“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?”
Introduction: Glamor Vice
Who in today’s world has the courage to write for truth and justice? Who is willing to be that square?
It’s easy enough to write about things that don’t directly concern us; or about things that do concern us but that people want to hear, good things that we will be loved and admired for sharing. But what about the things we have been trained, from the inception of self-awareness, not to speak about? The things we are socially bound to keep hidden? To talk or write of these things is to break an unspoken contract of silence, a contract we never consciously agreed to, and one we never had the option of consciously refusing.
This is the thing no one wants to do.
It’s also the thing that most needs to be done. Because until the agreement not to speak, write, or even think about certain things is broken, our speaking, writing, and thinking will be strangled by the fear, conscious or not, of breaking that contract: of expressing the unspeakable. At which point, the social support system which we have relied on for our whole lives, and on which the survival of our identity depends, will no longer support us. We will be cut loose, and set adrift on a cold, dark, and unforgiving sea of broken meanings.
If I write this, it’s not because I want to; it’s because I have to.
“I too found my inner child some years ago—and had an abortion.”
—Sebastian Horsley, 2004, private correspondence
My brother, self-proclaimed “dandy in the underworld” Sebastian Horsley, was an artist most celebrated for his potentially (and in the end actually) self-destructive pursuits. A recent Time Out article listed him as one of London’s top ten drug-users; another 2014 piece about the Hollywood actor Shia LeBeouf wrote that my brother “convincingly made his own fatal self-destruction a work of art.” That sentence speaks volumes. Who exactly did my brother’s artistic self-destruction convince, and of what? That suicide is a worthy artistic pursuit? Or that artistic expression (or fame) is worth destroying oneself for? What sort of legacy does such a “work of art” leave? How can someone compulsively driven to destroy themselves be turned into a cause for celebration?
I am one of two people still living (along with my sister, a psychotherapist) with close inside knowledge of the forces that drove my brother to self-destruct. As such, one thing is painfully clear to me: whatever “message” my brother conveyed, via his life and death, it is not a true message but a fiction: a cover story that covers a legion of sins. Ironically, it covers them not with an illusion of virtue, as in the much more famous case of Jimmy Savile, but with a dandy’s parade of glamorized vice. It’s my belief that Sebastian Horsley’s “art” was not self-destruction but the elaborate concealment of the social, cultural, and domestic forces that made his destruction inevitable. I think it shows how the abused is programmed by abuse, not only to protect his abusers, but to perpetuate the abuse.
Nor is my comparison to Savile entirely random. As I wrote in Seen and Not Seen, with his flamboyant outfits, bleached hair, jingle-jangling jewelry and bizarre persona, Savile was also a dandy. Like my brother, and like the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Savile wore top hats. I doubt my brother ever emulated Savile, but at the same time it’s difficult to guess at Savile’s influence on us, growing up during the sixties and seventies. During that period Savile was considered the most influential man in British rock and roll, and my brother and I watched Top of the Pops every week, religiously. My brother’s first, and most lasting, role model was glam-rocker Marc Bolan, and in some ways Savile was an avatar of glam rock. Is it possible my brother could have learned some of his dandy-tricks from Savile? One of the most disturbing things about Savile was how open he was about his proclivities. He joked about them on TV and the radio (sometimes even with his victims present). He admitted to them in his autobiography. Yet nobody said anything.
The ongoing, seemingly unending revelations in the UK around the institutionalized sexual abuse of children have forced people to reevaluate what they know about how corruption works and what it looks like. Once upon a time, we looked for sexual predators lurking on street corners and outside schoolyards: shady, shifty characters malingering on the margins of society, easy to identify and even easier to scapegoat. In Post-Savile Britain, such a simple view is a luxury of ignorance. The real predators are in positions of power and access; they aren’t marginal characters or outsiders, but the pillars of our community. Far from unwittingly exposing themselves by their shifty looks and guilty demeanors, they seem devoid of the self-awareness necessary for guilt. They don’t give any of the “tells” we count on to alert us that someone is up to no-good. In their own eyes, they are entitled to act the way they do. It is the power of privilege, and the privileges of power.
