As I was an infant in the late sixties, you will forgive my ignorance of how tight men’s trousers had become. In The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp describes the postwar acceleration of male flamboyance. ‘The population of England now contained more men than women… masculine plumage had become more colourful… the distinction between the sexes was reduced to the point where [you couldn’t] tell the boys from the girls if the clothes of the young men had not become so sexually revealing. Indeed their trousers could go no… nearer unless they adopted a Plantagenet style, wore tights and carried their pride and joy in a specially tailored sack tied with two smart bows.’
Since he was a life model who, when dressed and in his heyday, personified camp, Crisp’s account of art students’ style rings true (as does that of dwindling drawing skills and an ambition shrunk from Michelangelo Muse to payrolled poseur). How come I’d not read this stylish, scream of a memoir?
Another cultural milestone I missed, right up to 1979’s costume-change of crotch-rot latex for rip-aerating jeans, was how tight they were, how tight, throughout that decade too. But my sexual latency lasted longer than Crisp’s, apparently. Born in 1908, abused in infancy by a rag-and-bone man, he braved ostracism, street attacks, arrest, unemployment and snotty sales assistants. His getup was a satin-thread shy of cross dress, complete with crescent eyebrows and henna. Setting off with a mission to educate the world about homosexuality, by the sixties this had crystallised to personality. Nevertheless, the ‘queer-baiting’ continued. Unusually for a narcissist, Crisp happily turns the scalpel on his self. While his self-deprecation is as manicured as his ‘Mandarin’ nails, his perception never falters. Nor does his dissection of social nuance. ‘To the [new] generation… to whom the words “good and evil”, “innocence and guilt” have lost all meaning, it was no longer my wickedness that annoyed them; it was… my insistence on taking the blame for something on which judgement was no longer passed… the symbols… adopted forty years earlier to express my sexual type had become the uniform of young people… I had by mistake become the youngest teenager in the business.’
In the autumn issue of NWR, Mike Parker looks another generation ahead, at gay liberation’s ‘precocious adolescence’ in the post-AIDS era. How did Michael Tolliver, the darling of Armistead Maupin’s landmark Tales of the City becomes a ‘smug bore’ in the series’ latest addition, Mary Ann in Autumn? How does Maupin’s San Fransiscan haven compare with Tristan Garcia’s Paris in his new novel, Hate, A Romance, with its ‘freewheeling rage at the delusions of… liberal queers of the AIDS age’? Pass me my kegs: I’ll tell you.
This was first published in Gwen Davies' Saturday 'Insider' books column in the Western Mail, 13 August 2011
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