Sympathy for the devil

<strong>Dandy in the Underworld</strong>

Sebastian Horsley <em>Sceptre, 320pp, £16.99</em>

Sebastian Horsley's autobiography explodes the myth that a "misery memoir" must be as gruelling to read as it must have been to live. Horsley, hitherto best known as a Soho flâneur who achieved tabloid notoriety by having himself crucified in the Philippines in 2000, has led an extraordinary career as, alternately, punk rocker, stock-market investor, artist, writer, brothel frequenter and, above all things, dandy. This is his testament to style and self-belief.

Growing up in a mansion outside Hull, Horsley had a dysfunctional family life. His father was an emotionally and physically crippled billionaire industrialist, and his mother was an extravagantly flamboyant alcoholic, who, on occasion, drove an electric lawnmower to the nearby village to buy drink when she had been banned from driving. His upbringing took in his first exp eriments with drink and drugs, and the beginnings of a lifelong obsession with Marc Bolan (whose album Dandy in the Underworld gives the book its title).

Once into adulthood, he embarked on a lengthy and vagu e ly sadomaso chistic affair with the criminal-turned-artist Jimmy Boyle, who provided him with a father figure of sorts. Horsley then burst on to the London scene in a welter of heroin and velvet three-piece suits. Readers might be expected to lose patience with his catalogue of indulgences. But somehow, even when he is lauding the perverse (Jeremy Vine described him as "a pervert who stands for everything that is wrong with British society today"), he remains a sympathetic and likeable chronicler of his own demi-monde.

Dandy in the Underworld's greatest strength is, appropriately, its style. Horsley has an excellent eye for the tiny but telling detail, whether it's the spectacle of his alcoholic grandmother covered in blood but trying, vainly, to console her terrified grandson, or the semi-farcical scenes of his crucifixion, where the only English his tormentor speaks is "No problem". And it is consistently witty, with at least one one-liner per page; the description of Jimmy Boyle as "the only person I have ever known who can still strut while sitting" instantly epitomises the unwholesome charisma he radiated.

But Horsley is also unafraid to tackle pathos. Towards the end of the book, the drug-fuelled excess of the 1980s and 1990s has long since ended. Friends have died, and others have been compelled to go clean. Horsley himself, after regular and disastrous stints in rehab, described with a mix of humour and horror, is affected by the deaths of his NA sponsor and his ex-wife. There's a particularly beautiful passage when he describes how "when I think of her now, instead of some expansive vision of a life, spreading out between birth and a final dissolution, I am left with a few drifting fragments . . . and I am glad to have these few things to remember amid the regret".

Dandy in the Underworld is not for everyone - some of the more outré sexual and drug-related material is genuinely shocking (no surprise from a man who claims to have slept with more than 1,000 prostit utes). But it is also funny, moving and the best book of its type since Lorna Sage's Bad Blood. If you can stand it, it is likely to be one of the most compelling reads of the year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?