Portrait of the artist as a melancholy man

A call from my old friend Maria: Sebastian Horsley is dead. This is, to put it mildly, unwelcome news. I got to know Sebastian after reading and then reviewing his memoir, Dandy in the Underworld. At first I had considered him to be a bit of a desperate, attention-seeking prick (I mean, come on, a top hat); and there was something tragic about his botched crucifixion-as-artistic-statement in the Philippines.

But reading his memoir changed all that. He was a desperate, attention-seeking prick, but it was clear that he was very winningly aware of his own limitations, and in his ruthless flaying of himself he also laid bare the hypocrisies of others. When he heard that I was going to review his memoir for the Guardian, and favourably at that, word was sent to me that if I got the book review published there, he would pay for me to have a session with his favourite prostitute. I demurred, not least on the grounds that accepting gifts - however unusual - and even getting to know authors before the review is published, is a big no-no as far as I am concerned. However, I was rather impressed: book reviewers tend not to get this kind of offer, or at least not since the 18th century they don't.

In the end, after failing to parlay the cost of the putative prostitute into a sum I could use to pay a friend's parking ticket, he bought me dinner in Soho.

He drank nothing alcoholic and I drank plenty, but we got on splendidly. It is often, if not invariably, the case that the most scandalous art is produced by the gentlest people, and indeed Horsley's perpetually troubled look hinted at his genuine sensitivity. People might have mistaken it
for the constant offence the dandy takes at the vulgarity of the world, but it was clear that Horsley was ill at ease with himself, as I suspect many heroin addicts are.

But he was, as far as my experience of him went, delightful company, witty in himself and the cause of wit in others, and I remember thinking at
the time that this was definitely one of the better side effects of the collapse of my marriage (I have the feeling that the former Mrs Lezard would not have approved of him). We last corresponded less than a week before his death: he sent me a link to a blog post written by a journalist, which
was a pointlessly enraged and remarkably ad hominem attack on him. "Do you know this cunt?" Sebastian asked me. No, I replied, and don't let it get you down; but the only indignity that Horsley saw in the business was that he was being reviled in the obscurity of a blog.

Sweet sadness

I doubt a nasty little piece like that would have been enough to tip Sebastian over the edge (if we are assuming that there was a certain amount of volition - conscious or not - in his overdose), but then perhaps he lacked the thick hide that is the indispensable accessory of the tireless self-promoter.

I don't think he was entirely or even at all happy about having a play made of his own life; the top hat - if you looked closely, you could see it was made of cardboard - was a diversion, intended to fool your gaze into looking away from his melancholy.

But he was sweet, as melancholics often are; and I think he would have preferred the term "melancholic" to "depressive". He might have bored, exasperated or repelled a lot of people but, as he once told me, "clearly marked personalities cannot be universally liked".

It is a grim coincidence that he died on the day of Michael Wojas's funeral. Wojas ran Horsley's favourite drinking hole, the Colony Room. Much guff is written and said about the demise of Soho, and you can guess a person's age from the decade they say the Colony Room started going downhill, but as far as I was concerned, the place was the bee's knees.

On a good night, going there was like turning up to a really good party to which you had not been invited - but which was delighted to see you anyway. (You could even smoke in there, up until the time that the lead singer of Razorlight stupidly blabbed about this in an NME interview; the day after it was published, the place was raided by the police.)

That we have allowed the Colony Room to be swallowed up by property developers shows what mediocre caretakers we are of our heritage. As for Horsley letting his own life slip through his fingers like that - well, if it wasn't deliberate (and I don't think it was), then it was unforgivably stupid.

Not that he would have been bothered by the judgement, were he in a position to hear it.

By Nicholas Lezard

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

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