samedi 17 septembre 2011

Dandy In The Underworld

Last year, I remember reading about the play of Sebastian Horsley's life being staged, and then in the same week reading about his death.

He was someone I had a passing cultural awareness of, but when I saw his book, the 'unauthorised autobiography' Dandy in the Underworld in an art shop recently, I recognised his name and picked it up.

I was immediately intrigued and amused, as this is the first book I have ever encountered that has printed all of the bad reviews alongside the good ones in the front pages - as well as some glowing praise, the Telegraph called Horsley 'an attention seeking tosser with no talent' and Jeremy Vine of Radio 2 gave him the rather magnificent title of 'everything that is wrong with society today'.

Much of the rest of the book was as I expected, the writing often laugh-out-loud funny but openly derivative.  Sebastian was a true dandy of the classic kind, a Soho libertine of the old-school.  He was a mildly fascinating character, but never up there with my favourites - a tiny bit too cliched to make it into my list of perennial favourite rule-breakers, style-setters and brave-livers.  Maybe it was because his art was not exactly amazing, or all the Oscar Wilde quoting, or just that I don't think that his dandy look was all that stylish.

Also, I find drugs and the people who take them (the ones who bang on about it, anyway) really, really boring.  The ones that are always giving them up and then falling off the wagon even more so.  It's so repetitive.  What seems glamorous for about five minutes becomes a boring and unattractive trudge remarkably quickly.

Still, I did find parts of this bok riveting.  Sebastian's greatest fame in his life came from when he travelled to the Philippines in 2000 and had himself crucified.  For real.  Filmed by Sarah Lucas.  Many passed this off as a cheap publicity stunt but I truly don't care if it was - attention-seeking or not, to actually go through with it must have taken a very special sort of balls.  The passages in which he travels there, knowing this is going to happen to him of his own volition, in days and then hours then minutes, was incredible, page-turning and kind of awe-inspiring.

My favourite bits in the book are when Sebastian's humanity shines through the carefully-constructed and obvious-by-design veneer.  He talks of his addictions as being a constant attempt to 'send himself away' - a line I found pretty heartbreaking, actually.  His genuine hurt and disappointment when nobody wants to put on an exhibition of his crucufixion works - and the fact that he didn't mind admitting it - I found very sympathetic and affecting.  His love for Rachel 2 was really lovely.

Which makes it all the sadder that he died in 2010, something that now I've read the book I feel truly was a tragic waste.  His art may have been mediocre, although that was something he traded in, and for all the cliches and obvious influences, he could really write.  I'd love to have seen what he did next.  Apparently at the time of his death he had started work on a novel - I think to have read a book of fiction by him would have been interesting and probably better than this one.  I suspect his imagination matched his wit; it's hard to tell.

He really had a lot of friends who loved him, as becomes apparent if you read about his death on the internet, and I think that attests to what lies beneath this book and its occasional failings, and makes it all worthwhile in the end, to see those flashes of the genuine man behind it all.

In the end, he seemed to reach a real redemption, which of course makes it all the sadder that he was found alone in his flat having died of an accidental overdose.  As they said, if it had been deliberate, he would never have passed up the chance to leave a final note.  A waste all round, maybe one he would have appreciated.

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