22 October, 2006

Quentin Crisp - Doing It Without Style

I met Quentin Crisp once. He gave a talk at the University of Hull when I was an undergraduate there. I was the president of the university’s poetry society at the time and we were introduced. In fact, I was part of a group of about six who went back to someone’s house with him afterwards and kept him up rather late, chatting. He spoke about Style, as I recall, about how style was so important it could somehow ameliorate the worst crimes and excesses. He gave the example of Eva Perón talking to a mass of poor people, explaining how she suffered with them and, each time she raised her arms in one dramatic gesture or another, a host of golden bangles would cascade down them.

Even as a callow youth, I could see that this was a pretty crass argument. Skinheads were pretty popular at the time and rather stylish in a brutal kind of way. They also loved kicking the s**t out of gays. In fact, I was completely unimpressed with Mr. Crisp. He looked old and tired. It seemed to me he didn’t really believe most of what he was saying. It was as if he was trying too hard to be outrageous and controversial. I wondered if it was only to impress a roomful of daft teenagers, to hang on to his celebrity and notoriety, to enjoy a bit of hero worship after a life that had certainly earned him a little. And I wondered if maybe he was so hard up he had to do these ridiculous talks to make a living. It seemed odd to me at the time that somebody so famous could be strapped for cash, although now I quite understand it.

No matter. He seemed happy enough to be with us that evening. Despite his silly talk he was actually a quiet and polite man, not outrageous or impressive in any way, except (and I’m not sure now if I remember this or whether I’ve made it up) there seemed to be a flinch about him, a slight cower, as if he was aware that at any moment we might all turn on him and denounce him. I felt sorry for him although I didn’t find him a sympathetic person. Perhaps that’s what a lifetime of being yourself despite other people’s prejudice and hatred will do to a man.

On the other hand, maybe he was just having a bad day. The stories about his wonderful wit and entertaining stories certainly seemed to belong to a different Quentin Crisp than the one I saw that evening. Or maybe a roomful of student admirers is enough to dampen anyone’s spirits.

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