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‘I’m Nobody’s Nephew’ – Rare Quentin Crisp interview

‘So you sit there. There’s the nail, and there’s the piece of wood. And you wait.’

Probably for the Great Dark Man to bang it in.

Broadcast on UK television in 1975, the day after The Naked Civil Servant aired, thrilling and shocking the nation, this fine interview by the great Mavis Nicholson is one that I don’t recall seeing before.

Though of course, Crisp didn’t really do interviews – he declaimed. Gloriously. Crisp was forever in the dock, making a final, impassioned appeal to the judge.

And to our sense of humour.

Tip: Paul St Paul

Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact.

And like its subject it could only have been made in the UK. Even if Crisp said he hated England – and he did, over and over again.

So many lines in Philip Mackie’s superb screenplay for the Thames TV adaptation glitter like, well, the icy aphorisms that Crisp filled his eponymous autobiography with. But it was Hurt’s breakthrough performance as Crisp which is most historic: rendering Crisp, as Quentin himself acknowledged – and welcomed – something of an understudy to Hurt’s Crisp for the rest of his life.

The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Dennis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey in 1908, sometimes sounded by this stage (he was nearly 70 when the drama aired) like a vintage car tyre losing air ve-ry slow-ly. And was almost as immobile. Hetero dandy Hurt injected a kind of rakishness – a hint of phallicism, even – to Crisp’s defiantly passsssive persssssona that came across rather more invigorating and sexy than he actually was. Hurt rendered Crisp rock ‘n’ roll when he probably wasn’t even up for a waltz. When Hurt repeatedly intoned Crisp’s Zen-like answer to the world and Other People and Desire in general – ‘If you like’ – it sounded slightly more aggressive than passive.

(And for me, Hurtian Crisp was further improved by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the performance artist David Hoyle in the early 80s when we were both teenage runaways to London’s bedsit-land. He would perform key moments from TNCS mid-conversation, but always succeeded in making these impromptu excerpts sound as if they were flashbacks to his earlier life. Which, since he grew up a sensitive boy in working class Blackpool in the 1970s watching a lot of telly, they were.)

TNCS, both the book and the dramatisation, is criminally funny precisely because so much of what Hurt/Crisp says – or declaims – is so shockingly true.

The line whispered delicately in the ear of the leader of a 1930s queer bashing gang is now almost a cliche, but still has hilarious force: ‘“If I were you I’d bugger off back to Hoxton before they work out you’re queer.” Cue 1920s style intertitle:

Some roughs are really queer, and some queers are really rough.

Crisp’s truths, particularly about human relationships, are the truths told by someone who has nothing to lose – largely because they’ve already lost everything to the bailiffs of despair. This is the ‘nakedness’ of the Civil Servant.

Because it was one of the first TV dramas to depict a self-confessed and unapologetic – flaunting, even – homosexual TNCS has been frequently misrepresented as a ‘gay drama’. But Crisp’s sexuality is not really what TNCS is about or in fact what Crisp was about.

To a degree it is about being ‘out and proud’, or at least determined to inflict oneself on the world, but not so much as a homosexual, and certainly not as ‘a gay’, in the modern, respectable, American sense of the word. It’s not even, thankfully, a plea for tolerance. Rather it’s a portrayal of the heroic self-sufficiency of someone who decided to stand apart from society and its values, henna their hair and work as a male street prostitute – and then, lying bruised in the gutter, turn a haughty, unsentimental but piercingly funny eye back on a world which regards him as the lowest form of life. It’s the blackest and cheekiest kind of comedy – which is to say: the only kind.

‘I am an effeminate homo-sex-u-alll’, declared Crisp to the Universe, over and over again. And the Universe had no choice but to agree. By being utterly abject Crisp forced the Universe to do precisely as he instructed. A blueprint for celebrity that was to be repeated many, many times by others before his death in 1999 and even more times after – though usually rather less wittily and with less jaunty headgear.

