The Eroticism of Fat Men
OUTSIDER II: ALWAYS ALMOST: NEVER QUITE By Brian Sewell
Quartet £25 ☎ £19.99 inc p&p
Critical eye: Brian Sewell, pictured in his art studio in 1988, leaves few reputations intact in Outsider II
The acknowledgements pages of most books make pretty dull reading, a litany of overblown thank-yous to names unknown.
But in his second volume of autobiography, the waspish art critic Brian Sewell makes sure that his acknowledgements go with a bang. He has only one person to thank, he says, and that is his late mother.
Having lit the blue touchpaper, he adds that reading her diaries revealed to him ‘the extent to which she had invaded my privacy, had timed the coming and going of men casually encountered as bedmates for an hour and had commented, always adversely, on the motives of others who had lasted a little longer . . . ’
With the fireworks now well under way, he goes on to accuse his mother of oozing ‘the pure bile of jealousy’, and of being ‘consumed with irrelevant hatred’, and of having ‘poisoned’ and ‘destroyed’ the emotional bond they once possessed.
‘I am, nevertheless, deeply grateful to her for her diaries,’ he concludes, rather as though he had just finished thanking her for a pleasant weekend in the country.
From these acknowledgements, vaguely reminiscent of the Seventies novel The Exorcist, you would be right to conclude that Brian Sewell is not like other men. Others may beat around the bush, but he attacks the bush with an axe, and then finishes if off with a flame-thrower.
At the start, he reminds us that his first volume of autobiography, published last year, ‘dealt frankly with the business of being both a bastard and a bugger and how this came about’. In this, the second, he aims to deliver ‘the truth, the whole truth, and, if not quite nothing but the truth, unfettered honesty’.
He ended the first volume with a description of his years of working for Christie’s, the auctioneers, up to 1967. In his introduction to the second volume, he reminds us that he had been interviewed for Christie’s by Sir Alec Martin, ‘a vile, arrogant and ignorant old martinet’, and that, after nine years, ‘weary of the blindness and obstruction of my departmental head, the Honourable Patrick Lindsay, I asked for a department of my own’. He was then informed that ‘we’ve got one homosexual on the board; we don’t need another . . . ’ and swiftly resigned.
It should be clear by now that the phrase ‘forgive and forget’ is not part of Brian Sewell’s vocabulary. The book is crammed full of every variety of abuse (and self-abuse, but that is another matter).
Outsider: Art critic Brian Sewell pictured in his south London home with two canine companions last year
Any Teach Yourself Sewell primer would have to include a list of his favourite nouns, which are, in alphabetical order: brouhaha, bully, lackey, lickspittle, minion, panjandrum, taradiddle, and windbag. These should be mixed with any of these favourite Sewell adjectives: arrogant, despised, dreary, feeble, foul, futile, grotesque, lubricious, preposterous, pushy, spiteful, tiresome, unctuous and worthless.
Few reputations emerge intact from these pages. One art dealer, Geoffrey Agnew, is a ‘booming, bullying monster’, while another, Arthur Simmons, is ‘a florid, thick-skinned man who tanned his face with almond oil until it looked like pork crackling . . . I loathed the man.’
Nor is the world of journalism, to which he emigrated in the Eighties, let off lightly. The editor Veronica Wadley is ‘unctuous at one moment, shrewish another . . . Poor Veronica, incapable of realising how incapable she was’, while of Norman Lebrecht we learn that ‘never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked’.
One art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, ‘has the physical charms of a North Korean Despot’, while Sewell once bequeathed his eyes to ‘the despised’ art critic Sarah Kent, as ‘she is not blind but cannot see’.
Sometimes, he cuts down collective swathes with a single burst. TV people are ‘all pushy, abrasive, arrogant, self-admiring and under no circumstances to be trusted’, French art critics are ‘strutting windbags, gascons, fanfarons, their opinions worthless’, and the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) is ‘a useless international body of art critics incapable of criticism’.
Small wonder that his entrance into crowded rooms is regularly greeted by boos and hisses. He parades the spits, thumps and beatings of critics, dealers and curators like the proudest of war wounds.
Happily for the reader, he knows that, though discretion may be the better part of valour, it is easily the worst part of autobiography.
In the first volume, he noted that his mother had ‘as much sexual restraint as an alley cat’ and that she may even ‘have been something of a prostitute’. In this volume, he leaps on the sexual peccadilloes of old acquaintances like a cat to cream.
Autobiography: Outsider part two
Of the interior decorator Geoffrey Bennison, we learn that ‘his prize trick was to wear black fishnet stockings of the most flamboyant pattern under dowdy trousers’ and then, when he’d caught the attention of ‘a suitable bloke’ in a pub, pull the trouser leg higher and higher.
The distinguished author Bruce Chatwin is encountered servicing two men at once in a New York steam-bath. Of a distinguished antiquarian book dealer we learn that ‘the pouch of his tiny Parisian bathing slip (was) far too loose for what little it contained’.
Sewell invades his own privacy with the same gusto. It is a shame that Kenneth Williams is not around to play the title role in Sewell: The Movie, as he shared Sewell’s peculiar mix of priggishness and licentiousness, as well as the gluey grouting of self-loathing that helps keep the two very close yet firmly apart.
Unlike Williams, though, Sewell was an eager participant – so eager, in fact, that his catalogue of sexual adventures sometimes takes on the diligent air of a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme logbook.
At one moment, he is being gang-banged by soldiers in the Chelsea Barracks – ‘I felt not the least humiliated – the very reverse, released of inhibitions indeed, exhilarated by the pornography of an experience to which, once begun, I had abandoned myself’ – and the next he is cheerfully stripping off to perform a solitary sex show for the voyeuristic Salvador Dali, who he has only just met.
Like Tony Blackburn, he cheerfully tots up his conquests, easily reaching ‘a thousand casual lovers, one-night stands or furtive sexual encounters in Hyde Park’.
On the towpath by Hammersmith Bridge, the steam-baths in Amsterdam (‘Oh to be in an orgy room again, inhibitions abandoned until all passions spent’) or the third-floor lavatories at Harrods, he is always on the go. It is notable that the two words he most often employs in describing these sexual encounters are ‘inhibitions’ and ‘abandon’.
In the first volume of his autobiography, he related how his youthful ambition was to become a Catholic priest: there is a sense of all or nothing at all about his life. There was no middle way.
And the same is true of his account of that life. It is written with his usual verve, powered by exasperation, though occasionally his idiosyncratic back- to-front style, full of double negatives (‘Nor could I ever persuade him to rid himself of the many things that he should not have bought’) can become a little taxing.
But his life remains a conundrum. On one level, it is all about the china-shop world of the connoisseur (another of his favourite words), delving into detail, developing a meticulous eye for suggestion and nuance.
On another level, it is about gang-bangs and seething hatreds and releasing the bull into that china shop.
This is a remarkable memoir, but what is missing is any bridge between the controversialist and the connoisseur, the potty-mouth and the prig: it is almost as though the life of Henry James had been written by Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.
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