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Sebastian Horsley is a dandy devil


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THIS week, the British artist and writer Sebastian Horsley flew from London to Newark, N.J., to begin a book tour. In his mind, he would be an Englishman touring the Americas just as Oscar Wilde did in 1881, when he told an American customs official, "I have nothing to declare but my genius." Horsley, whose memoir, "Dandy in the Underworld," was just published in the U.S., didn't even get that quip out. The customs officials at Newark International Airport took one look at the author, who was wearing a three-piece suit and a top hat, questioned him, considered the book he was here to promote (kindly reviewed in the New York Times and Village Voice, among others) and denied him entry. After eight hours of questioning, Horsley was put on a plane and returned to London.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman told the Associated Press that Horsley "was not admissible" under the CBP visa waiver program, which entitles citizens of some countries to enter the United States without a visa, but under which travelers can be refused entry if they admit on a customs form to being convicted of a crime "involving moral turpitude" or to being addicted to narcotics.

"They said, 'We know you're a heroin addict, we know you're a crack addict, we know you're involved in prostitution,' " he told AP.

"Well, America has become rather puritanical, hasn't it?" he later wrote in an e-mail, after returning home. "Given that I was suffering from moral turpitude, I tried to be polite. As every gentleman knows, the first step is to be polite, which is pretending to be moral. But an eight-hour integration was tough. Of course, the test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones. But I think I won: To Americans, English manners are far more frightening than none at all."

He added, "My parting words to the immigration officers were, 'I am the only thing of value in your country and I am removing it immediately.' "

Horsley is a 45-year-old dandy who resides in Soho, London. He grew up with wealth and privilege and two extravagantly alcoholic parents in the north of England. He went to University in Scotland and has worked as a punk musician, a stock market investor and a sex columnist. He is best known for his controversial self-crucifixion in the Philippines in 2000, which he explained at the time by saying, "How can you paint the crucifixion without being crucified?"

Carrie Kania, the publisher of Harper Perennial and the U.S. editor of his book, describes Horsley as "a method artist." He claims to have spent, respectively, 100,000 pounds three times over on suits, drugs and prostitutes. One tailor made a series of suits for Horsley that would allow him a pocket for his syringe. It's probably predictable that such details did not go over so well with U.S. Customs officials.

But in a country that still reveres its eccentrics, Horsley has done very well for him- self. Last fall British readers flocked to his memoir, bookshops displayed it prominently in their windows and two newspapers promised to never mention his name in their pages. Horsley walks that thin line between outrage and charm that often lies at the heart of style.

Into the underworld

During an interview at his two-room Soho flat last month he was eager, friendly and resplendent, wearing a custom-made white shirt, torn at the elbow, a scarlet waistcoat, and a black cravat along with red nail polish and black trousers and boots. "Two and a half years ago I stopped everything -- nicotine, heroin, crack, the needle, all at once. I'm not addicted just to drugs, but to the process of recovering, the death and the rebirth," he said. "By taking drugs and getting off of them, over and over, you regenerate your cells. That's what Burroughs said, anyway. But I don't like him, if it's all the same to you."

His apartment is sparse. In the main room there were some canvases of works in progress, a paint-spattered bespoke suit, two walls covered with snapshots of friends and, over the fireplace, a frame containing several skulls. Over a small writing table a bookshelf held books by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Waugh, Wilde and everyone else Horsley borrows from to express his originality.

In the small bedroom a gun he said was loaded sits by the bed. "I believe in safe sex," Horsley intoned, handing over a lukewarm cup of instant decaf. He pointed out the indentation from when an angry prostitute shot at his head and missed.

"One of my taglines is 'the man who slept with 1,000 prostitutes,' " he said, knowing full well that he came up with that tagline. "But that was a while ago, so it's probably a bit more than that by now. Let's see, I've done three or maybe four whorehouses, so that would be two a week, times roughly. . . ." He continued to do the math, then gave up. "Waffle, waffle, waffle, more than a thousand anyway."

Such a position might be funny in London, but is Horsley prepared for the charge in America of misogyny?

