Colin Wilson: The early years
Colin Henry Wilson was born on the 26th of June 1931 in Leicester, England, to working-class parents. From the age of eleven, he attended Gateway Secondary Technical School. Science was his passion and his dream was to become a great scientist. He also read widely and voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction, and, around the age of sixteen, his interest in science diminished and he decided that what he really wanted was to become a novelist.
Aged 18, he was called up for his National Service, serving in the RAF, but was discharged early after pretending to be gay. In December 1950, he got a clerking job in a large engineering works in Leicester where he seduced the resident nurse, Betty Troop. The following Easter, she realised she was pregnant and Wilson married her on the 6th of June 1951 in the Leicester Registry Office.
The day after the wedding Wilson hitch-hiked to London to look for work. In August, Betty joined him; their son, Roderick Gerard, was born on the 23rd of November 1951. They struggled to find decent accommodation as few landlords and landladies were willing to rent their properties to couples with a baby; they had to move every few months. Eventually, Betty got fed up with this and, in January 1953, returned to Leicester to live with Wilson's parents while Wilson carried on looking for a flat for his family in London.
He wasn't able to find anywhere suitable and soon gave up looking. He found work as a hospital porter at the Western Fever Hospital in Fulham and this included accommodation in the hospital. Taking advantage of his wife's absence he pursued other women including the 18-year-old Laura Del-Rivo, whom he met in the Coffee House on Northumberland Avenue in the summer of 1953. They became close friends, though he failed to seduce her. Through her he met Bill Hopkins who became a lifelong friend.
In August 1953, Wilson went to Paris where he stayed in the room of a friend, Claude Guillaume, who was happy for Wilson to use the room when he wasn't there. After a couple of weeks, Wilson was joined by Hopkins who was looking for a cheap French printer for The Saturday Critic, a magazine he was trying to get off the ground. They tried making money by selling subscriptions to The Paris Review, edited by George Plimpton, to Americans living in Paris, but weren't very successful. Lack of money eventually forced them to leave.
On returning to London, late in November, Wilson stayed for a few days with Alfred Reynolds whom he had met in May of that year. Reynolds ran a humanistic, political discussion group called the "Bridge".
Back in Leicester for Christmas 1953, Wilson got a temporary job in Lewis's department store where he met Joy Stewart, a trainee manager there. They became very fond of each other and started spending a lot of time together. Not long after they met, they regarded themselves as a couple. After two months in Leicester, Wilson decided to return to London where Joy joined him a month later, although they didn't live together at this time. She found a room in Chalk Farm and managed to get a job at Peter Robinson, a big store on Oxford Circus. Later, she studied to become a librarian.
Early in 1954, Wilson was invited to a Bridge party at Alfred Reynolds's house where he met Stuart Holroyd and his wife Anne (née Freeman) who "got rather delightfully drunk and had to be carried upstairs" ("A Memoir of the 'Fifties", p. 264). Wilson got on very well with Holroyd and they soon became friends. Soon after arriving in London from Blackpool in September 1952, Holroyd had started writing for several periodicals, including The Poetry Review and The Stage. In February 1953, he was joined by Anne and they married the following year. Around the time of his marriage Holroyd became Hugh Schonfield's part-time, personal secretary. (Schonfield was a prominent New Testament scholar.) Schonfield took a keen interest in Holroyd's literary aspirations and encouraged him to expand several of the articles he had written into a book. This book, which would become Emergence from Chaos, was started in early 1955.
Since 1949, Wilson had been writing a novel, eventually published in 1960 as Ritual in the Dark, inspired by the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. While writing in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Wilson had met its Deputy Superintendent, the novelist Angus Wilson, who agreed to read the current version. Wilson gave him this in December 1954. While waiting for Angus's comments, Wilson felt at a loose end. Aware that Holroyd was writing a critical book, Wilson thought he could write one as well. He had been analysing "Outsiders" and their experiences in his journals for years. Drawing on this material he was able to write quickly, whereas Holroyd wrote slowly as he had to intersperse writing with undertaking additional research and also with earning a living.
The Outsider was published on the 28th of May 1956 to huge critical acclaim. A few weeks earlier John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger had premiered at the Royal Court Theatre; it was hailed by the influential critic Kenneth Tynan as articulating the core feelings and attitudes of the younger generation. Osborne was 26 and Wilson 24. Journalists began talking of a new literary movement: the Angry Young Men had arrived. Others were soon thus labelled, including Holroyd, Bill Hopkins, Michael Hastings, Kingsley Amis, John Braine and John Wain.
