Outsider II - Almost Always: Never Quite, By Brian Sewell

The spy, the surrealist and the overshare

Matthew Bell
Sunday 04 November 2012 01:00 GMT

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?

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