Wednesday 12 May, 2010

Dandy in the Underworld

seb01

On a narrow cobbled street in the heart of Soho lies a row of rickety old Georgian houses, each one a testimony to what Soho once was, ugly, dangerous and debauched, not the shiny glass box it is today. Having walked up and down this street a million times over the past 10 years, it was one house in particular that always caught my attention, the one with the plaque provocatively stating, “this is not a brothel, there are no prostitutes here”. This is the home to Sebastian Horsley. Best described as a modern day Quentin Crisp, a self-proclaimed dandy and the embodiment of decadence and I don’t just say that for poetic effect, he really lives his life like a character in a novel. Or a porn star’s autobiography.

Sebastian has created something of a reputation for himself. An artist, writer, drug addict, sex columnist, pimp, prostitute, national treasure. He has been described as all these things but asks only that we make up our mind so he knows how to dress. His book, ‘Dandy in the Underworld’ made us take notice. An autobiography on someone not yet famous? He was as surprised by its success as he should be, “I didn’t see my little book getting out of Britain, Ok England, Ok London, Ok Soho, Ok Meard Street, Ok 7 Meard Street, Ok my flat, Ok my bedroom, Ok my lavatory.”

He welcomes me at the door dressed in a long velvet dress coat, cravat and black velvet top hat, custom made, extra tall. He’s friendly but a little nervous, strangers walking into his inner sanctum. I feel lucky. When a stylist requested to shoot Kate Moss in his flat, he agreed. However this was before realising by ‘shoot’ they meant photograph. At this point Sebastian merely responded with, “I don’t want f****** Kate Moss in my studio thank you very much, to me her looks and her greed are both ugly. Tell her this pretty boy will allow them for £10,000 and I’ll throw in a ‘good morning’ for that price. I won’t, however, get out of bed”.

He pads around the room for a moment, slightly unsure what to do or really why I’m here. “So when are you going to run this interview? Is it anything to do with the play? Oh it is? I have to change then, I have a different outfit planned for anything to do with the play”. He retreats to his bedroom, “Sorry I can’t offer you a cup of tea, only a cigarette or a glass of milk, would you like a glass of milk? I ordered a glass of milk in a bar the other day, they thought that was strange. People think I’m trying to be like Alex from A Clockwork Orange. What they don’t realise is that it’s because my father was a milkman. Anyway I won’t be a minute”.

I hover, not quite sure if I should sit or look around. His living room, a shrine to ‘His Royal Lowness’ is covered with press clippings, newspaper articles, posters and advertising paraphernalia including a full sized cardboard cut-out of himself, a souvenir from his moment as muse to Rei Kawakubo, designer for Comme des Garçons. Above the fireplace a stunning display of human skulls mounted in a bespoke and finely carved unit, flanked on ether side by shelves of hard back books on many a great author, poet and artist. And the silver nails used for his crucifixion in the Maldives in 2007 (yes, he crucified himself as some kind of extreme publicity stunt, which I don’t ask him about because what would I have to say on that? “Um… that’s a weird thing to do?”), proudly framed on the wall.

Moments later he comes back, dressed head to toe in red. It’s even the same shade of red just different textures. I love men who take an unusually close interest in their appearance. Like Sebastian says, men, once they know they are beautiful, are far more besotted with their looks than women ever are. “You’re not taking a full length picture are you? I’m not wearing shoes”, (although his socks are indeed a matching red). When asked to lift his chin as his top hat is casting a shadow over his face he has a momentary reservation, “Do I look fat? At my age, I’m looking for mercy not honesty.”

As he offers me a seat he enquires after the small scar on my top lip, “How did you get that? It’s very glamorous, I love it. We must put our scars to work for us. They are the best things we have because they’re proof of something.” I sit listening to him, trying not to be distracted by the fact I’ve forgotten to hit record on my dictaphone, I can’t bring myself to interrupt him, he doesn’t speak like normal people. He thinks things over. And over some more. Then reduces it down to one succinct and quippy sentence which sums up, albeit totally trivialising the subject. He talks in aphorisms, one strung perfectly after the other, “It’s better to be quotable than honest. I don’t speak I quote. I am a fraud. I have cobbled together my personality from hundreds of little bits. I am simultaneously the most genuine and the most artificial person you will ever meet. I am a controversial figure: people either dislike me or hate me.”