Crisp added that as an effeminate homosexual he was imprisoned inside an exquisite paradox, like some kind of ancient insect trapped in amber: attracted to masculine males – the famous Great Dark Man – he cannot himself be attracted to a man who finds him, another male, attractive because then they cannot be The Great Dark Man any more. Hence the famous, Death-of-God declaration in TNCS, after many, many mishaps and misrecognitions: ’”There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!“’

Strictly 19th century sexologically speaking, Mr Crisp was probably more of a male invert than a homosexual and often said that he thought that he should have been a woman, and even wondered whether he was born intersexed (this despite famously dismissing women as ‘speaking a language I do not understand’ – perhaps because he didn’t like too much competition in the speaking stakes). Either way, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly happy with his penis or even its existence – something homosexual males, like heterosexual ones, are usually delirious about. But then again, perhaps rather than expressing some kind of  proto-transsexuality Quentin’s Great Dark Man complex was merely setting up a situation in which he could remain ever faithful to his one true love. Himself.

In Thames TV’s TNCS, which begins (at Crisp’s request) with a pretty, pre-pubescent boy as Quentin/Dennis dancing in a dress in front of a full-length mirror, Hurtian Crisp is an out-and-proud narcissist, who simply refuses to take on board the shame that such an outrageous perversion should entail. When he attempts to join the Army at the start of the war he causes apoplexy in the recruiters for being completely honest about his reasons for doing so: he doesn’t mouth platitudes about ‘doing his duty’, ‘his bit’ or ‘fighting Nazis’. He just wants to eat properly and the squaddies he knows seem to have quite a nice time of it, loading and unloading petrol cans in Basingstoke. His openness about his homosexuality is palpably less shocking to the Army officials than his honesty about his self-interestedness. About his interest in himself.

Or as Hurt/Crisp replies as a preening adolescent youth when asked by his exasperated, buttoned-up Edwardian petite-bourgeois father: ‘Do you intend to admire yourself in the mirror forever??’

If I possibly can.’

And boy, did he. TNCS, which aired slap in the middle of the 70s, was probably more of an inspiration to the glam, punk, new-wave and new romantic generation than to gays in general. Hurtian Crisp and his hennaed hair and make-up sashaying the streets of 1930s London symbolised in the 1970s the idea of an aestheticized revolt against Victorian ideas of proper deportment and dullness that had dominated Britain for much of the Twentieth Century. The best British pop music had always been a form of aesthetic revolt, and Crisp seemed very much his own special creation, which is what so many teens now aspired to be. Crisp was taken for a real original and individual in an age when everyone wanted to be original and individual. Or as Crisp put it himself later:

‘The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.’

TNCS changed Crisp’s life and made him very famous indeed. A reality TV winner before such a thing existed, his prize was the chance to move to America. Since he had loved Hollywood movies from childhood and was later treated like a Hollywood starlet (albeit in air raid shelters) by American GI’s in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But if there’s anything to be learned from An Englishman in New York, the sequel to TNCS broadcast on ITV recently, it’s that it may all have been a terrible mistake. Even if Mr Crisp never thought so.

Although Hurt turns in a technically fine performance, he seems to have become more Crispian and less Hurtian. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the passage of time (Hurt is nearly 70, the age Crisp was when he first played him). Or perhaps it’s simply that his acting skills have increased. Whatever the reason, it’s not a welcome development here. And I’m sure Crisp would have agreed.

But much, much worse is the redemptive reek of this sequel. Everything is made to turn on Crisp’s ‘AIDS {upper case back then, remember} is a fad’ quip made in the early 80s and the trouble this got him into in the US – and why he was a good sort, really. Despite the things he actually said. So we see him adopt a gay artist dying of the ‘fad’, fussing over him and arranging for his art to be exhibited. We discover him sending secret cheques to Liz Taylor’s Aids foundation. We even hear him explain what he meant by ‘fad’ (supposedly it was a political tactic: minimize the gay plague to avoid a hetero backlash).

Now, this obsession with redemption may be very American and has of course, like many American obsessions, become more of an English one of late – especially when trying to sell something to the Yanks, as I’m sure the producers of this sequel are hoping to do. But if there was any point to Crisp at all it was that he was utterly unsentimental – except where royalty were concerned – and relatively free of the hypocrisies of everyday life.  This sequel supposedly about him is full of them. So forgive me if I’m unconvinced.

Crisp was invincible in his determination to regard the US as the dreamland of the movies of his youth made real: America was as he put it ‘Heaven’ where England was ‘Hell’. And why not? If you’ve spent most of your best years deprived of almost every single illusion that comforts most other people, why shouldn’t you have one big one in your retirement?

