Thursday, April 15, 2004
Quentin And Me
I’ve just finished reading Quentin and Philip, by Andrew Barrow, a dual biography of writer and poet Philip O’Connor, and Quentin Crisp, sexual pervert and stately homo of England (his words). I recommend it as an evocative portrait of London’s Bohemia from the twenties through to the present day, and it throws up some surprising nuggets of information. I never knew, for instance, that Lou Beale from EastEnders was part of the louche Fitzrovia scene; or that the Black Cat Café, where a young Denis Pratt (Quentin’s real name) met up with his fellow rent-boys, is now the shop where I buy my jeans on Old Compton Street, bang in the heart of London’s Queer Town.
I’ve read and enjoyed much of what Quentin Crisp’s written, and also paid to see him a couple of times in his one-man show. I even collared him on the street once, as he was leaving the stage door on his solo walk home to his famously dusty room in Chelsea, to offer my congratulations. A thoroughly charming and well-mannered man he was, one of a kind, and, of course, an exquisite wit and raconteur, even if, after time, the old anecdotes started to sound rusty and weary.
Yet, as a gay man myself, I’ve always had a problem with him. Or rather not with him as an individual or performer, but with him as some sort of homo icon, a burden and a status which I’m fairly certain he never welcomed. He’s on record as saying that homosexuality is a mistake, an illness even, and he paid only lip-service to the gay rights movement, and described the “obsession” with AIDS as a passing fad. The only service he performed, it seems to me, was to the shameless promotion of Quentin Crisp Inc. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, and he did it with grace and with style. As ever, my problem with Quentin is less political, and much more personal.
Most of us became aware of him through The Naked Civil Servant, the excellent bio-pic of his life, first shown by Thames TV in the mid-seventies, and starring John Hurt. I was about sixteen at the time, and knew I was gay, although we didn’t call it “gay” back then. No, we called it being “one of them”.
I was bullied at school, both verbally and physically; got called a poofter and a queer and a shirt-lifter and a nancy-boy. All the usual stuff really; it actually got quite tiresome and predictable after a while. And whenever they wanted to get rid of me, the cool kids would suggest I piss off to the girls’ loos and apply my Number 7 Velvet Peach or touch up the mascara. That’s right: the good old stereotype of a puff as a wannabe girl, dressed in frilly knickers, and playing with his Sindy rather than Action Man dolls.
Then I’d never knowingly met any gay men, and certainly not what we’d now call a positive role model. As far as I was concerned, all homosexuals were effeminate sissies, and not real men (whatever that means). And some of us are. And some of us aren’t. And I’m certainly not the butchest bloke on the block.
So I winced through every moment of Civil Servant on its first showing. For here, at last, was confirmation of what we suspected all along! Yes, it was true! They did wear lippie! Yes, they did mince along the King’s Road in gold stilettos and paint their toe-nails red! And yes, they were all consumed with self-loathing! And yes, so we should be! And some of them did. And some of us do. And after the programme aired, everyone at school stopped calling me “poofter” and “nancy-boy”. Now they called me “Quentin”. It was not meant as a term of affection.
Of course, I now see the programme as a marvellous slice of drama, less about being gay per se, and more about one man’s trailblazing determination to stress his individuality (which just happens to be a gay one). Watching it again last night, I was also reminded that it’s also very, very funny, and moving. But back when I was an insecure teenager, Quentin, in all his heroic grotesquery, just put me right off being gay. It took me a good couple of years, before I realised that not all gay men were raving screamers (but nothing wrong with that, of course), and that some of us were actually just like everybody else. Which is why I think Todd and Karl from my previous post, are far better role models for young gay men than dear old Quentin could ever be.
But the world would have been a much drearier place without him.