Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Crispness!

‘It is no exaggeration to say that Quentin Crisp could well be the wittiest man alive. For that very reason, unfortunately but understandably, he is often spoken of as the Oscar Wilde de nos jours. [But] whereas Wilde was reduced to wallowing in lachrymose self-pity and writing mawkish verse until his lonely death at the age of forty-six, Quentin at the age of eighty-six is still cheerfully holding the door open for latecomers to his party. Do come in. I promise you a good time.’ This is from an introduction to Quentin Crisp’s New York Diaries, written and published only a few years before his death. Crisp, born 110 years ago today, was one of the 20th century’s more eccentric artistic and literary celebrities.

Denis Charles Pratt was born in South London, on Christmas Day 1908, to a lawyer and his wife, a former governess. He went to Kingswood House School, Surrey, and won a scholarship to Denstone College, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, in 1922. From 1926, he studied journalism at King’s College, London, but failed to graduate, switching to art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic. Already, by this time, he was frequenting cafes in Soho, meeting rent boys, and wearing women’s clothes. For a short while, he worked as a prostitute. From 1930, he lived in central London, settling in a Pimlico bedsit, where his extravagant appearance led, mostly, to hostility from neighbours. He worked as technical drawer. Around this time, he changed his name to Quentin Crisp.

With the outbreak of war, Crisp tried to join the British Army but was turned down for ‘suffering from sexual perversion’. In 1940, he moved to a flat in Chelsea where he remained until the early 1980s. He gave up office work, preferring to earn money as a life model, and by writing. A breakthrough came in 1975 when he published his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. It was soon turned into a television film starring John Hurt as Crisp, transforming both into celebrities. In the book, Crisp famously explained why he never bothered to clean: ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse’. Crisp also developed a one-man theatre show, with which he toured the country. In August 1979, he performed this show for a couple of weeks during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (In fact, at the time, I myself was working with a theatre group (The Phantom Captain) that was renting the venue hosting Crisp’s show. One of my duties was to stage manage his show, and another was to run screenings of The Naked Civil Servant - there’s a brief mention of this in my own diaries.)

In 1981, Crisp emigrated to the US, settling in New York’s East Village area. He continued to tour his one-man show and to write books, but he was also in demand increasingly for television and as an actor in films - a part in Orlando, for example, took him back to the UK in 1992. Despite his effete personality and evident homosexuality, he never identified with the growing gay movement - he called AIDS ‘a fad’, and homosexuality ‘a terrible disease’ - nor did it embrace him. Nevertheless, by the time of his death in 1999, he had been famous for years, as a much loved and eccentric individual. Further information is available at Wikipedia, the Crisperanto website, Pink News, The New York Times or The Independent.

I have no idea if Crisp kept a diary regularly, but a few years before his death, in 1996, HarperCollins published Resident Alien: The New York Diaries. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. It doesn’t look or read like a diary (though the content inside is titled ‘The Journals’), since the diary entries are only dated by year and the season. Crisp reported - in an interview with Spike Magazine - that he only wrote diary entries at the end of each month. He also complained that the publisher had removed all the dates. It’s also worth noting that six of Crisp’s monthly diary entries from 1997 are available online at Crisperanto.

In his introduction to Resident Evil, Donald Carroll writes: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Quentin Crisp could well be the wittiest man alive. For that very reason, unfortunately but understandably, he is often spoken of as the Oscar Wilde de nos jours. The comparison, however well-intentioned, does Quentin a disservice. For Oscar Wilde, wit was a weapon, a duelling sword with which he could take on all comers and defeat them with his swordplay. For Quentin, wit is more a magic wand of revelation - no less rapier-like than Wilde’s, no less glinting in the sunlight of retelling, but waved gently rather than brandished. Because Wilde never came to terms with the truth about himself, because he was for ever trying to graft his persona on to his person, he used his wit to score points off those who would challenge him. Quentin, on the other hand, with no secrets to keep from himself or others, no territory to defend, has always used his wit to embrace the world that now, at last, so enthusiastically embraces him. As a result whereas Wilde was reduced to wallowing in lachrymose self-pity and writing mawkish verse until his lonely death at the age of forty-six, Quentin at the age of eighty-six is still cheerfully holding the door open for latecomers to his party. Do come in. I promise you a good time.’

Here is the last paragraph of Crisp’s own foreword to the same book: ‘Those who are compelled to work do not deplore the changes that have come to modern life. They welcome fast transport, immediate communication, universal hygiene, modern medicine and the fact that now justice reaches into the smallest pockets of society. But I, who have not worked in many a long year, do not notice these improvements. I am concerned with the high gloss on society, not with its inner machinery. I am a free-loader, a dillettante, a butterfly on the wheel. And that’s putting it nicely.’

And here is the start of his diary entry dated by the  publisher as Spring 1992.

‘To hell and back. On March 9th, I set out timorously for England; I returned home in a state of total nervous and physical collapse on the 24th. The purpose of this misguided journey halfway across the globe was to make a minuscule appearance as Elizabeth I, in a movie to be entitled Orlando and made from a novel of that very name by the very Mrs Woolf of whom the Burtons were so afraid. All her books were highbrow, and this was certainly the most highbrow. It concerns a young man whom we first meet at Hatfield House in the middle of Hertfordshire (where the young Elizabeth spent much of her childhood), and who lived through the centuries until the present day, incidentally changing his sex on the way, sometime during the seventeen hundreds. This fantastic tale was said to be a tribute to Vita Sackville-West, with whom prurient literary historians claim that Mrs Woolf conducted an illicit liaison. (I personally, don’t think Mrs Woolf believed in sex; she was too much of an aesthete.)

