On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.
The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.
Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.
I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”
Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.
Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.
Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.
Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.
I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.
I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.
I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.
Be yourself, no matter what they say!