THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT BY QUENTIN CRISP
Denis Charles Pratt (1908-99), who changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties, was an effeminate English homosexual who courted controversy by being openly and flamboyantly so as early as 1931, when it was extremely unusual in his country. After publishing his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, in 1968, he became famous as a performer on television and in film. Though never involved in a Greek love affair himself, his memoir contains several passages shedding light on its practice in twentieth-century England.
The following episode occurred during his early childhood in Sutton, Surrey. As it happened at a prep school attended by his brothers, born in 1902 and 1907, and boys typically attended prep school between the ages of eight and thirteen, it probably happened in 1915.
Sad to say the greatest scandal in Sutton during my childhood came and went without my being able to convert it to my own use, though I perched on the knee of its central character. Moreover, while I sat thus, he powdered my face and declared openly that I was his favourite. A production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was being put on at the preparatory school to which my two brothers went. To give it a professional gloss, a down-and-out actor, who showed us photographs of himself wearing nothing but a bunch of grapes, had been engaged as director. […]
The London actor had evidently played Bottom in more senses than one for next day he was seen by my sister on Sutton station in handcuffs. Later, the headmaster of my brothers' school telephoned my mother and begged her not to let any of us see the local papers. The actor had been charged with seducing one of the boys. I was too young to know that I had lived a little while.
Describing his time at a boys’ boarding-school called Denstone College in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, which he attended between 1922 and 1926, aged 13 to 17:
For about a year I was preoccupied only with survival—learning the rules, lying low under fire and laying the blame on others. When at length these things became second nature to me, I had a timorous look round and saw that the whole school was in an even greater ferment of emotion than my prep school had been, but here the charge ran from the older to the younger boys rather than between the staff and the pupils.
For details of the love life of the prefects, which was one of our abiding preoccupations, you could ask one of the boys whose vocation was to carry notes from the prefects to the ordinary boys. (They were forbidden to speak to one another.) I was once in a class when the master said to one of these procurers, 'What's that?' A piece of paper was handed over my head from the boy to the master. When he saw it, he said, 'What are these names? Why are they bracketed together?' 'They're just names,' said the boy and this he repeated to all the questions that were fired at him. Finally the paper was handed back and the class continued. At length, the great scandal, that we had all so longed for, occurred. It was to the school what the Mrs Simpson affair was to England.
The ground plan of the college was an 'H'. Four classrooms were on each of two opposing arms of this figure and there were two dormitories on each of the two floors above these rooms. Thus there were four 'houses' on each side of the building—an irresistible Romeo and Juliet set-up.
One night, though Montague arms reached out to him from three dormitories besides his own, a boy descended two flights of stairs, traversed the crossbar of the 'H' and climbed two flights of stairs on the other wing to keep a tryst with a Capulet. Now, in the winter of my life, feeling that Shakespeare's Romeo might just as well have married the girl next door, I realize that these two schoolboys could have met behind some dreary haystack almost any afternoon. What the older boy did, he did not for love alone, but in order to defy the authorities with all the world on his side. He was caught. By lunchtime the next day the whole school knew every detail of this mad escapade.
His sin was the occasion of the only public beating that I have ever witnessed. The entire school was assembled in the big hall and seated on benches on either side of the room. In the open space in the middle the modern Romeo bent over and the headmaster ran down the room to administer the blows. After the first two strokes the younger brother of the victim left the room. Even now I can't help wishing that we had all done the same. What made this exhibition so disgusting was not the pain inflicted. Today a go-ahead schoolmaster would say, 'This delights me more than it delights you.' In many parts of London, such goings-on are just another way of making a party go with a swing. What was almost insufferable was that a simple form of self-gratification should be put forward as a moral duty. Before that day I had disliked the head; afterwards I hated him.
I think that all the boys felt a little shaken, frightened, degraded. At least no one seemed to regard what they had seen as right. Some of us enshrined the culprit in our hearts as one of the saints of Aphrodite. He was, of course, expelled at once to prevent a snowstorm of 'fan' notes but he had the nerve to turn up again at a later date. I don't think that I ever spoke a word to him, but now, when I saw him throwing a cricket ball about with some other boys (well out of sight of any member of the staff), I watched him greedily. He was a thick-set young man with black hair growing low on his forehead. His expression was brutish and mocking—very desirable.
Unlike our Miss Capulet I myself never lured any of the boys to their doom. This was not for want of trying but for lack of any physical advantages. I was very plain. My rich, mouse hair was straight but my teeth were not. I wore tin-rimmed spectacles. In spite of this formidable natural chastity belt, I did spend one night in bed with another boy. He was the only Indian in the school and, when his arrival in our dormitory was heralded, I hoped that he might be some unimaginable animal given to fits of terrible rage. This was not so. Sexually he was a little more precocious than the other boys and went with prostitutes during the holidays but, in all other respects, he was only as dangerous as the rest. Our sleeping together was part of the thinly spread orgy that was a ritual on the last night of every term. The occasion could only be described as a success in as much as the object of the exercise was to do it and to be known to have done it. These ends were achieved. I did not expect any pleasure and there was none. I did not even experience a sense of sin. The intimations of immorality had come and gone some time back.
I think I can say that effeminate homosexuals are among those who indulge least in sex acts with other boys at school. They seem to realize that these jolly get-togethers are really only a pooling of the carnal feelings of two people who deep down are interested in their dreams of girls. Otherwise they tend to be self-congratulatory pyrotechnical displays of potency.
Certainly I felt this to be so. I longed to be the subject of a school-shaking romance, but relationships in which personality was not involved were valueless to me. What I wanted most of all was to use sex as a weapon to allure, subjugate and, if possible, destroy the personality of others. Holding this view I was naturally more interested in the masters than in my mere equals. I tried to seduce them all the time. I worked hard at lessons or at least hard enough to shine. Thus I forfeited all friendship with the other boys. This scarcely mattered as most of them disliked me so much already.
On Mrs. Longhurst, a friend of Crisp’s mother when he was eighteen:
Mrs Longhurst's attitude to homosexuality, as to most things, was a mocking curiosity but she was never savage. The rest of the world in which I lived was still stumbling about in search of a weapon with which to exterminate this monster whose shape and size were not yet known or even guessed at. It was thought to be Greek in origin, smaller than socialism but more deadly—especially to children.
In the 1960s:
'Queer-baiting' has not vanished. It has fallen into the hands of younger and younger boys. Quite recently I was asked for money and, when I feigned not to have heard, was kicked in the groin and threatened with worse by six children young enough to demand half fares when they scrambled on to the bus that I had boarded to escape them. This incident was not a boyish prank. The leaders of the gang knew all the wounding words and were sufficiently worldly to threaten to tell the police that I had tampered with them in Trafalgar Square.