NOW THE INTERVIEW: (Our interview took place from November 2009 through February, 2010 and wasn’t published until now due to our website nightmare).
Iké Udé: Start with the incident at the American Newark International Airport, in New Jersey, I believe. What happened?
Sebastian Horsley: I was off to discover America. My (unauthorised) autobiography Dandy in the Underworld was about to be launched and I was anticipating a leisurely promotional tour. I had it all mapped out in my head. Have you anything to declare, some custom’s official would pop up to ask me. “Only my genitals and my genius” I would dutifully say. After all, I was following in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde. I was going to have a bon mot voyage.
It was definitely an occasion to be dressed for. I was wearing a Savile Row suit and a black velvet coat long enough to sweep all before it – including the inconvenient litter of half-filled in immigration forms that appeared to be lying about on the airport’s polished tiles. I swished into the country, crowned in my customary top hat – a magnificent felt confection that would give the stove pipe of a Mississippi paddle steamer something to match.
I slotted my finger, as requested, into some scanning machine. At least I had made one concession to this land’s Ivy League sensibilities, I thought. I had removed my scarlet nail polish before setting off.
“You are being detained Mr. Horsley” the man in the box said. Then someone stepped forward and led me aside.
“Is there anything you want to tell us about previous convictions?” I racked my brains. I didn’t have any convictions – not even the sort that they meant. “That is not what we know about you.” By now my brow was a corrugated mess. Thinking plays havoc with one’s foundation. Well, I had been charged with possession of amphetamine sulphate about twenty five years ago. But I had received a conditional discharge and a fine. I had been told that, if some requisite period elapsed without further conviction, the offence would be dropped from my record. I had been to the States half a dozen times since then without any problem.
I was left to mull over my youthful indiscretion for twenty minutes or so before being summoned into an interview room. “You can play this one of two ways here Mr Horsley,” an official said. “Either you can lie and we will charge you with a criminal act or you can tell us the truth and we shall deport you. We know that you have been a heroin addict… that you have been a male prostitute and that you are very vocal about your use of prostitutes. Your book celebrates all of that.”
A copy of the offending publication lay on the table. And yes, the dust jacket blurb did give the game away a bit. “Dandy in the Underworld follows the career of an irredeemable dandy poncing around in make-up, fixing up drugs, fucking whores and failing successfully to be an artist,” it declares. They had a point – though how the Americans could be so sure of it, I was not certain. The country has seen such a scandalous flurry of fictitious autobiographies, that I suppose I should have been relieved that they believed mine to be true. Instead my stomach plummeted to the floor with the weight of disappointment as I realised that my dreams of a few days with an entire new continent to show off to were about to come to a very abrupt end.
The game was up. I decided to go down with dignity.
“Raise your right hand. Do you swear on the bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Well, that question wasn’t difficult. But then I do tell the truth – I had in my memoir. And that was precisely my problem. I had told the truth rather too frankly for the tastes of these policemen.
“You have been determined to be inadmissible under section 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act … you are an alien who has been convicted of, or who admits having committed, or who admits committing acts which constitute the essential elements of a crime involving moral turpitude … You will be refused admission to the United States … and you will be returned to your county. Do you understand?” The tools I need for my trade are ink, paper, alcohol, crack, heroin, tobacco, whores, and lots of money.
The tools I need for my trade are ink, paper, alcohol, crack, heroin, tobacco, whores, and lots of money.
Well that explained a lot. I had always suspected that I might be an alien but it was reassuring to have it confirmed in writing.
“Have you ever used or been involved with illicit substances?”
The only illicit substance I know is cous cous. “Oh. You mean drugs? … yes and proud of it … if I had to live my life again I would take the same drugs … only sooner … and more of them.”
“Have you ever solicited prostitution?”
“Yes. Mary Magdalene set a saintly precedent.”
” Who is Mary Magdalene? … “And what have you got in that hat?”
Even when suffering from moral turpitude one should try to remain polite. If you feel that you cannot comply with the morality of the world you must do everything else you can to be agreeable …besides, to the Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all.
I was allowed one phone call in the course of eight hours. I spoke to my editor at Harper Perennial, Carrie Kania. “I’ve been detained by immigration and I’ve got good news and bad news, I warned her.
“The good news is: They’ve read my book … The bad news is: they’ve read my book.”
I tried to be flippant but the truth is that the officials were bullying. They had reduced my girlfriend to tears in the room next door. They had told her blatant untruths. That I had a string of convictions for drugs and prostitution. I demanded to have my bags brought and searched in front of me. I wasn’t going to have them planting something illegal among my tissue-folded velvet suits. I haven’t even smoked a cigarette – let alone a crack pipe – for more than three years.
Still, so called “moral turpitude” was enough to exclude me from the country whose president lied publicly about an affair with an intern; from the state whose governor espoused family values while frequenting brothels. I am an artist. To me, an artist is not the most useful, but can be among the least harmful members of society. Unlike politicians, artists do not as a rule lie. They don’t have to. Depravity is part of the job description.
I was dispatched from America on the next British Airways flight. I put on my hat to board. And then I came back. It seems you can’t fly BA in a hat. Prison was the other option, the officials told me. Well, at least the food would be better.
“A nice white boy like you won’t last two minutes in a cell full of hispanics and blacks” an officer snarled.
“Prison? Buggery, porridge and Class A drugs? Is there is a three year waiting list sir? “ I wondered.
The next BA flight was due to leave.
“I am the only thing of value in your country and I am removing it immediately,”
I declared with as much hauteur as I could muster. And I left.
And that was that. Was it the prose or the clothes, the truth or the topper? Is there such a thing as an immoral book? I don’t think so. There is only good art or bad art. And my writing is simply an extension of my dandy uniform. The customs officials were wearing uniforms too. I hadn’t objected to theirs. As for free speech? Is there such a thing? You pay for everything. I certainly had. So, God bless America, the land of the free… but sadly not the home of the depraved.