By Jake Hillman
ONE of the true milestones in contemporary English literature was passed in June this year with barely a mention from the London press.
Colin Wilson – one of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s – turned eighty with the approbation of his devotees ringing in his ears, but hardly a whisper from those who set themselves up as arbiters of English writing.
You will find the so-called ‘quality’ press devoting acres of space to Booker Prize contenders no-one has ever heard of or cares one jot about, but not so much as a paragraph about Wilson, a man whose amazing mind has spawned more than 170 books in a writing career spanning nearly 60 years.
The reasons for Fleet Street’s coolness towards one of Britain’s most remarkable writers of modern times are complex, but no less shameful for that.
A novelist, essayist, polemicist, philosopher and science fiction writer has who toiled at his keyboard every day of the year – and that includes Christmas Day – since the mid-1950s, gathering an international following that is almost slavish in its adulation, deserves his due as he soldiers on into his ninth decade.
But the occasion passed virtually unremarked except by those – the readers of his incredible range of work – who see Wilson as a literary phenomenon unparalleled in the entire history of English letters. A celebratory book of essays was published to mark the day, but there was nothing like the kind of coverage his huge output warranted.
Wilson rose to fame alongside the playwright John Osborne in 1956 when his book, The Outsider, was published by Victor Gollancz just as Osborne’s groundbreaking play, Look Back in Anger, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Together, they became part of a mythical literary brotherhood known by the popular press as The Angry Young Men. John Braine, Kingsley Amis, John Wain and Alan Sillitoe became fellow members of the group, which went on to dominate the course of English fiction for several years thereafter.
Wilson’s book, which drew heavily on the work of prominent philosophers to identify the role of the outsider in modern society, was initially lauded to the skies by prominent Sunday paper critics of the time. They noted, in particular, his precocity (he was only 24) and his unlikely background as a working class lad from Leicester who had never been to university.
The young author burnished his image as a bohemian misfit by disclosing that he had researched the book at the British Museum during the day while sleeping on Hampstead Heath at night. And he gained further notoriety when his girlfriend’s father threatened to belabour him with a bullwhip.
To make matters worse, he offended the London literary establishment by declaring himself to be a genius, a claim his critics have been trying to debunk ever since. Wilson was thereafter depicted as a proletarian upstart with ideas above his station.
As the academic world turned upon what they cited as his ‘crackpot’ philosophical ramblings, establishment critics recanted and withdrew their earlier support. Wilson, sick of press persecution, and alarmed by the treacherous nature of London literary life, fled to Cornwall with his girlfriend. They have lived there, contentedly and productively, ever since.
Inevitably, Wilson’s subsequent work was either lambasted or ignored by the London press. In recent times, the few articles written about him have been snide and derisive. At no time has he been afforded his due as an extremely prolific writer of prodigious talent.
As the London press has become increasingly metropolitan and less national in its approach over the last thirty years, Wilson has also had to bear the burden of being a writer from a provincial background who has chosen to live on the cliffs of a gale-blasted peninsula far from the watering holes of Bloomsbury and Hampstead.
So while obscure North London novelists with hardback sales of fewer than 3,000 copies command many inches of space in London newspapers, Wilson is studiously ignored. Not that it bothers him.
‘I don’t read the critics anyway,’ he told one reporter, ‘they have never understood my work, so I don’t allow myself to be troubled by them.’
In spite of that, his books have poured forth in impressive profusion. From the occult to criminology, from biographies to memoirs, from literary criticism to philosophy, they have sprung from his keyboard in the tiny study at his Cornish cottage like literary jumpjacks.
He has written a biography of Rasputin, any number of works about serial murderers, essays on mysticism, tracts on the state of mankind, fantasy stories, a study of the cult figure Aleister Crowley, plus several conventional novels – all in a style that keeps the general reader engaged.
Some say Wilson has spread his talent too thinly in a lifetime of writing, and that he ought to have ploughed fewer furrows in his quest to become the significant writer he has always felt himself to be.
In 1997, he told the magazine Cornwall Arts that his productivity was as much to do with financial necessity as personal inclination. ‘I write to put bread on the table,’ he said, ‘I have always lived on an overdraft.’
Though The Outsider was a bestseller, with 25,000 hardback sales when it was first published, Wilson has never been a rich man. His early triumph enabled him to buy his Cornish cottage, but he has lived simply since then, supplementing royalties with occasional lecture tours, and finding contentment in his writing, his family, and the dramatic landscape in which he lives.
Most afternoons, he is still to be seen walking his dog along the coastal path near his home in Gorran Haven on the south Cornish coast.
Inevitably, his very existence provokes the ire of the Oxbridge-public school literary axis. If there is anything they hate, it’s proletarians elbowing their way on to their patch.
One of his most recent tormentors was someone called Adam Mars-Jones, son of a prominent legal family and beneficiary of the Oxbridge gravy train.
Withering as he was in trashing Wilson’s autobiographical book, Dreaming to Some Purpose, it’s noticeable that Mars-Jones has yet to match the butt of his critical ire by way of quality or quantity.
By some distance, Wilson is the better man in literary terms. And by an even greater distance he has established himself internationally as a writer of highly readable, and sometimes quite compelling, prose.
Wilson enjoys not only the adulation of a significant band of devotees, he has a literary magazine dedicated exclusively to his writings and ideas. For decades he has lectured to fans all over the world.
Another of his most virulent detractors is a London-based Scot called Harry Ritchie. I know nothing of Ritchie or his work, though I did spot a novel of his in Poundland. Odd that in more than half of century of admiring Colin Wilson, I’ve yet to spot one of his books among the oven-gloves and pot-scourers at a cut-price clearance store.
For those not yet acquainted with the work of this remarkable man, now is as good a time as any to find out what he’s all about.
Personally, I find his philosophical works hard to fathom, but his memoirs, novels and criticism are invariably highly readable products of an extremely lively and interesting mind.
His success in maintaining a highly productive writing career over so many years in the face of press indifference – or occasional hostility – ought to serve as inspiration for every would-be writer. And it’s just as well to remember that the Oxbridge literary set, though desperate to anoint one another with immortality, rarely amount to anything worthwhile in the end.
RECOMMENDED READS by Colin Wilson: The Outsider, Ritual in the Dark, The Occult, The Mind Parasites, Necessary Doubt, The Angry Years, Voyage to a Beginning, Dreaming to Some Purpose and Adrift in Soho.
A PROFILE of Colin Wilson appears in The Literary Post.