I recently attended a party hosted by my old chum the author Roger Clarke. I was lucky to meet many of his charming pals – including a particularly charming young film maker called Adrian Goycoolea who, it transpired, was Quentin Crisp’s nephew.
Yes, England’s ‘Stately Homo’ was his uncle. His great uncle, to be precise.
Now, that’s what you call a relation.
Crisp of course wanted us to think he was his own special creation, composed of two parts aphorism and three parts henna. He strived, however much he claimed to envy ‘real people’, to be singular. And succeeded, brilliantly.
But Denis Pratt (his real name) not only had actual parents, but also two brothers and one sister. Which is bordering on the downright common. Even worse, his brother Lewis seems to have been quite the dandy, also bestowed with a camp, deadpan wit – and he was heterosexual.
So you can see that young Denis had his work cut out.
Lewis emigrated to South America in the 1930s, where he married and had a family, but stayed in touch with Denis – sometimes writing him letters beginning ‘Dear Sir/Madam (cross out that which does not apply)’.
After his move to the US, Denis was a regular fixture at family events when Adrian was growing up – and attended his wedding. Adrian, who had lost his grandparents when he was very young, saw Denis as a kind of grandfather figure.
Some years ago Adrian made a delightful short documentary (below), Uncle Denis?, which somehow I managed to miss until now, exploring that relationship, using interviews and home movies which ‘expose’ this slightly shocking and rather touching private side of ‘Crisp’ – someone who, after the TV adaption of his memoir The Naked Civil Servant aired in 1975, seemed to live entirely in the lime-lite. A kind of reality TV winner avant la lettre.
Essentially, Uncle Denis? outs Quentin Crisp. As a real person.
Early on in the doc he advises a very precocious and very young Adrian:
“Everyone should at least consider changing his name – so as not to get stuck with a name that perhaps he doesn’t like, or represents something terrible, like his parents. He should have the opportunity to start all over again.”
Denis’ parents don’t seem to have been so very terrible, just very English mid-century middle-class. And his niece Frances seems to have been devoted to him, spending many Saturday afternoons in the early 1950s hanging out with him and his gang at the famous Bar B Q cafe on the Kings Road, where he would introduce her as his niece ‘from the real world’.
Frances recounts how she, like everyone in the family, called him Denis “never Quentin”, but this changed after he moved to NY. She wrote to ‘Denis Pratt’ and the letter was returned ‘not known at this address’. “So I thought I’d better start addressing him as Quentin Crisp!”
Perhaps that was part of the reason why he moved to the US. To finally leave Denis Pratt behind. Changing your name can only achieve so much – changing worlds, so much more.
But as you’ll see, he was still very happy to attend family events there, and was in many ways a rather old-fashioned, very proud ‘great uncle’.