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Interview with Sebastian Horsley

An interview with the late and much missed dandy, the most impolite conversationalist of all...

Editor's note: In 2002 Graham Roos interviewed my friend Sebastian Horsley, the artist, writer and dandy, for Large magazine, which Graham edited. Sebastian was a much kinder man than his public persona suggests; if you knew him, you couldn't help but form the impression that his offensive comments – and so much else in his persona – came more from a desire to shock and break a perceived politically correct consensus than any deep conviction. The Sunday Times called 'Dandy in the underworld', his autobiography, “one of the funniest, strangest, most revolting memoirs you're ever likely to read”. Stephen Fry has the film option. His author description on Amazon says: “Sebastian Horsley has done just about everything you could ever think of. Incredibly, he is still alive.”


He often told me he yearned for death. He died of an overdose in 2010.



Sebastian Horsley, the artist, was recently crucified in the Philippines. The resulting images formed the basis for his most recent show. Dandy, columnist for The Erotic Review and rake par excellence, Sebastian gives Large an exclusive interview.


G: When you were little, how did you see yourself and how you related to the world?
S: How did I see myself? Incessantly.
G: When did you first think you might be a dandy? Did you dress up as a boy?
S: Well that was my mother's influence. She used to alternate between an incredibly glamorous movie star and a tramp. She led me into a lifelong exotic swoon from which I have never really recovered. When I was ten I saw Marc Bolan and that really did it and then I went through a phase of wearing my mother's clothes, women's clothes...
G: As one does...
S: But being a dandy is not a profession, it's a condition, something you just can't help...
G: You mean a vocation?
S: No a condition. It is both a response to suffering and a celebration of life.
G: A treatable condition?
S: Yes, clothes are the medication.
G: When did you have your first sexual experience and with whom?
S: Does Onan the Barbarian [masturbation] count?
G: No!
S: At 12 with an Indian woman I fell in love with. We remained friends. I still have the receipt.
G: What is the strangest sexual experience you've ever had?
S: Hmmm... (pause) Look, I'm not a fag, but I suppose the strangest have been with men. I'd go for men (I don't any more) who were very dominant and potentially violent... That’s what I liked. I liked to have my free will taken from me.
G: What do you think of pigeonhole terms like gay, bi or straight? Are they realistic?
S: I hate faggots. I take great pride in my prejudice. But those terms are very limiting. After all, the difference between homosexuality is merely a couple of bottles of wine or one smoke of crack.
G: You've lived in Soho for a long time, why?
S: I like to be close to my sin. Also, in a beautiful area I would be superfluous. In an ugly one I am a narcotic. Originally I lived in Shepherd's Market, but that went downhill when the prostitutes moved out, but Soho's gone downhill. Ten years ago, on a good night, you could get your throat cut. Now it's full of “weave-your-own-yoghurt” places, gay hairdressers and coffee bars. There's even a fucking health club. A health club in Soho for Satan's sake. That's like having a brothel in a church.
G: What was your first experience with drugs?
S: Well, I never touched drugs until I was twelve. I remember stealing a friend's marijuana.
G: Do you see yourself continuing the noble tradition of the rake and, if so, who are your heroes?
S: I am a peacock without a cause, a rebel without applause. I am also deaf to everything except applause. I would define myself as a Romantic Nihilist and yes, I am a dandy, but that all depends on how you define a dandy. Dandyism to me is not a suit of clothes. Clothes are the least important part of a dandy. Dandyism, to me is a spiritual doctrine. It's a way of stripping yourself of everything, except your true identity, so you can only judge the style by the content but you can only reach the content through the style. And of course style is merely the outer skin of your ideas. I am actually wearing my thoughts, my attitudes to life.
G: What about your heroes?
S: I am a disciple of Satan and Satin. Actually, my first, as I think I said, was Marc Bolan and then Baudelaire [the decadent French poet of the 1890s] got hold of me. After that Arthur Rimbaud, Francis Bacon, Tintin, Quentin Crisp. Dandies are good roped together like mountaineers heading to the summit of beauty. I looked into their mirrors and saw myself.
G: And Byron?
S: Well I don't know so much about Byron, but the way he lived his life... It was so much more important than his work. You see pictures and books are only things but artists are people. And who else? Well, the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten had a huge influence on me when I was about fifteen and continue to do so in a way.
G: Do you think drugs influence art? It's often said that artists, poets and composers take shedloads of drugs. Is this a romantic myth?