And to be fair much of what he had to say about the friendliness and flattering, encouraging, open-hearted nature of Americans compared to the mean-minded, resentful, vindictive English is quite true, even today. But Crisp’s whole approach to life was even more at odds with American culture, even in its atypical NYC form, with its emphasis on self-improvement, aspiration, uplift and success. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,’ said Crisp, who regarded himself as a total failure. Could there be a more un-American worldview? Apart that is from, “Don’t try to keep up with the Jones.  Try to drag them down to your level.  It’s cheaper.”

In an early documentary from the 1960s Crisp, sitting in his London bed-sitting room sipping an unappetizing powdered drink he takes instead of preparing food, which he can’t be bothered with, that ‘has all the vitamins and protein I need but tastes awful’ he describes himself as a Puritan. Actually Crisp was a Puritan with an added frosting of asceticism. Crisp was deeply suspicious of all pleasure (save the pleasure of being listened to and looked at) and most especially of sex, which he described as ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. And four years of house dust is a very good way of showing how above the material world you are.

It’s a very middle class, middle England, middle century Puritanism – just like Crisp’s background. But Crisp was also his own kind of revenge on himself, or on the world that had made him — of which he was a living parody. Ultimately none of us are really our own special creations. The most we can hope for is a special edition.

Crisp’s Puritanism was part of the reason why he could never embrace Gay Lib (‘what do you want to be liberated from?’). He was recently subjected to a stern posthumous ticking off by Peter Tatchell, an original Gay Libber, in the Independent newspaper prompted by what he sees as the ‘sanitising of Crisp’s ignorant pompous homophobia’ in An Englishman in New York. Post-60s Crisp was apparently jealous of a new generation of out queers who were stealing his limelite: he wasn’t the only homo in town any more.

This broadside was a tad harsh, and Tatchell sometimes sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejected Crisp (while accusing him of ‘homophobia’ threatens to make an absurdity of the word). But I agree that the sequel does ‘sanitise’ Crisp, though I think this a bad thing for different reasons to Mr Tatchell. I also suspect there’s some truth to the accusation of ‘jealousy’, but I’d be inclined to put them in another form. Maybe Crisp didn’t want homosexuality to be normalised because if it were it would undo his life’s work. Likewise, I think Crisp would have loathed metrosexuality.

And as the sequel suggests, in one of its few insightful moments, one reason for Crisp’s failure to answer the gay clarion call was simply that he didn’t believe in causes, or the subjugation of truth and dress-sense to expediency that inevitably goes with causes. Unless that cause is yourself.

Besides, like many ‘inverts’, Crisp was a great and romantic believer in Heterosexuality – the ideal kind, of course, rather than the kind that heterosexuals actually have to live, and which they execute very, very badly.  He used to call heterosexuals ‘real people’ (as opposed to ‘unreal’ homosexuals), but I suspect he thought he was the only real heterosexual in town. And in a sense, he was.

***

I can’t leave you without pointing out that while Quentin Crisp may have dismissed Aids as a ‘fad’, Hurtian Crisp became more associated with ‘the gay plague’ than almost anyone save Rock Hudson: literally becoming the sound of the seriousness of the subject. In 1975 hetero Hurt plays the most famous stately homo in England. The success of this gets him to Hollywood, where four years later in 1979 he is cast in an even more globally famous role – as ‘Patient Zero’ in Ridley Scott’s Alien: the first host for the terrifying unknown organism that enters his body by face-raping him and which proceeds to kill-off in horrifying, phallic-jackhammer fashion, his shipmates. Two years before the first identified Aids cases in NY.

Eight years later, Hurt is cast as the unforgettable fey-gravelly voice for those terrifying tombstone ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ ads – complete with jackhammers – that ran in heavy rotation on UK TV, urging people to read the Government leaflet pushed through their letterbox and practise safe sex.

In other words, The Naked Civil Servant had become a rubber-sheathed civil servant.

Old Spice: interview Crisp gave Andrew Barrow of the Independent a year before his death.

Crispisms

‘In an expanding universe, time is on 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.’

‘It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.’

‘To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.’

‘You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.’

‘I simply haven’t the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.’

‘It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.’

‘The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.’

‘The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny.  It’s so depressing.”‘

‘Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.’

‘Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin.’

Trading in the past: Queer London

Once upon a time the streets of the capital heaved with jolly sailors and guardsmen looking for gentlemen to have fun with. Then gay liberation came along and ruined it for everyone, moans Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday – 11 September, 2005)

I consider myself something of a traditionalist. I enjoy traditional activities, such as cruising the Dilly, picking up guardsmen, sailors, dockers and young working men.

