imomus (imomus) wrote,
imomus
imomus

Dandies skull-to-skull

"I've concluded that it is far better to borrow elements of dandyism rather than merely trying to actually become one. It's far less predictable and far more interesting. Better dandyish than dandy," says Lord Whimsy, very sensibly, in his entry today about London self-promoter Sebastian Horsley.

Horsley, oddly enough, agrees. "Dandyism" completely fails as an idea," he wrote in his New Statesman pan of Whimsy's book. "How can originality replicate to create a whole movement? How can you dress alike to assert your individuality? How, on the one perfumed hand, can you talk about freedom when you willingly give it up with the other ungloved mitt? How can you be unique and yet part of the gang? ...Clownish eccentricity is often a mask for nonentity."



Since there are none in the room, let's make no bones about dandyism. Dandies -- rather than people who are merely elegant and poised, like Whimsy -- are tiring to spend time with, because they really are larger than life. They glaze over when they aren't talking about themselves. They've arranged everything in their lives (except possibly their accommodation: Horsley lives in a tiny flat in Soho) to be bigger than yours, so the casual trading of anecdotes that happens in any normal conversation becomes a contest in which the dandy trumps you time after time. Eventually you just shut up and let them speak, and it's entertaining for a while because they've collected a lifetime's-worth of Wildean one-liners (common sense turned through 180 degrees to make it "interesting") and insist on repeating them to anyone who'll listen. (This, by the way, is why you should never, ever become a dandy's girlfriend. The repetition will drive you insane.)

Soon, though, you feel energy draining away from you. You start to feel the weight of your own skeleton. You'd rather take a walk through the dusky streets with the waitress, the cashier, the Filippino chef. You'd rather have someone say "I don't really know," and proceed to think things through in real time rather than tug an endless supply of handy, witty, polished me-axioms from their frilly me-sleeve.

That's not to say Horsley doesn't have some good riffs up his ruffs. The strongest are about the universality of artifice, the unavoidability of performance, and the realness of fakery. "Show me a man who doesn't paint himself a face," he says in the video below. "We all perform our lives. Look at the doctors, the lawyers, the accountants, the artists. They think they're real people. They're not, they're just face paint. The reason that I piss people off is that I make the joke explicit.... Because everybody else is just as phoney as I am. I'm just a real fake."



Like all 180-degree inversions of common sense that depend on the very logic they seem to deny ("property is theft" is another example), this one self-destructs if examined too closely. But never mind, it entertains for seconds before dissolving in the mist.

What's -- for me, anyway -- most interesting about Horsley is his face. Turn the sound down and watch it. Somehow, his face in motion has inscribed in it the entire history of British dandyism, post-punk. He's every sacrificial dandy the British have ever ushered toward the pyre of destruction-for-amusement.

There are wide-stare flashes of his hero Johnny Rotten, and of Rotten's pantomime villain svengali Malcolm McLaren. That takes us neatly to the era of New Romanticism, in which Horsley is Adam Ant without the songs. Then there's the decline and fall of New Romanticism, hastened by Bowie as Screaming Lord Byron, Brideshead Revisited on TV, and Rupert Everett as, well, every English male lead that isn't Hugh Grant. And Horsley looks like Rupert Everett gone slightly Cro-Magnon, or a degraded Peter York drinking at the Coach and Horses with a permanently-queasy Jeffrey Bernard. Then Goth takes over, and you can see it all in Horsley's face, and explicitly in the snapshot of Nick Cave and Horsley in the desert, trying to get off drugs. Then of course Morrissey becomes the big star and Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp are everyone's heroes, including Horsley's.

In the 90s he fossilizes into a Dickens character just in time for BritPop, also headed by two fossilized Dickens characters called Liam and Noel. Then, for a blink, new Romanticism is back -- it's called Romo, it happens in the Melody Make for a few months in 1995, and it gives the world Dickon Edwards -- and Horsley can ride that wave too, before jumping off when he discovers Johnny Depp's belated discovery of Goth. By mid-decade, though, he's more interested in being a confessedly-crap YBA artist, collecting Damian Hirst-style skulls and sharks and staging self-crucifixions. As the millennium approaches he becomes a too-old Nathan Barley. Now, just in time for Retro Necro (and to go skull-to-skull with our own Lord Whimsy's Bloomsbury book), Horsley has published a memoir, "Dandy in the Underworld: an unauthorised autobiography" (Sceptre). And for this period, sinking elegantly into middle age, Horsley looks a bit like Retro Necro figurehead Jools Holland.



The truth is that we British and Americans can't really do dandyism. We're too cuddly, too eager to please, too unscary, too self-deprecating. Our dandyism, as a result, becomes self-sacrificial. We mount the cross before we're asked.

When the British dress up in old clothes they look like genteel imperialists, and when Americans do it they look like traitors to a republic which broke away from Britain's genteel empire. The people who do dandyism best are the Germans. Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria is the perfect dandy, because to be a real dandy you need unlimited power and wealth, unbridled egomania and bad craziness. Recent German dandies include Klaus Kinski and Jonathan Meese. Oh, and mustn't forget that wretch Adolf Hitler. Lots of skulls on his mantelpiece too.
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