We who have nothing - but a firm grasp of style

Having established one image, it's not impossible to adopt another, even if it is quite opposite
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The Independent Culture
TODAY'S SERMON is on style and image. Quentin Crisp used to give a very thought-provoking lecture on the art of having style. One person he considered to have great style, whether you approved of her or not, was Eva Peron. He admired the way she built a persuasive image of herself as the simple woman of the people even though she was a dictator and a millionairess. He described the way she would appear before the multitude and raise her hands above her "so that the expensive bracelets rattled down her arms like trucks going into a siding", and then say: "We the shirtless! We who have nothing!"

It is what AN Wilson was talking about the other day when he said that the image carefully presented by the Queen Mother to the world was quite at variance with her real life. The Queen Mum has cleverly always come across as a simple lady with simple tastes, who was unwillingly dragged on to the throne when all she ever really wanted was a gin and tonic and a flutter on the horses. Now that her debts have been revealed to be in excess of pounds 4m, which is not the sort of debt you can run up just with gin and tonics, you'd think that that image would be shattered and we'd see her for the spendthrift, don't give a damn, old-style aristocrat she really is. But, like Eva Peron, she can be one thing and seem to be another quite different thing at the same time.

Quentin Crisp used to say that the hardest trick of all to bring off was engineering a complete change of image, from one end of the spectrum to the other. "Gilles de Rais," he would say, "was a Breton nobleman who in the course of his short life managed to murder about 400 young lads and choirboys. Now, quantity is NOT style... (pause) ...but you can't help being impressed."

The sight of this fragile, elderly figure giving bonus points to a long- dead murderer was always comic, especially as Crisp's timing of the pause was immaculate. But the point he had to make was nothing to do with murder. It was to do with the later trial of Gilles de Rais, when he was finally brought to book for all these murders. In the middle of the trial, held in a courtroom with an enormous crucifix staring down, the erring nobleman had a religious conversion and declared that the Lord Jesus had made him see the error of his ways, and that from now on he would be pure and saintly. It didn't get him acquitted or save him from the scaffold, said Crisp drily, but it was effective and it did prove that you can change your image dramatically if you think it through.

You don't have to accept everything that Crisp says to see that his message makes sense. Many public figures use image rather than reality to establish themselves. Having established one image, it's not impossible to adopt another, even if it is quite opposite. James Morris did it in the most dramatic way possible when he ceased to be a male, adventurous, English journalist, and became a female, intellectual, Welsh book-writer called Jan Morris. The transformation was brilliant and flawless.

And you can see it happening with other people today. Janet Street-Porter is making a startling attempt to shake off her familiar, mock-classless media Cockney image and adopt a new guise as a country-loving rambler. (It might work better if her programmes showed her to be more interested in the countryside than in all the London friends chauffeured out to meet her.) General Pinochet, in a strange way, is attempting a similar change, or at least his supporters are trying to do it for him - from torturing military dictator to peace-loving saviour of his nation.

But the image transformation I find most startling is the one that happened to the Jews. For many years their self-image, as illustrated in Jewish humour, was self-deprecatory and low profile, the image of a minority. When Israel was created, suddenly there was a new Jewish persona. No longer was the Jew a victim; he was the boss and often the bully-boy. The reason that Israel is not much loved internationally is that as a country it has bounced from being the oppressed to being the oppressor, and yet still plays the oppressed card when it suits it - every time the Israeli cabinet draws attention to the Holocaust, you can't help feeling that it's because it's planning some little appalling injustice of its own.

I really think that Israel should have the courage of its convictions, should stop going on about the Holocaust and should settle for being disliked. As Crisp once said about our leaders: "Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan both wanted to rule the world. That is normal for a politician. But Mr Reagan made the mistake of wanting to be loved as well. Mrs Thatcher never made that mistake."