I am, in other words, a hopeless romantic. For ‘trade’, the masculine erotic economy which girded the loins of the greatest city in the world, lubricated the pistons of the greatest Empire and made saucy sense of the British class system is gone forever. The docks have gone, the sailors and guardsmen are all but gone – and, criminally, don’t wear their uniforms on the street any more, making them very difficult to spot. And as for the working men, well, they all live so far out of town these days and drive so fast in their white vans that it’s almost impossible to collar any.

All that’s left is a gay disco in the East End called, mockingly, ‘Trade’, where you can find shirtless gay lawyers on horse-tranquilizers eyeing one another up while dancing frantically at 5am. If you really want to.

Gone too are the painted queans, such as Quentin Crisp, and the respectable gentlemen in evening dress who pursued trade – trade who, for sex, for violence, for love, for money, for a few beers, for something to tell their mates about, frequently allowed themselves to be caught. Gone are the jostling, smoke-filled “known” (not “gay”) pubs. Gone is the whole vibrant and complex pre-gay bachelor world of male-male intimate relations that meant that perhaps most sexual activity between men before the 1967 decriminalisation involved men who were not queer. What we now call “homosexuality” or “the gay scene” was a much, much bigger business before so-called liberalisation.

Contrary to received wisdom, today’s out-and-proud gay world is in some ways a marginalised, airless, incestuous one compared to what went before in the “bad old days”. It’s only in the last 30 years or so, in other words, the period corresponding to the rise of “gay liberation”, that we have begun to believe that to have sex with another male you have to belong to a separate species. That, regardless of your interest in the ladies, if you wake up in bed with another male you have to move to Old Compton Street or the Castro, pronto.

As Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957 makes remarkably clear, just a few decades ago, significant numbers of (working-class) young men were not only moving freely between male and female partners but were happy to brag about it. So long as they were “butch” and active – or claimed they were – it would merely enhance their reputation with the lads. It certainly didn’t mean that they were “confused about their sexuality”.

Though you, dear reader, may be about theirs. It is, after all, a world that is almost unintelligible to us today. Even my nostalgia for “traditional” activities is precisely that: nostalgia. A slightly perverse, contemporary projection onto the past – a past that is now too “queer” and unfamiliar to grasp fully, possibly even by those who are still alive to remember it. As Houlbrook puts it: “Working class encounters with the queer transcended contemporary understandings of ‘homosexuality’ or ‘homophobia’. Intimacy, sex, blackmail, theft, and assault constituted a continuum…” A rather more exciting continuum than most homos today can handle – or would want to.

Perhaps this is why many gays today simply refuse to believe such a world existed, except as some failed prototype for the wonderful, self-contained, self-centred gay world they now live in: “God, all those sad, oppressed, self-hating homos chasing after straight men – why didn’t they get themselves down to the gym and buy some camouflage trousers?”

Thankfully, Houlbrook isn’t one of those gays. He’s a historian. “The world mapped out in this book is not a ‘gay’ world as we would currently understand it,” he writes. “The places are different. Soho has retained its importance, but today it seems almost impossible that Waterloo Road or Edgware Road could have been the site of equally important, diverse, extensive, and vital queer enclaves between the wars.” Edgware Road was the site of a large barracks; Waterloo Road the home of the Union Jack Club, a hotel for hundreds of randy young sailors on leave. As one contemporary put it: “The Waterloo Road was awash with seamen, most of whose bodies… were not only able but willing.”

Queer London, with chapters on “Geographies of Public Sex” and “Piccadilly Palare: the world of the West End poof” (spot the Moz reference) goes out of its way to present a map of London’s queer past that doesn’t merely see it as a world that was struggling to turn into Soho during Pride Week: “In exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the 20th century, we should lament possibilities long lost as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired.”

Obviously, it is the lost possibility of sex – and loving relationships – with sailors, soldiers and young working men men that I most lament. So does Houlbrook; or, at least, he sees this as the crucial difference between London’s contemporary gay world and its queer past. Unlike many other recent urban gay histories, this book gives equal attention to those who considered themselves “normal” but nonetheless socialised with, had sex with, and often loved other men. In other words: trade. The men who were at the very centre of the queer erotic economy and without whom Saturday nights in 1930s Soho would have been very dull indeed.

