Life is a bowl of peanuts

RESIDENT ALIEN: The New York Diaries by Quentin Crisp, HarperCollins pounds 16.99

Quentin Crisp's life is a paradox. He has an iron will, and yet he will not take charge of his future. He lives in conditions which, he allows, Americans regard as poverty. He boasts that he has bought no new clothes since he arrived in the New World. For him, this is an emblem of his tiny jurisdiction over his own self and nothing else. He thrives on being subject to the whims of fate. His availability is his virtue.

He is recklessly available. His telephone number is listed in the New York phone book. Anybody can call him up. He will let anybody at all take him out to dinner as long as they will pay. He is bullish about existing on peanuts and champagne which are to be had at openings and first nights, so his policy is to attend everything he is invited to. "That is the story of my life," he says. "I go where my fare is paid."

This dazzling, inconsequential book purports to be diaries, yet the division is not by day or week, but by season ("1991: Spring"), and the entries have a measured shape which suggests revision so comprehensive as to compromise the description.

That is no quibble. The writing is as charming and witty as you would expect: nothing especially remarkable has happened to Mr Crisp in the five years or so the book covers, so he is obliged to tell his stories brilliantly to keep our interest. He is, with this book as with his dinner conversation and, yes, with the whole of his life, singing for his supper.

And his wit is as fresh as ever. He makes mordant use of the phrase "self- confessed", as in "a self-confessed interior decorator". He observes that "teaching, preaching, acting and politics are vocations adopted by people who can not live within their income of praise".

He is sufficiently unimpressed with his own fame to be still a little star-struck. He meets Mr T (of The A-Team); "He is so vast that I was obliged to ride him side-saddle". He sees Julian Clary perform, "as much made up as the forces of gravity would allow".

He defuses name-dropping by a pretended formality. He "worked" with Sting, or, as he calls him, Mr Sting. Everybody gets a title - Mr Warhol or Mr Sartre. At a certain Scottish play he refers to Mr Macbeth. When Mr Crisp finds himself rendered as a cartoon character he is thrilled to take his place "beside Mr Mouse and Mr Abner".

Mr Crisp claims a prodigious sloth, but relates, as it were with a sigh, frenetic activity. On free tickets he travels all over America and beyond, he allows himself to be roped in to appear in movies and on television, he will give a favourable review of any book to any publication (his practice is to praise everything lavishly). On principle he never refuses to be photographed.

The picture on the dust-jacket of Resident Alien shows him, still made up, looking coquettishly out at the world, still, at his advanced age, with that come- hither quality. He is still singing for his supper, and his book is a delight.

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