REMEMBERING COLIN WILSON
(A letter in Fortean Times (313)
It was good to read Gary Lachman’s fine double-page appreciation of Colin Wilson’s life and works (FT 310). Lachman’s was the only obituary piece I read in any UK publication to do that extraordinary writer something like literary justice. A working class autodidact who enjoyed enormous early success on a scale most writers might envy, Colin became (though in a rather different sense from the title of his famous first book) a sort of Outsider of 20th century British letters. In fact, the horribly predictable media and critical backlash – petty, spiteful, cliché-ridden and generally inaccurate, as Lachman so justly pointed out – directed against such a precocious, wide-ranging talent persisted throughout Colin Wilson’s long and hugely prolific lifetime.
While you couldn’t easily pigeonhole Colin (another reason for him to be spurned by our narrow literary and academic establishments!), he never seemed bitter, remaining affable, goodhumoured and indeed irrepressible. From the 1960s on we shared the same innovative paperback publishers, Panther Books, and in the mid-1970s when I first met him we were both serving on the South West Arts Literature Panel. Ted Hughes, Patricia Beer, Peter Redgrove, Ken Smith and other West Country authors were members then, and meetings were enhanced, to say the least, by Colin, who always generously brought with him a briefcase containing a few good wines to tide us all through some rather long hours and supplement the dull regional arts fodder.
Another convivial occasion when the wine flowed was in the Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street, at the launch of the Panther edition of Mysteries, Colin’s mammoth sequel to The Occult. The two lovely women friends accompanying me that evening were separately chatted up by the notorious Satanist Anton LaVey, who spun the selfsame line with each – promising High Priestess status, orgiastic initiation into the Secret Truths, etc etc. (He got nowhere and everyone had a good laugh: fun times indeed, rather than End Times!)
Whenever I could arrange it (during a writing Residency centred on a college, library, or arts centre) I’d invariably invite Colin to come and talk to students and audiences on any subject of his choice, for I knew what a fascinating speaker and very approachable communicator he was. There was a most enjoyable weekend at Plymouth Arts Centre, for instance, based around Dreams and Dreaming, when David Gascoyne and R.D.Laing joined Colin and myself on the platform: it proved a truly illuminating, humorous and stimulating occasion.
In the 1980s, Ken Smith and I became the first Writers in Residence in UK jails, and I duly invited Colin to visit my base, HMP Channings Wood, to talk to inmates about crime, punishment and the purpose of life. This he not only did – charming, stimulating and cheerful as ever – but contributed an insightful article entitled ‘Prisoners and Outsiders’ to my prison writing anthology Out of the Wood (1989). Colin ended his piece thus: “once a man has learned to express his feelings and dreams, he rises above that element of criminality which exists in every man. In other words, if we could find a method of teaching prisoners the art of self-expression, in any form, we would also have discovered an infallible method of keeping our prisons half-empty. And that in itself would be one of the greatest social revolutions of all time.” A quarter-century later – with prison education departments and budgets cynically cut, privatisation creeping in, and all our prisons overflowing – Colin’s reflections on crime and psychology, among so much else, seem extremely relevant if not prophetic. They remain well worth reading, for Colin certainly had (in the title of just one of his many books) The Strength To Dream.
Our society and literature need dreamers – open-minded creative individuals who manage to be energetic and enthusiastic, yet persist against the odds as generous and rational spirits. Colin’s hero G.B. Shaw complained about Samuel Butler’s provocative autobiographical novel The Way Of All Flesh “making so little impression”, adding: “Really the English do not deserve to have great men.” Looking back at Colin Wilson’s vastly impressive and various oeuvre, one is inclined to agree.