So we learn that “the most distinctive venues” were either military pick-up joints like the Grenadier (Wilton Place), Tattershalls Tavern (Knightsbridge Green), the Alexandra Hotel (Hyde Park Corner), and the Packenham and Swan (I’ll be visiting them all very soon, just to make sure they’re no longer “in business”); or those in working-class neighbourhoods in east and south London: dockside pubs like the Prospect of Whitby (Wapping Stairs), or Charlie Brown’s (West India Dock Road). In these venues, dock labourers, sailors from across the world, and families “mingled freely with flamboyant local queans and slumming gentlemen in a protean milieu where queer men and casual homosexual encounters were an accepted part of everyday life”. Perhaps Houlbrook is a little nostalgic too, after all.

To regard London’s trading scene as merely “prostitution” or “exploitation”, as many are inclined, is again to impose modern, patronising values on transactions: “Working men’s desires were more complex than the term ‘prostitution’ allows.” Money was not always exchanged (especially with sailors), but even when it was, most of the “normal” men trading themselves had jobs. For the most part, trade was an enjoyable and rewarding pastime activity that could also become a lasting emotional attachment.

Guardsman were notoriously rough renters (very capable of blackmail and violence, which was perhaps part of their appeal), but as one interviewed in 1960 admitted: “Some of us get quite fond of the blokes we see regularly… they’re nice fellows… and interesting to listen to. As for the sex… some of the younger ones aren’t bad looking…”

Or like the newly married Jim writing rather sweetly to his gentleman friend, John Lehmann: “I wish I was still seeing you Jack as you were the best friend I ever had… you were always such a good friend to me we had good times together Jack and I hope I shall see you some time.” Trade was a young man’s game, which usually lasted only for the period between adolescence and marriage. Once married, working-class men and their unruly erections would “move on”.

Why did the world of trade end? In part, because, like Jim, it got married. The post-war years saw a rise in prosperity which not only undermined the economic rationale for trade, it also made marriage possible much sooner. Rather than getting married in their late twenties and early thirties, young men were marrying in their late teens and early twenties. The rough and tumble world of “raucous male homosociality” was disappearing. Young men were socialising much more with women, who were now entering public life with money to spend themselves (and today, if the tabloid stories are to be believed, are lining up to be smuggled into Knightsbridge Barracks). Trade ended because the bachelor-culture of pre-war London ended.

Ironically, the final blow to trade and the public world of queer sex was delivered by Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the Act which decriminalised sex between consenting adult males in private 10 years later.

Key Wolfenden witnesses, Patrick Trevor-Roper (a Harley Street consultant) and Peter Wildeblood (diplomatic correspondent for The Daily Mail) pleaded for homosexual respectability in the language of the private middle-class home (sounding uncannily like gay marriage lobbyists today). Wildeblood claimed: “I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and… to live with him discreetly and faithfully… the right to choose the person whom I love.”

However, as Houlbrook points out, both witnesses glossed over the queer spaces in which they were going to meet that partner. Wildeblood famously met the airman McNally in a Piccadilly Circus subway; Trevor-Roper was cautioned by a policeman in St James’s Park, a veritable bazaar for strapping Guardsman during the war.

To which I might add that for Wolfenden the “real perverts” were not the “congenital inverts”, but the “otherwise normal men” who took part in these aberrant activities, often in public. This is why prosecutions for indecency actually doubled in the 10 years following “decriminalisation” in 1967 (many of those convicted were married). Wolfenden, which was also a report into street prostitution, encouraged the law to go after the “real perverts”. All male sexual contact involving those under 21, those staying in hostels or hotels, rooming houses or prison, meeting in parks and public toilets (they were not “in private”), or while serving in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, remained illegal. In other words, probably the vast majority of homosex in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Even the consensual activities that led to the Montagu Scandal and public backlash which prompted the Wolfenden Report and eventually the 1967 reform itself would still have been illicit after ‘decriminalisation’ as they involved members of the RAF and were not conducted ‘in private’ – and would remain so for much of the next 40 years.

It’s probably just more sour grapes on my part, but it’s tempting to conclude that the law reforms of the last few years, such as the equalisation of the age of consent, ending the ban in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, and relaxation of the laws on ‘soliciting’ and “indecency” in public, happened not so much because of the tireless campaigns by gay equality reformers, or even the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, but simply because, one or two cruisey parks aside, most “traditional activities” in London had already come to an end.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.