It all started with a book – Dreamers of Decadence, a study of 19th century Symbolist painters by Philippe Jullian which I bought in an imported American edition from Foyles for £3.50. I was an impressionable young art student and horror film buff, and this was the sort of art I fancied: vampires, witches, femmes fatales and severed heads. I decided decadence was right up my street. Dreamers of Decadence became my Bible. For a long time, if I couldn’t somehow relate a book or a film or a piece music to something within its pages, I just wasn’t interested.
Shortly afterwards I sold my first drawing – it was of Salome clutching the severed head of John the Baptist, heavily Rotring-inked in Aubrey Beardsley-esque black and white. A girl at school gave me 50p for it, and with the money I bought my first copy of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, which I liked because a) there appeared to be some sort of evil orgy on the cover and b) it was full of poems about vampires, femmes fatales and spleen. My decadent career was launched.
I soon realised that if I wanted to be truly decadent, I would have to leave home; decadent artists didn’t live with their parents. So I rented a room on the ground-floor of a house in Camden Town for £5 a week. If you wanted to look out of the small, high window out on to a tiny concrete yard which all the local cats used as a knocking shop, you had to stand on the bed. The room was nine foot by eight foot, most of which was taken up by a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a single bed, which meant I was forced to do most things without getting up.
I proceeded to live what I imagined was a life of decadence. I covered the walls with pictures from my favourite horror films. I drank crème de menthe for breakfast, ate tinned octopus for lunch, and Walnut Whips for dinner. I had my hair cut like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, and wore Biba green lipstick, and dressing-gowns made of rotting Chinese silk. I trawled second-hand shops for black dresses, and fake ocelot coats, and ratty-looking fox fur neck-wraps.
I read Proust, but only because the illustrations were by my decadent mentor, Philippe Jullian, whose biography of Robert de Montesquieu, model for À la recherche de temps perdu‘s Baron Charlus, became another cornerstone of my library. I devoured Huysmans, Mirbeau, Wilde, Poe. I started listening to Richard Strauss (but only because there was a severed head in one of his operas) and to Alexander Scriabin (but only because I learnt from Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife that one of his piano sonatas was known as ‘The Black Mass’) and to Roxy Music (but only because there were name-checks in Do the Strand to ‘the sphinx and Mona Lisa’, both featured in the all-important Dreamers of Decadence checklist of symbolist themes).
I slept by day and lived by night, when I would walk to the National Film Theatre to see old movies, or build scale cardboard models of black rooms filled with skeletons and rubber snakes, or write poems about my knee (Patella Pantagruella), and go for walks along the nearby canal to perform elaborate nocturnal ceremonies that involved reciting magic spells and flinging stuffed vine leaves into the water.
I didn’t know anyone else like me.
I kept a diary, but had nothing to put in it apart from post-adolescent stream-of-consciousness ramblings about suicide, dreams and unrequited yearnings written in the style of Anaïs Nin, an unfortunate early influence. I was always reading about absinthe and opium, but my personal narcotics intake was limited to Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes (never inhaled – I didn’t know how), Fribourg and Treyer snuff and, on special occasions, Night Nurse.
My attempts at being a femme fatale repeatedly fell at the first hurdle – none of the men I met seemed terribly keen on the green lipstick, and then later, when I switched to more conventional holly red, I found myself with a devoted following, not of the lovelorn writers and creative artists I’d always envisaged, but of schizophrenics, drug addicts and repressed homosexuals who would burst into tears in public places or massage broken glass into their faces when I refused to sleep with them.
Of course, many years and one fin-de-siècle later, I look back at my adorable decadent self and realise that I wasn’t decadent at all – I was just young, and rather naïve. Now I live in an attic in Paris with a bottle of absinthe in my cocktail cabinet, a real human skull on my bedside table, a faded tattoo on my ankle, two incurable but non-life-threatening diseases in my system and a never-ending supply of handsome young French men who seem strangely keen to sleep with me.
I’ve written two books about vampires and one about ghosts, Proust is buried in the cemetery just up the road and the Mona Lisa is only a short Metro hop away. Now I am no longer naive but cynical and cruel. Now I’m decadent without even trying to be.
But I still don’t know anyone else like me.
A shorter version of this story was first published in The Decadent Handbook, edited by Rowan Pelling (Dedalus, 2006). Please click on the cover image to buy the book on amazon.
I have since written more books about vampires and ghosts, and moved from Paris to Brussels, Surrealist Capital of the World and the spiritual home of Art Nouveau.
The black and white photographs are pictures of my room in Camden Town, 1974 to 1975.