Colin Stanley kindly sent me a copy of the obituary for Colin Wilson published by The Times of London. No surprise, they provide only a superficial and condescending view of his life’s work. It says he was “at home to a trickle of visitors who had not forgotten who he was,” implying that he was largely forgotten. No hint here of the vast audience he won worldwide, presumably because we don’t matter, being unable to see that he has nothing serious to say.
(I am amused to see that they take him to task for inaccuracies but they themselves can’t even count. Born June 1931, died December 2013 – age 83? Maybe they were rounding upward.)
Oh well, here’s what The Thunderer had to say about Colin’s life.
Published at 6:09PM, December 6 2013
As an unemployed former laboratory assistant and civil servant, sleeping rough by night and working in the British Museum Reading Room by day, Colin Wilson was a complete unknown to the literary world or the general public when he was catapulted to fame with the publication of his book The Outsider in 1956.
The book was welcomed with something approaching rapture by a British literary establishment which was in the mid-1950s consciously making itself receptive to works from outside its own ranks, from authors of no literary lineage who were not afraid to breach the frontiers of decorum. It was the era of novels like Lucky Jim and such plays as Look Back in Anger, subversive works by Kingsley Amis and John Osborne who were not of the Establishment, on which, they cast an unsparing gaze.
The author of The Outsider, as it happened, could outdo them both in the sheer interest of his antecedents. As a self-educated vagrant who nightly took to his sleeping bag in the damps of Hampstead Heath he far outdid in sheer “rough” glamour, the provincial university educated Amis or the touring theatre upstart Osborne.
The Outsider was not a creative work as such, rather an assemblage, in easily assimilable form, of philosophising and literary criticism, taken from the works of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway and Kafka, as well as reflections on Van Gogh, Nijinsky and Lawrence of Arabia. But its title, echoing as it did that of the English translation of Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger, irresistably pointed to its existentialist manifesto.
It was immediately popular not only among literati but with the public. It became an immediate best-seller, and not only in English-speaking countries — where such critics as Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee gave it their imprimatur in The Sunday Times and The Observer, with the Listener declaring it to be the most remarkable book upon which its reviewer had ever had to pass judgement — but also abroad where it was translated into Spanish, French, German, Italian, Finnish, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Chinese and Swedish.
It is scarcely surprising that Wilson, a handsome young man suddenly projected from roughing it on Hampstead Heath into the limelight of international stardom, should have been lionised, or that he enjoyed the publicity his book brought him, and in many ways contributed to it. He was soon associated with the group of Angry Young Men, who in mid-decade were associated with a literary and philosophical progamme that introduced a somewhat intellectually backward Britain to Existentialism.
With the publication of Wilson’s second book, Religion and the Rebel, in the following year, critical reaction was swift, not to say brutal. The critics who had praised him now leapt to detect in him charlatanism and shallowness, a man skilful in assembling opinion from skimming the works he had (imperfectly) read. Toynbee and others even backtracked on their glowing opinions of The Outsider as they savaged its successor. The Times Literary Supplement, which had to its credit sounded a sceptical note on his first book amid the barrage of immoderate praise, now deplored the fact that “the overpraise came in the first place from highly sophisticated people who might have been expected to know better”. Its reiterated opinion of Wilson’s first essay is probably the fairest estimate of its merits: “The Outsider was not a bad book. Mr Wilson wrote clearly and without affectation. He showed a distinct gift for rapidly gutting the lives and works he had chosen. . . The ideas were not the author’s own.”
Wilson was never to recover those claims he had established as a serious thinker in 1956. The remainder of his life was prolific in books of all sorts: he was by turns crime-writer, novelist, telecaster, playwright, sexologist and writer on the occult. But he never again never achieved the status as critic-philosopher which he had momentarily achieved and so ardently desired. It was a salutory lesson not merely in his own shortcomings, but in the limitations of literary journalism.
Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester in 1931. His father, Arthur, a “boot and shoe operative”, he described as “wholly without culture”, but his mother, Anetta, had, he said “an appetite for books of all kinds”. He was to follow her bent, although he could not read until he was eight. He won a scholarship to a secondary technical school at 11. There, until he was 16 he dreamed only of becoming an atomic physicist; chemistry and science fiction were at that time his great loves and stood him in good stead later in life when hopes of re-establishing himself as a serious thinker had faded and he became a prolific and imaginative sci-fi writer.
At 16 he left school, soon however returning to it as a laboratory assistant. He was soon sacked, having, as he later wrote, been spending far too much of his work time on the plays and philosophy of George Bernard Shaw, whose work was to become a decisive influence upon him. Art that time he also wrote a good deal of fiction and drama — all of which was rejected by the many editors to whom he submitted his manuscripts.
Called up into the RAF in 1948, he successfully “worked his ticket” within six months, by pretending to be homosexual — the open practice of which was then criminal in this country. He then decided to become, in what he felt were the best traditions, a tramp. Simultaneously he entered upon a marriage, to Dorothy Betty Troop. They had a son, but separated after 18 months. Wilson then lived on the dole, roughed it in Paris, and began work on the novel that was to be published in 1960 as Ritual in the Dark.
To save on rent, Wilson slept on Hampstead Heath. His days were spent in the British Museum Reading Room, where the Deputy Superintendent there, Angus Wilson (no relation), encouraged him both in his reading and writing. Angus Wilson — just retiring from his job to become a full-time writer himself — was engaged in reading the first few chapters of Ritual in the Dark when The Outsider (1956) hit the headlines.
For the purposes of interview Wilson described this collection of essays, reflecting his voracious and eclectic reading of ten years, as having been “dashed off” in a few weeks, while he was working as a washer-up in a coffee-house.
The uncritically enthusiastic reception of The Outsider by the literary establishment was ill considered. But it was understandable in the ferment of the times, in which something “new” was looked for as the country still relatively painfully extracted itself from the dreary conventional ethos of the postwar period. While the book was not intellectually distinguished, it did have emotional bite and excitement.
The critics did Wilson no service in elevating him to a plane on which he could not by any stretch of the imagination sustain himself. In the meantime Wilson, who showed a considerable aptitude for self-advertisement had became a victim of the publicity machine, dubbed along with John Osborne and others, an “Angry Young Man”. From that accolade it was, he wrote, “rather hard to swallow”, when he was soon afterwards called an “intellectual Tommy Steele” — which was certainly unfair.
The experience of such a total fall from the limelight to obscurity did not seem to depress his spirits. His first marriage was dissolved in 1960 and in that year he married his second wife, Pamela Stewart, a librarian. Together they moved to the seaside village of Gorran Haven, nestling in the angle of Dodman Point on the south coast of Cornwall.
There, seemingly always at home to a trickle of visitors who had not forgotten who he was, always amiable if increasingly somewhat peculiar, he settled down to turn out scores of books on a multitude of subjects: crime (Encyclopaedia of Crime 1961, with Patricia Pitman); philosophy and psychology (he wrote inaccurate but fluent books on Gurdjieff, Reich, Steiner and others); myth (books on King Arthur, Rasputin and others); and above all, the occult, about which he produced many works, in particular The Occult: a History (1971), and Mysteries (1978). Aleister Crowley was an obsession, finally perhaps exorcised in Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast (1987).
Literary and philosophical studies included Bernard Shaw: a Reassessment (1969); Hermann Hesse (1974); Wilhelm Reich (1974); Jorge Luis Borges (1974); and Anti-Sartre, with an Essay on Camus (1981).
Wilson also wrote novels science fiction, the supernatural and a fluent vein of crime, particularly sex-crime, novels —and some plays. An autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, appeared in 2004, and the reflective The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men in 2007.
He died after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Joy (Pamela Joy Wilson nee Stewart), his sons Roderick (from his first marriage), Damon and Rowan, and his daughter Sally.
Colin Wilson, author, was born on June 26, 1931. He died on December 5, 2013, aged 83