S: It's not only romantic myth, it's nonsense. I don't know who is responsible for it. Me probably. But this is the connection: The type of person who creates is often quite sensitive and that's why he creates for the rest of us. But that sensitivity, if it's not checked, can lead to your own destruction. It's not that you take drugs and that makes you creative, it just doesn't work that way, and the idea of creating on drugs is as preposterous a notion as the idea of driving a car when you're drunk. I mean the whole point about being an artist is that he's supposed to be more aware. The point of taking heroin is to make you forget your leg's been cut off. So the connection isn't that you take drugs and create, the connection is the sort of person who is drawn to art is also drawn to drugs. But actually I'm a drug addict with a painting problem if you must know.
G: What do you reckon is the most unusual cocktail of drugs you've ever taken?
S: Are you saying my favourite? Or unusual?
G: Whatever, when you used to.
S: What, like last night or something? No, I'm off now, but injecting, that was the thing I really liked. The whole ritual, the way you become a hermaphrodite – a vampire at your own veins. But my preference was speedballing, which is a combination of heroin and cocaine.
G: Heroin can keep you looking young, I’m told.
S: Heroin preserves everything actually, except secrets.
G: When did you clean up and why?
S: You see I am no longer a practising addict. I'm perfect. I cleaned up because I couldn't work. And because it was making me too happy. It's a very simple exchange for me personally. If I drink or take drugs I can't do anything else. I reduce the whole of life's experience to one experience – the drugs. I have this obsession with freedom but drug taking is like placing yourself in another kind of prison. I will sit in this room, I won't answer the phone and the only people I see are my dealers and hookers. I can't write, I can't paint, and dandyism goes completely out the window. As a drug taker I end up only fit for the undertaker.
G: Do you expect to be revealed through your art or concealed?
S: I live in terror of being understood. No question. That's part of dandyism – give me a mask and I'll tell you the truth, which is curious. You know a dandy is a liar who tells the truth? Why I get on people's nerves, particularly the British, is because firstly I've got the airs and graces of a genius and no talent and secondly because the dandy is just an exaggerated extension of us all. All dress is fancy dress, except our natural skins. And life is nothing but a game of dressing up and pretending. We all preform our lives – just look at doctors and lawyers: They think they're real people. So, in a way, dandyism is the lie that reveals the truth. And the truth is that we are what we pretend to be. I may be a phony but at least I’m a real phony.
G: So what's your definition of genius?
S: Someone who brings new meanings into the world. The whole point about genius is it's very, very rare. Although now the term has gone to confetti. I read the other day that Morrissey is a genius. What does that make Mozart then? Double genius with chips?
G: And today everyone desires celebrity.
S: That's a totally different thing. I used to be a universe, but now I'm only a star. Celebrity is a comedown, which is a curious thing, not that I've got it, but the problem is that it's a trap, another form of prison. How can you talk about the concept of freedom on the one hand when you willingly give it up on the other? If you are somebody who wants to break through things and find new meanings for yourself, how can you struggle through all these different layers of disapproval, hostility and convention only to arrive at another form of convention? Personally I'd rather be an anonymous star than a famous non-entity.
G: Penultimately Sebastian, what words would you choose to define yourself?
S: I'm a Romantic Nihilist. As Coleridge said, Romanticism is something ever more about to be. I believe passionately in nothing. Life is utterly futile, merely a spasm of brutality meaning absolutely nothing. Your life, my life, is utterly and completely pointless. Sorry to break it to you. But rather than making us depressed, it frees us to overact appallingly and bring drama, richness and texture into existence. A man should always be impeccably dressed for the firing squad you know. And give the order himself...
G: And finally... do you like animals at all?
S: Hate them all. I have enough dumb friends without getting a pet. Basically, animals should be delicious and fit well.


© Large 2002. Republished with permission.

Graham Roos

About the Writer

Graham Roos is a producer, writer and performer. His work has appeared in print, on stage, television and radio. Since 2011 he has been appointed the first Creative Artist in Residence at Buckingham University. His work has been performed by Derek Jacobi, Fenella Fielding and Janet Suzman and his publications include Rave (1997) and Apocalypse Calypso (2012).


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