Zenga Longmore

Mr Nice and Mr Nasty

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.

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