This appreciation of Colin Wilson by Colin Amery first appeared in 2001. I have written about the debt of gratitudeI owe him. This story is typical of such debts, I think.
Colin Wilson’s The Outsider
by Colin Amery
In l956 Wilson’s Outsider was an overnight success, and later went into twelve impressions, the youthful looking 26 year-old was hailed by the critics as a new Lord Byron. With his large horn rims and high-neck woollen sweater, author Kenneth Allsop dubbed him one of the ‘angry young men’ of that period. I had just started attending that left wing hot bed the London School of Economics to study law. Mick Jagger was there at the same time but not yet a rock star. To prepare him for his future career he was studying economics. I heard rumours that Colin Wilson was pulling expressos in a Chelsea coffee bar off the King’s Road. I never got to that particular haunt, but in 1958 I frequented the Royal Court Theatre nearby where John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was playing to packed houses. These highly original thinkers helped shape the future direction of my life. For the first time I felt the possibility of a framework within which to be truly myself and evolve a philosophy by which I could live.
Unfortunately my time at LSE ended a lot quicker than I had intended. In those days one still did National Service and I was trained as a spy and Russian linguist in a remote Scottish camp. The military posted me to Germany where I ended up in Berlin shortly before the wall was built. In the divided city I felt like a true outsider with no roots to call my own.
The Outsider began life as a commentary on the ideas of Ritual in the Dark which was not published until l960 four years later. It evokes with a certain nostalgia the London of the late fifties. The description of the visit by Gerard Sorme to the British Museum Reading Room with its beautiful domed ceiling was one of the places where Colin Wilson and I might have met in the seventies when I was researching my first published work New Atlantis.
The final chapters of The Outsider were written when Colin Wilson lived in a tent on Hampstead Heath and caught the 24 bus every day to the Museum. His girlfriend Joy’s father allegedly chased him with a horsewhip when he was writing Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme, mistaking a work of fiction for real-life experiences. One of the main characters was based on Aleister Crowley. When this novel was published in 1963 a political scandal swept London in the form of the Profumo Affair which reached its heights during that sultry summer. At the time I worked as an articled clerk for a firm of solicitors opposite the Law Courts where I was sent to file civil proceedings to try and hush the matter up. These efforts failed and our client had to resign, retreating from the war-zone to the obscurity of charity work in the East End of London. In the meantime, Colin and Joy retreated to Cornwall after the horsewhipping interlude where as a married couple they have lived ever since.
‘Sex Diary’ was one of several novels written in the sixties which attempted a form of ‘a medium of philosophy’. Later in the seventies Wilson’s writing turned more towards mysticism and the occult which was a natural transition as many of his novels and works of philosophy foreshadowed its basic concepts, transforming him into one of the New Age prophets. An American edition of Sex Diary was released in 1988 entitled Sex Diary of a Metaphysician while I was completing a law degree in New Zealand. While Colin Wilson had been transforming his ideas and philosophies I had travelled to Australia in 1965 where I worked variously as night watchman, roustabout in pubs and read all the philosophy I could lay my hands on in the elusive search for truth. I read The Outsider in 1968 in a mousehole bedsit below the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I sent Colin Wilson a postcard telling him his book had changed my life. So began a correspondence that has kept going in a desultory fashion for more than thirty years. Within a month I had left my job, deserted my wife and child and hit the road as an aspiring writer.
I moved around the globe a lot in the next few years, eventually arriving in London early in l974 to complete my research on Atlantis at the British Museum. I caught the red 24 double-decker bus everyday from Hampstead Heath. We had to order tomes from little cubby holes that were arranged alphabetically. I half expected to collide with the sex-diarist at his station, for W-Z was adjacent to the A-C’s.
