‘The Naked Civil Servant’ has been on my Goodreads ‘To-Read’ list for almost as long as I have been a member of that community. It sadly doesn’t have an e-book version, and as a Kindle devotee I always just found something else to read instead. However, one fateful evening in April I was pottering around and I stumbled and trod on my handbag, from inside which I heard and felt a sickening crunch. Sayonara Kindle. I had to console myself with the silver lining opportunity of getting back into paperbacks, and when I mentioned TNCS to my mum at the end of recounting my little tale of woe she had this sort of lightbulb moment – she remembered that she had a copy of the book somewhere with a dedication to her from Quentin Crisp himself inside the front cover! She had apparently been partying on King’s Road and had met him there! How cool is that?! She passed the book on to me a few days later with a bit of a shifty look on her face, and it turns out that the note inside is made out to Vivian and ‘Paul’ – which is definitely not my dad’s name. A previous boyfriend! Scandalous.
This is a delight of an autobiography. A flamboyantly gay bohemian born in 1908, he was absolutely ahead of his time, and could easily be mistaken for any sassy gay friend figures of the modern day. It is whimsical and facetious and Crisp makes you feel as though you are his confidante. And, oh my word, is he quotable. On almost every other page I could picture a sentence or two of his floating off the page and settling in white Helvetica over an Instagrammed background. I have a notebook full of the ones I absolutely had to make sure I remembered. And while I generally consider myself to have a pretty decent vocabulary, this guy is something else. I noted down all the unfamiliar new locutions, too.
For all the camp and chi chi running through the veins of ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, there is a definite tinge of sadness, and the humour is more often than not sardonic and black. While he was resilient, proud, and nothing if not true to himself, Crisp suffered through some horrendous abuse at the hands of the narrow-minded and insecure, and he himself admits that it would have been impossible not to amass a stockpile of unspent rage from a lifetime of such treatment.
I couldn’t really afford virtue so I settled for indignation with vice. It served roughly the same purpose and was much cheaper.
– The Naked Civil Servant p.44
It’s a short book to begin with, but the writing makes the reading time fly by to the extent that you could devour this in an afternoon or two if you really settled into it. And I would even recommend this to those who aren’t bothered about Crisp’s character or any of the commentary on homosexuality in the early-mid 20th Century, as the evocation of the bohemian London cafe scene is wondrous. If you’ve seen RENT, you’ll know where I’m coming from.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
Almost from the get-go, I couldn’t get out of my head the thought that Quentin Crisp writes just like Russell Brand. Earlier this week, The Sun ran a feature on ‘21 Celebrities Who Might Be Time Travellers‘, and this is the narratorial equivalent. I know he’s a divisive personality, but I have loved Russell Brand since his days on Radio 2, and would recommend ‘My Booky Wook’ and ‘Booky Wook 2’ to anyone.
Crisp himself also mentions the book ‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton as an expressive and vivid depiction of bohemianism in London’s Soho, and I’ll definitely be checking it out.
What do you think?
If you’ve read The Naked Civil Servant, did you build camaraderie with Quentin Crisp over the course of the book, or did you find him bitchy and egotistical? Can you think of any other books that you would recommend as a follow-on? Let me know in the comments! (And don’t forget to subscribe!)
Artwork Credit: Rankin