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Sebastian Horsley: equal parts Byronic dandy, Dickensian grotesque and Wildean poseur

Alexander Larman remembers his time with the decadent author, Sebastian Horsley, 10 years after his death

Artillery Row

Today, it is ten years since the death, from a heroin overdose, of Sebastian Horsley: artist, writer, brothel creeper and dandy. He came to epitomise Soho in all of its bohemian and scabrous glory, becoming the link between the old gin-soaked days of Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Bernard and the brasher, more commercialised part of W1 that exists now. He was often ridiculed during his lifetime as a preening, affected fop (a designation which he loved), but his greatest fear was being boring. A decade after he ceased to enthral us all, his legacy lives on. And I can testify to this, because I enjoyed a series of adventures with Mr Horsley. Of, I should add, the literary rather than sexual kind.

A decade and a half ago, I was bound for his home in Meard Street to meet Sebastian for the first time. I had recently left university with literary ambitions, a penchant for ‘a wee dram’ and a healthy interest in the demi-monde, and sought to combine these three preoccupations by taking various poorly paid internships at literary agencies and publishers by day and hanging around some of the more louche pubs of Soho by night. At one literary agency, where I was not paid a penny for my services but was frequently invited to lengthy benders at the pub beneath the office, the company’s director engaged me in man-to-man chat one evening.

‘What sort of stuff are you into, books-wise?’

I had to be honest, otherwise I suspect I would have been fired, or, worse, I would have had to put my hand in my pocket for my next double gin and tonic. ‘Decadent stuff, mainly. But not a lot of that’s being published, these days.’

He smiled, meaningfully. ‘Have you heard of Sebastian Horsley?’

I had not. ‘He’s something of a conundrum for us. Fascinating man – one of the great figures of Soho – but we’ve been trying and failing to get his autobiography in shape for years. He wants to call it Mein Camp.’ He paused, and lit a cigarette reflectively. ‘He probably shouldn’t. Then again, he blotted his copybook with his last publisher by going into an editorial meeting while blasted on heroin and threatening to cut his editor’s breasts off.’

I gulped. ‘Ah.’

‘Have a read of the manuscript. You might enjoy it. And then, perhaps, you could meet with Sebastian. He likes taking tea at Maison Bertaux most days.’

‘Tea? But I thought that you said that he was a junkie?’

He looked at me askance. ‘The two are hardly mutually exclusive, you know.’

I started reading the appropriately black-bound text the following day, and alternated between astonished mirth and mounting horror. It was Quite A Book, there was no doubt of that. In its three hundred or so closely typed pages, it contained often matter-of-fact descriptions of virtually every perversion that I had imagined, and a fair few that I hadn’t. The prose style, meanwhile, seemed akin to being trapped in a lift and being yelled at by an erudite lunatic. It did not seem be publishable in any way, shape or form.

My first instinct was to send a couple of friends the choicest bon mots from the manuscript and to shrug my shoulders in despair at this impossible folly. And yet, as I wrote down his brilliant, if derivative, lines – Wilde by way of Genet and Axl Rose – I began to think differently about the man who had written the book. This was no swaggering boast or sniggering shock exercise, but a desperate plea from a tortured, even brilliant soul for understanding and love. I realised that I had encountered a soulmate of sorts, and I began to jot down edits, ideas, even potential jokes which I could present to this mysterious figure. I had to meet him, I realised.

(Photo by Kevin Sullivan/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

My first visit to Meard Street proved a memorable one. There was a forbidding sign on the front door, warning visitors ‘This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address’. As I pressed the buzzer, nothing happened. I waited for a moment more, and then dialled his phone. Nothing again. I was about to give up and return to the office when the front door flew open with a flamboyant bang. Standing before me was one of the most extraordinary-looking men I had ever seen. He must have been around six foot three, but the enormous stovepipe-shaped top hat added another foot. His nails were freshly painted with red varnish, and he sported a dark, tailored three-piece suit, complete with formal tie. He was equal parts a Byronic dandy, Dickensian grotesque and Wildean poseur. The hand was outstretched; the handshake warmer and firmer than I might have expected.

‘Mr Larman, I presume? Disappointing it isn’t Professor Larman, but that can’t be helped. Come upstairs; I’ll give you the grand tour.’

Sebastian lived in a flat that appeared only to have two rooms. He mentioned something offhand about the existence of a kitchen and bathroom, but both seemed near-theoretical, a sketchy nod at a conventional life, rather than being ever pressed into service. (He later told me that he never ate at home, believing it to be scatological to dine in the same space where one shat.) The parlour was a homage to all things Horsley, festooned as it was with a wall studded with human skulls. He took pleasure in pointing out the origins of them, one of which was a suicide’s (‘see the bullet hole – here, look!’) and he claimed that one belonged to his former mother-in-law.

