This essay was written six months ago, with a view to its appearance in another publication entirely. However, I really can’t be bothered to keep chasing people up, so I though I’d whack it on here. For the most part, the piece is an appraisal of two of my personal heroes: Quentin Crisp and Kenneth Williams. If you don’t know them (shame, shame!), then chase them, pin them down, discover what makes them so great. I hope this piece will be a starting-point on that quest. I also take a glance at Oscar Wilde – a man who I wish was more of a personal hero, but one I find rather troublesome. It seems an ultimate heresy to criticise the noisy cult of Wilde (particularly when you’re gay yourself); I’ve found myself wondering (incorrectly, I hope) whether this is the reason the article didn’t see publication. I don’t think I’ve rubbished Wilde outrageously – it’s impossible to feel any less than compassion for the man – but I’ve certainly prodded him a bit.
Alright, enough innuendo. On with the article.
SUBLIME MISANTHROPY: GAY SAINTS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Homosexuality and the Catholic Church are a very old arrangement. The gay hagiography is organised according to a strictly Catholic lexicon: the ‘gay icon’, the ‘martyr to gay causes’ and, most compellingly, the ‘gay saint’. Martyrdom is often a facet of sainthood. An icon, meanwhile, is a form of reproduction – often offering a reflection (inevitably diminished) of a primary sainthood.
To be canonised as a Catholic saint, a candidate must be responsible for miracles – at least two of them – after their death. To be canonised as a gay saint, then, an individual has to have left a truly remarkable legacy.
In looking back on the twentieth century, Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) and Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) strike me as prime candidates for gay sainthood. They’re not very fashionable choices. They’re not fashionable full stop: Williams clung religiously to greying suits and ties; Crisp’s eternal mantra that style and sincerity were the same thing made his silk scarf and fedora a second skin, too personal to be quoted by others. No one has ever accused these men of being attractive: Crisp was a sort of benevolent metropolitan vampire, Williams the consummate shape-shifting grotesque. Most heinous of all, neither one is Oscar bloody Wilde (whose 1900 death brings him up for consideration).
Saints are expected to have suffered. But the derision with which Crisp and Williams are today regarded suggests they were the enemies of gay liberation. Since their deaths, there has been much unfavourable journalism: in The Independent, Peter Tatchell demonises Crisp as ‘an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly’; in The Guardian, Justin Quirk claims to speak for the English public when he describes Williams as ‘a nostril-flaring, camp absurdist’. The case for the defence is not aided by Crisp or Williams themselves, who turned upon the counter-culture for which they’d become eccentric figureheads. Crisp did well to smash such faux gay icons as Princess Diana; less honourably, he pronounced AIDS ‘a fad’ at the height of the mid-eighties epidemic. Williams dismissed the musical La Cage aux Folles as ‘dire sentimental slush about two old queens’ (perhaps some will agree). He never acknowledged his sexuality in public, instead gracing the chat-show circuit with suggestively veiled denials: ‘I don’t do it… I’m asexual… I should have been a monk!’ But like many a celibate monk (or high-ranking cardinal), Williams did want to do it, and – occasionally – did.
And yet there was more to Quentin Crisp than anti-monarchism and indefensible tabloid sound bites; more to Kenneth Williams than acid drops and a fumbling, feigned asceticism. Gay liberation is dependent on its lofty misanthropes. These are the gay saints: those individuals who, by merit of their outsize personalities, do inestimable work for the gay community – and often quite by accident. The misanthropic stance that opens Crisp and Williams to abuse is what made them influential in the first place.
They were curiously dislocated characters. Both had an extreme approach to hygiene. Crisp never cleaned his tiny apartment, clinging to the belief that ‘after the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse’. Williams was his polarised opposite: haunted by the idea of contamination, he insisted his guests use a public lavatory rather than sully his own. This neurosis made celibacy inevitable. Yet Williams had no qualms about owning up to his celibacy, often using it as the basis for double entendres: ‘I live a life of celibacy. I’m not interested in the other.’ Of course, such jokes depended on his homosexuality being the most open of open secrets. Everyone knew what Williams was. Crisp had no fear of dirt; indeed, he was casually employed as a rent-boy in his youth. His celibacy resulted from an absolutist personal creed: ‘If I was to become Miss Arc’s only rival, it wouldn’t do to be picked up by strange men. This would give people the opportunity to say that I had only adopted an effeminate appearance for that purpose.’ In evoking Joan of Arc, Crisp makes a tongue-in-cheek bid for gay sainthood. Celibacy was the final step in the construction of the Crispian persona, already laid out in the make-up and dyed hair.
