Magazine article The Spectator

Settling Old Scores

Magazine article The Spectator

Settling Old Scores

Article excerpt

Outsider: Almost Always, Never Quite by Brian Sewell

Quartet, £25, pp. 343, ISBN 9780704372498

As a boy, Brian Sewell was unimpressed by opera but enraptured by pantomime which, he reveals in Outsider, sowed in him 'an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow Twanky in Aladdin'. Panto's loss has been art criticism's gain for, his tremendous erudition and exquisite prose aside, Sewell is surely the funniest art critic of our time, and easily the campest.

In his 'Prelude' he remarks that he has 'dug deep into indiscretion', and 'some may say that I have dug deeper still into prurience'. They would have a point. The first chapter, which is about his mother, or 'principal demon', sets the tone. She 'had, I think, as much sexual restraint as an alley cat', and during his childhood she 'may have been something of a prostitute'. She claimed to have had an affair with the Maharajah of Kutch and, if 'she disliked being in bed with two men, she disliked even more being one of two women with one man, which' - however inexplicably - 'was often the alternative'.

A spinster when Brian was born in 1931, she never told him who his father was, but when he was in his fifties divulged to a third party that it was Philip Heseltine, alias Peter Warlock, a minor composer and probably a suicide, whom he never met. In 1942 she married Robert Sewell, an old soldier and keen Tory, who adopted Brian, shot his dog, unwittingly taught him how to masturbate, and was posthumously revealed to have been a bigamist.

Masturbation features extensively, and his interest in it was precocious. When he was eight (and Sewell was still 'Uncle Robert'), his mother found him 'at it' in an unlocked bathroom, and warned him, 'If you do that, you'll never go to a university.'

He then had no idea what a university was, but by the time he did he knew her threat to be empty. At Haberdashers' Aske's, Hampstead, his solitary pleasure became a social one, involving many of his schoolmates and a couple of private maths tutors.

At 18, though, having found God, Sewell took a vow of celibacy, which was confirmed by an encounter with Guy Burgess, food-stained and smelly, a few days before the latter's flight to Moscow, and sustained during his studies at the Courtauld Institute and his National Service, which he still views, despite his 'shrewdly calculated rape' by a corporal, as the most important period of his education. …

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