"So what?" he said sharply. "What's it to you? If I want to be a misogynist, I'll be a misogynist! Some people don't like chicken, some people don't like football, some people don't like women. Now, I do not hate women. They are publicly worshiped and privately disdained. But even if I was a misogynist, it's none of your business." He paused for a moment. "Sorry, I'm getting quite cross. But the fact is we live in a culture where we're supposed to like everything. Nobody likes everything!"

His heroines

Yet tellingly, women have repeatedly championed his work. He began writing a decade ago at the suggestion of Rowan Pelling, then the editor of the beloved British journal the Erotic Review. "I hadn't seen any of his writing," Pelling recalled. "We were introduced and I was just told I had to meet this extraordinary character. He's a very likable psychopath, and I thought that anyone who can talk like him, chances are he could write.

"Having said that, I never had such a tough job as an editor," she said by phone from London. "He just could not understand that everything he does isn't genius." Horsley was so outraged by the process of editing that he once suggested shoving Ms. Pelling's face into a toilet while sodomizing her. Ms. Pelling's response was to publish the exchange.

"Yes, the sexual subjugation element of Sebastian's correspondence with me could get you arrested in America," Pelling said. "But there is a difference between people who really hate women and people who are interested in language as an extreme sport.

"And there is nothing trite about him," she continued. "There is nothing trite about having yourself crucified. It's always so much more interesting to actually do things than to fantasize about them. Sebastian actually does do these things."

Kania his U.S. editor, came across the book by chance and bought it after reading just one paragraph. "It literally just kind of hit me," Kania recalls. Did she worry it might be seen as offensive in the U.S.? "My job as a publisher is to publish the writer's work as intended and I am not in the position to tell someone to tone something down. And isn't that the point of art and literature, to push it to the next level? That's why I work. To publish books like 'Dandy'!"

The most painful part of the book is not the death of friends and family, his descent into crack addiction, the treachery of trusted friends, or the fact that his hands were nailed to a cross. It is the constant thread of his father's epic indifference for his son. Horsley does not dwell on the damage done. "I never know what tragic means," he said.

Horsley is unaware of the current vogue for dishonesty in memoirs. There is only one obvious falsehood in the book, when Horsley describes being in the first-class cabin of the Concorde, which never had first class.

"No, I never flew Concorde," he admitted. Beyond that, he said, he couldn't be bothered to lie about details when the truth was so much more interesting. Though he admits to one other inaccuracy: "I say I injected heroin into my [penis]. I didn't." Skip a beat. "It was cocaine."

Playing in chaos

Over spaghetti at a restaurant across the street, Horsley got to the heart of the matter. "Life from the start is a sort of chaos," he said in between bites. "And we're completely lost and I think we suspect that and rather than face that we cover it up with a curtain of fantasy where everything makes sense, so we adopt these opinions that are like scarecrows frightening away reality so everything you say is not really true." He dabbed at the corners of his mouth before continuing.

"I think art with the illusion of meaning is the highest calling of man. And the artist is the least useful member of society, but also the least destructive. I'm quite old-fashioned really. I still believe in a romantic idea of art: 'Something evermore about to be.' "

The crucifixion scene in the book is relatively short. The actual event can be seen on YouTube. Horsley describes how all the colors changed, how the degree of pain -- so much worse than anything he imagined -- changed his perception of reality.

"Oh, did that make you want to be crucified too?" he asked. "The thing about pain is how vitalizing it is. It herds you into reality, into a fuller experience. You can see why people cut themselves.

"The only mistake I made in the book is saying I got crucified for those paintings. I got crucified because I wanted to be. Stupidity is very underrated, especially in art. I think the flaws are part of the work. You can get too polished and pointless."

He stepped out to the fading afternoon light, stared at his apartment and said, "I had this line about showing off being 'the anesthetic that dulls the pain of mediocrity' and I wonder if my whole performance of dandyism, all the carrying on, is really the fact that I'm not good at anything at all. Had I been that good at any one thing then I wouldn't have to carry on like this. If you really had a blazing talent, you wouldn't have to do anything else."

Then he said: "What else? Oh! I've come to the end of my personality!"

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He is the man that Hector Berlioz (and I) could only dream of being. But Hector and I live a life far removed from the flights of Sebastian, adding up columns of numbers for our crust. Hector got to express his frustration in music, I get to try my hand at writing. I am the only thing of value in your country and I am removing it immediately. Brilliant.


Bruin simpatico

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