It’s my view that the qualities for which my brother’s self-destructive life and art (his artful self-destruction) are being celebrated were not the unique expressions of a creative soul, but symptoms of a fatally traumatized psyche. They were his desperate public attempt to get free of a cultural and familial morass, a struggle that, ironically and tragically, was embraced by that same culture as “art.”
“If someone were to set up a production in which Bette Davis was directed by Roman Polanski, it could not express to the full the pent-up violence and depravity of a single day in the life of my family. It was a foul octopus from whose tentacles I would never quite escape.”
—Dandy in the Underworld
My brother and I were born into that same sort of privilege. Our grandfather, Alec Horsley, went to Oxford, was assistant District Officer in Nigeria from 1925 to 1932, and founded his own business, Northern Dairies, 1937. He was also a founding member of the Hull Fabian Society, whose logo was and is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Fabian Society laid the foundations for the UK Labor party, and Russell Brand is currently advocating their ideas to the masses: a curious detail because my brother saw Brand as a rival (besides a penchant for top hats, sex, and drugs, there are other striking parallels between them; onTime Out’s list of drug-users, Brand is no. 9 to my brother’s 7). In my grandfather’s day, Fabian Society members advocated the ideal of “a scientifically planned society” which included “eugenics by way of sterilization.” The Hull branch of the Fabians was established in 1943, with sixteen members including a committee chaired by my grandfather. Apparently my grandfather followed closely in his associate Bertrand Russell’s footsteps, being an aristocrat who spoke out for the common man yet had little in common with him. (As far as I know, and apart from visiting prisons, he rarely if ever mixed with the lower classes.)
My father, Nicholas Horsley, joined Northern Dairies in the late 1950s, shortly after meeting my mother. Eventually, he took over as chairman and Northern Dairies became Northern Foods, a massive conglomerate most famously affiliated with Marks & Spencer (Northern Foods “invented” the packaged sandwich and pioneered package meals). I was only dimly aware of any of this while growing up. The most significant development for me as a child was probably when Northern Foods forged an alliance with (Fabian-affiliated) Rowntree Mackintosh, which meant our house was always full of chocolates. What I was aware of were the many parties at both our own house and that of our grandparents, and of the many strangers who came and went, the general atmosphere of drunkenness, social and intellectual idealism, sexual license, and my grandfather’s peculiar interest, not just in celebrity but in criminality.
In Seen and Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist, I quoted a passage in Dandy in the Underworld that describes a “pedophile friend of Grandfather’s, his face riddled with cancer” who took a shine to me as a child. The book describes me as having “one of those faces of marvelous beauty which stopped strangers in the streets, so a pedophile invited into the family circle could hardly have been expected to be indifferent.” I have no memory of this man, but I do recall how stories of his clumsy attempt at fondling me under the dinner table were told with amusement by my parents. The incident is equally lost to memory, but apparently it was never seen as cause for alarm.
Another odd detail is that my sister had Jimmy Savile’s autograph when she was a teenager. Allegedly my father had a chance meeting with Savile on an airplane (though interestingly enough, Savile claimed he never flew). As the head of Northern Foods, my father was a highly respected businessman with political connections, and he might well have run into Savile in, shall we say, less neutral circumstances. In Savile’s surprisingly revealing autobiography, As It Happens, Savile mentions that, on his famous John O Groat’s to Land’s End charity run, he was accompanied by an executive from Northern Foods, the company that supplied him with food and drink for the run (in a van following behind him). So you could say that my family’s business literally fueled Jimmy Savile’s “run.”
What’s in a metaphor?
“A lifetime of neglect had left me seething with a lust for revenge.”
—Dandy in the Underworld
It was our grandfather who introduced my brother to the Glaswegian ex-gangster Jimmy Boyle. Alec had arranged for some of Boyle’s sculptures to be exhibited in Hull. With his staunch liberal values about reform, he was impressed by Boyle, a celebrity after his book A Sense of Freedom was turned into a BBC film. Boyle was first imprisoned for murder in 1967, and was released in 1982. In his heyday, he was an enforcer and debt collector for the Glasgow mafia, known as “Scotland’s most violent man.” Despite this, his sentence was reduced, and it seems reasonable to suppose my grandfather’s support had something to do with it.
