Dandy in the Underworld, by Sebastian Horsley

A red-velvet boy gets the blues
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The Independent Culture

When Sebastian was a tot in his highchair and his sister slammed his finger in a cupboard door, removing the end, the doctors were unable to re-attach it. "They threw the wrong bit of me into the bin." From his mother's failed attempt to abort his life to his own suicide attempt after a miserably disastrous marriage, the reader of this memoir is acutely aware of a degree of self-loathing which makes a penitent monk beating his penis with stinging nettles seem like an act of indulgent narcissism. However, from an early age this fierce self-hatred was tempered with an equal degree of carefully cultivated egotism and self-worship, which in later life flowered into a gargantuan dandyism.

There is something about Horsley's hands that serve as a sort of painful index to his life. In another childhood accident, he falls while attempting to walk, lacerating them on a smashed milk-bottle. So much digital damage; strange that, years later, he would be moved as an artist to crucify himself, six-inch nails hammered through those already scarred palms. Perhaps his alcoholic parents' neglect of him fuelled his later need for constant attention: "They paid hardly any attention to us whatsoever. They didn't even ignore us."

Horsley uses very pretty turns of phrase to describe very ugly events, memories and thoughts. True, his aphorisms are well-polished, but one has to be careful with language; if you polish it too much, all you end up with are empty reflections of other people's work.

Despite his unforgiving descriptions of his mother's descent into alcoholism and madness, Horsley seems to have loved her deeply and inherited her Wildean approach to life. When asked by a nanny which child she wanted to accompany her on a trip she snapped, "I don't care. Whichever one goes with red velvet." Of course, it was Sebastian.

He has stayed true to her example, and conveys his tale of childhood cruelty, adolescent anarchy and rebellion, and adult drug and alcohol abuse, in the rarefied language of a play by Wilde. This device, although amusing, can be wearing, simply because it is relentless, and the reader is at times left wanting Horsley's authentic voice; but the author makes no claims to authenticity, judging falsity more virtuous.

Horsley the man is literally "tall, dark and handsome", in a wonderfully ruined way, rather like a sumptuous Edwardian chaise longue that has been sat on too often. However, he is so painfully aware of his own gorgeousness that he has felt bound to spend most of his life destroying it. Whether with heroin, crack or alcohol, we witness a constant battle for the survival of the failed artist who would as soon as kill himself as order another bespoke suit from Savile Row.

In life, as in letters, it is not enough to be clever; one has to be intelligent. Fortunately, Horsley is both, and this is what redeems what could have been just another confessional. "His words were cheap and invariably stolen," Horsley opines of his grandfather. Of course, we would never say the same of this writer's sustained homage to one of his heroes, Quentin Crisp, as he paraphrases and parodies the aphorisms and witticisms of Crisp's autobiographies The Naked Civil Servant, Resident Alien and How to Have a Lifestyle.

Whether alone in his studio smearing himself in his own excrement, shooting up heroin and cocaine or visiting a prostitute in Soho before dinner at the Ritz, the details of his expensive bohemian life are told with an honesty that gives no concessions to delicate sensitivities. Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line; but Horsley threw the pencil away long ago, having ceased either to paint, or make moral judgements – at least about himself.

Like Salvador Dalí's confessions, only far funnier and more self-deprecating, Dandy in the Underworld entertains as much as it revolts, is as tender as it is shocking, and as genuine as it is false. When we catch glimpses of the real Sebastian hidden behind the posturing and the dandyism, we realise that we are in the company of a vulnerable, caring and needy man who ultimately just wants to be loved – preferably by as many people as possible.

Richard Dyer is London correspondent of 'Contemporary' magazine and art editor of 'Wasafiri'

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