Walking to the Heath one Sunday afternoon I met a man who claimed to be John Symonds, Crowley’s biographer who told me he knew Colin Wilson very well and that he was currently working on a book about the occult. In Hampstead there were a lot of eccentrics who claimed to know the rich and famous, including a young man going around the pubs claiming to be Dennis Wheatley’s son. The intelligence on Colin Wilson proved to be for real, however. Friends from the Atlantis Bookshop spoke of sightings of him in nearby coffee bars garbed in thick dark sweaters and matching trousers. I heard he was to sign a paperback edition of The Occult in May l973 at a Regent Street address.
That same week I started a job as a butler in the West End for a titled lady. However I could not afford to take the time off to meet Colin Wilson since I would have been sacked. The job helped me to get together the fare for my next trip to the antipodes. A young occult student of mine from the Hampstead School of Occult Studies had fallen pregnant and it was essential that I join her in Wellington before our child was born. I caught my plane finally on a leap year’s day and fulfilled a dream to smell frangipani blossoms in Tahiti. I then gained the day I had lost by crossing the dateline and reached New Zealand. All this was appropriate for a passenger reading The Occult on his journey to the southern hemisphere. In 1976 I retreated to an island off the coast of Auckland to study Jung and read the tarot cards for a living and worked for a few more years as an occult columnist.
In the late 1980s I acquired a Siberian pen pal, Sergei, who also liked Colin Wilson’s books and insisted on going to England to meet him. Half your luck I thought – sitting at the nether end of the world. He sent me a photo to prove he finally made it, showing the author smiling with his left arm around the Russian’s frail shoulders. He described how on his arrival two large dogs jumped up and placed their paws on his shoulders which was a story Chekhov might have invented. I lost contact with my Siberian outsider after the 1991 putsch in the Soviet Union when he wrote to tell me he had given a speech in the main square of Novosibirsk to support Yeltsin. I thought of him as a character drawn from chapters six and seven of The Outsider in which the focus is on the great works of fiction of Dostoievski. The Russian influence has remained strong in Colin Wilson’s writing. The new postscript to those chapters refers to the central place Gurdjeff occupies in his philosophy.
The philosophical quest is like an endless journey along a railway line where we glimpse tantalising visions of the truth but swing back from the curve the train is negotiating just as all is about to be revealed. Reading a Colin Wilson novel is rather like an embarking on such a journey. In the year 2000 I decided to revisit the country of my birth. I had earmarked Cornwall for a visit, partly because my family once visited there and partly in the hope of seeing my former mentor. He was quite old now, too, a mere sixty nine years on my calculations. But the meeting was destined never to occur. My letter from New Zealand did not reach him in time to respond before I left. I visited old haunts in London I had known in the fifties and sixties. In Cornwall my wife and I stayed in Penzance and caught a ferry to the Scilly Isles in the hope of sighting some trace of the underwater kingdom of Lyonesse which some believe once formed part of Atlantis. We had no such contact but the mystical isles we visited, once occupied by the Romans and Cromwell had a unique atmosphere. We caught the train back to London, rounding bends that revealed beaches where I had once dug sand castles.
On my return to New Zealand I joined a philosophy course. My teacher knew about The Outsider and had once kept a battered paperback copy in his knapsack at Oxford. A neighbour of his had given refuge to its author before he left in a hurry for Cornwall. It seemed timely to write to my erstwhile correspondent and resume contact. With his customary generosity Colin Wilson sent me the proofs of his postscripts to each chapter of the new edition of The Outsider. The original text is the one I read in l968 – only my life has changed. I have already chronicled how I first read of Sartre’s Nausea in a footnote in The Outsider. Interestingly, the new Orion Press edition of Colin Wilson’s work has as its first sentence in the postscript to Chapter One, “When I began to write The Outsider nearly half a century ago Sartre was the most famous writer in Europe.” The intertwining of my interests with Colin Wilson’s works is somehow illustrated by this observation. This connectedness has operated as kind of personal telepathy at different stages in my life, when important decisions had to be taken.
© Colin Amery 2001