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Intercourse with Quentin Crisp

By Ian Ayres

Iíd been pen pals with Quentin Crisp for about a year before we actually met in the flesh. In one letter I asked him how he felt about being a part of gay history. He responded in his usual shaky writing with: ďGayĒ history will, as time goes by, evaporate. As it becomes unimportant what sex people have, we shall only be a tiny footnote in the dictionary of the world. But, in a later letter, regarding the oppression of homosexuals, he wrote:  I have frequently told the young that freedom comes and goes--like the tides. The Jews are in and out of favor in the Soviet Union every ten years or so. We shall always fear the threat of oppression. It is as natural and as inevitable as the weather.

On the day my pen pal and I first came together, weíd been invited by Edmund White for lunch at his new home in the Chelsea district of New York City. And, while sharing the backseat of a taxi, caught in traffic on the way cross-town to Edmund's, I had the following intercourse with Quentin:

AYRES: What brought about the development of your wit?

CRISP: I donít know. I suppose I sought to entertain people. And did not think of any other way, except making them laugh. I think itís a natural thing to do. If youíre a conversationalist. It annoyed the English very much. They said, "You talk for talking's sake." And I said, "Yes."   "I mean it, you talk for--" I said, "I heard you the first time. I didnít understand the anger with which you said it. If I danced, would I be accused of dancing for dancingís sake?" And they didnít answer. What is the point of talking, except for talking's sake? I never understood it.  But the English are very cross.

AYRES: Many people do fine with conversation, but they donít have the wit that you have. Do you feel you were born with it? Itís just a gift? Or did you work at it?

CRISP: I suppose I must have worked at it. I had two brothers who wentónot to the same school, but--to a similar school and had the same family upbringing, but they didnít use words the way I use them. And I knew an art master who said to me, one day, "I'm ashamed to say that I donít use all the words I know."  And I think thatís the difference. I do use all the words I know. So it makes my vocabulary much richer than other people. And makes it possible to be funnier, wittier. I think. I donít really know. 

AYRES: And you have a different outlook than most people.

CRISP: I think I have the same outlook but Iím more candid about it. You see, when asked what it was like to be ninety, I said, ďYou are longing for death." And people seemed worried. But everyone must long for death by the time theyíre ninety. Because life is so difficult to live. But I donít think they would say so. It would be...unfashionable. 

AYRES: I see you as more of a symbol of individuality, than homosexuality.

CRISP: Yeah.

AYRES: Is that how youíd like to be remembered?

CRISP: Thatís right. You see, I only happen to be effeminate which, when I was young, we thought that all homosexual men were effeminate. Because those were the only ones we could see. And we now know this isnít so. And the tide has turned. And homosexual men have to be as manly as they can. I know a man who wears a hard hat. Heís never seen a construction sight. But he thinks it makes him more attractive. But, if it does, it makes him more attractive to effeminate men.

AYRES: What about the Pope? What sort of fashion statement does he make?

CRISP: Oh, dear. None, I think. I think heís beyond fashion. Because he always looks the same. Fashion is an instrument of merchandising. Fashion, it persuades people to buy things. So it says that what theyíve got is unfashionable and they must have a new one. Itís all money, fashion. You see, originally, when dyers couldnít dye heavy fabrics with bright colors without them running, it said that it would be unladylike to wear a bright red coat in the street. So there were odd shades which were sort of sickening dim shades. But thatís because it had been dictated by the merchants. All fashion is connected with money.

AYRES: Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?

CRISP: Only here. I think theyíre here. I think England is Hell and America is Heaven.

AYRES: If there were a Heaven and Hell after we die, what would be Heaven for you?

CRISP: Well, just to be dead. It would be such a relief. Just to do nothing. Lie in your coffin forever.

AYRES: And what would be Hell?

CRISP: To go on living. I mean, eternal life is something I wouldnít wish on my worst enemy. Why do people want it? To go on living?

AYRES: If you were a priest, what would you tell your congregation about Sodom and Gomorrah?

CRISP: Well, I donít know. Iíve not read the Bible. Oh, yes I have. Iíve forgot. I once read the Bible from start to finish. I donít think I would tell them anything. Mr. Patrick has a song: What Did They Do In Gomorrah?  And...I donít know what they did in Gomorrah. We only know what they did in Sodom.

AYRES: How do you feel about anal pleasure?

CRISP: Good heavens. What terrible questions.

AYRES: I heard that someone asked it at the end of your show last night and you had an interesting response.

