‘Tis Pity He Was a Horsley

To Sebastian Horsley’s funeral at St James’s in Piccadilly. I first met Seb in the early 1990s, he was living in Mayfair in order – or so he maintained – to be near to the prostitutes. He had the dead-white face of a Weimar cabaret compère, and the lisp of a studied aesthete. When we went out to the cash point together to get money for the dealer, Seb revealed that he had a loaded revolver back at the flat. I was furious – I’ve never liked guns, and guns and crack cocaine (as history seems to bear out), are seldom a good combo.

I can’t say I ever exactly warmed to his publically cultivated image: yet underneath the dandiacal shtick – which was time- as well as shop-worn – there lurked a sensitive, kind, tormented man. On top of addiction (itself a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder), Seb was riddled with the gamut of repetitive counting, hand-washing and magical thinking. He took smack because he was an addict, for sure, but I think he also used it to silence this psychic Babel.

He climbed on and off the wagon many of the rest of us managed to ride – but in this there was no disgrace. Less easy to take was the attitudinising – at least when you understand, as I believe I do to my marrow, that once someone has crossed the line, far from being a lifestyle choice (albeit of an arid and unprofitable kind) intoxication is nought save a pathology. I saw Seb as trapped inside a performance that he was powerless to give up – one that did for him in the end.

We joined the cortege at the top of Lower Regent Street and followed the horse-drawn hearse past Bates, the hatters. There was a representative sample of the existentialist inhabitants of the inner city: suited and booted sub-Goths twirling skull-topped canes, demi-whores in corsets with BDD (Breast Dismorphic Disorder). Stephen Fry offered me a large, soft, cool, moist hand and greetings, and then observed that we were unlikely to see the likes of such a funeral again in Soho. Unkindly, I suggested that he might prefer us to be dropping like gaudy flies, if spectacle was the object.

In fact, Stephen’s address to the mourners was measured, calm, only a little wry, and quite moving. He didn’t play to the gallery who look upon the likes of Sebastian Horsley as some kind of freak show. Seb was predeceased by a few weeks by Michael Wojas, ex-proprietor of the Colony Room, the private members club where he often hung out. I knew Michael back in the day, and used him – quite unashamedly – as the model for the barman, Hilary Edmonds, in my story Foie Humain from Liver.

As I said in the story, the real tragedy of these Soho denizens was not that they belonged to some kind of avant garde, but that the cultural revolution they spearheaded was carried forward without them: as outside in Old Compton Street everyone got gayer and happier, inside the Colony Room everyone got sadder and older. Wojas died of chronic alcoholism at 53, Horsley of a heroin overdose at 47. There’s no way you can paint up either death as anything but miserable and futile.