There's nothing very admirable about Quentin Crisp
`We owe it to each other not to go on stage and say "You normal people are right to hate us"'
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 19 November 1999
An unmistakable voice. The return of Mr Quentin Crisp, as we must call him, is not, this time, in person, but in the inimitable imitation of Ms Bette Bourne, in double-drag and appearing as a man in Mr Tim Fountain's excellent play Resident Alien, at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, west London.
At least, I think that it's excellent - my time-keeping, never brilliant at the best of times, went so awry that I arrived there an hour and three- quarters late and so had to read the play sitting outside on the stairs. Anyway, while patiently waiting, I had plenty of time to think about this remarkable and yet somehow not very admirable figure.
He is a splendid, unforgettable wit, of course - "In medieval France, living at the same time as Joan of Arc, there was a great French nobleman called Gilles de Rais, and he murdered 150 choirboys in a lifetime. Now, quantity is not style." And I would always go and hear him.
I remember once, in Cambridge in 1987, listening to him take questions from the audience and being struck with awe when, on being asked for a definition of "camp", he claimed never to have heard the expression, before finally declaring: "I believe that it may once have meant going to have sex with a lot of soldiers."
All the same, it's easy to have doubts about him. He is the master of self-denigration, which is not always easy to distinguish from self-loathing.
He has turned the dubious principle of qui s'accuse, s'excuse into a way of living, so that when the yobs call him a filthy queer, his reply is that yes, he agrees, homosexuality is filthy and deplorable, and homosexuals are not proper human beings, and he should know, since he himself is homosexual.
Somehow, all the wit in the world isn't enough to make up for that.
Maybe this is unfair, and Mr Crisp - his manner is contagious - has performed one brave and signal service, that of being highly visible as a homosexual all his life. He says he had no alternative, but that is what brave people always say. All the same, his insistent dislike of homosexuality as a condition is not an admirable aspect of his conversation.
He says he has no interest in acting as a spokesman for the gay community, which sounds fair enough, until you reflect that every member of a minority is forced to act as such a spokesman, within his family, in the street where he lives, in his workplace. And, to some degree, we owe it to each other not to go on stage and say, "You normal people are right to hate us."
And they do hate us. Last week, I got home from the pub and switched on Channel 4's Eleven O'Clock Show. It is no good, of course; it's written and presented by two people without any perceptible talent except for laughing at their own jokes. But, in a way, the fact that it is presented by people who are not intelligent, funny, or remarkable makes it more interesting as a reflection of ordinary attitudes.
First came a joke about moustaches being worn by "benders" - yes, I know, they really ought to get out a bit more if they think that the moustache is still big on Soho's Old Compton Street.
Then, later in the programme, someone in the street was being asked whether he thought it would be a good idea to have a "gay cruising-zone" in the Millennium Dome, where people could go to be "felt up by benders".
This was hilarious, absolutely hilarious. I fell about laughing, especially when I remembered my friend who, six months ago, was set upon by five men with baseball bats; how funny he would have found it, lying in his hospital bed with a cracked skull.
Perhaps the word "benders" might even have helped him to recover some of his impaired memory - "Yes! that's right! That was exactly what they were shouting, as they smashed the baseball bat down on my head!"
I don't think Channel 4 would be all that happy about a "comedy" programme that routinely made jokes about nig-nogs, yids and chinks. But talking about benders is somehow OK, because - well, you know, it's just funny, isn't it, because - do you actually know what they do? To each other?
Sitting outside the theatre, reading Tim Fountain's play the other night, I came across a splendid, suggestive line. Mr Crisp is preparing a fried egg, and as he breaks it into the pan, wonders, "Why does the yolk always break?" Except that, in the playscript, there is a misprint, and he is made to ask, "Why does the yoke always break?"
Yes, indeed; in the end, the yoke does always break. Those yokes of burden and oppression, hatred and self-hatred.
It is astonishing how powerfully seductive those voices can be, wondering why they always have to break; and, in the end, we have to make an effort not to listen to them.
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