What follows is the second of four exclusive extracts from The Last Word by Quentin Crisp, the final installment of his autobiography, written in the last years of Crisp’s life, published in Europe and North America by MB Books and available to buy on Amazon.
Chapter 16: On Being Ninety
As I write these words, I am ninety years old. My ninetieth birthday passed last year on December 25th 1998.
The only advantage of being ninety, as opposed to being sixty, seventy or eighty, is that one can look forward to death with greater certainty. When you’re sixty or seventy, the thought of death crosses your mind like a shadow. It disturbs you and worries you. By the time you reach my age you are longing for it.
Yes, the world around me may be getting noisier, sexier and more horrible by the minute, but at least I can comfort myself with the fact that the end is in sight. Or so I thought. Imagine my horror when I opened the newspaper just the other day and discovered they will soon be able to make us all live until we turn one hundred and thirty. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The truth is my body is dying on me. These days I carry it around like a horrible old overcoat. As you get older and older, your body begins to decay. You start to smell of death and there’s nothing you can do about it.
My eyesight has deteriorated to the point where I can no longer see properly. I should wear glasses when I go out, but I am far too vain for facial clutter. As a result, when I venture outside I walk the streets nearly blind.
To add to this, I am also now partially deaf. This means I appear to ignore the greetings of friends and mishear the inquiries of strangers. The deafness combined with my blindness results in people talking to me as if I’m a non-comprehending child, which can be annoying if not used to one’s advantage. Nevertheless, I remain perfectly capable of comprehending what someone might say to me, were I actually able to see the person in question and hear the words they speak.
It doesn’t really matter since my legs have given up on me as well. These days I spend more time working out how to avoid making the trip downstairs from my apartment than I ever spend outdoors. When I do get out, I can barely walk more than a few yards and only manage that at a snail’s pace.
According to those who know, I’m apparently very lucky. Supposedly I’m in good shape for my age. This can only mean there are some very unfortunate aged souls out there in even worse shape than me.
No, ours isn’t a world for old people. Every few minutes there are adverts on the television telling you how to keep young and how to keep lines from appearing on your face. But when you’re ninety you don’t just have lines on your face, you have them all over your entire body. Everything today is geared towards the young, which leaves a terrible feeling of exclusion within even moderately old people.
Where would we all hide if we lived to be one hundred and thirty? Think of the gadgets we’d need. Every house would need its own elevator. “Ah, but the world would be so much wiser,” say the optimists. I can’t see it myself because as we get very old we lose our wisdom, our language and eventually our mind. If we all lived forever we’d end up with a world in which no one could communicate. We’d all have forgotten how to.
For me, the absolute nothingness of death is a blessing. Something to look forward to. If I discovered a potion that enabled people to live until they were one hundred and thirty, the first thing I would do is bury it.
I celebrated my seventieth birthday in England, probably with a minimum of fuss. It just came and went. People made a great deal of fuss for my ninetieth birthday, however. I was performing at the Intar Theatre on 42nd Street on my actual birthday which like every other of my birthdays, occurred on Christmas Day. The trouble with being born on Christmas Day is you’re never quite sure whether the air of celebration that exists is for you or You-Know-Who. It makes no difference, really.
Anyway, a letter of congratulations arrived for me and was pinned up on the wall of the theatre’s foyer. It was from Mr. Clinton. From the White House. Well, everybody looked at it very carefully and fingered it. They couldn’t decide whether it was a fake or if it was real. It turned out to be genuine and I think it’s wonderful that Mr. Clinton should care enough about me, an alien, an outsider, to write to me on my birthday.
People say the letter demonstrates the importance of who I am and what I’ve meant to people throughout the world. I suppose it’s because of my fame, or rather my infamy since I am famous for no good reason. Whatever it is, I enjoy it because, as far as I know, the only reward of fame is that it extends your social horizon and it remains my ambition to meet everyone in the world before I die.
Nothing about turning ninety has astonished me. Only the fact that it is of such interest to other people. I regard turning ninety as an affliction, but the American public regards it as an achievement. This I find very strange because you don’t achieve it, it just happens to you. I’ve gotten used to it now. If people say, “We hear you’re ninety,”
I smile and say, “Yes, isn’t it terrible?”
These days, of course, I ignore my birthday. When I was young, you have birthday presents, and cards, and things like that and you celebrate it as if you’re marching forward on some great quest and you have just reached another milestone. Had my ninetieth birthday not coincided with the opening night of my one-man show, I would not have taken any notice of it. It’s not that I’m not keen on reaching my destination, I have said as much to the contrary, it’s that these days I don’t have the energy. Plus, not making a big deal about my own birthday means I don’t have to feel guilty when I fail to remember other people’s.
I suppose I’m just not good at celebrating things. I don’t want to wear a funny hat or jump about in streams. I don’t want to shout and sing. I probably don’t celebrate holidays because my life has been one big holiday. As I once said of Halloween, “Oh, I shan’t be bothered. I’ll not get dressed up in fancy clothes.”
To which my friend replied, “You’re always in fancy clothes.”
And that, of course, is true. I wear what I want all the time, so I don’t have any need to dress up for anything.
The fact that I have turned ninety astonishes me. When I was young I never expected to live as long as this. Neither did anyone else. A spring never came without someone saying, “We never thought you’d live through another winter.” I never thought I appeared as frail as that to other people, but evidently I did. I was very frail when young and I liked being frail. When I was born I had pneumonia. I was always sick. I suppose I got tougher as time went by.
At ninety, I do feel less well than I used to feel. I feel inadequate to cope with things, unable to walk to places because they are too far. You don’t need advice on growing old, because it overtakes you. It’s irresistible. You have to accept your fate which is to be overlooked and, to some extent, to be ridiculed.
You become a victim as you get older, a victim of young people. Mostly they overlook you, which can sometimes be nice because then you don’t have to bother. But if they say you are old fashioned, you have to accept it and say “Yes, I am old fashioned.” If Boy George says I’m old-fashioned, then I am. It doesn’t worry me. I don’t try to answer it or try to improve myself so that I become ‘new-fashioned’. It’s not necessary.
© 2017 Phillip Ward. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
About Quentin Crisp:
Quentin Crisp (Dec 25, 1908 - Nov 21, 1999) was an English-born writer, actor, eccentric and raconteur. He became famous from the publication of his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which chronicled the oppression he faced as a homosexual in England before, during and after World War II. Crisp performed a one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp, which he toured nationally and internationally and which won an L.A. Drama Critic’s Circle award. He moved to New York at the age of 72 where he wrote books on style, culture and manners, appeared in numerous films, published a second autobiography, How To Become A Virgin, and became the inspiration for Sting’s hit song, An Englishman In New York. Dinner with Crisp, whose telephone number was listed in the local telephone directory and who never turned down an invitation to dine, was often called ‘The best show in New York’. The Last Word is the third and final installment of his autobiography.