Monday, October 24, 2011

{review} the naked civil servant

Quentin Crisp The Naked Civil Servant (1968)

 
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile, 
Be yourself no matter what they say. 
(Sting, 'Englishman in New York', 1987)
When, in preparation for his move to America, he was asked at the US Embassy if he were a practising homosexual, he replied, "I didn't practise. I was already perfect." (source)
I was surprised by my melancholic reaction to this book. Quentin Crisp - "one of the stately homos of England" - was responsible for some of the wittiest turns of phrase ('Crisperanto') of the twentieth century but this book is by no means a barrel of laughs. Crisp (born Denis Pratt in Surrey in 1908) lived through nearly a century of openly - and often violently - expressed homophobia in a country where 'homosexual offences' were only partially decriminalised in 1967 (the year before The Naked Civil Servant was published).
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... I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one.
Crisp achieved no more than local prominence until The Naked Civil Servant was turned into a TV drama, starring John Hurt in the early 1970s. At that point Crisp became a celebrity who could sell out theatres with his one-man show, part of which involved his offering spontaneous answers to questions taken randomly from the audience. In 1981, after living 40 years in the same London bed-sit ("There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse"), he moved to New York (thus Sting's lyrics, above). He died, still touring, near Manchester in 1999, at the ripe old age of 90.
At work I never once understood what I was doing. In theory I was employed as an engineer's tracer. This was one of the many kinds of work at which I could never hope to become proficient. Accuracy is alien to my nature. Many years later a woman asked me what a 'point' was. When I told her it was a seventy-second part of an inch, she said, 'But there isn't such a thing, really. Is there?' That is what I have always secretly thought. When I was given plans to trace, I copied the mistakes as well as the revisions and neither of them properly; when I was told to transfer the positions of electric pylons from one map to another, I did so with such a jolly laugh that construction men telephoned from distant shires to ask what on earth was going on at head office.
Crisp's most successful and long-term job was as an artist's model, which obviously granted his narcissistic tendencies full rein. He was, he writes, hooked on exhibitionism, "taking doses so massive that they would have killed a novice." He sported dyed red hair (which he changed to blue when he hit his 40s, "my blue period"), long polished nails, sandals and a mincing gait that wore out the knees of his trousers. 

"When war was declared I went out and bought two pounds of henna". When he went to sign up,
 ...a young man appeared holding at arm's length, as though he were about to read a proclamation, a sheaf of papers which he tore up with a flourish: 'You'll never be wanted,' he said and thrust at me a smaller piece of paper. This described me as being incapable of being graded in grades A, B, etc. because I suffered from sexual perversion. When the story of my disgrace became one of the contemporary fables of Chelsea, a certain Miss Marshall said, 'I don't much care for the expression "suffering from". Shouldn't it be "glorying in"?'
As he writes, "Many of my friends were able to find work in camouflage. This seemed an unlikely way for me to earn a living." One consequence of being loose on the streets of London during the second world war was Crisp's exposure to the sexually and financially generous American invaders, whom he loved: "Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few." He also found his effeminate persona fitted in better on these streets where so many women were wearing trousers. And the streets themselves had become so much darker: "As soon as bombs started to fall, the city became like a paved double bed." Circumstances favoured the sexually provoking flâneur: "though some of the buildings had been ruined, most of the people had been improved."

It's an odd memoir: the structure maintains a sort of life-time time-line, but the repetition of events (boring jobs, beatings, café life, people dropping in and out, the endless walking walking walking of the streets with hennaed hair and painted toe-nails) gives the narrative a strangely syncopated rhythm, as though it doesn't really matter when an event occurred. This is perhaps a marker of a long life, as well as a not overly tight narrative.

Crisp is an mix of exceedingly brave (or bold) and physically cowardly; narcissist and agoraphobic, masochist and hmmm... whatever the vanilla-ish opposite of that might be. His attitude to homosexuality seems sometimes to border on an enculturated disgust.
If there is a heaven for homosexuals, which doesn't seem very likely, it will be very poorly lit and full of people they can feel pretty confident they will never have to meet again.
He positively cultivates his ability to rub everyone up the wrong way ("I discovered that my great gift was for unpopularity") and he is a failure at emotional intimacy: "Living with him was the practical part of an examination in the theoretical section of which I had already done badly. In the second half I scored no marks at all." He is in love with death, yet lives to 90, almost in spite of himself. This is an unabashedly brutal memoir with very little face-saving:
I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire. Yet I find it hard to take a prolonged look back and not attempt to excuse results by rearranging causes. Though intelligence is powerless to modify character, it is a dab hand at finding euphemisms for its weakness.
Rating: 8/10.

If you liked this... the Quentin Crisp Archive (Crisperanto) is well worth exploring.

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