Naked Civil ServantMarch 18, 2007
In Quentin Crisp’s memoir The Naked Civil Servant, Crisp explored ideas of a constructed identity against the backdrop of British society in the early to late Twentieth Century. Crisp’s writing was reminiscent of much mid-century queer writing in its exploration of the queer as a societal criminal. Crisp’s autobiography gave insight into societal tensions inherent in the time through his anecdotal reflections. His exploits took place at a time when this sort of self-definition of identity and gender were still unimagined. Over the course of his work Crisp charted a path in defiance of the times he lived in. The reader was given insight into the evolving trends of tolerance and disdain for Crisp and what he represented to “polite society”. In this memoir Crisp’s tone was always defiant, self-deprecating, and acerbic.
Being born in 1908 to a relatively middle class family, Crisp documented his coming of age at a time when the effects of the Great Depression were just beginning to be felt in Britain. In his words, “ The sky was dark with millionaires throwing themselves out of windows.” (9) This period of financial crisis led to more conservative attitudes in society at the time. Against this conservative backdrop Crisp learned to perform his flamboyant feminine identity. Crisp describes himself as a willful, manipulative, and the indulged youngest child of three. During the First World War his family was struck by financial hardship and forced to live in a much smaller house in a less than trendy area outside of London. Crisp repeatedly demonstrated his understanding of how precarious his position in the greater society was on a daily basis. In Crisp’s work he spent a great deal of time and detail reflecting on how fragile his social standing was, but focused on his choice to continue with his larger than life persona. He considered it his cause to always be on display before the public to show that he was not less than a human being. His job was to educate while occupying the in-between places in everyday life.
“I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one. That is to say I put my case not only before the people who knew me but also before strangers. This was not difficult to do. I wore makeup at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful. Many a young girl in those days had to leave home and go on the streets simply in order to wear nail varnish.” (1)
Crisp’s refusal to conceal his homosexuality led him to assume a persona of defiant flamboyance donning makeup and dyeing his hair red. Much of his memoir was concerned with learning how to survive and behave on the street to minimize violence towards himself while maintaining his wit and style. It also depicted the methods he used to support himself.
The type of work Crisp was able to do was severely limited because of his unconventional appearance. Crisp did not hold the quality of his work in high regard. In The Naked Civil Servant Crisp frequently referred to himself as a mediocre worker and a hack. He was constantly amazed that people continued to hire him. In college he studied commercial art and relied heavily on graphic design in his early years for financial support. Crisp repeatedly discussed his ineptness in commercial art, but credited his on-and-off success to people’s fear of him. People didn’t know how to react to him and would “accidentally” hire him because they didn’t know how else to proceed. Once he had a job he became a curiosity and his boss would become afraid of him. He also worked doing title lettering for film productions, and finally nude modeling at art schools. Crisp remarked with his usual wit that modeling at art schools was like being a civil servant except that he was always naked.
One of Crisp’s major themes in this book was the relation between society’s tolerance or intolerance of people like himself during times of cultural stress. During the wars he was more successful finding desirable employment due to the fact that a big portion of the working population was away at war. He also noted that there was generally more tolerance for him during those times as a large percentage of those “living the life” at home were objectors to the war or people with less social standing.
Crisp also commented on the tendency to tighten-up social codes after the war as the soldiers returned home. Much like his Rosie the Riveter counterparts in the U.S. who were pressured out of the workforce when the soldier workforce returned, Crisp was also pressured out when the war passed. During these periods there was more violence towards him in the street and he had trouble finding any employment.
Much to Crisp’s sadness by the time the liberal 1960s came around he was too old. He felt that the world was finally catching up to how he had lived for the previous thirty years, but by that time the youth saw him as an outsider and imitator or fraud. He felt that he had become too old and too eccentric to inhabit the social space that he had helped carve out in the previous decades.
The Naked Civil Servant serves as a great cultural artifact giving insight into attitudes towards queers during the late 1920s through the late 1960s. I have always been interested in artists and writers who consciously create the worlds they inhabit. This book was useful for me with my ongoing interest in queer studies and self-creation. It offered a glimpse into daily life and attitudes surrounding Crisp’s life, but overall left me feeling rather uninspired in creating my own work. Overall Crisp’s memoir was entertaining and well crafted, but engaged me on more of an academic level than I had hoped.