Colin Wilson Autobiography and Interview

Yesterday’s Sunday Times (UK, 20 June 2004) included a lengthy article about Colin Wilson, who is notable to Thelemites for his rather good book, The Occult, and possibly the most poorly researched biography of Aleister Crowley: The Nature Of The Beast.

Here’s the text of the article:

June 20, 2004

Interview: Jasper Gerard meets Colin Wilson
Still an angry man, always an Outsider

He’s still looking back in anger. Colin Wilson was, with John Osborne, the original angry young man whose fame nudged Beckhamesque levels. Now, with floppy hat, silk scarf and cheery smile, the slight figure greeting me at the Cornish railway station looks less angry young man than amiable old buffer. It is hard to imagine why this writer was seen as such a threat to civilisation that his future father-in-law tried to horsewhip him and Kingsley Amis tried to murder him.

But if anyone assumes he is now harmless, wait for his next book: a history of the angry young men. They were the turks who rebelled against the mannered drawing-room coterie of Noël Coward and injected some kitchen sink realism into 1950s culture. Amis, Osborne et al are dead but Wilson still wants to bury some reputations.

For Wilson, although he is too charming to admit it, is bitter. While the other angries are remembered, Wilson’s sulking is largely forgotten: yet when he raged to national attention aged 24 in 1956 with his book The Outsider, he was lauded for making the greatest literary debut since Lord Byron. Wherever this self-styled genius went, a press pack followed.

It is inconceivable that a writer could now acquire similar celebrity. Alas, this proved not just a dazzling beginning but also a premature end to his time as a top rank novelist. He has published more than 100 books since, but most have been savaged or ignored.

His new autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, is a touching but — yes — angry study of failure. Delightfully, he has not mellowed. He tells me that his son was in a band called Roderick and the Wankers. “He’s married to a judge now,” he smiles, revelling in this anti-Establishment tease.

Numerous folk who crop up in conversation are “f******”, especially Humphrey Carpenter, whose recent biography The Angry Young Men so infuriates Wilson that he feels moved to write his own. He almost froths at the mouth as he recalls Carpenter coming to visit him. He cooked him venison and opened a 1936 bottle of something expensive, only for Carpenter to dismiss him in print.

It is clear that history does need to be rewritten, mainly to show that it was only in later life — as reputations began to dive — that most of them grew really angry: “I wasn’t in the least angry, except about my years of struggle. I didn’t have any social concerns then, unlike now.”

Well, he did, but they were more cocktail party than Communist party. (Like Amis, Wilson lost faith with socialism to become a Conservative. He was a devotee of Margaret Thatcher and now says Tony Blair is “such a good Conservative”.) Eliot, Auden, Isherwood, even Marilyn Monroe, became acquaintances as literary London swooned. One moment he was an impoverished young man living as a tramp on Hampstead Heath; the next he was standing at the urinals of the Athenaeum with Aldous Huxley. “I never thought I’d be having a pee at the side of Aldous Huxley,” Wilson told the great author. Huxley replied: “Yes, that’s what I thought when I was standing beside George V.”

With endless roistering and rogering, the angry young men were having a ball. “I’m busily contacting people such as Christopher Logue and John Osborne through a medium — Alan Sillitoe,” he says, eyes twinkling, lips smiling, voice lush and theatrical. “I’ve got letters here saying they would be delighted to be in the book, but they don’t feel they were angry young men.”

The exception, it seems, was Amis. “Kingsley, like John Osborne, put on a front of being bold and bouncy. He was a nervous, shy sort, terrified of the dark. Even though I tried very hard and thought we were friends, he always had this terrific resentment against me, so he actually tried to push me off this flat roof overlooking London once at Anthony Blond’s.”

Was he serious? “Perfectly serious. He was drunk and said, ‘Look, there’s that bugger Wilson, I’m going to push him off’, and John Wain (another angry young man) grabbed him. I was totally unaware this was going on behind me. He would probably have broken my neck because it was quite high.”

But what would have driven Amis to it? “He made his reputation with Lucky Jim just as a humorist. He was very resentful of the kind of success that had to do with being taken seriously as a philosopher. He was delighted when Freddie (A J, the philosopher) Ayer did this famous review comparing me to a dancing dog.”

The animosity grew when, Wilson believes, Amis had him blackballed from the Garrick Club after the actor Tony Britton proposed him. Wilson has carried his feud into the next generation, describing the incomprehensibility of Amis Jr’s latest novel.

