In the final interview before his death last week, Sebastian Horsley told Ed Howker about being ‘the high-priest of the dandy movement’, a heroin addict and a self-confessed fraud
His artwork was described as ‘dreadful’, his poetry as ‘pointless’ and he was denied entry to the United States for what the authorities called ‘moral turpitude’. But Sebastian Horsley excelled at failure. When a play of his memoirs opened this month at the Soho Theatre, the book had fallen out of print. Even his death last Thursday, of a heroin overdose, was completely accidental — otherwise, as friends said, he would not have passed up the chance to pen a lengthy suicide note.
When I met him in February, neither of us would have guessed it would be one of his last interviews. Nonetheless, his comments had a valedictory feel. ‘The horror is sounding too serious,’ he said. ‘I’m perfectly aware of how absurd I am. I am a dandy — and the dandy oscillates between Savile Row and Death Row, between narcissism and neuroses. There is a Calvinistic, austere quality to it. I have sacrificed possessions, career, children. And of course I understand my condition very well: I’m in a popular movement for individualism — that is farcical. To be adored, darling. That is what it’s about.’
I had met him hoping to discuss dandyism, a fashion which is working its way into the wardrobes of young men who do not share Horsley’s affectations. He greeted me with exaggerated warmth outside his flat — two sparsely furnished rooms on Meard Street in Soho — dressed in an Edwardian Gothic number complete with top hat. As we walked to a local restaurant, passers-by stared at him with incredulity. I suspect they thought I was his footman. As the self-proclaimed high priest of the ‘dandy movement’, he had plenty to say on the matter. ‘It is the opposite of fashion and fashion is the opposite of style,’ he said, the words rolling around his mouth before he spat them out. ‘Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are. Dandyism is nihilistic playfulness. For heaven’s sake, man, I was named Sebastian. What else could I do?’
Actually, Horsley was first christened Marcus by his mother, a Welsh typist, and father, the millionaire chairman of Northern Foods. Both of his parents were alcoholics. They divorced when he was 13. His artifice Sebastian was his own creation, inspired, he said, by Beau Brummell, inventor of the spat, and by Bunny Roger, a fashion designer and hero of the second world war.
Around the West End, Sebastian Horsley was not hard to spot. He would dress in a tailcoat or a suit covered in red sequins and fat ties, better described as corpulent. Yet behind this, said his critics, lay nothing of any substance. Readers of his popular memoir Dandy in the Underworld were urged to ‘bin’ the book by one Times reviewer. He was denounced as an ‘attention-seeking tosser’ in the Daily Telegraph, and ‘a pervert who stands for everything that is wrong with Britain today’ by Radio 2 listeners appalled by his on-air confessions to drug and sex addictions. Obituarists last week called him a ‘divisive’ figure.
Yet his depravity, which was a kind of extreme sport for him, blinded people to the truth: Sebastian Horsley was brilliantly funny. Not quite a new Oscar Wilde — a comparison drawn by his admirers — because his aphorisms, though seemingly off-the-cuff, were hammered out, reworked and practised long before they were delivered. He told me he disliked the comparison too. ‘Wilde,’ he explained, ‘was an aesthete. He reproduced. The only place you would see a dandy pushing a pram [he paused for effect] is into the Thames.’
But Horsley’s one-liners were better for the work he put into them. ‘I have suffered for my art,’ he told readers of his memoir. ‘now it’s your turn.’ Of his alcoholic parents, he said, ‘Clearly everyone in my life who should have been vertical was horizontal.’ Approached by one of Kate Moss’s ‘people’, who explained that the supermodel would like to sit for him, Horsley replied: ‘This pretty boy will do it for £10,000; he will not, however, get out of bed.’
The irony is that Horsley did not have a high opinion of himself. In common with so many comedians, he suffered from bouts of depression. This was intensified by a constant war with heroin addiction. ‘I only eat so the impact is heightened,’ he said to me, before claiming that he was introduced to the drug by the Australian musician Nick Cave in the bathrooms of Soho House. An interesting story, possibly concocted: he told other interviewers that they met when ‘Cave was clean but I was not.’
He certainly had an uneasy relationship with the truth. ‘I don’t speak, I quote. I am a fraud,’ he said last year. When the New York Times noted that his memoir was ‘not independently fact-checked’ by the publisher, they were on to something.
For all his bluff and bluster, he was a very delicate man. More than once I saw him dashing nervously through Soho early on a Sunday morning, dressed in black jeans and a threadbare wool sweater. Stripped of his finery, he looked vulnerable, which by all accounts he was. Those who knew him well — including this magazine’s Toby Young — knew that kindness and intelligence lay behind the egotistical veneer.
And if his behaviour was disgraceful, he was too naive to profit from it. He was given a sex column on the Observer, but it was discontinued for offending readers and editors alike. When, in the name of art, he nailed himself to a cross in the Philippines — the construction collapsed — he struggled to find a gallery. He never quite achieved the stardom he claimed to crave. Perhaps he will yet. Stephen Fry’s production company acquired the rights to his memoirs. In them, it becomes clear that, against all adversities, dandyism was Horsley’s protection, his ‘ghost dance in the face of death’, as he put it to me when we parted. How poignant that sounds now that the dance has ended.