My first job on leaving school was in the popular music section of JG Windows in Newcastle upon Tyne. Late one afternoon I was lolling against the counter, fiddling with a roll of sticky tape, one eye watching the clock. The heavy glass entrance door swept open and in glided a middle-aged gentleman with grey bouffant hair, tinted in pinks and purples around the temples. He sported a green velvet jacket and a cluster of silk scarves and frills. The ensemble was topped off with a wide-brimmed black hat, accessorised with yet another silk scarf, black gloves, and what I would call a swagger stick. And boy did he swagger; flamboyance oozed from every pore. Today his appearance wouldn’t cause a stir, but on that afternoon in the 1970’s stirring was in evidence within a 50ft radius, as customers stopped leafing through LP sleeves to gawp.
Until then, I had been under the impression that the world consisted of people exactly like my family and the women I worked with. Conventional people. The expression ‘diversity’, when applied to the wide spectrum of human beings and their varied appearances had yet to enter my vocabulary. Suddenly I was confronted with a huge culture shock; I hadn’t come across anyone remotely similar to this man before, and I thought he was by far the most exquisite creature I had ever seen.
“My dear,” he said. “I wish to purchase a recording of Barbara Seville.” I looked at him with that expression of blank incomprehension so beloved of teenagers. “Barbara Seville,” I said doubtfully. “Dunno who she is. Hang on, I’ll go and ask somebody.” I sloped off to Classical Music. “The chap over there” – I indicated my customer with a jerk of the thumb – “wants something by Barbara Seville. I think she must be an opera singer.” An inspection of the classical recordings catalogue produced nothing by Barbara Seville, so I returned to the gentleman to elicit further clues. “What does she sing?” I asked. “Cos no one’s ever heard of her.” My client leaned forward to give me a reassuring pat on the hand. “An easy mistake to make, “he said. “The Seville to which I refer is not a singer, but in fact The Barber of Seville by Rossini I wish to purchase a version of the work for a friend.” “Right, I’m sorry. I’ll have another look.” At this point a colleague took it upon herself to intervene. She nudged me smartly to one side. “I’ll serve the gentleman,” she barked. “Out of the way.” I was the junior of the juniors and not in a position to protest, but my effervescent new friend wasn’t having any of it. “The young lady and I are managing perfectly well, thank you, and I’d like her to continue serving me. Kindly leave us alone.” Thus she was summarily dismissed. “Yeah shove off!” I muttered inaudibly, my face a picture of satisfaction. Despite my ineptitude, we together managed to choose a version of Rossini’s ll Barbiere di Siviglia that fitted the needs of my client. The transaction complete, he replaced his gloves and collected his stick. “I will wish you good afternoon, my dear, you’ve been most helpful.” With that, he departed from my life as stylishly as he had entered it.
My gaze followed him as he floated across the shop and out of the door. Emma, the manageress appeared at my side. “A most distinctive gentleman,” she said. “Just imagine, in your dotage you’ll be able to tell people about the afternoon you met Quentin Crisp.”
Denis Charles Pratt
25 December 1908
Sutton, Surrey, UK
21 November 1999 (aged 90)
Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, England, UK
Writer, illustrator, actor, artist’s model
The Naked Civil Servant
How to Become a Virgin