by Quentin Crisp

For the first 14 years of my life I cried and was sick and after that I had to think of some other way of drawing attention to myself. The real trouble was that as soon as I realized that my mother’s love was to be divided fairly between the four of us, I flew into an ungovernable rage, from which I have never fully recovered. But I did decide that the way to draw attention to myself was to live the life of a self-made beauty. Of course this was very annoying to everyone: even when you do it and are a woman it’s annoying enough, but when you’re a man and you decide to exploit your looks, it’s of course even more annoying. I knew I would have to pay a terrible price for this, but I didn’t know exactly what price it would be. However, as the years have gone by, I’ve now been able to take an overdose of exhibitionism that would absolutely kill anyone who was starting out on their career. So that I can now say I’ve been baptized by the fire. I’ve come out on the other side.

The only trouble is that if you practice carefully almost every day of your life how to conceal your feelings about your public reception, you in the end become indifferent to what goes on. And this means that your life becomes boring. This is to my mind absolutely unavoidable: if you fortify yourself against what might happen to you, through any one course of action, you in the end become so fully fortified that you are incapable of receiving any impression from outside whatsoever. And now people say to me: “What do you think of the dress I’m wearing, what do you think of the book I’ve written?” I don’t know, and this makes them cross, because they think this is another of my affectations. Once you’re known to be affected, anything can be ascribed to your affectations; having once adopted a flippant attitude towards almost everything, you find yourself then protesting your sincerity on occasion, and of course it no longer works. Everything you do and say can be laughed off and you find you’ve lost your connection with the outer world altogether. You can only be turned on and off like a form of entertainment: it pays off in the sense that you then become valuable as entertainment. You find that you can best exploit this by living the café life, so that though I’ve done various jobs, I didn’t really come into my own and find the job, as Gibbon would say, that “I was born to do” until I became a model.

This combined the two things I would most have liked to be—a martyr and an actor. It’s not that I’m actually masochistic: it’s only that I find that it’s very difficult to value anything that hasn’t come to you through a certain amount of suffering. People are always saying to me—even in the art schools when putting me in a terrible difficult position for eight hours: “But then you love to suffer, don’t you?” My reply is not that I love to suffer but that if we don’t suffer how shall we know that we live? This seems to me not to be masochism but something which exists in almost all puritan temperaments: that if a thing causes you some effort, then it becomes more worth-while; together with every pleasure there is the desire to do without it.

In order to be an artist’s model you don’t really require the things that the public imagine you must have. You don’t require to be a great beauty. What you do require is first of all the same things that you would need in order to do any job on earth, such as to scrub the doorstep: you have to be punctual, you have to do it with a will, and you haven’t to complain. In the school—which is where all modeling is done now, because private artists are really all abstract artists and don’t require models, in fact would regard the model as a distraction—what you’re required to do is to turn up, be on time, not complain and not talk to the students. This isn’t easy because the job as the years go by becomes boring. I can say of modeling that it’s the only job I’ve ever had where I understood what I was doing, but after a bit it becomes less interesting, and then you have only your aches and pains to think about, your falling arches, your varicose veins.

Other models have asked me what I think about when I’m posing: evidently that means that they think about something else. I can only think about what I’m doing: if I think about anything else, then the pose crumbles, falls apart, relaxes. You’ve always got to pose much more than you imagine because students draw less than they see. Therefore you’re never merely standing, sitting or lying. You are standing, sitting or lying. You are standing, sitting or lying like mad. You have to preserve a tension all over your body, and even then you can’t keep the attention of the students. They not only talk, sing, play their guitars, make love, they even fight and roll about the floor at your feet, so that finally you have to say: “Shall I get down, have you finished now?” This is due partly to the fact that they are students, that they’re young, that they have their own life to live, and partly to the fact that all art is now more abstract, and this means that the keenness to learn to draw some complicated machine the way it is has passed for ever. They are brought into the life room and kept there by the domination of the art master, not by the eagerness on their part.

All I know of London is what I now call the reservation—that is to say, Soho. It’s called the reservation in the sense that we are now able to live there protected, no longer shot at as though we were big game. We can do as we please. Most of the Soho life that I know is spent living in small cafés, which still exists in Soho. They used to exist in Chelsea, but Chelsea is now smart or pseudo-smart: King’s Road, which once was full of small shops full of aniseed balls and dead wasps, is now full of clothes for women and clothes for men, and up and down the street walk debutantes hoping to be mistaken for art students. In Soho the people are still what you would call real; their attitudes are not derived, or not derived to the same extent, and these people can be met in cafés, perfectly ordinary cafés open to the street, cafés where the old layabouts from the happy time still go, the people who are left over cold from the Café Royal.

One of the interest of being an eccentric is that you can see borne out everywhere round you what you have actually lived for; you can see freedom in clothes come to the whole of London. I come from a time when people who wore suede shoes or green shirts were under suspicion. Now that time has gone forever. And this puts me in the mainstream when I started on the very edge. I would say that this freedom of dress is part of a bigger freedom, a freedom to do as you please, as long as it doesn’t really make any difference to other people.

I would say that the purpose of life now for me is to get into my grave without getting into debt. As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of life is to make a mad dash across open country and under fire between the cradle and the grave.

(This is the transcript of an interview with Quentin Crisp which was broadcast in the Third Programme on 28 February 1964. The broadcast led to the writing of his autobiography “The Naked Civil Servant”. Source: The Listener, 25 January 1968, page 110; from Quentin Crisp’s personal collection of newspaper clippings. Text by and copyrighted © Quentin Crisp. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Crisperanto: The Quentin Crisp Archives at crisperanto.org)

Photograph copyright © Phillip Ward. All rights reserved.

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