Wilson, Holroyd and Hopkins regarded themselves as being existentialists; they differed from their continental cousins in believing that life had meaning and that this could be discovered in spiritual and mystical experiences. The journalist Kenneth Allsop called them "the law-givers" as they felt they had the remedy for the decline of civilisation, evidence of which they saw everywhere. They hated materialism, conformity, mediocrity and the rigid adherence to religious tradition which had replaced genuine spirituality. Holroyd described their shared philosophy thus (Contraries, p. 16):
If anything made us cohere as a group, Bill, Colin and I, it was a shared conception of man as a creature with spiritual hunger, a dynamic evolutionary drive. We held that mystical experiences, visionary states of consciousness, moments of ecstasy, of joy, of world-and-life-affirmation, were not only relevant to life but should be the chief object of man's endeavours.
No one, least of all Wilson himself, expected The Outsider to be as successful as it was. By October 1956, it had sold 20,000 copies, earning Wilson £4,000 (Success Stories, p. 146). Working out what that would be in today's money isn't entirely straightforward. The most conservative estimate makes it equivalent to about £85,000. Within a year, Wilson had earned £20,000 (worth at least £425,000 today).
Not only did Wilson make a lot of money, he was also fêted by the literary establishment. His life became one long succession of dinner parties, cocktail parties, interviews and lectures. He found himself spending less and less time reading, writing and thinking; he was losing contact with the ideas and experiences that had driven him since childhood.
On Saturday, the 14th of July 1956, Kenneth Allsop drove Wilson, Joy and Daniel Farson to the house of Farson's parents, Negley and Eve, in Devon. Allsop had arranged to interview Negley. Wilson had met Daniel a couple of months earlier on Saturday, the 26th of May, in David Archer's bookshop. He had invited Daniel back to his flat in 24 Chepstow Villas (Out of Step, p. 129):
He dunked sausages into a dirty saucepan, half filled with week-old fat, which he perched on a small, stained primus stove. While my mind reeled from his conversation, my stomach heaved.
Daniel took the opportunity that weekend in July to interview Wilson; he recorded the interview on his new tape-recorder. When the interview appeared in the October 1957 issue of Books and Art, under the title "Colin Wilson explains MY GENIUS", it did nothing to help Wilson's declining reputation.
On the evening of Tuesday, the 19th of February 1957, Wilson and Joy were having dinner with Gerald Hamilton in their flat in 24 Chepstow Villas when Joy's parents, her brother Neil and sister Fay burst in; her father was brandishing a horsewhip. Not only did Joy's parents object to her living with Wilson when they were not married, but they also thought that he was some kind of sexual deviant. Joy's father had read part of Wilson's diary which contained notes for Ritual in the Dark and mistook them for factual accounts about Wilson himself.
Gerald Hamilton phoned the press who duly arrived. To avoid them and Joy's parents Wilson and Joy spent the night with Tom Maschler. Talking the matter over they decided it would be sensible to leave London for a few days as Joy's parents might make another attempt to drag her off. They arranged to stay with Eve and Negley Farson in Devon.
The following day what had happened in their flat was reported on the front page of the Daily Mail under the headline "Horsewhip threat to 'Outsider' Wilson" and on an inside page of the Daily Express there was an article headed: "Whipping threat to Colin Wilson: girl's parents burst into his flat".
Soon after they arrived at the Farsons' house, the press arrived. They thought they'd have a better chance of avoiding the press if they went to Ireland. On the way there they passed through Swansea where they spent a pleasant evening with Kingsley Amis and his wife Hilly. Journalists kept finding them and there was a steady stream of articles about them for several days. After a week or so on the run they returned to London where Gollancz advised Wilson to leave London permanently or he'd lose his reputation as a serious writer.
In April, they moved into Old Walls, a cottage they'd rented near Mevagissey in Cornwall. Two years later, they bought Tetherdown in Gorran Haven from which they never moved.
I've published a short article about Colin Wilson as well as a couple of pieces about Stuart Holroyd. I'm continuing to research their lives and ideas, as well as that of Bill Hopkins, especially in the 1950s. I am, therefore, keen to hear from anyone who might have any relevant information. Please email me at antoni.dillerREMOVE@cantabREMOVE.net with anything that you think I might find interesting.
- Antoni Diller, "Colin Wilson's The Books in My Life", in Colin Stanley (ed.), Around the Outsider: Essays Presented to Colin Wilson on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, [Winchester, O Books, 2011, ISBN 978-1846946684], pp. 242–253; this book can be bought from Amazon.
- Daniel Farson, Out of Step, London, Michael Joseph, 1974.
- Stuart Holroyd, Contraries, London, The Bodley Head, 1975.
- Harry Ritchie, Success Stories, London, Faber and Faber, 1988.
- Colin Wilson, The Outsider, London, Victor Gollancz, 1956.
- Colin Wilson, "A Memoir of the 'Fifties", in Colin Wilson, The Bicameral Critic, Bath, Ashgrove, 1985, pp. 257–269.
© Antoni Diller (5 January 2017)