He looks back on Osborne in more amiable mood. “John and I got on very well,” he says. “I even proposed to him that we set up an Angry Young Man coffee bar. But I can see that Look Back in Anger was mostly self-pity, so I wasn’t surprised when I was told that he died an alcoholic.

“His plays got worse and worse reviews till the last one was taken off. John justified himself by saying, ‘Oh well, they hate me because I hate them’. In fact they were mostly terribly bad plays.”

Wain was also a whiner — for being considered inferior to Amis. If this all seems absurdly petty, Wilson at least was trying to promote a serious idea: optimism. His life’s work has been to counter Yeats’s “tragic generation”.

“They all had this strange glimpse of what Yeats described as a million lips searching for the feeling of something else, other than our down-to-earth solid world,” he says. They didn’t find it, so “the number of suicides and alcoholics among them was enormous.

“GK Chesterton wrote a book called Man Alive about a philosopher who goes round pointing guns at the heads of nihilists saying, ‘Okay, shall I blow your brains out?’ and being deeply satisfied when they scream ‘No, no’.”

The pessimist movement died, Wilson believes, with Graham Greene playing Russian roulette: “The clue to me is that in that state of facing possible death he suddenly wanted to live. That wasn’t just artificial optimism; it is the real thing. That is the basis of my work. Here I was stuck among all these contemporaries like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) assuring us that when school kids are left on an island they revert to the savage state or Samuel Beckett declaring it all meaningless. I hated this. I would have liked to kick them all in the balls.”

Instead of staring gloomily into a glass like his contemporaries, Wilson tells us we should seek out “peak experiences”. For him this often meant sex. In his autobiography he describes random encounters (even an embarrassing urge to peek at the knickers of female students during lectures). He recalls literary groupies coming down to Cornwall to pay homage by diving into his flies. At this his wife Joy potters into the charmingly shambolic sitting room of their seaside bungalow and asks, “More biscuits with your tea?” seemingly unfazed.

But then, she went into the relationship with her eyes open. When her father read Wilson’s day book — full of fruity, sexual descriptions — he tried to drag Joy home and threatened Wilson with a horsewhip. The police were called, the press arrived and the couple escaped, pursued by hacks.

Wilson was already married with a son. Unlike most of his rivals, he was genuinely working class, the son of a bootmaker. When he was thrown out of the army after claiming that he was gay — he was anything but — Wilson took a series of casual jobs in factories as he struggled through poverty to write.

He has been hampered by a youthful boast that he was a genius. Now, while not entirely disowning the notion, he insists that he needed self-confidence as he had nothing else going for him: a boy who had left school at 16 and who thought rather too much about suicide. His salvation was the reading room of the British Museum, where he defrosted after a night on the heath and wrote The Outsider. “I had to struggle so hard working in offices and factories there wasn’t really room for much except the thought: am I any good or not? The great terror is that suddenly you find you are no good. Even after The Outsider I used to wake up dreaming that I was back in a factory.” Still, “the great writers” as opposed to merely good writers “have all had to dig their carts out of the mud”.

Talking of mud, what was it like living on Hampstead Heath? “The wind in my face was lovely and when I did go back inside to live I found it very hard to sleep. But towards the end I was getting very depressed, carrying around this great sack of books.”

But nothing quite depressed him like the years of being shunned by the literary Establishment. He thought about lecturing in America full-time, but always he returned to Cornwall and his collection of 30,000 books. If he accuses Osborne of having an excuse for failure, Wilson has a good line in blame, too: our refusal to take men of ideas seriously. “In France they are much more interested. Can you imagine a thousand people queueing up here as they did in Paris to attend a Sartre lecture on what is existentialism? The English just watch football.”

He has a point: the novels of Camus, who also struck the pose of an outsider in France, are still praised today. But Wilson, with a second and expanding family to support, damaged his reputation by churning out a lot of hack books on questionable subjects: UFOs, the paranormal, he even wrote the introduction to the memoirs of Ian Brady, the Moors murderer.

In Dreaming to Some Purpose he describes dinner with a Japanese man who had shot, raped and then eaten a young German woman. Wilson was rather charmed. Perhaps it is this lack of discernment that stops others taking him quite as seriously as he takes himself.

Still, I hope his latest book does gain him some success. For nobody can it be longer overdue. Perhaps then he will be able to look forward in optimism rather than just write about it angrily.

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