It is a paradox of these gay saints that they were gay in every facet of their being – except for their sex lives, which were non-existent. Yet this displacement was also their completion. Crisp and Williams demanded attention, and they got it, but always on their own terms. Their lives were shaped by their sexualities rather than defined by them; they were less gay men than men who happened to be gay.
Oscar Wilde endured all the agonies of martyrdom, but he was no gay saint. His hedonism remains a black spot on his character. Wilde hurt innumerable people with his sexuality: not only lover after lover after lover – most of whom were left reeling from his bewitching narcissism – but his wife and his children. There is no denying Wilde’s suffering – but the suffering he inflicted on those around him is too often overlooked. In groping for stars and gutter both, Wilde fashioned a double life that made him a figure of damaging dislocation.
Crisp disliked Wilde for one very simple reason: ‘He never faced anything!’ During the court proceedings against the Marquess of Queensberry – which Wilde himself had started – Wilde denied his homosexuality again and again. This can be excused: Wilde, after all, faced a dreadful punishment. But even in De Profundis, his confessional, the play-acting went on. There is a flash of self-knowledge when Wilde writes that ‘my ruin came not from too great individualism of life, but too little’. But this soon explodes into a fanciful identification with Christ: ‘You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived – or am arriving, rather, for the journey is long, and “where I walk there are thorns.”’ That the ‘thorns’ allusion is taken from A Woman of No Importance reveals Wilde’s suffering as self-dramatising: an extension on the play-acting that cloaked his sexuality. In consorting with the Son of God, Wilde seems to have coveted gay sainthood. He didn’t achieve it. He didn’t know himself.
Quentin Crisp never pretended to be other than he was. Unlike Wilde, he made a courageous stand for his sexuality. Here is how Crisp approached the London gay community of his youth: ‘At first I only longed to wallow in their misery, but, as time went by, I longed to reach its very essence. Finally I desired to represent it. By this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause.’ Thus did Crisp break from the furtive majority to make some serious progress. He risked his life every time he walked the streets. The best-known record of Crisp walking the streets is found in the music video for ‘An Englishman in New York’. This song (‘be yourself, no matter what they say’), along with the John Hurt teleplay The Naked Civil Servant, delivered Crisp’s ‘cause’ to a worldwide, predominantly straight audience. Crisp did more for gay people by simply appearing as himself – wise, warm, elegant, and quite at peace with the world, as immortalised in the Sting video – than most civil rights campaigners gave him credit for.
Kenneth Williams never found a satisfactory outlet for his idiosyncrasies. He disguised his unhappiness with his sexuality in all but his private diaries, in which he vented his anguish in tortured, spidery language. Yet for a man whose channels of communication were so severely disrupted, Williams did much to expose how gay men communicated. His double-act with Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne snuck Polari onto BBC airwaves – the underground slang responsible for such phrases as ‘friend of Dorothy’. Similarly, the Carry On films blessed gay men with a consistent presence in mainstream cinema. It’s too easy to rubbish Williams’s performances as shrieking, effeminate nightmares. They are also an assertion of difference – a statement of sexuality, no matter how distorted – and this has an inherent political value. These British comedies were always fundamentally safe. Yet they were surprisingly progressive, in daring to present gay men in a context detached from the Hollywood tradition of the demonic and monstrous – as exemplified by a Charles Laughton (The Sign of the Cross) or a Laird Cregar (The Lodger).
Such is the weirdness of the Carry On universe that Kenneth Williams became a beacon of heterosexuality, his gawky frame and Olympian nostrils stirring the deepest passions of Hattie Jacques. The union’s transparent improbability was the joke. Wilde likewise gave homosexuality a coded release in his work, allowing his style to betray his substance. But given that Wilde was infinitely comfortable with his sexuality, this seems teasing rather than progressive. Wilde ultimately brought all his darkness on himself. Williams harnessed his predisposition to darkness, and raised awareness of the sexuality that tortured him in private.
Kenneth Williams never lived to see the influence he would have; Quentin Crisp lived perhaps too long, and lost the good opinion of many. Both fell, late in life, into the traps of their bizarre personalities: wheeled out on chat-shows, repeating the same jokes and stories – ‘just living off body fat’ as Williams put it. Yet it was by mastering their strangeness, their isolation, their inbuilt misanthropy that these men made enormous steps for gay liberation. These gay saints seemed simply to happen, like freak natural phenomena: unexpected, inexplicable, and completely inimitable. A kind of miracle, in fact.