Dandy In The Underworld Book Review

Dandy In The Underworld by Sebastian Horsley, 2007.  

“There comes a time in every person’s life when they realise they adore me.  Yours has come.”  S.H.

(B. August 8, 1962; D. June 17, 2010)

The first time I heard of Sebastian Horsley was in 2008 when I spotted his autobiography in a local bookstore.  The cover jumped out at me “Dandy In The Underworld” in pinkish red font and skulls framing the author.  I was mesmerized by his face, then by the brief rabble on the inside cover outlining his exploits and the blunt, somewhat bleak, description of his life.  Sold.  His image reminded me of Richard Z. Kruspe , more than enough to hook me and then, of course, the dandy – shades of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde .  Beautiful, tragic, creative, self-destructive. The picture on the cover shows Sebastian in what I like to think of as a pure state, no fluff, no bravado just natural and kind of sad.

“Birth was almost the death of me.” (pg.1)  So starts the tumultuous life of Sebastian Horsley (briefly named Marcus before his mother changed her mind).  This sort of instability abounds from then on for Sebastian and his siblings.  Reading through his childhood memories of losing part of his little finger when his sister slammed a cupboard door on it, his recollections of his grandparents and alcoholic, adulterous parents, I hear the tone of his words as matter of fact and sarcastic. Indeed the tone of the book comes across lighthearted even when reading about his drug addiction, prostitution and the deaths of people who were close to him.  Horsley’s life started surrounded by addiction, both parents were alcoholics and not suitable role models according to Sebastian; his childhood lacked love from those who were suppose to give it to him: his family. Horsley followed in his parent’s footsteps with addiction – more so drugs but also with alcohol. His messed up childhood which consisted of arson and torturing his mates (goading them into touching an electric fence), led into a dysfunctional adult life including an unhappy 5 year-long marriage filled with of adultery on both sides.

Throughout the book, Sebastian speaks of death and dying, even detailing a suicide attempt by jumping off a cliff near a quarry into a rocky water pool below: “I had no idea how deep it was.  I could see rocks in the middle breaking the surface.  I deliberated momentarily.  Fuck it, I thought.  I jumped.”  (pg.138) There is also one point during his addiction where he cries in Rachel’s arms saying he just wants it to end.  Horsley flitted in and out of depression through his life and abused his body with drugs and unsafe sex.  He claims that he bedded around 1000 prostitutes and was for a brief period a prostitute himself. 

Aside from his self-destruction, Horsley was also a gifted, witty, quotable writer who reminds me of Oscar Wilde.  Many of the quotes used in the book are borrowed from writers and public figures without citing the source.  This has caused much criticism but like so many parts of his life, Sebastian isn’t ashamed or making excuses for his lack of moral judgement.  Aside from writing and looking pretty in pink, Horsley was also a painter of little renown when he was alive but used his eccentric nature to create publicity for himself; from swimming with great white sharks for his art to the 2002 crucifixion in the Philippines, he truly suffered for his art because he wanted to.  The crucifixion was video taped, photographed and followed up by a series of artwork created by Horsley. I have seen only a few of the works inspired by this symbolic act and they are dark but beautiful.  Along with his creative way of getting attention, he made a fortune playing the stock market and then lost most of it to drugs and degradation.

The Last Libertine indeed.  Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual exploitation, art and style.  Horsely was a dandy and lived his life for no one but himself and left his fans and the world with his art, his words and his appreciation for the finer things in life: whores and drugs.

Why would I recommend this book:  Like all autobiographies or biographies, we as a species are fascinated by the lives and exploits of others.  It offers us an escape from our own disappointing lives to read about the hardships, good times and intimate details of real people.  In a bizarre way I admit that admire Horsley. Drugs and prostitution?  That part I find sad.  I admire his gift for words, his lack of fear to be himself and pursue a creative life.  True, he admits to being a bit of snob and the idea of working was below him but still, he made his life his own.  For most people, this dandy’s life of excess would be repugnant but I recommend this book to anyone looking for a matter of fact glimpse at art, addiction and being fabulous just by being yourself.

Rating:       out of 5

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