Sebastian Horsley: My brilliant gutter life
For a man who has swum with sharks, been crucified in the Philippines, made a mint on the stock market and spent thousands on drugs and prostitutes, Sebastian Horsley found it surprisingly difficult to write his memoirs. And being fired from 'The Erotic Review' didn't help...
Sunday 26 November 2006
Writing a book is an adventure. It begins as an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress. Then a master. But it always turns out to be a tyrant in the end. And you are its slave.
If I had known the amount of work that was involved, I would never have embarked on so foolish a project. I mean, why lock yourself in a room and invent conversations? Is that really a way for a grown man to behave? But now, after five long years of lunacy it is, at last, over. Writing a book - not bad for a guy who's only ever read two of them: one of them was Tintin and one of them wasn't.
So what's my book about? It is about as much as I can take. The drama began from day one.
In 1998, I was asked to write a monthly column for a new magazine called The Erotic Review. It was rubbish. Neither high-brow enough to titillate intellectuals, nor low brow enough to disappear off into the lavatory with, it just about catered for the more outré members of a Surrey golf club.
I didn't care. I took my new job seriously. I can't afford to say no to anything. I am not a writer. The only thing I have ever written is a cheque. That said, I can hardly wait to hear what I've got to say.
It had never been an ambition of mine to become an author. This worked in my favour. If you go into battle and don't care if you're killed, it makes you strong. Good art is possible only after one has given up and let go. I let rip. The trouble was I couldn't form a sentence. I didn't understand pace, or plot or punctuation. Worse I didn't understand that I didn't understand. Nevertheless, for six years I defiled my copy. "Sewer Life" featured a middle-aged loser poncing around in make-up, fixing up drugs, fucking whores and trying unsuccessfully to be an artist.
Amazingly, my inability didn't seem to matter. Writing is not about literature. It's a personality racket. The column gained a cult (ie tiny) readership and my agent Patrick Walsh demanded a book proposal. Then, to my astonishment in 2001, my memoir was commissioned by Fourth Estate.
Bloody hell! Now I really was in trouble. What was I going to do? I decided to invest the advance in class A drugs andprostitutes. The rest I squandered.
A year later Leo Hollis, my commissioning editor phoned me up.
"How are you getting along, Sebastian?"
"Well, er, I have written the title. Dandy in the Underworld. Four words. Very nice. There is a dull stretch in the middle but it picks up at the end."
"What seems to be the problem?"
"The problem is that I haven't actually done anything. You see, I haven't really had a life. I've just sat in a room and died."
"Sebastian, your grandmother spent half her life in an asylum. Your father runs one of the nation's biggest companies and is an alcoholic cripple. Your mother is a walking fruit cart. You have had an affair with one of the most notorious gangsters of all time. You have swum with sharks, made a million on the stock market, been a male escort, spent thousands on prostitutes, and discovered the most unglamorous side of heroin and crack addiction. Oh... and you went to the Philippines to be crucified. So, if you think you've got nothing to say you are bonkers. You are under contract but should be under observation. Now get on with it."
I got to work.
There are three reasons for becoming a writer. The first is that you need the money; the second, that you have something to say; and the third is that you can't think what to do with the long winter evenings. I expect the liveliest books are written from a combination of all three motives. I had none of these. I am not a writer, I am a performer. Writing is merely a way of bringing myself to the notice of the world. And it is the world I care about, not the writing. My only motivation was "Look at me, Mum."
What should I put in and leave out? I didn't have any problem telling the world my secrets. It was telling my loved ones which was problematic. I decided to put down all the bad things I had done and leave out all the good things I ought to have done.
After a year I was just hitting my stride. 500 words a day. Then my commissioning editor left. It was the least of my problems. It was my life that needed editing. I was constantly relapsing on drugs. I would write a chapter then use for a month. I tried to give up. Then I gave up giving up. The relapses were endless and tedious and sad. I was like an escapologist who messes up his tricks and gets even more tangled.
Of course, I had decided that drugs and art were linked. Don't the best poets and composers take chemicals to engender creativity? Can you trust the ones that are too careful? Surely dull old Goethe can't have been as great a man as Keats? Carlyle can't compete with Rimbaud, Wordsworth with Coleridge? The ones that burnt. Was that why they drank: to put out some of the fire? Far better that than to simmer like some old saucepan cooking up platitudes on the stove. Far better to burn too bright - and explode.
I exploded. And then I had to clean up. I was allocated a new editor. We were getting on. And then... guess what? She left too. The new one was called Mitzi Angel. What a name, I remember thinking. Here was a guardian sent from heaven, I hoped. I went to meet her. She was slim... and even more unfortunately prim. I began to have my suspicions even then.
After three years of work I delivered the manuscript. At last! It was done! Time to celebrate. I cracked open the crack. I was summoned to a meeting at Fourth Estate. I prepared myself carefully - I shot up in the loos.
