Confessions of a Modern-Day Dandy

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Sebastian Horsley i

Two days ago, on his way to New York for a book tour, commentator Sebastian Horsley was detained at Newark airport on grounds of "moral turpitude." His memoir is Dandy in the Underworld. Nic Cunard/Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers hide caption

itoggle caption Nic Cunard/Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
Sebastian Horsley

Two days ago, on his way to New York for a book tour, commentator Sebastian Horsley was detained at Newark airport on grounds of "moral turpitude." His memoir is Dandy in the Underworld.

Nic Cunard/Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

The parade of dressing up came from Mother. If she had been Queen of England she would have worn her crown at breakfast. I can remember her dressing once with great care in front of the mirror before going out, demanding that one of her children accompany her. "Which child?" The nanny asked. "I don't care" Mother snapped. "Whichever one goes with red velvet." (Naturally it was me).

One day I stole into Mother's dressing room and, draping myself in her black feather boa, slid on her pink silk gloves. I sat at her dressing table and painted myself with her brightest red lipstick. I can still remember the sticky aroma and the strange waxy texture on my lips. But I was dazzled by the gash across my face. Copying Mother, I rubbed my lips together, pursing and pouting in the mirror. The transformation was intoxicating.

I had no choice. I had not created myself but I was stuck with myself and when I was stuck with myself I would create myself. By the time I got to my velveteens, with a exuberant explosion of sequins and silk I had arrived.

Goodbye School. Hello Tailor. I remember having my first suits made — with their cuts and their plunges, their sweeps and their collars. As the tailor draped me in a sevenfold velvet shield of insignificance I knew that I was finally free. We are all imprisoned in our own skins, for life. No longer. Dandyism is the lion skin in which the lamb masquerades.

So what is dandyism? Dandyism is a form of self-worship which dispenses with the need to find happiness from others — especially women. And yet the estrangement of the thorough going dandy is not from women, but from life. It is taking up a posture of ironic detachment from the world and living it out in scrupulous detail.

Dandyism is social, human and intellectual. It is not a suit of clothes walking about by itself. Clothes are merely a part — they may even be the least important part of the personality of the dandy. Dandyism isn't image encrusted with flourishes. It's a way of stripping yourself down to your true self. You can only judge the style by the content and you can only reach the content through the style.

Being a dandy is a condition rather than a profession. It is a defiance against suffering and a celebration of life. It is not fashion; it is not wealth; it is not learning; it is not beauty. It is a shield and a sword and a crown — all pulled out of the dressing up box in the attic of the imagination. Dandyism is a lie which reveals the truth, and the truth is that we are what we pretend to be.

The only way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in a perpetual orgy of absurdity.

When I hear thunder, I take a bow.

When I hear rain, I assume it is applause.

And so like the sun, I shine, having no alternative.

I shall be a reprobate dandy; that's my job. And the good lord will forgive me: That's his.

Commentator Sebastian Horsley is the author of the memoir, Dandy in the Underworld. He lives in London.

Excerpt: 'Dandy in the Underworld'

Cover, 'Dandy in the Underworld'
Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers

Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 1: Birth was almost the death of me

When Mother found out she was pregnant with me she took an overdose. Father gave her the pills. She needed a drama from time to time to remind her that she was still alive. The overdose didn't work. Had she known I would turn out like this she would have taken cyanide.

Still, even with a fine career as a failed abortion behind me, I couldn't wait to be born. Mother might just as well have tried to stop a meteorite. Hurtling towards the earth, in 1962 I exploded on Hull. I was so appalled I couldn't talk for two years.

Mother had been drunk throughout the entire pregnancy. It was me who was well mannered. I gave her no labour pains. I have never kicked a woman in my life – not even my own mother. On the way to the hospital it had been decided that I would be called Hugo Horsley. During my birth she changed her mind, I was registered as Marcus. This would have been nice because, having danced myself out the womb, I could have been named after my first hero, Marc Bolan. It was not to be. By the time Mother got home she realised she had made a mistake. She took a deep breath and called me Sebastian. My name was changed officially by deed poll – but only when Mother got round to it. In 1967.

For this I am grateful. The most beautiful word in the English language is 'Sebastian'. Sebastian Flyte, Sebastian Dangerfield, Sebastian Venable; the title is divine – all gleaming with vermilion. Even to the militant lowbrow that was Father. After my final naming, Father said to Mother, 'I hope that name doesn't give him any ideas.'

