It was, on reflection, not such a good idea for Sebastian Horsley, the English artist and decadent, to fly into New York on a publicity tour during Easter week. It was six years ago that he acquired a certain notoriety by having himself crucified in the Philippines. Although he has no religious pretensions other than ardent self-worship – far from dying for the sins of others, he lives for his own – such behaviour tends to go down rather badly in America, particularly among immigration officials.
Horsley was interviewed at some length and then put on a return flight to London and Soho. Yet the story of the Englishman who managed to get himself expelled from America almost before he arrived offers a perfect little Easter parable for our times.
Even before writing his cheerfully outrageous memoir Dandy in the Underworld, Horsley had been in various types of trouble. He had, for mysterious and perverse reasons, had himself crucified in the Philippines. Having confessed to serial use of crack cocaine and prostitutes, he was invited on to the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2. The next day, Vine had to apologise to listeners: his guest was "a pervert who stands for everything that is wrong with British society".
Horsley is trouble, and proud of it. Invited to go an author tour in America (a doomed project if ever there was one), he might just have made it into New York had he managed to blend in with other passengers. Unfortunately there was something about his appearance – top hat, three-piece suit and painted fingernails – which attracted the attention of immigration control at Newark airport.
He was pulled over, questioned, Googled. The officials disliked what they found. The man in the top hat was a former crack fiend and pervert. After an eight-hour interview (what on earth did they talk about?) the dandy was on his way back home to Soho. The charge cited was moral turpitude in connection with former drug use, a pro-prostitution stance and an episode of self-crucifixion.
There are certainly more heartbreaking stories around. Expulsion from America will ratchet up Horsley's notoriety rating and probably help his book sales. The immigration official, having done his duty, will have gone home proud that he had kept his great country uncorrupted by a limey weirdo. But Easter is a good moment to consider the wider questions here of moral turpitude – or "sin" as it is more generally known.
In this little confrontation, who would you trust? The official, enforcing government policy, or the pervert, there to promote himself and his book? Surely any sane person – and certainly any Christian – will come down firmly and uncompromisingly on the side of Sebastian Horsley. The goon with a gun, who pulled him in at Newark Airport, was not concerned about national security – on the whole, terrorists do not wear top hats and nail-varnish – but took a dislike to the look of him. Having learned a little more, the official liked even less what he had said and written.
The real problem, though, was not one of moral turpitude but shamelessness. In this hypocritical age, it is those who refuse to play the game of the moment – sin, grovel and repent – who are most suspect. America has a President who has taken drugs. Many of its most elevated public figures will think nothing of availing themselves of the services of prostitutes. As a nation, it ranks high among the superpowers when it comes to drug use, violence and every type of sexual peculiarity.
In America, as in this country, all that is just fine, so long as it is accompanied by an appropriate degree of secrecy and guilt. It is honesty that is alarming and should be suppressed, particularly among those who are rebelliously dysfunctional in print as well as deed. Banning an inappropriate writer from speaking in a country is but a small step from banning inappropriate books.
Yet it is often the badly behaved, society's outsiders, who tell the truth. Researching for a bio-graphy of Willie Donaldson, no stranger to moral turpitude himself, I was struck by how very often it was the great and the respectable who were evasive or self-protective or who simply refused to see me, while those who had offended society's moral code were honest, direct and clear-eyed. One of those, indeed, was that strange conflation of decadence and morality, Sebastian Horsley.
There are remarkably few truth-tellers in the fashionable genre of memoir-writing. The world rewards carefully shaped and marketed morality tales of victimhood and redemption. Those who break the rules are dangerous because they write what they believe. No wonder America kicked Horsley out.