CRISP: I was horrified. Iíve never been asked any kinky questions before.  Well, I donít know what I think about it. I think itís all a great mistake.  Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, "She's joking, isn't  she?"  But they said,  "No."  Doesn't everyone know that sex is a sin?

AYRES: You really believe sex is a sin?

CRISP: Yes.

AYRES: Not everyone agrees with that.

CRISP: All pleasure is a sin. The Seven Deadly Sins are all warnings against self-indulgence. Greed, sloth...so on. 

AYRES: But if you donít sin, how do you enjoy life? Or life isnít to be enjoyed?

CRISP: Life isnít to be enjoyed. Except in America. You see, when I lived in England--if Iíd lived there all my life, I wouldíve never known there was any happiness in the world. Because living in England is so awful that you think: Well, this is what itís like. But when I got to America, and found everybody was my friend, I couldíve wept for joy in the streets. Because in England nobody shocked me. I think I value friendship above sex. I think thatís what I do.

AYRES: Have you indulged in sin? Do you indulge in sin?

CRISP: Well, not now, of course, because Iím ninety. I havenít indulged in sin for at least fifty years. But I did indulge in sin. But I hated it.  When I dolled myself up and swanned about the West End of London I never thought: What do I have to do at the end of it? And, when I found out, I was so horrified I couldíve gone into a monastery. A lot of women feel that, too.

AYRES: What does the man in you think of the woman in you?

CRISP: Well, I donít really know. I was in Houston and a man came backstage and said, "You're so masculine."  And the man who was with me said, "Butch."  And the man said, "I didn't say "butch".  "But I donít think there is a man inside me. I think Iím a woman born. You see, when children are born, quite often a doctor has to make up his mind which theyíre going to be, because they are incipient hermaphrodites. Quite a lot of children.

AYRES: Were you an incipient hermaphrodite?

CRISP: I donít know. I shall never know, now.

AYRES: Whatís your idea of a perfect date?

CRISP: A short one.

AYRES: You mean, physically? Or in time?

CRISP: In time.

AYRES: Whatís the most striking sexual experience youíve ever had?

CRISP: I donít know. My sexual experience was so sordid and so brief and so brutal. Iíd only ever known men who walked beside you until they came to a dark doorway, then they said, "This will do." Thatís all the words of love Iíve ever known.

AYRES: Youíve never had anyone say, "I love you"?

CRISP: Oh, good heavens no. I wouldíve been most embarrassed. Love is a four-letter word...never used in my presence.

AYRES: If your life were to be summarized by only one word, what would that word be?

CRISP: Hell.

AYRES: Hell?

CRISP: Yeah.

AYRES: Why?

CRISP: Well, itís been so difficult to live.

AYRES: Oh, weíre following a police car. What do you think of the police force?

CRISP: Well, the police force, of course, in England was very difficult.  Here, theyíre very cozy. They drive their cars at walking pace beside me, as I walk down Second Avenue, and if I look toward them they go {he gestures} and I go over to their car and they ask me my name, which I tell them, and I say, "Am I illegal?" And they say, "Oh, nothing like that. We wondered how the show was going. Well, no English policeman is ever going to ask you how the show is going.

AYRES: Thatís very nice of them.

CRISP: Yes, theyíre very cozy, the American police.

AYRES: Whatís your most telling memory of England?

CRISP: Of England? Oh, dear. Well, the only thing I remember of England is the people. And how they hate you. And how they say so. You see, the difference is that if Americans donít like you, they keep quiet about it; if they do, they say so. In England, if people like you, they keep quiet about it; if they donít, they say so. So itís really very unpleasant. If Iíd lived there all my life, I would never have known there was any happiness in the world.

AYRES: Any cheerful people in England? Not a single, warm-hearted person?

CRISP: Not really. You see, my parents hated one another. And my father died when I was about twenty-two. Presumably in self-defense. And when my mother was about eighty--I was about fifty--she said, ≥I donít know why I married your father. I never loved him. In fact, I hated him." And I said, "We all hated him. You hated him enough to marry him." And she perked up at that and said, "There was that." So in England marriage is a form of revenge. But of course they never raised their voices.

AYRES: In your opinion, would Diana have made a better queen than Elizabeth?

CRISP: Oh, no! Diana was a wretched person. An absolute horror. She thought she mattered. I canít understand that.

AYRES: What does it take to be a good queen?

CRISP: Emotional restraint. Physical dignity. An invincible constitution:  no illnesses. You see, she doesnít have to do anything. She only has to be. But she has to be invincibly.