In 1983, Boyle and his wife Sarah teamed up with my brother and his partner and started the Gateway Exchange, a reform center for drug addicts, sex offenders, and ex-convicts in which my brother professed to be “well-camouflaged.” In his memoir, he writes how Boyle “allowed [him] to express forbidden impulses, secret wishes and fantasies.” My brother’s fascination for criminality was something he shared with Alec and that included writing letters to the Kray twins and the notorious Moors murderer, Myra Hindley. A 1999 Guardian article about Jimmy Boyle mentions how, in 1967 (just before he was arrested), Boyle “was on the run in London and under the protection of the Krays.” According to my brother, Boyle worked with the Krays during the sixties and possibly earlier. Jimmy Savile was connected to the Krays, and Savile was from Yorkshire, where my brother and I grew up and where Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious Yorkshire ripper (whom Savile also knew), allegedly stalked his victims during my teen years.
As I described in Seen and Not Seen, Savile’s early days as a dance-club manager meant rubbing shoulders with gangsters, maybe even as a teenager. He and the Krays worked and played together in the sixties, and were likely involved with the sex trafficking of children to members of the British elite, including via care homes where children were allegedly tortured, even killed. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady frequented the same dance halls where Savile DJ-ed, in Manchester in the 1960s, and Savile talked about being friends with Ian Brady. Brady (who grew up in Glasgow before moving to Manchester), bragged about his associations with the Glasgow mafia and the Kray twins. Glasgow was also where the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) was founded, in 1975. It was affiliated with the National Council for Civil Liberties, a cause my family would almost certainly have actively supported. PIE’s aim was to lower the age of consent to four, or simply abolish it altogether.
It wasn’t until I was writing Seen and Not Seen that I began to try and put all of these pieces together. It was like a first flyover of the charred earth of my childhood. Since then I have touched down and began to explore it more directly. The present work is like the first draft of a charred map.
“It is a tragic paradox that the very qualities that lead to a man’s extraordinary capacity for success are also those most likely to destroy him.”
—Sebastian Horsley, private correspondence to the author
My brother’s life-path combined worldly success with self-destruction and showed that the two were inseparable for him. When I first quoted the above line in Seen and Not Seen (a line my brother inscribed to me, though he probably stole it somewhere), I understood it differently. I understood it to mean that the unconscious forces within a person’s soul that drive them to create can also drive them to self-destruct. I am fairly sure that was how my brother meant it. Yet he chose the word “success,” not creativity or genius, and success has a distinctly worldly flavor to it. The way I read that quote now (at the end of the investigation you are about to read, if you do), is that the acts a man must commit in order to succeed, and the forces he must align himself with, are those most likely to destroy him. This has nothing to do with creative self-expression, and everything to do with the will to power.
The tragic paradox of the artist is that the desire for worldly status is completely at odds with the deeper need of the soul to express what is within it to express. Yet both my brother and I were raised with the notion that worldly success was the final measure of how true or valuable one’s expression (one’s soul) was. To become a cultural leader was bred into us as the supreme social and personal goal, and as something we were entitled to by birthright. Despite Alec’s Quakerism, which my father probably rejected as hypocrisy, we had no religion in our family. My father’s highest regard, like his father’s, was for the intelligentsia. He made fun of my brother (a dyslexic) for being stupid, thereby delivering an axe blow to my brother’s soul from which he never recovered. He gave us money in place of love, a value-set he inherited from his father, who once said, “To show you how much my father loved me, he left all his money to my brother.” (Alec had a lifelong rivalry with his older brother—just as I did.) We were given scorpions in place of eggs.
