How/when did you become interested in the Decadent 90’s?
In common with everything that is important to me, it began in childhood. Unlike most youngsters, I spent a great deal of time alone and unanswered, which gave me plenty of time to think. The first thing that caught my attention was fairy tales, which are rarely sweet; what joy is there to be found in “The Little Match Girl” or “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”? These are stories steeped in tears and none more so than the “The Birthday of the Infanta” by Oscar Wilde. I still can’t read it to this day, it’s so haunting. One person who did have a positive influence was my grandmother. She appreciated literature and art and often took me to visit the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, which housed a lot of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Decadent beauty is often framed by death, for example the exquisite Hylas and the Nymphs by Waterhouse, whilst Burne Jones’ The Depths of the Sea depicts a mermaid with her perfect trophy, a drowned sailor. These sensual but deathly extravaganzas provided elements of fatal love as evoked by Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. There was something hectic too, about the Decadent 90’s. Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson were all what were once described as “day lilies;” fragile, sickly, but voracious to leave something of their essence behind. Initially, I’d hoped to study art and acquired a copy of Philippe Jullian’s book Dreamers of Decadence which was to become my manifesto and a life-long companion.
Do you see a continuity between your interest in Johnson and your interest in Johnny Thunders [of the New York Dolls], Brett Smiley [early 70’s Glam rocker] and Peter Perrett [guitarist and songwriter of The Only Ones]?
Some time ago, I was asked if I’d ever mapped out a career path. This seemed a novel concept as I’ve always followed my instincts rather than plotted my next move. Although it might superficially appear that I’ve written about a pretty disparate group of individuals, there are common threads and themes running from one book to the next.
As a gentrified Victorian poet, Lionel Johnson is the most removed from the contemporary musicians I’ve preciously written about. However, he was as dedicated to self-immolation as Johnny Thunders. I never wanted to write about people who were conventionally successful—icons of capitalist mediocrity. As media focus has become so narrow, different strata of accomplishment are rarely recognized. So while you may not have heard of Johnny Thunders, Peter Perrett, Brett Smiley, and Lionel Johnson, all had moments of sheer brilliance and were capable of creating beauty, albeit of an idiosyncratic kind. Though I may love out-of-kilter artists and “minor” literary figures, society as a whole does not. Writing Lionel’s obituary, the American poet, Louise Imogen Guiney, noted that he had “. . .a homeless genius; it lacked affinity with the planetary influences under which he found himself here.”
As I was about to commence writing this, I noticed that a popular blog was running a feature nixing the idea that artists had to suffer for their art. The majority don’t, it’s only those who are seeking transcendence or who hope to become whole through the reflected gaze of others or who fear themselves worthless, beneath the dangerous postures, that are most likely to get into trouble; attempting to ease their pain with drugs and drink, the most obvious burden shared by the fallen star collective. Perhaps by writing about them, I was hoping to heal my own brokenness.
Are the Celtic Revival or the Decadent movement still in any way live concerns in the UK?
W. B. Yeats still cuts such an important figure, I’d say we are living in a continuation of what he began. I love his poetry and, until I started researching Lionel, I had no idea how much Yeats was involved in the occult—but interest in “The Decadents” never fades out entirely, possibly because the figures heads, such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, are still relevant.
In the 1960’s, there was a very active “Eighteen Nineties Society” with a Mr. G. Krishnamurti at the helm, based in London. They put out some lovely artifacts and reprints. I wish I knew what has become of the society. . .don’t forget that Beardsley was massively popular at the end of the 1970’s. I have some Beardsley china wear made by Poole pottery; there was wallpaper featuring his designs as well. Every now and then a reputable publisher will put out an anthology of decadent poetry. Penguin published one not so long ago. In the so-called lulls, there was still activity; for example Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage—aristocracy no less!) is supposed to have the consummate library of decadent literature. A fellow author gave me a pamphlet of Lionel’s poems that Humphries had photocopied for friends. When an important book came up at auction, he would be bidding against the wonderful David Tibet (of the band Current 93), who has led the Count Eric Stenbock revival. ( Even Lionel Johnson wasn’t quite as forgotten as Stenbock.)
What has the reception of your book Incurable been like?
I am unacknowledged but adored in certain quarters when the voice of Lionel whispers to me from the celestial hereafter, and with the support of Mark Pilkington and Jamie Sutcliffe at Strange Attractor Press, I put together Incurable, which is basically a good selection of Lionel’s poems interspersed with ephemera and short stories along with a lengthy biographical account, also in my hand. The last decent anthology of his work had been some thirty or forty years ago, so I wanted to put him back on the map, explain why he was important after years of neglect, and some literary-critical belittling of his importance by fans of Wilde’s writings. Plus, I wanted Incurable to be affordable and accessible to all.
As is the case whenever you set anything into action, you can be sure that a few others will follow suit. I was immeasurably hurt when the Times Literary Supplement covered a recent discovery of some letter’s to Lionel by an academic in the days after Incurable was released. They used the same image that is on the cover of Incurable but ignored the Strange Attractor edition. Respect to the academic who found the letters, but they haven’t been put into a book form yet and the most important correspondence of Lionel’s life was with Lord Alfred Douglas. Those particular letters, sadly, went missing many years ago and are still lost at sea. However, there is a stalwart belief that academics make better writers and only their research is worth listening to. It is true in certain instances, but shouldn’t be a blanket statement excluding all else. Academics who believe they are also writers are like rock stars who believe they can act. And you are invisible if you are not in their club, which is the current situation with the Decadent resurgence over here. America is still a meritocracy and Incurable got some very nice coverage in The Washington Post and The Gay & Lesbian Review for which I was immeasurably grateful. When being a good author isn’t good enough because you don’t have the right degrees, something is amiss. I suppose it all boils down to having enough money to pursue long-term education, which then enables you to suck up the creative marrow of others and serve it back up again to applause from your peers. Culture shouldn’t just be the ambrosia of the privileged.