An outsider breaking into their intellectual game reserve
In his autobiographical work, The Writing Game: Recollections of an Occasional Bestselling Author, W A Harbinson fondly recalls Colin Wilson as he was in the early 1970s in London
I had been an admirer of Wilson’s work ever since reading his critically acclaimed The Outsider and widely reviled Religion and the Rebel. Hailed as a genius when he was too young to deal with it, then receiving a critical reversal that would have wiped out most writers, Wilson retreated to Cornwall, made a self-contained world for himself (a world of books, music and good wine), and proceeded doggedly, despite critical neglect or vilification, to produce an astonishing body of work, both non-fiction and fiction, on subjects as diverse as philosophy, religion, literature, music, science, astronomy, sex, crime, the paranormal and the occult.
His reputation grew rapidly in countries like Japan, France and America, but the critical establishment in Britain continued either to ignore him or to review him, at the least, with a condescension all too common in that insular and largely self-regarding breed. It is my belief that this came about because Wilson, like me, left school at fourteen and was largely self-educated.
While many writers with similar backgrounds had been successful as novelists, particularly with ‘popular’ fiction, they had only managed to do so because they were not invading the hallowed portals of academia. Wilson did. He wrote books, both fiction and non-fiction, about subjects that were normally the preserve of academics or ‘university novelists’ and did so despite his lack of formal education (he was, in a real sense, an outsider breaking into their intellectual game reserve). Affronted, they responded by attacking his interest in subjects which they themselves would never stoop to examine, particularly the occult, which Wilson started writing about when he had completed his literature-based Outsider series.
As most writers will know, to write about subjects such as UFOs or the occult is to risk losing your reputation overnight, but these subjects are, to my mind, as valid as any others in this century and Wilson’s The Occult, Mysteries and Beyond the Occult certainly offer the most comprehensive and level-headed overview of the subject as any written to date. Take it, then, that my interest in Wilson was acute and he was one of the many writers that I wanted to commission and meet.
When, as a magazine editor, I first invited Wilson to lunch, he turned up with his delightful wife Joy, and I took them to a fairly ordinary wine bar (candles and sawdust-covered floor) located under the now flattened arches at the lower end of Fleet Street. I was scared out of my wits at the thought of meeting him, but he turned out to be the soul of kindness, good humour and generosity.
Over the next couple of years, we met frequently, in a variety of locations (pubs, restaurants, private clubs, even Bill Hopkins’ flat in the Ladbroke Grove area) and he introduced me to many of his friends. Despite his reputation for intellectual arrogances and ‘fascistic’ leanings, Wilson was unpretentious, enthusiastic about many things, generous to a fault and always entertaining. He also had a brilliant, agile mind.
When, a few years later, I moved temporarily to Cornwall, I met a lot of people through Colin, who was clearly viewed widely as a local celebrity and drew the kind of hangers-on attracted to fame. Colin’s lifestyle was unusual in that he received a truly astonishing number of visitors, many from overseas, including philosophers, psychologists, academics, musicians, painters, poets, novelists, journalists, radio and TV personalities, occultists, flying-saucer freaks and crazies of every kind, so he had created a world that enabled him to deal with this without letting it impinge on his creative life.
His system was to start work immediately after breakfast and remain at his desk in his basement-study until about four in the afternoon, not letting anyone interrupt him and stopping only for a light lunch. At some point every day he would walk his dogs, taking the paths that snaked along the windblown cliffs, overlooking the sea at Gorran Haven. In the late afternoon or early evening, he would have a shower or bath, then sit down to pour the first of what would be many glasses of good wine from bottles lined along the mantelpiece within reaching distance of his armchair. He would drink while watching TV, reading newspapers, books and letters, or talking volubly, argumentatively, good-naturedly, to anyone who was present. Everyone in the family (and certainly it seemed to be a happy family) ate off trays resting on their laps; I never saw anyone, not even a guest, eating off a table.
On Friday evenings, he would personally attend to the shopping for the following week, usually taking his kids with him and racing swiftly around the supermarket in St Austell, grabbing impulsively at anything that took his fancy and piling the trolley so high that I always expected the goods to fall off, though they never did. After loading the car, he would drive to a pub in Pentewyn Sands where anyone who wished to see him, or have a drink with him, at his expense, was warmly welcomed; this resulted in him always being surrounded by a dauntingly large group of friends, hangers-on and freeloaders, all of whom could drink to their heart’s content without paying a penny.
Embarrassed at the thought of being considered yet another freeloader, I started missing certain evenings and then gradually stopping going altogether. Also, though I met many interesting people at those boozy gatherings, there were too many would-be writers and artists (the less talented, the more pretentious), as well as obvious freeloaders, for me to feel comfortable, which was certainly another reason for my gradually dropping out of that otherwise lively scene.
While still living in Cornwall, I continued to see Colin and Joy regularly, either at their home in Gorran Haven or in some pub or private club; but once I left there for good, returning to London, I never went back, never saw Colin again, and only corresponded by mail.
* Described by the Midwestern Review as a " ‘must read’ memoir for anyone who contemplates embarking upon a professional writing career for themselves", W A Harbinson’s The Writing Game: Recollections of an Occasional Bestselling Author, is available as a POD book from Amazon and other relevant internet sites.