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The Naked Civil Servant, an autobiography by the late Quentin Crisp, and made famous by a television drama with John Hurt, was first published in 1968. A witty, honest, self-deprecating and poignant account of his life, Crisp writes about the trials and strains of being 'not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one', and of openly wearing make-up in an age when a woman with eye-shadow was considered sinful (let alone a man!) and homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Britain punishable under the law. The book takes us into a pre wartime twilight era of bohemia on the breadline, London bedsits and late night cafes as the defiant Crisp battles homophobia, the world of work and life in general, all the while determined to just be himself...
"From the dawn of my history," writes Crisp at the start of the book. "I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up, I realized I could not ignore my predicament." Crisp's solution was to 'brazen' it out and accept who he was. His make-up and colourful clothes became a 'uniform' and his friends became 'anyone who could put up with the disgrace', his job any 'from which I was not given the sack' and his playground 'any cafe from which I was not barred'. Unsusprisingly, Crisp's parents don't understand him. He decides from an early age that his father, a man who was so uptight and proper he would eat a banana with a knife and fork according to Crisp!, doesn't like him
at all. Meanwhile his mother kindly tries her best, although out of her depth with her strange and effeminate son. "In those far-off days," writes Crisp. "A homosexual person was never anyone that you actually knew."
Crisp eventually flunks out of Kings College, London and sits around at home annoying his parents for a while. He takes to wandering the streets of London and makes an incredible discovery. He is not alone. Crisp is soon sipping tea in late night cafes with kindred spirits, many of them prostitutes and most of them as fond of make-up as him. He admits to happily accepting money for sex himself and talks about their routines and the dangers, from people and the police and the (somewhat slapdash ill-defined) legal ramifications of this life. While happier at least to have found this hidden world he admits to disliking some of the situations he found himself in and the lack of 'words of tenderness'.
Crisp eventually has to leave home. He writes that it would have been a great help if his parents had come straight out and said "You're mad but, when you go out into the world, you will doubtless meet people as mad as you and I can only hope you get on all right with them."
The author eventually has his first taste of companionship, although it's more eccentric than romantic, and also the first of many comical attempts to fit into the world of work, a common theme in the book. He's unsuprised but delighted when he gets the sack for the first time because he can now qualify for unemployment benefit. I found it quite touching when Crisp recounts his delight at having a place, or rather room, of his own for the first time where he writes plays and poems that will never be published and watches dust gather everwhere. He is once again in the twilight world of cafes and street corners. "Blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick, I paraded the dim streets of Pimlico with my overcoat wrapped around me as though it were a tailess ermine dummy." The reaction he draws from the public moves from subtle contempt to outright hatred.
Day to day life in this bohemian and eccentric fashion, often on the breadline, makes for fascinating reading sometimes, especially as we are gaining an insight into pre war life in London. Crisp cadges free meals at Euston Station and buys bread and dark chocolate so hard that the confectioner can 'only break it with a small axe' as he spends weeks at a time in his room, it being 'easier to starve supine.' He talks about visiting Portsmouth in 1937 and describes the town as a 'vast carnival' with most of the men in Navy uniform. Crisp, who says from an early age he was obsessed with men in uniform, is naturally delighted by the outbreak of WW2 and gives a vivid account of the American servicemen invasion of wartime London:
"And suddenly, into this feast of love and death that St Adolf had set before the palates - Mr Rooseevelt began, with Olympian hands, to shower the American forces. This brand new army of no occupation flowed through the streets of London like cream on strawberries, like melted butter over green peas. Their voices were like warm milk, their skins as flawless as expensive indianrubber, and their eyes as beautiful as glass."
Crisp also gives a funny account in the book of his court trial for soliciting, a spurious charge that fell apart when his friends backed him up as a man of character in the dock. Crisp's verbal dexterity and honesty are too much for the stunned courtroom.
There are some startling passages about what we would now call homophobic attacks. Crisp explains his tactics when followed; "I must never look back; I must on no account run but must increase my pace gradually." There are shocking accounts of violence agaisnt him, including a bit where he seeks the rufuge of a taxi but is thrown out by the driver to be attacked.
As his story unfolds, Crisp is always interesting and sometimes ducks out of his own life for a few passages to explain the norms, conventions and attitudes of society in those days. It really is another world and one that has long since vanished.
Crisp's adventures continue in this vein over 222 pages in my paperback copy of The Naked Civil Servant. His story is always interesting, sometimes sad and sometimes moving. He writes gracefully with a lot of sardonic humour and honesty. The book is always absorbing and Crisp has something cynically funny or slightly profound to say on nearly every page.
The Naked Civil Servant is both comic and touching and well worth reading.