There were a couple of canvases on display, both of sharks, a photograph of his friend Nick Cave and more revealing pictures of his girlfriend, the glamour model Rachel Garley (‘Rachel 2’). In his bedroom was a bed obviously too small for him, next to which was a loaded pistol. I held it, gingerly, as he saw my obvious discomfort with amusement. As I replaced it, hoping very much that no disgruntled Soho denizen used it as a murder weapon that day, Sebastian announced, in much the same fashion that one might comment on the weather or the quality of a starter in a restaurant, ‘I will kill myself one day. But not today.’

We took our promised tea at Maison Bertaux. Half of Soho seemed to know Sebastian, and eating a slice of cake and sipping some Earl Grey took hours. He was engaging, I noticed, in a clever piece of theatre. Whether or not he knew the people talking to him, he greeted them all in the same theatrical way, more often than not including the words ‘fancy a fuck?’, as he threw in witticism after droll epithet, some borrowed, some blue. At the end of the afternoon, I had agreed – God knows how – to help him with the book. The only substantial piece of critical advice that I gave him on that day was simple. ‘The title’s going to have to go.’ He smiled, waved his hand in ironic acknowledgement, and went off into the streets of Soho.

We worked on the book, off and on, for months, before his publisher became impatient and assigned him a real editor, rather than this odd young man who seemed to have Ideas. Sebastian was an unconventional collaborator. At times, he wanted to include stories simply because he found them funny, rather than because they had any basis in fact. He once complained, I think only partially in jest, that it was an enormous shame that the book had to be described as a memoir at all, given that it was really a work of fantastical fiction.

And yet, as if we had restored an old house to its former splendour, something rather wonderful began to emerge. The unpleasant detail was toned down, although enough pungent moments remained to make one realise that there was nothing prissy or uneventful about Sebastian’s past. I threw in a few suggestions for one-liners and allusions, and some were adopted, just as others were scornfully derided as being ‘unworthy of you, let alone me.’ We had many more coffees in Maison Bertaux and talked about his days of whoring, my days of study, and what awaited us all upon the other side, as we formed a friendship.

Of course, Sebastian was no ordinary friend. There were brief unpleasant outbursts, such as the time an acquaintance of his overheard me talking – too loudly – about my involvement with the memoir in a Soho post office queue, of all benighted places, and Sebastian flew into a rage at the idea that I had not been forced to sign some kind of confidentiality agreement. (The fact that nobody was paying me a penny for my work, least of all him, did not seem to bother him.) And he could be moody and difficult in person, or alternatively simply brittle and withdrawn, treating his supposed intimates to the second-hand quips and witticisms that they had heard a dozen times before. It was polite to laugh, but I’m not sure that I always did.

Sebastian Horsley, circa 2000. (Photo by Steve Pyke/Getty Images)

Yet once the book was finished, we remained in touch, meeting every few weeks for tea, or a visit to a gallery, or simply to wander the streets of Soho for an hour or so. When Sebastian was in funds, there were trips to The Ivy for dinner and to The Colony Room for champagne, where he told me a scurrilous story involving Wallis Simpson and a display of both carnal and canine abandon that I tried to include in my new book as a Horsley homage, before deciding that it could not be substantiated and reluctantly omitting it. After decades of well-documented excess, he did not partake himself, but stood there, enjoying the spectacle of others becoming intoxicated on his wine, his conversation and his tab. We later discovered, after his death, that virtually none of his bills had ever been paid. His well-heeled friends discreetly clubbed together to avoid any posthumous embarrassment.

He enjoyed holding court, and revelled at being the centre of attention, even in the most unexpected of ways. He made an unexpected cameo in a student film when we were together, being asked to say something into the camera and, of course, shouting ‘Fancy a fuck?’ as if he were Laurence Olivier moonlighting as a gigolo. And, thank God, he could retain a sense of humour. I recall the evening that, leaving the Ivy in a particularly spectacular green suit, he held the door open for some entering American, who, mistaking him for a doorman, tipped him a fiver with a patronising smirk. ‘Good to snort some coke from later, I suppose’, he quipped.

The book, now more soberly entitled Dandy In The Underworld, was published in 2007. I was pleased to be acknowledged for ‘blowing the whistle’. The reviews, including mine, were generally very good, and the launch party, featuring lashings of absinthe at a Fitzrovia art gallery, was every bit as louche and ostentatious as Sebastian could have wished for. There was a high-profile deportation from a planned book tour of America, on the splendidly old-fashioned grounds of ‘moral turpitude’. He quipped ‘the good news was that they’d read the book. But the bad news was also that they’d read the book.’

But after publication, something was missing. He had an air of mournful resignation about him that did not sit well with the charming, vivacious figure that he had cut just a couple of years before. I heard a rumour from a mutual friend that he was using drugs again, and sometimes saw him on Dean Street in his shirtsleeves looking utterly lost, as if he was expecting someone to swoop along and save him from something. Possibly himself.

