In Memory of Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois

Rosemary Hill

  • Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts by Elizabeth Wilson
    Tauris, 288 pp, £11.99, October 2002, ISBN 1 86064 782 0
  • Quentin & Philip by Andrew Barrow
    Macmillan, 559 pp, £18.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 333 78051 5

There are maps both in Elizabeth Wilson’s book, which deals with bohemians in general, and in Andrew Barrow’s, which is a study of two in particular, but the street plans of Soho, Paris or Munich are not much use as a guide to the subject. Bohemia is a country of the mind, a flying island that may land anywhere and take off again just as quickly. No sooner have the upwardly mobile middle classes discovered it, in Greenwich Village or Montparnasse, than it is gone, vanishing on contact with gentrification. Conversely, it may flourish in unlikely places, in country towns and even suburbs.

The subjects of Barrow’s ‘double portrait’, his friends Quentin Crisp and the surrealist poet Philip O’Connor, were both children of the Home Counties. Crisp, who began life as Denis Pratt, found his way to bohemia from the Pooterland of Egmont Road, Sutton. O’Connor spent a significant part of his tumultuous life in Dorking, a fact which the local historian June Spong was understandably disinclined to believe when Barrow approached her for his research. Mrs Spong thought O’Connor’s memories ‘mostly fantasy’ and was prepared to grant only that he might have visited Surrey ‘at some time in his life’.

The bohemian spirit operates along different lines from those that propel the mainstream of society, and according to other impulses. Therefore, while bohemians are often conspicuous, they may equally well be invisible to the ordinary eye, passing through conventions like ghosts through walls, unseen because unimaginable. Nothing like that could happen in Dorking. The whole idea of the bohemian is slippery to the grip of an organising mind. The OED senses a certain impropriety in the word itself, concluding its definition on a note of exasperation: ‘Used with much latitude, with or without reference to morals.’

‘With or without reference to morals’ would have been a better subtitle for Wilson’s book than ‘the glamorous outcasts’, a cliché that reflects the outsider’s – or rather the insider’s – view of bohemia. The reality is more complicated and ambiguous. There is glamour, but it is the flip-side of the poverty and failure that are essential to the bohemian ethos, as, too, is tedium, though of a peculiar sort. ‘Day after uneventful day,’ Quentin Crisp remembered, writing about Soho in the late 1920s, ‘night after loveless night, we sat in this café buying each other cups of tea, combing each other’s hair and trying on each other’s lipsticks.’

Crisp eventually went from poverty to stardom with, he commented, no intervening experience of ordinary life. For bohemians either extreme will do, and they are as often heroes as outcasts. Crisp was first an outcast and then a star; Oscar Wilde went the other way, while Byron was both at the same time. Whatever the experience of individuals, the essence of bohemia as an idea, which is Wilson’s real subject, is a critique of middle-class values, a love-hate relationship between inside and out in which each needs the other to feed its fantasies. Crisp felt a certain longing for the ‘carpet-slipper set up’ of ordinary life, and said that if only he could have had a sex change he would have been a cosy unremarkable woman and run a wool shop. At the same time he knew that not ‘everything by the fireside is permanent, peaceful. The terrible truth is that the people on the inside are trying to get out.’

Perhaps the real bohemian is not so much an outcast as somebody who is never ‘in’. O’Connor and Crisp were naturals, not trying to stand apart, merely to find any place at all where they could, if not fit, at least be. O’Connor, who once said he had a mind ‘like a haystack in a gale, only now and then manageable’, could barely face ‘the terrors’ of Putney High Street even after gearing himself up by playing a record of ‘On with the Motley’ from Pagliacci several times over. Like Crisp, he was an outsider even among outsiders. When he lived as a tramp, other, normal tramps avoided him. Crisp was asked to leave homosexual pubs in Soho, and Barrie Stacey, the manager of the As You Like It café, where Crisp regularly held court, ‘hated him on sight’. Long after he had become a fixture and indeed an attraction, Stacey worried that he had a tendency to ‘scare away normal trade’. Despite the fantastic elaboration of his persona, there was nothing affected about Crisp. He lived with strict reference to morals, and where his inclinations were in keeping with the standards of his suburban upbringing, he followed them. He was careful with money, punctual, hard-working (‘the most energetic model in the Home Counties’), unfailingly polite, a moderate drinker and a vehement anti-smoker. Had he been a less truly unusual person he might have nodded more in the direction of what Wilson calls the ‘traditions’ of bohemia to which drunkenness and unreliability are essential. These came as second nature to Philip O’Connor.

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