My brother was a lousy Fabian. He tore off the sheep clothes and openly embodied the wolf. He didn’t want to please but to offend—to please by offending. My grandfather posed as the soul of virtue and community values but behind the scenes he was a ruthless businessman and something much more than that (as I think this work will show). Sebastian put the hidden, criminal aspect of our family heirloom to the fore. He strove to take moral turpitude as far as it could be taken, “to turn decadence into a virtue [and] make the soul monstrous.” As I realized while writing Seen and Not Seen, for all his proud defiance of conventional morality and social conscience, there were almost certainly acts which my brother was involved in that he couldn’t talk about, not only because of legal consequences but also for fear of reprisals from those involved. So while our father and grandfather hid their secret lives behind a cloak of virtue, my brother hid his behind a clock of vice. In many ways, it is an even better disguise.
Were there things my brother, father, and grandfather were sworn not to tell? If so, what were they? What follows is an attempt to answer this maddening question, using a combination of investigation, deduction, and imagination—all of which are equally required when dealing with generational secrets.
My brother described himself as a “failed suicide” and “a futile blast of color in a colorless world.” Privately, he told me that he considered suicide the only honorable path for a nihilist, implying that at a certain point he planned to take his own life in order to cheat death, or God, of that pleasure. More poetically, he wrote in Dandy that the most important thing about facing the firing squad was to “give the order oneself.” Much of my brother’s self-mythologizing was effective. It was believed, even, perhaps especially, by the people he kept close to him (which did not include his family). It was then picked up by the mainstream media, and today his death is seen by many as less tragic than heroic, as proof of a life lived on its own terms. Live by the needle, die by the needle. Such a view conveniently ignores—banishes—the question of what caused the suicidal addiction to begin with.
My brother and I were born and raised in an environment that glamorized vice and normalized corruption—in which corruption disguised itself as virtue. How else was he to feel safe in such an environment except by matching it, rejecting all virtue as a lie, and becoming as corrupt—openly so—as the world around him?
Children imitate not what they are told but what they are shown. Everyone who grew up during this period in Britain, watching Jimmy Savile cracking jokes about his crimes on national TV every week, going to schools and care homes run by sexual predators, unable to talk about it or even consciously acknowledge it, what sort of long-term effect does this have on generations of children? My brother’s case may just be one, particularly extreme case among legion.
There’s no hard evidence my brother was sexually abused as a child. But then, there almost never is. Often the incident or incidents that traumatize a person’s psyche are pushed into unconsciousness, shrouded by a protective veil of amnesia; and the deeper the trauma, the darker the veil. But the trauma shows through anyway: it shows through as behaviors. There is very little about my brother’s public life, his persona and his interest-obsessions, that doesn’t point to a hidden history of abuse. Add to that the countless pieces of circumstantial evidence that our family circle overlapped, at multiple points—if it wasn’t entirely one with—the circles of systematized sexual abuse currently coming to light in the UK, and what does that leave?
Glamorized vice. If you can’t beat them, join them.
The only reason you are reading this is because my own efforts to join the culture that abused me have proven as futile as my efforts to beat it. All that leaves is to make official my refusal to participate, to testify, to defy my programming, to be the voice that was strangled, the voice that says no in thunder, even if the storm goes no further than my own teacup.
It has to start somewhere.
This is an 18-part work which I will serialize over the coming weeks. The full piece, without images, is available as a PDF on request, for those who prefer not to wait.
 From Seen and Not Seen: ‘A year after his release, in 1983, Jimmy Boyle and his wife Sarah (Boyle’s psychiatrist in prison, and daughter of the aristocrat and British film censor, John Trevelyan) opened The Gateway Exchange, a rehabilitation center in Edinburgh for alcoholics and drug addicts that encouraged creative expression. My brother and his then-girlfriend (eventually wife), Evlynn Smith, also came aboard the project. “Within a month of its launch,” Sebastian wrote in Dandy, “the Gateway was full of murderers, junkies, lunatics and sexual deviants—I was well camouflaged.” He describes himself as Boyle’s “servant”: ‘When [Boyle] gave commands there was nothing to do but obey. For me, he took the place of an absent parent. . . . What I loved about Jimmy was that he allowed me to express forbidden impulses, secret wishes and fantasies. He seduced me because he did not have the conflicts that I had.’”
 During that period, Savile was questioned by police about the murders and briefly considered by them to be a suspect.