He remained a hugely entertaining and witty correspondent, whether one received one of his group emails or an individual missive. The one-liners were as quotable as anything he ever put to paper, whether he was announcing that ‘The only fidelity I’ve ever believed in comes on vinyl’ or, in response to an attack by Victoria Coren, ‘Apparently I hate Jews. So untrue! I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-racism and anti-Semitism. Oh and anti-pasti.’ Yet sadness was beginning to consume him. Here is one of the final emails that I received from him.

Dear Boy,

Don’t worry. I am the same. I’ve been in a mess of late, down in despair, but I am managing slowly to drag myself up again. Which I prefer to casual clothes. 

I am feeling as thoroughly defeated as you. Post book blues finally hit in.

I have spent myself, I have burnt away like a comet. Now I am only ashes.

Life is travelling downhill in a car with no lights at terrific speed and driven by a four year old child. The signposts along the way are all marked “nowhere”.

What can we do? A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens and then everybody disagrees.

I had hoped the book would save me. But from what? How can anything save you from yourself?

I think the week of the 12th may be good.  At the moment I want, like some cut-price Greta Garbo, “to be alone.” 

Sx

The success of Dandy In The Underworld meant that there was a belief that Sebastian should be introduced to a wider public, and so the playwright Tim Fountain wrote a one-man show about Sebastian for the Soho Theatre, starring the actor Milo Twomey. It is not for me to judge the effectiveness of it as a representation of my friend’s life, but it received decent enough reviews when it was performed in the summer of 2010. Unfortunately, it appeared as an epitaph, rather than a celebration.

Sebastian had always been lukewarm about the idea of being portrayed on stage. He once joked ‘There are two ways of emptying a theatre; the first is to run in and yell “Fire!” The second is to put me on.  I am sure there will be nothing wrong with this production – except its appalling choice of subject. Not that I will see it of course. A play about myself?  There is only one thing I hate even more than theatre – and that is myself.’ Yet there was a first night party, hosted by Toby Young. I could not attend, but I didn’t believe it mattered much. There would be another time soon. Perhaps I could attend with Sebastian, and other spectators could enjoy the meta-theatricality of the occasion. And then I received a text from a friend on the afternoon of 17 June 2010, the day after the play opened. I suppose that I already knew, on some level, what had happened as soon as I saw the words ‘did you hear about’. The inevitable had, at last, happened. Horsley had ceased to be.

Nobody will ever know the precise circumstances of his death. Speculation soon mounted that he was so horrified by his presentation in the play that he turned to his old familiar habit as a means of escape, and it proved fatal. The veins of a 47-year old are inevitably less receptive to large amounts of heroin than they once were. I hope that it was an accident, but the likelihood, alas, is that Sebastian finally bore out the comments that he made the first time we met. If one is half in love with easeful death for most of one’s adult life, the consummation has to happen at some dramatic point.

The funeral was a grand spectacle, with St James’ Church on Piccadilly packed with hundreds of well-wishers and friends. Stephen Fry delivered the eulogy, the whores of Soho entered in their finery and Sebastian’s body was carried through the streets that he had tarried around in a horse-drawn carriage. The coffin, of course, was in red. Afterwards, there were huge amounts of sparkling wine served in the churchyard, and a selection of Sebastian’s favourite songs were played; his ‘twelve apostles’, as he called them. The two that I will forever associate with him are Bowie’s ‘Word On A Wing’, with its lyrics of how ‘in this age of grand illusion, you walked into my life, out of my dreams’, and Captain Beefheart’s great ‘Further Than We’ve Gone’. The latter doesn’t have any clever or witty lyrics, but the contrast between Beefheart’s ragged, emotional voice and a heartbreaking section of piano and guitar midway through the song is surprising, moving and entirely unexpected. Just as, indeed, any dealings with the great Sebastian Horsley always were.

After his death, his Meard Street flat was sold, and now, like much of the rest of the street, is inhabited either by the very wealthy or by some wearisome technology company straining for credibility by placing itself within the increasingly corporate surroundings of Soho. The last time I was there, with another friend of Sebastian’s, we watched in faint horror as a couple of women, one younger and one older, posed for a smirking selfie outside the front door. There was a wheelchair with them, full of shopping, which quietly trundled away while they squabbled over which of them is in focus by the picture. My friend smiled sardonically.

‘Well, it’s what Sebastian would have wanted. He always did have time for the waifs and strays.’

Many of us who knew and loved him try and remember and celebrate him still, whether in articles such as this, talking about him, or simply admiring his exotic suits, one of which can be found within the Museum of London. I had hoped that, to mark a decade since his passing, a group of us would have assembled somewhere in Soho, to drink too much and recite passages from Dandy In The Underworld in his memory. Alas, social distancing has put paid to that idea, but I hope that on some other occasion, we might summon up his spirit for the evening from the underworld, well-tailored and dashing as ever. Although, knowing Sebastian, I can only imagine that his phantom’s first lines to us would be ‘Darlings, news of my death has been greatly exaggerated, wouldn’t you say?’

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