tells us how Wilde enjoyed flirting with danger. His philosophy was "Do what you like. Don't get caught and don't do it on the street and frighten the horses." But he did get caught, flaunting his penchant for youthful males at a time when homosexuality was against the law in England. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, (nicknamed "Bosie") infuriated that young man's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. So poisonous was the elder Queensberry's venom he moved into a hotel on this street, with the sole purpose of harassing Wilde who frequented the neighbouring Albarmarle Club.

When Oscar's play Lady Windermere's Fan opened at St. James's Theatre in February 1892, the author responded to thunderous applause by strolling onto the stage wearing his Canadian fur-trimmed coat and mauve kid gloves, with a lighted cigarette in hand and a green carnation in his lapel. In the Royal Arcade, where Oscar had a florist dye his carnations green, we hear of the Marquess's attempt to humiliate him that night by sending a bouquet of rotting vegetables. Unfazed, the dramatist was quick to retort "every time I smell it, it will remind me of you."

It's not difficult to visualize a larger-than-life Oscar loping along St. James's Street, stopping off at the historic little specialty shops, almost all of which have served Britain's royal family for centuries. Considering his love for fine things, ("I have very simple tastes, and am always satisfied with the very best..."} he likely patronized most of these establishments, but we have time for only three. D.R. Harris & Co., chemist and perfumery since 1790,now displays woolly lamb hot water bottles, and an offer to re-bristle shaving brushes. They still sell a pick-me-up such as Oscar downed on the mornings he happened by and, in view of the weather perhaps, we are shepherded inside to try some. Sold by the bottle or glass, it tastes like a strong cough mixture

In the sweet-smelling chemist's Alan tells us about Oscar's highly successful American tour. Although he had yet to become a notable playwright, in 1881 he toured America giving speeches on aestheticism. His arrival there, wearing a green fur-lined coat and round sealskin hat, set the tone for the entire trip."Have you anything to declare?" asked the customs agent. "No" said Oscar with sincerity, "I have nothing to declare except my genius."

Warmed by our tonic, we move on to #6 St. James's Street where Lock & Co., founded in 1676, claims to be the oldest surviving hatter's in the world. In its present location since 1765, this establishment supplied Oscar with some of his most outlandish headgear, as well as the black wide-brimmed felt hat favoured by him - and worn with such aplomb by Alan today. This shop has a fascinating display of historic hats which includes 'beavers' and 'silks' and an l8th century tricorn. Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington shopped here; movie stars and politicians are regulars. And if you've left your Tilley at home, not to worry. You can buy a replacement at Lock's.

Cigar merchant James J. Fox, had to be one of Oscar's favourite emporiums. Located on St. James's Street since l88l (established as Robert Lewis in 1787) it has a small museum at the rear, recording some of the store's better-known clients' shopping habits. One was Oscar Wilde, whose gold-tipped cigarettes were customized with the name "Oscar" on the side. Another was Winston Churchill, who ordered 3,000 cigars a year from Fox, and who said of Wilde that he was the one man he wanted to talk to when he passed over. A ledger shows that Oscar has an outstanding debt of 37 pounds 17 shillings and 3 pence.

He was never fussy about paying his bills. When broke, he sponged off acquaintances who were only too pleased to accommodate him in return for a sampling of his wit and humour. When his plays brought huge financial rewards, he gave to all who asked. During rehearsals for Lady Windermere's Fan he stayed at the very posh (and expensive) Savoy Hotel, even though his home was close by.

His favourite restaurant was Regent Street's plush Café Royal, opened in l865 by a Parisian wine merchant and noted for its exquisite French cuisine. He and Bosie dined there regularly, and on one occasion Bosie's Dad actually joined them at their table.

1895 brought Oscar the best of times and the worst of times. Two of his plays,

The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband received rave reviews in the West End; he had a lovely home in Chelsea, a wife and two sons and money enough to support his lavish lifestyle. Then the axe fell. Egged on by Bosie, he foolishly sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. Queensberry's acquittal lent a certain truth to his allegations of Wilde's sexual misconduct, causing him to be arrested and - following a sensational trial at the Old Bailey - sentenced to two years' hard labour. Oscar served most of his time in Wandsworth Prison, before being transferred to the slightly more civilized Reading Gaol. "It happened so quickly" Alan now laments."From the height of success to the very depths of despair."

Our tour ends in Albany Courtyard, close to the spot where Wilde left a cab following his release from prison. On anniversaries, and for special groups Alan extends his two hour walk. Since today isn't one of them I spend the afternoon pursuing more Oscar sites on my own, starting with the elegant red brick terrace house he called home.

Bordering the Thames, Chelsea was then and is now a fashionable address for artists, writers and intellectuals. By all accounts Oscar loved living in the area, and following his l884 marriage to Constance Lloyd he converted their home at #34 Tite Street into a virtual palace. His two sons spent their early years here, and in a ground floor front room (painted buttercup yellow with red lacquer trim) he wrote his controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as the highly successful plays that followed.

Oscar and Constance were married in Paddington's Saint James Anglican Church. London has many beautiful churches and I don't profess to have seen them all, but surely Saint James is one of the loveliest. Its glorious stained glass windows alone are worth a visit, while services on weekday evenings and at weekends are enhanced by a professional choir. The church's Oscance Celebration is an annual event held in early June to commemorate Oscar and Constance.

A stone's throw from Saint James Church, the comfortably genteel Cadogan Hotel holds less happy memories for it was here that Oscar was arrested in April 1895, while visiting Bosie in his rooms. The story goes that, although the police had given him ample time to leave the country, he chose to sit drinking with his friend, waiting for the inevitable thump on the door. "One can't keep going abroad unless one is a missionary, or what comes to the same thing, a commercial traveller" he told a pal who urged him to flee.

In Victorian times, hard labour meant just that. At Wandsworth he had his head shaved, ate food so disgusting it made him vomit, did his time on the treadmill and sewed mail-bags. He was put in solitary confinement for talking, and allowed to write a letter every three months."If the Queen can't treat her prisoners any better than this" he grumbled, "she doesn't deserve to have any." His lot improved slightly when he was transferred to Reading Gaol.

Things were no better for him on the outside. During his incarceration his wife divorced him, contents of his home were stolen or sold, and his mother died. Upon release Oscar lost no time in visiting Hatchard's on Regent Street - his favourite bookstore and Britain's oldest, first opened in 1797 - and with reading material in hand caught the ferry to France. In that era few prisoners subjected to hard labour lived for more than two years after regaining their freedom. Oscar managed to hang on for three, knocking about Italy and France, getting himself evicted for non-payment of rent at even the sleaziest of hotels.

On November 30, l900, at age 46, he died in Paris, from what is thought to have been cerebral meningitis. True to form, even on his deathbed he had the last word, telling his long-time friend Robbie Ross: "When the last trumpet sounds, and we are couched in our porphyry tombs, I shall turn and whisper to you 'Robbie, Robbie, let us pretend we do not hear it." Oscar Wilde is buried in Paris's renowned Pere Lachaise Cemetery, along with some of the world's best-loved artists and entertainers.

IF YOU GO: At around $14 per person, a company called London Walks offers one of this city's great bargains. More information is available at VisitBritain in Toronto, telephone 1-888-847-4885. London Walks can be reached at 020-7624-3978. The Oscar Wilde Walk starts at ll a.m. on Saturdays at Green Park Tube Station. No need for reservations. Simply turn up.