On arriving in London, I went to stay at the Chelsea Arts Club where, at breakfast the next morning, everyone cried out in tones of deepest reproach. ‘Thought you were never coming back.’ I was truly ashamed, because a farewell party had been given for me there two and a half years ago. I could only bow my head and offer, as an extenuating circumstance, that I had returned for the money.

After a day or two, during which I had been fitted for a dress and a wig, Miss Tilda Swinton, the star of the film, arrived to welcome me to England with a bouquet of roses and a gift. Her most recent role was that of Queen Isabella in Edward II, a film directed by Mr Jarman: we can therefore assume that she is accustomed to appearing in unabashed festival material and, indeed she seems to prefer it to real movies.

Once my part in Orlando began in earnest, I left the club and moved to Bush Hall, a small hotel in Hatfield, so as not to rise at five in the morning on the days when work began at seven. There I was given a room so large that I could have a party for twenty people in it, and was treated with such deference that, on the occasion when I ate lunch there, the proprietor himself served me with his own two hands.

On my first day of work, I realized instantly that I was doomed to a life of agony. Two amazingly long-suffering dressers wedged me into a costume in which two padded rolls forming a kind of bustle, a hooped skirt, a quilted petticoat, another petticoat, and finally an outer skirt were all tied round my waist before I was laced into a corset so tight that it raised a blister on my stomach. Over all this, I wore a cloak that trailed the ground behind me and on which two elk-hounds and Miss Swinton occasionally stepped, causing me to utter a cry of apprehension and to totter about the lawn. Never in the history of dress design has so much glass been affixed to so many yards of tat.

Apart from all this, I was made up clown-white with a dusting of rouge on my cheeks and eyelids and clamped into a huge red wig at times surmounted by a tiara. Apparelled thus, before I could leave the trailer, called a ‘relocatable’, a gentleman, appropriately named Christian, had to hold up my skirts and, watching my feet, utter instructions such as ‘One step down. Now the other leg. Right. You’re on level ground.’ Carrying all this haberdashery caused my back to ache ferociously, and that was before I had fallen back in a high chair so that my skull crashed against the opposite wall of the make-up room and my back muscles were stretched out of shape.

Sometimes I worked in one or the other of the vast rooms of Hatfield House, sometimes in the grounds, and once, in the middle of the night, on a lake that was really more like a pond. For this scene, real men were employed to row a small boat back and forth several times while, in another boat, a charming young man called Mr Somerville sang in a falsetto voice a song telling the world that I was ‘the fairest queen’. What he thought of this assignment I did not dare to enquire.

During this ordeal, Miss Potter, the director, Miss Swinton, the star, and everyone concerned were all most solicitous and kind, but I cannot deny that I am heartily glad that it is over.

Although I try never to read books, I am now perusing two concurrently, dipping into whichever happens to be on hand when a spare moment occurs. One of these is Mr Cocteau’s diary, entitled (in translation) Past Tense, and the other is called Final Exit, by a Mr Humphry, a journalist who used to write for The Sunday Times in London and the Los Angeles Times, chiefly about civil liberties, radal integration, and voluntary euthanasia.

I have now forgotten who lent me the former of these two volumes, but doubtless he will reclaim it one fine day. It has a foreword by Mr Ned Rorem, which by itself is worth the price of the entire book. He was with Mr Cocteau at most eight times during the thirteen years of their acquaintance, but says that to meet him once was to know him. He writes, ‘While you were with him, you were seemingly the sole beneficiary of his charitable flood of fire. I have known few people with such infectious charm. It may be opportunism, but it can’t be faked, and it can’t be bought.’

Final Exit is a handbook for anyone wishing to commit suiride. This was sent to me by a Mr Hofsess who, some years ago, came to New York, like the rest of us, in the hope of ruling the world. He stayed at least long enough to do most of the work on a book of mine, entitled Manners From Heaven. He then returned to Vancouver and, to my astonishment, has become king of the local branch of the Hemlock Sodety. He wishes me to write something about this book and I will. I have always liked death, especially other people’s death, but have recently been contemplating my own with a certain amount of relish. Not long ago, during a television interview, I was asked if I was worried by the idea of mortality. I replied that I was not and added that next Tuesday would do fine for my own demise. This remark caused a concerned citizen to ask how I could possibly be so bored that I was eager to die. The question was natural because he was a young man. Ennui is the disease of youth. The prevailing malady of the old is fatigue. I have never been bored since I came to live in Manhattan, but, inevitably, I am gradually becoming permanently tired.

Even before senility set in, my views about death were sanguine, or, to put the matter another way, I have never shared the prevailing opinion that life is wonderful come what may. I have often been surprised when someone who has suffered a permanent injury in some disaster, says, ‘I’m lucky to be alive.’ If I were in a plane crash, for instance, and all my luggage - let alone one of my limbs - had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, I would not consider myself lucky to be alive. So, if told of someone’s death, I will say, ‘How terrible —’ and look at the floor for an appropriate interval, but I can’t really feel it is terrible because in my view death is the least awful thing that can happen to someone.

It is our bodies that want to live for ever, but surely we ought to be in control of our physical appetites. However, this is a state that it is easier to praise than to achieve. Nobody wants a violent or a painful death, and this is where Mr Humphry’s book comes in so handy. It is totally unsentimental, absolutely free from religious bias, and admirably practical. My only divergence of opinion from that of the author is that I do not think that the relatives of the person committing suicide should be consulted or involved in any way. They may have something to gain from the proposed death and may therefore feel guilty. In all other respects, I am full of praise for Final Exit and for its author.’

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