AYRES: How do you feel about President Clinton not keeping his pecker in his pants?

CRISP: I donít feel anything about that. I think it was a pity that, when questioned, he didnít say, "I will neither confirm nor deny this scandal."  But he did deny it and that was a mistake.

AYRES: Yes.

CRISP: But I donít think it matters what he does with it. Who cares?

AYRES: Who would you most enjoy having dinner with? Michael Jackson, Elton John, or George Michael?

CRISP: Well, I donít know who George Michael is.

AYRES: George Michaelís a popular singer. He was arrested for an incident in a public lavatory, in Beverly Hills. Have you heard about that?

CRISP: Oh, no.

AYRES: Yes, he was entrapped by the police. Heís from England.

CRISP: Oh, dear. No, I wouldnít like to meet him.

AYRES: So, Michael Jackson or Elton John?

CRISP: Michael Jackson or Elton...? Elton John. Sir Elton John, I would like to meet.

AYRES: Why do you think some adults are sexually attracted to children?

CRISP: I think itís the power. I think they like the fact that the children are afraid...and that they cry...and that they try to run away. I think thatís the lure.

AYRES: In your opinion, what should be done about hate crimes against homosexuals?

CRISP: Well, they only exist because homosexuals encourage them.

AYRES: How so?

CRISP: Well, if you sweep about the world saying, "I am gay," somebody will hit you. If you donít, nobody will hit you.

AYRES: What about travel? Is there one place that youíve never been to that you would like to go to?

CRISP: Not really. You see, Iím not a traveler. I donít go to places to see, I go to be seen. So it really makes no difference where I am.

AYRES: Have you ever been seen in France? Have you ever been seen in Paris?

CRISP: Oh, no. I never went to Europe. Americans think that England is part of Europe. The English think that they are the English and those other people are Continentals.

AYRES: Have you ever met a Frenchman?

CRISP: No, I donít think Iíve met any Frenchmen; but if I did it would be hopeless, because I speak no French.

AYRES: Well, they may be able to speak English.

CRISP: I think one day all Europeans will speak English. English is the ideal language; provided you donít expect any coordination between the pronunciation and the spelling.

AYRES: What do you think of the year 2000?

CRISP: Well, I donít know why people are so worked up about it. Itíll be just like the year nineteen-ninety-nine. Itís only a date...a numeral...on a calendar.

AYRES: What about that big fear of all the computers breaking down and everything stopping?

CRISP: I never understood that. But then I donít understand computers.

AYRES: There are so many things that operate with computers nowadays that thereís the fear that if certain computers stop that elevators wonít work, traffic lights wonít work, maybe even electricity in certain areas wonít work, you couldnít take out your money--your bank account would be completely blank--so people are pretty much afraid that itís going to be a big mess.

CRISP: Well, I shall take it calmly till it happens.

AYRES: Thatís a good philosophy. Me, I like to pop in a good comedy and forget the Apocalypse. Do you own a VCR?

CRISP: No, I donít own one. Because I canít work it. Itís too hard.

AYRES: Do you watch TV?

CRISP: I watch TV late at night; when the screen darkens and the police appear and everybody dies.

AYRES: One last question. What would you like your epitaph to be?

CRISP: People who ask that question think they will lean down from a cloud and count the people at their funeral. Iíve got news for them. Theyíll be dead. I shall be dead. What does it matter what people think of me? I shall not be here. I shall be lying in my coffin {he leans back, folding his hands over his chest, closing his eyes} ...in an eternal sleep. Wonít that be wonderful?

****
In response to a letter in which I asked Quentin how he imagines his meeting with God will go, he wrote: Here is my conversation with You-Know-Who.

Tap Tap

Y.K.W: Come in.

Silence.

Y.K.W: Well?

Me: Iíve arrived.

Y.K.W: So what?

Me: I thought I had to announce my arrival.

Y.K.W: Whatever for?

Me: I donít know. Iím sorry. Shall I go?

Y.K.W: By all means.

Me: Where shall I start?

Y.K.W: Anywhere. Youíre not going to like it here, you know.

Me: I thought I was in Heaven.

Y.K.W: Itís a Hell of a place. Youíll have to learn to play the harp, for one thing.

Me: Oh, g--. I mean, Dear me!

Y.K.W: I never liked you.

Me: Nor I you, Sir.

Y.K.W: Good. Now weíve got that straight.

Me: Good-bye, Sir.

Y.K.W: Good-bye. I donít expect weíll see each other again.

Silence.  

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