RIP Sebastian Horsley

I’ve just heard a few moments ago that the flaneur, dandy, artist and writer Sebastian Horsley has died. I’m deeply upset. I wouldn’t say that we were close friends – he was far too much of a social butterfly to allow more than a few people into that gilded inner circle – but he certainly was someone whose presence in my life made it a happier and more enjoyable one. The group emails that he would send out, boasting about some achievement or other – a Times interview here, a Guardian profile there – were always miniature works of art, featuring carefully worked over witticisms and designed to amuse the eclectic group of aficionados that regarded Sebastian as something other-worldly and eccentric. A typical email would read like this:

‘Hello darlings,

You will find nothing wrong with this play – except its appalling choice of subject.

I will drink and I will take drugs, and in my weaker moments I will even eat, but I will never, ever, go to a theatre.

Why would I go to the theatre to see rape, sodomy, alcoholism and drug addiction? I might as well stay at home.

Not true. You realise all people will be saying every night is: “Who’s that cunt on the front row with the top hat on? I can’t see a fucking thing.”

I’d known Sebastian since 2005, when I was doing some work experience at his agency, Conville and Walsh. Sebastian was by then well known as a flaneur and dandy, and had attracted a great deal of media attention for having himself crucified (filmed by Sarah Lucas), and so a memoir was in the offing. However, Fourth Estate had turned it down, due to various drug-related incidents (including Horsley, high on heroin, threatening to cut his commissioning editor’s breasts off) and the manuscript, provocatively entitled ‘Mein Camp’ was brilliant, shocking, repulsive, hilarious and witty, as of course Sebastian himself was.

Patrick Walsh, the head of the agency, didn’t take long to twig that my own literary interests closely coincided with those of the decadent and libertine, and so asked me to have a look at the manuscript and make some informal suggestions, which I was delighted to. Some of them were purely cosmetic, some were more essential. (That title had to go.) Anyway, I finished, and the great man requested the pleasure of my company at tea.

The first thing I realised about Sebastian was that, underneath the facade, the suits (the legendary suits, of which he had innumerable) and the brio was that he was amongst the kindest, most decent and, for want of a better word, friendly people I’d ever met. I was at the time a rather callow young graduate, trying to make my way in the world of the media, and Sebastian, a considerable figure in his own right, spent hours talking to me about music, art, literature and, of course, sex and drugs, two subjects that he was an expert in. (On one of the last occasions I saw him, he said despairingly that he had opened a brothel in his two-r0om flat. Business was good, apparently, but he had to take enforced strolls around Soho while his workers plied their trade. I have no idea as to whether this was true, but it would have come as no surprise if it was.)

Thereafter, the book passed into the expert hands of Matthew Hamilton, a fine and experienced editor, and it was soon shaped into a far more commercial and coherent narrative, losing none of its joie de vivre. Sebastian stayed in touch during its construction. I received witty little squibs comparing his predicament to the Count of Monte Cristo ‘and at least that fucker escaped eventually’. Finally, the book came out, and I took the chance, incestuously, to review it for the New Statesman. I wrote that ‘Sebastian Horsley’s autobiography explodes the myth that a “misery memoir” must be as gruelling to read as it must have been to live…this is testament to his style and self-belief’. I went for a celebratory dinner at The Ivy with him, his girlfriend-cum-muse Rachel Garley and some other friends of his, and ended up in some godforsaken basement club at an equally unearthly hour of the morning, drinking cheap sparkling wine and hobnobbing with the demi-monde.

I caught a glimpse of Sebastian that evening, laughing at it all, and revelling in the ridiculousness of it, just as he’d laughed earlier that evening when a customer had mistaken him, in all his finery, for a doorman at the restaurant. And that was the thing about Sebastian that the vast majority of people never realised – that he wasn’t just some posturing pumped-up peacock, but one of the most sensitive and hugely self-aware men out there. He was insecure, hugely so, but never in a ‘woe is me’ way. That, no doubt, was saved for behind closed doors. Did I know that Sebastian? No, of course not. But I saw glimpses of it – Sebastian shopping in Waitrose, ridiculous hat and all, or seeing him in what passed for mufti, minus waistcoats and top hats. (His hats should be donated to the V & A.)

The last few weeks were a flurry of activity for Sebastian, with the opening of a one-man show based on Dandy In The Underworld at the Soho Theatre. I’d been invited to the first night party, but alas a work engagement in Switzerland meant I couldn’t attend. Despite his avowed hatred for theatre (in his last email to me, he wrote ‘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’), I think he was excited, and happy, and pleased that he was slowly starting to achieve mainstream recognition, on his terms, and that the dandy really had won out after all.

Goodbye, my old friend. When we end up in the Underworld together, I have no doubt that you’ll still be the best dressed, best read and wittiest man in there.

Sebastian Horsley 1962 -2010

UPDATE: The Guardian asked me to write his obituary, which I was honoured to do. You can find it here.


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6 Responses to “RIP Sebastian Horsley”

  1. This is a lovely tribute to a very misunderstood man (of course, most of the misunderstandings were of his own mischievous making). Thanks for writing this, it is, bar a few factual differences, more or less what I would have written myself. He was kind, generous, self-critical to a fault and tremendously good company. Anyone who didn’t know him is the poorer for it.

  2. Jeff Dexter Says:

    Touching to read, you really got the boy.

  3. I’ve only known Sebastian for 18 months but in that short space of time he’s made his way into my top ten of truly great characters — and I’ve met quite a few over the years. I’d like to use a quote that I used in an obituary of another man I befriended, Hunter S. Thompson.

    “The age of great men is going; the epoch of the ant-hill, of life in multiplicity is beginning.” Frederic Henri Amiel 1828 – 1881.

    We’ve lost another true individual and I’m pissed off. He really was a dying breed.

  4. Great tribute to a fascinating character.

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