The meeting was not a success. I was fired. I was given the full advance and told to go away. The book was the product of a disturbed mind, was my exterminating angel's opinion. It was deeply misogynist. She was shocked and disgusted.
On one level I was pleased. This was just like the Sex Pistols, constantly hired because they were cutting edge, as quickly fired because they wouldn't comply. Fourth Estate had hired me because they wanted their Johnny Rotten. They fired me because I wasn't Val Doonican. I suppose if I had any complaints I could have written them on the back of their nice fat cheque. Oh well, if you cannot brag about doing something well, then brag about doing it badly. At any rate, brag. But in truth all my dreams had just been eviscerated.
I had been dismissed by the conservatives. So what about the bad boys? Surely these rock'n'roll poseurs who built publishing houses on the slopes of volcanoes would go for it? But it turned out they were sheep in wolf's clothing. Sure, one of them had built his house on a volcano. But it was only Edinburgh's sedate Arthur's Seat. He was a Morningside maverick. "We shall applaud you from afar," declared another sheep in sheep's clothing.
"Cheer up, Sebastian, things could be worse," I reassured myself. So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse. The Erotic Review fired me. How could it? Didn't they work for me?
I embraced my oldest friend, defeat, and tried to go on as though nothing unpleasant had happened. But I was struggling. "I don't think I can continue with this any more," I told my agent. "Surely four years of rejection slips is nature's way of telling you to stop writing?" "I've got a great new editor for you. He is freelance," said Patrick.
I soon realised why he was freelance. Matthew Hamilton had been fired - twice. "Once I was given the opportunity to resign after an unsuccessful stint in the Priory - and Fourth Estate... well, we were both misunderstood, weren't we?" he told me. There is no stronger bond of friendship than a mutual enemy. We became foul weather friends.
"You need to keep off drugs to do this properly," Matthew told me. I could take it from him. He knew. And by then I was beginning to realise too. Taking drugs doesn't turn you into an artist. You can't write on drugs any better than you can drive a car when you are drunk. It works for a bit but then you run into a hedge. The point of taking heroin is to make you forget that your leg's just been cut off in the car accident that you had when you were driving drunk. Unfortunately (for you, though not always for everyone else) it also makes you forget about everything that had made you a writer in the first place.
I set to work on a new draft. I wrote only when inspired - but I saw to it that I was inspired promptly every morning at five o'clock. For a year, no holidays, no going out. My days became so ordered they made the life of a Trappist monk seem like an orgy. Live slow, die old became my new motto.
Working with a great editor, I found that the writing came from a different place. My tastes changed. I stopped pretending to like Hegel. I admitted to Hergé. I didn't like Can. I liked KISS. What a relief. No more phoney loneliness from the family-minded Nick Cave. I was liberating my inner self - which is deeply superficial. But it worked. I was losing my will to die. I did keep on trying to go on being miserable; but somehow a persistent cheerfulness kept spoiling it.
At the beginning of this year I was asked to write an agony uncle's sex column for The Observer. "Do it," said my agent. And so, with some trepidation, I started working for a liberal-minded, feminist-flag-waving, socially embracing set of closed-minded prigs who would have happily shot anyone who dared disagree with their all-inclusive opinions.
Four months later I was fired. I think it was the anal sex column on Easter Sunday that did it. But if they hadn't wanted me to mention bottoms why had they supplied me with a question about buggery?
"We have never had as many complaints in the history of the newspaper," said my editor - "and most of them are from the journalists. They seem to think you are a pervert." Oh well. I didn't want people thinking that I was a journalist - most people thought I was a prostitute.
I took stock again. As a failure, I was actually quite a success! There was always suicide - superb literary criticism. Or a move back to Hull? Failure is less apparent in the suburbs. The writing was on the wall. It was just as well I was illiterate. I went on. Finally after a year of hard work - it's so difficult to persuade a busy ex-girlfriend to write a book for you - I was out.
Patrick dispatched the manuscript to assorted publishers who returned it as quickly as a hand grenade. Was I going to be rejected by every remotely reputable house? Was it time to start to write for Posterity?
No. Who wants to dedicate their life's work to that begrudging old bitch? And then... Sceptre put in a bid for it! Bloomsbury wanted to top it! Two great houses! My virtue will withstand everything - except the highest bidder. I accepted the former because I adored the editor - and, even better, she seemed to adore me.
You never really know whether perseverance is noble or stupid until it's too late. I still don't know. There is still a lot to go wrong. Publication, it seems, is the equivalent of childbirth. You spend month after month waddling about your home in a hysterical state. You can monitor heartbeats, take blood tests and decide on silly names. But it could still be still-born. It could still be strangled by its own umbilicus. Dandy in the Underworld. Coming soon to a remainder bin near you.
* 'Dandy in the Underworld' will be published by Sceptre in September 2007
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