I have to say, it did rather. Years later when I was crucified and was asked repeatedly why I had done it I replied 'Because I am called Sebastian.' In the hooligan world of art this was understood. Sebastian as an icon is attractive – even if only to faggots. Mr Wilde took Sebastian as his Christian name for his alias when on the run in France. He also wrote 'the grave of Keats' for me:

The youngest of the martyrs here is lain, Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.

A good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. There was no question that Mother and Father's marriage was the latter. It had begun with a drama which would have turned Miss Scarlet O' Hara herself crimson.

Mother had been wandering the world to no effect. Born in Wales – a country where Sunday starts early and lasts several years – she had had good reasons to flee. Her own mother had been someone who had nothing and wanted to share it with the world – so she had joined the Communist party, and entombed her daughter in a Catholic convent.

She had to be subsidised at Le Bon Sauveur, Holyhead, by the nuns who had a whip round to buy her clothing. This was Catholicism smartly sold, for Mother loved all the frocks and clothes. But she was determined to remain unsaved. A skinny, plain little girl with mousey hair and chilblains, she seemed shy as an antelope but her timidity masked a leonine spirit.

Ordered to do needlework she flushed her sampler down the lavatory. Confronted in class she threw ink over a Nun's habit. One day she went on hunger strike. A nun sat across the table from her in the dining room commanding her to swallow. Mother folded her arms as tight as a straightjacket. Afternoon turned into dusk. The semolina cooled but her lips remained frozen. The sky turned dark. Suddenly she stood bolt upright and threw the pudding on to the floor. She marched round to the nun and fixed her with her stare. 'Now you lick it up,' she said.

It is impossible to receive grace in a state of rebellion. Hopeless at games and all subjects except for English Literature, Mother was about as useful as a nun's tit.

At fourteen, Mother was moved to an elementary school. She was a solitary teenager with no friends and was nicknamed 'gormless' by her enemies. Her only recourse was to begin a journey to the interior. With no television in the house and a radio which could only be turned on when her mother was out (she hated any sign of the outside world) she saw and heard nothing; she had to use her imagination.

She wasn't really grand enough to be a secretary but at seven¬teen she went to typing school in Llandudno, and from there to Edinburgh to become a shorthand typist for the Inland Revenue where she was paid £4.10 a week. She worked like a poor woman but walked like a queen. Give her the luxuries of life and she dispensed with the necessities. Food and shelter were optional, hats and furs obligatory. Mother understood instinctively that style has little to do with wealth; it is a way of being yourself in a hostile or indifferent world. To be 'well dressed' is not to have expensive clothes or the 'right' clothes. You can wear rags, so long as they suit you. Style is not elegance but consistency.

On a whim Mother left for New York and became a personal assistant to a Wall Street banker. The idea of Mother on Wall Street seems bizarre to me – but not to her. She was a bohemian – without prejudices and without roots.

She sat at her desk each morning reading Keats. Only urgent business would rouse her. One day she heard that a rival firm was going to do a promotion across the street. Two thousand balloons would be dropped from the top windows that evening. One of them would have a plane ticket attached. Mother put on her best hat to go out.

Where others swaggered down Wall Street in pursuit of money, Mother (who knew that shrewdness was the enemy of romance) skipped through the street in pursuit of her dreams. The red, white and blue balloons floated around her like soap bubbles. Crowds reached for the sky, but she jumped up and caught a balloon. And tied to it was the air ticket. Its destination – New Orleans.

When she arrived there she knew no one and had nowhere to live, not that this would inhibit her. She always seemed to land on her feet – or someone else's. Meandering down to the French Quarter she spotted an art gallery, with its wares displayed on the street. She decided that she would stay and threw the return ticket away.

Art doesn't pay but the hours are good. In the beginning, Mother worked full days. Her boss had her deal with the painters coming in, which she enjoyed. Artists are easy to get on with – if you're fond of children. After a month she had eased off slightly. She got her office hours down to twelve to one – with an hour off for lunch.

Even in frivolity, she was disciplined. She gave her life over entirely to her own interests. She understood that all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, towards that condition where our innermost point stands outside us. So she spent her days enjoying the soaring kindness of classical and ignoring the measured malice of Jazz. She loved one with the same fervour as she loathed the other. 'Well, Jazz has a bad name because it's crap and boring you know,' she would say years later. 'It is the most terrible revenge of the blacks on whites.'

Excerpted from Dandy in the Underground by Sebastian Horsley. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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