Thursday, 17 November 2011

Meet Quentin

With few exceptions (ie Fred Astaire) I tend to read biographies of women.  However, when I saw the title The Naked Civil Servant I couldn't help but take a look.  I added this to my stack thinking it was almost a woman's biography.  It was a can't-put-it-downer for me.  Never mind his story, I find Quentin Crisp's writing style compelling.  Just look at the opening paragraphs:

"From the dawn of my history I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up, I realised that I could not ignore my predicament.  The way in which I chose to deal with it would now be called existentialist.  Perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre would be kind enough to say that I exercised the last vestiges of my free will by swimming with the tide - but faster.  In the time of which I am writing I was merely thought of as brazening it out.

I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one.  That is to say I put my case not only before the people who knew me but also before strangers.  This was not difficult to do.  I wore make-up at a time when even on women eye-shadow was sinful.  Many a young girl in those days had to leave home and go on the streets simply in order to wear nail varnish.

As soon as I put my uniform on, the rest of my life solidified round me like a plaster cast.  From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any cafe or restaurant from which I was not barred or any street corner from which the police did not move me on.  An additional restricting circumstance was that the year in which I first pointed my toes towards the outer world was 1931.  The tidal wave, started by the fall of Wall Street, had by this time reached London.  The sky was dark with millionaires throwing themselves out of windows. 

So black was the way ahead that my progress consisted of long periods of inert despondency punctuated by spasmodic lurches forward towards any small chink of light that I thought I saw.  In major issues I never had any choice and therefore the word 'regret' had in my life no application.

As the years went by, it did not get lighter but I became accustomed to the dark.  Consequently I was able to move with a little more of that freedom which T. S. Eliot says is a different kind of pain from prison.  These crippling disadvantages gave my life an interest that it would otherwise never have had.  To survive at all was an  adventure; to reach old age was a miracle.  In one respect it was a blessing.  In an expanding universe, time is one the side of the outcast.  Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.  In my case this took a very long time."

He describes his life in detail but not such that one cringes.  It all seems rather dreary but there are priceless points of humour, for example he explains that his mother named him Denis (his name before he dyed it).  A flamboyant friend of his mother's had a manner of speaking that he found attractive enough to emulate it ("This woman did not fly to extremes; she lived there.") 

He explains about the gestures that are labelled 'camp' being how women actually moved and posed in the 1920s.  After that the visible differences between men and women began to fade, which doesn't in the least bother women because they know they are women.  For a man trying to demonstrate that he is feminine, Crisp writes, it is very frustrating to try to look back to a more formal era and re-live it.  There is a hilarious conversation between him and a policeman, arguing about whether or not he is dressed as a woman when he is in fact wearing trousers.

I read frantically to discover how and when he became a civil servant and then a naked one.  Turns out he never actually was in the civil service.  Instead he had a job posing nude (well, nearly) for the local art school.  He said at one point this was pretty much the same as being a civil servant.  I think this refers in part to posing as opposed to doing, also perhaps to the emporer's new clothes. 

On the back of the book is a quote: 
You first have to find who you are.  Then, you have to be it like mad.
Even if I've not convinced you to find and read his books, I'm sure you will enjoy some more of his insightful quotes.   He really was a unique individual. 

1 comment:

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

You've convinced me! I think this sounds like an excelent autobiography.