Outsider II - Almost Always: Never Quite, By Brian Sewell
The spy, the surrealist and the overshare
Sunday 04 November 2012
Brian Sewell is the endlessly entertaining art critic who responds to bad shows by blowing the doors off the gallery, reversing his Daimler over the artist, and garnishing the wreckage with a freshly steaming dog turd. He is not one for half measures.
So it was entirely appropriate that, when he published the first volume of his memoirs last year, it was as delightfully frank as his weekly essays for the Evening Standard. That first book ended tantalisingly in 1967, when he had just left Christie's for the crime of being "queer". Volume two, we knew, would answer the questions about his involvement with the spy Anthony Blunt, his friend and tutor from the Courtauld Institute.
This he has done with vivid detail, using his diaries to recall the events of 1979, when, in a bizarre act of "aggressive provincial patriotism", Margaret Thatcher denounced Blunt as the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring in a statement to the House of Commons. Sewell tells how he smuggled Blunt out of his sixth-floor apartment past a gaggle of reporters by emerging from the lift with Blunt dressed up and hunched like an invalid. Sewell also reveals his belief that the fifth member of the Cambridge ring was a don called Andrew Gow, who had as good as told him so nine years before.
All this seems rather distant and somehow less important than it once was, and these chapters don't necessarily make for the most entertaining. There is a certain amount of setting the story straight, which will be of interest to future historians but less so to general readers. Likewise, Sewell's assessment of various newspaper editors will cause some choking on canapés in London's medialand, but may prove a little specialist to the wider world.
For much of his life, Sewell has topped up his income by buying and selling pictures, so he knows how to market an asset. Certainly, he has done so with his books, teasing out the most explosive nuggets for newspaper serialisation, and dividing what could have been one volume into two. There is no shame in this, as he has an ample stock of anecdotes, even if the relentless dishing up of graphic sexual stories becomes a little exhausting. In a faintly depressing chapter about his encounter with the aged Salvador Dali already packed with voyeurism, masturbation and sheep guts, do we really need to be told that Dali's wife, Gala, "could not, because of some deformity, be fucked and buggered simultaneously"?
And yet, there is constant pleasure in Sewell's prose: the elegance of phrase, the wry humour, and the clarity of insight. Sometimes the latter is retrospective, such as the realisation that moving his ageing mother into his home wasn't healthy for a middle-aged bachelor. (She recorded each of his shags in her own diary.) And sometimes it is a clarity too far, such as when the more anatomical points of sodomy could just as well be left to the imagination. But then, what should a memoir be, if not genital warts and all?
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Thailand beach murders: Thai PM suggests 'attractive' female tourists cannot expect to be safe wearing bikinis
- 2 Scottish independence: Learn from Quebec's mistakes and beware of promises. Vote Yes.
- 3 'Necrophilia-obsessed' girl among double murder accused in three-way sex case
- 4 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 5 Revealed after 75 years of secrecy: 'Fifi' the glamorous WW2 special agent who tested British spies' resolve
Laurie Lee's Rosie: What is it like to inspire a writer's work and be immortalised forever on the page?
Doctor Who series 8: Time Heist pictures revealed ahead of episode 5
The Walking Dead season 5 air date, trailer and season 4 recap
Star Wars 7 leaked set photo of Adam Driver that changes everything
Pharrell Williams says that 'Blurred Lines' criticism is 'out of context'
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'