So I’m here primarily to ask Sebastian questions about London, where he likes to go, where he eats, drinks, writes, that kind of thing. The questionnaire I submitted to him prior to our meeting was angling for a bit of name-dropping but I got no such thing. When I ask where he is happiest in London, I should have expected the answer I received, “Soho. Soho is a whore with syphilis, her knickers pulled down, her face abandoned; a mess too revolting to complete. Living in Soho is like coming all the time.” Most people just say, “hmm I don’t know, the park?” “So you’re going to ask me a lot of questions I’m not going to answer, what is my fantasy high street? No. Fantasy high street is a contradiction in terms, like witty woman, happy marriage or young poet. These shops all sell the greatest disadvantage of them all: hope.”

I keeping going determined to shed some light on where Sebastian spends his time. There has to be somewhere he goes when he’s not entertaining prostitutes in his flat. “It used to be suicide or the Ritz. I hate private clubs, Blacks is too quaint and the Groucho is just people showing off their cufflinks, I’ve been banned anyway. The Colony was great, full of artists, writers and other losers, I felt at home there. I don’t really like to eat out and I take no pleasure from food. Eating is so undignified, I find watching someone eat utterly disgusting. My perfect place is my flat on Meard Street. It is a lighthouse for losers. They get off at Dover and make their way over. I won’t leave Soho. If I get an invitation from Notting Hill it will go straight in the bin. I like the Stockpot on Old Compton Street, I’ll go there with a good book, and Bruno’s on Wardour Street. I’m there every night, the food looks disgusting, like someone has already eaten it and my favourite The Lorelei on Bateman Street, it’s positively Polish and every dish tastes the same so it doesn’t matter what you order.

“Are we nearly done now my dear? I’m afraid I have an appointment at 3pm.” Off the record Sebastian is running his home as a brothel. Apparently it’s to make the mortgage, however I believe he just likes to be around something depraved, since he has an uncanny knack of making the worst things appear glorious and romantic, just read his book. “I’ve always wanted to be a pimp, but really I’m just a madam, cleaning the sheets and fluffing the pillows.”

Before I leave I ask to look around. In his bedroom I find an ornately carved wooden bed, next to it a loaded gun sitting atop an elaborate wooden box. He explains that before his last STD test the nurse asked him if he had had unprotected sex, “Never. There is always a gun by my bedside”. He shows me the spot a crazed prostitute took a shot at him and where the bullet hit the wall. The room is bathed in a soft orange glow with large gilt framed pieces of red velvet on the walls. His closet is full to bursting with his tailor made suits, top hats and adornments. S H is the real thing, a genuine dandy, charming and humble and impeccably presented, “a respectable appearance makes people more interested in your soul”. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t agree. The kitchen looks more or less as you would expect a kitchen to look, although there are a set of human bones on the counter and the shelves are filled with books. There’s not a saucepan or plate in sight, only a mug with the handle broken off saying ‘world’s greatest dad’, unlikely as Sebastian has openly stated in the past that “The worst sexually transmitted disease of them all is children. The only place a dandy would push a pram is into the Thames.” The bathroom is immaculate with nothing but Chanel products. I can’t imagine Sebastian taking part in something as mundane and everyday as taking a shower. It’s more likely he has kittens lick him clean with milk.

As he shows me out, I enquire how far through his next book he is, “well I’ve written the opening sentence” and to his art, “I’m working on abstract pieces right now, no paintbrushes, no paint, no canvas, I’m just thinking about it”. Someone shouts up at the window where Sebastian is sitting with his fluffy white lapdog, Tampon. The man is holding a sign saying “Horsley’s Air Sickness Bags” it appears random but I get the feeling this sort of thing happens all the time. It starts raining outside. “Is it raining?” he asks, “I thought it was applause…”

Thank you Tom Medwell for the lovely photographs.

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