Zenga Longmore

Mr Nice and Mr Nasty

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Andrew Barrow

Macmillan, pp. 559, £

Quentin Crisp was, among other delightful things, a human paradox. He loathed the Gay Liberation Movement as bitterly as he despised Oscar Wilde, yet he did more than anyone else to change people's attitudes towards homosexuality. He was unashamedly flamboyant, yet spinsterish and celibate; the sex act, he explained, was like 'undergoing a colostomy operation without anaesthetic'. He was flippant yet wise. He hated England, but became an English figure of affection.

Born Denis Pratt, he 'dyed' his name Quentin in his early twenties. His childhood was spent in 'middle-class, middling, middle-brow' suburbia where his unusual appearance prompted his father to expostulate that he looked like a male whore. Andrew Barrow takes us by the hand and guides us through Crisp's extraordinary life. We are led into the Black Cat CafZ in the 1920s where Quentin recites polished epigrams prepared the night before in his famous, dust-ridden room. We view with concern Quentin's contortions as an art school model that earned him the reputation as 'the most energetic model in the Home Counties'. We witness, rather agonisingly, Quentin in his late eighties as he tours his one-man show throughout England and America despite hernia pains and general frailty.

After years of lamenting the cruel way modern medicine keeps people alive, Quentin finally succumbed to death at the age of 90 in the England he had grown to despise. Crisp's niceness glows from the pages; his stylised cattiness was aimed exclusively at himself.

But what of the title's Philip, and how did he link in with Quentin Crisp? Barrow describes Philip O'Connor as an alcoholic genius. The alcoholic bit I can readily believe but I shall have to take Barrow's word concerning the genius. O'Connor comes across as being unspeakably horrible - even for a genius. Naturally he had a traumatic childhood. He was abandoned by his mother, and lived with a one-legged civil servant in a hut in Surrey. As soon as he was old enough to embark on a life of scrounging, Philip moved in with a rich heiress called Jean, squandered her fortune on himself, and seemingly drove her mad. The poor woman was duly bunged in a mental hospital by Philip, who remarked, 'The trouble with Jean is that her money has run out.' He then foisted himself on a beautiful woman called Maria Steiner, and after siring two children and spending her cash he crawled, like a giant, juice-sucking bug, into the life of actress Anna Wing (who later made her name as the Granny in Eastenders). Why do intelligent women put up with such vile treatment from ghastly men? It is a question as old and puzzling as passion itself. And O'Connor was a passionate man. Like so many writers whose names I won't mention in case they wreak heinous revenge on me, Philip's personal life was far more interesting than his work. His awful ways were not solely directed at women and children. Persistent begging and an evil temper tested the patience of many a friend, such as the writer David Thomson, who gave him a job interviewing people for the BBC. Philip's first interviewee was Quentin Crisp. Crisp's wit was so engaging, he was asked by a publisher to write a book - The Naked Civil Servant - so O'Connor can, in a way, be said to have launched Quentin's career. O'Connor's claim to fame is Memoirs of a Public Baby, an autobiography which won lavish critical acclaim.

After ditching Anna Wing and his children, he met a wealthy American society hostess called Panna Grady. Panna 'saw herself as a nurturer of genius' and became a willing recipient to O'Connor's serial sponging. She bought a rambling farmhouse in France in which she installed O'Connor and their children. Unsurprisingly, he was no nicer to his offspring than he was to anyone else. 'Fuck off, you creep!' he yelled to his son who visited him from England, and then added for good measure, 'Mediocrity!'

As I progressed through the book, I began to feel as exhausted and rage-filled as if I had had a disastrous affair and the odd baby or two with the dastardly O'Connor, which says a lot for the vivid quality of Barrow's narrative.

O'Connor and Crisp had little in common, being, as Barrow remarks, a pair of opposites. But they were both close friends of the author, and fascinating subjects for us.