Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


March 26, 2011

Dandy’s Beano

2-3-11 Dandy’s Beano


I picked up Sebastian Horsley’s ‘Dandy In The Underworld: an unauthorised autobiography’ for £1.99p in an Oxfam shop and it’s certainly worth every penny. This is no insult as I’m sure Horsley himself would warm to being picked up cheap out of curiosity. In every way he liked to have it all ways – a misogynist with an inexhaustible appetite for women; a snob who relished rough trade with men; an affected low-life with ambitions to be a celeb artist in an art world he affected to despise; and so ennui…

The writing is full of wordy play – ‘in a suit made to measure I went in search of pleasure’ (this could be a summary of the entire book); on a decision to dive on a shark-seeing expedition ‘There was just one slight problem. I could barely swim, let alone dive. I was a sea enemy.’; ‘Style is when they’re running you out of town and you make it look as if you’re leading the parade’.

There are moments when you wish he’d had the courage of his own affectations and written straight; difficult for one with a devouring appetite for drugs of addiction – about whose effects and withdrawals he’s a harrowingly articulate memoirist. His fascination with sharks drove him to overcome a fear of water and to seek out a diving expedition to encounter them in their own element and these encounters are vividly recalled and present one of the many moments when you truly believe that he’s discovered a sense of Self beyond style and solipsism (it’s no spoiler to reveal that this never happens).

The style is anachronistic, peppered with references to ‘Mr. da Vinci’, ‘Mr. Capote’ and treads in the fastidious footsteps of Mr. Crisp. Like Mr. Crisp he invites public gaze in order to dismiss it: ‘I was happy even when I was ridiculed. To be derided was part of the plan. I looked for ways to act and speak in a way that would be mocked. I wanted to make it clear to the world that I knew what it was they were laughing at. This was the only way I could get the joke onto my own terms.’

He repeatedly cites Marc Bolan as an early and powerful role model, though Adam Ant’s Prince Charming – that single in particular and that pantomime phase – seems closer to Horsley’s mark and couture.

This is at the core – there is little to suggest heart – of the book.

What Mr. Horsley labels ‘dandyism’ reads like textbook Histrionic Personality Disorder.  R.D. Laing described psychotic alienation as ‘ontological insecurity’, a confusion about what the mind’s ‘I’ was supposed to represent. (Laing suggested that this confusion reflected an epistemological insecurity created by the Family, in a covert and tacit collective displacement of affects projected onto a victim, on the sound traditional principal that nothing shores up a dysfunctional group better than a mutually agreed troublesome third party. But moving on…)

HPD is a variety of ontological insecurity in which ostensible vanity glosses over a sense of vacuity so overwhelming that attention-seeking is a strategy to provide evidence that where the eye-lines of ‘your’ audience intersect there must be a ‘someone’ observed.

The ‘uninhibited’ (it must always be presented to the Self as a decision) sexual promiscuity is also characteristic; a perfect trade-off between a serial reassurance of desirability and the negation of intimacy. Between the two there’s a void haunted by a hungry ghost acting out a drama of romance. The transaction is driven not by irresistible attractiveness but by constant availability.


I began and then abandoned this draft a couple of weeks ago and since then I’ve re-embarked on Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, read Joe Boyd’s lucid and detailed memoir ‘White Bicycles’, started and put aside a clunky Brian Wilson biography ‘Catch A Wave’ and begun Nick Kent’s ‘Apathy For The Devil’, which deserves more attention. At this point I’m seeing in it parallels with the Horsley story as another Rake’s Progress.

On a couple of occasions I’ve been gripped in bouts of books about murderers, which ended in the desolate suffocating sense of the banality of evil and a need to come up for air. This can happen too with rock hagiographies, which very often present influential artists as dysfunctional misfits whose only niche is in the manipulative ego-juddering fairground Hall Of Mirrors in which their distorted reflections somehow match their self-image.

A friend once told me that he couldn’t bear to watch Fawlty Towers because each episode found him squirming through half-an-hour and then some, silently yelling ‘Just Do The Sensible Thing!’ I’ve often found myself feeling exactly that sense of exhaustion reading accounts of doomed rockers, knowing the ending, willing it to be different.

Boyd is witness and regretful eulogist to several drug-driven declines and squanderings of artistic potential, lived by artists for whom he clearly has affection. Kent immersed himself in the unreal world of pop ‘celebritydom’ he wrote about (his rock-hack style is preserved, irritating but authentic and so actually rather endearing), a Faustian deal that made him a name in NME’s Godzilla years of the 70’s and nearly cost him his life and reason. It’s another take on dandyism that usefully bears comparison with Dandy In The Underworld.


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