An alien in New York
Before the phrase ‘in your face’ was invented, Quentin Crisp was there, finding fame for his extreme, up-tight Englishness as much his flamboyant eyeshadows. As he prepares to come to Scotland, the
accidental hero of the gay movement speaks to David Harris.
Quentin Crisp: ‘I am considered a sort of national hero, but really I was a hopeless case.‘
fQuentin Crisp didn’t exist, it would be wholly unnecessary to invent him. A celebrity since his sixties, he is now 87, and continues to live a life of sublime superfluity in New York’s ‘smiling and nodding racket’, doing what can only be called his Quentin Crisp routine.
Mr Crisp — he calls everybody. ‘Mr’, from Sting to Santa Claus — is preparing to come to Scotland to promote, among other things, his latest diaries Resident Alien and a whisky named after him and produced by a Scottish company. Quentin Crisp, labelled the first gay whisky, is being marketed as ‘unique’ and ‘daring to be different’. Much like its namesake.
Crisp became an overnight sensationalist in 1975 with the TV adaptation of The Naked Civil Servant, the story of his life as an occasional commercial artist, life model and Soho habituee. Starring John Hurt (‘my representative on earth‘), it achieved success primarily for its amoral aestheticism and epigrammatic humour, and catapulted its author from the demi- mondaine shadows to the limelight. His emigration to Manhattan in 1981 provided him
with an even more welcoming stage for his camp eccentricity: whereas in London his resolute effeminacy brought him censure and bodily harm, in the Lower East Side he is just another crazy doing his thing.
‘People are my only pastime,‘ he proclaims in his clipped and creaky 78 rpm timbre, ‘so i love living in New York. In England I never felt safe. New Yorkers keep pointing out streets or avenues and saying they’re dangerous, but l’ve wandered about for ﬁfteen years and l’ve only once been threatened . . . and that was for money.’ Dramatic pause. ‘And whatever’s done for money is sacred.’
His performance rarely varies, and like the Algonquin wits, he practises hard at spontaneity. A journalist once asked his agent, ‘Why does he always say the same things?’, to which the agent replied, ‘Because you always ask the same questions.’
The temptation is to fill the page with Crispian aphorisms: whatever the subject, he has something witty (if not necessarily wise) to add. Criticism is irrelevant, since he embraces superﬁciality as a personal philosophy, claiming
QUENTIN CRISP FEATURE
that anyone who denies self-interest is a hypocrite.
His open. not to say flagrant, espousal of homosexuality has seen him upheld as a pioneer of gay liberation. and his New York diaries. Resident Alien. are full of invitations to speak at gay festivals. ‘They’re all rather strident.’ he remarks. ‘People shouting and waving their arms and saying they’re gay — in England they don’t do that. they’re very civilised. But it is fun, it makes for variety. it makes for events that you can attend and get yourself photographed and put on television.’
Crisp has in the past condemned ‘outing'. his own outrageous ‘militancy’ being a mere quirk of character. so his veneration comes as something of a mystery to him. ‘Well. I am considered a sort of national hero,’ he laughs. ‘but really i was a hopeless case and that was all there was to it! I couldn’t do otherwise than i did. but it’s been read as a gesture — Americans love a gesture — and that l’ve set the world free. whereas really. of course. i only set myself free.’
Ever since his mother took him to the movies. Crisp has been an American in his heart. To his
‘I couldn’t do otherwise than I did, but it’s been read as a gesture - Americans love a gesture - and that I’ve set the world free, whereas really, oi course, I only set myself free.
immeasurable joy the place turned out to be ‘more like the movies than you’d ever dream'. and he never tires of singing its praises. ‘Everyone in America is your friend and nobody in England is your friend.’ he insists.
Lack of depth in personal relations doesn’t enter into the equation, and the very idea ofclose friendship horrifies him. ‘1 can’t know everyone well because i know so many people. I don’t want “my best friend”, that’s frightening. When you have a best friend, he meets you in the street and says, “Oh, you are still here. I thought you were dead because you didn’t ring me up all last week.” People are a burden if they feel they’re your best friend.’ His words evince an archetypal fear of intimacy and smack of excessive protestation. ‘l don’t cling to anybody, because i think that’s what makes them so worrisome, as they think they ought to do something for you.’
Everyone does everything for Quentin anyway. He makes no apologies for eating, drinking and travelling at others’ expense. There is something poignant about the profession be furnished on his tax form: ‘Waif, retired’. Still seeing himself as an offering on the altar of other people’s desires, he describes his life and work in modest terms. ‘1 live in one room, which I did in Chelsea. l’m friends with anyone who wants to be friends with me. i say what people ask me to say. i write what people ask me to write. I go where my fare is paid. I really just do what I’m told,’ he says, ‘l'm happy now, which I wasn‘t when i was young - that’s the real difference.’
Life in Manhattan, he says, is one long party. Although things are drawing to a close just as he’s beginning to enjoy himself, as long as it lasts there’s no doubt who is the life and soul. Resident Alien by Quentin Crisp is published by HarperCollins at £16.99. He is appearing at Pride Scotland at Glasgow Green, Glasgow, on Saturday 22 June at 1.30pm; at A Night On The Fringe at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on Sunday 23 June at 7.30pm; and on Gaytime TV on Thursday 27 June at 11.15pm on BBC2.
The List 14-27 Jun 1996 13