The sage and I
Friends give their personal recollections of Colin Wilson in a new book, The Sage of Tetherdown, published in June 2020. Here Geoff Ward, founder of Colin Wilson World, tells of his encounters
HOW I came to receive an invitation from Colin Wilson to visit him at his home in Cornwall is remarkable in itself.
In the late 1990s, as a mature student, I’d begun an English and philosophy degree course and, as part of this, I’d chosen to study Colin’s existential criticism. Naturally, I was keen to meet Colin to discuss it, if that should be possible. So, after piecing together his address in Cornwall from clues in Howard Dossor's book, Colin Wilson: The man and his mind (1990), I sent Colin a letter, explaining my interest and including my phone number.
A few days later, at about 10am, the phone rang at our then home in Gloucester and my wife Angie answered it: ‘Hello. This is Colin Wilson.’ Angie was somewhat taken aback. She thought someone was winding her up! But she said: ‘Oh. I’ve read some of your books!’ ‘That’s good,’ Colin replied. I was amazed that he called on the very morning he received my letter, suggesting I visit him. How many world-famous authors would do that for a stranger?
Thus it was that Angie and I, and our son Tyrone, arrived in Cornwall just before the total eclipse of the sun in the summer of 1999, having arranged to meet Colin at the end of that week. First, we were going to the Lizard Eclipse Festival on Goonhilly Downs because Tyrone, then just turned 15, was a big fan of Kula Shaker, and we’d decided to go with him to see the rock band's show. Along with thousands of others, we were at the festival when the eclipse took place on Wednesday, August 11.
Kula Shaker topped the bill the following night, closing the festival line-up; interestingly, I’d read somewhere that guitarist Crispian Mills and at least one other member of the band were fans of Wilson. I mentioned this to Colin when we met but he didn’t seem particularly impressed! I think the worlds of rock and pop music were alien to him; after all, he was almost 30 when they’d taken hold in the UK, and ‘youth culture’ was passing him by.
Coincidentally, Phill Savidge, one of the key instigators of the ‘Britpop’ movement in the 1990s and whose PR company represented Kula Shaker for a time is, or has been, a collector of Colin’s books.
A self-confessed bibliophile, Savidge once had this to say about Wilson: ‘He wrote around 118 books, but I can't keep my reading of them up with my buying of them. Wilson's The Outsider, first published in 1956, which I first read as a Picador paperback, convinced me that he was a genius and … every book I've read by him has convinced me further than he can write about anything with such fine wit and insight that I know I will collect all 118 first editions and eventually read all of them.’ (https://www.homeprotect.co.uk/discover/stories/phill-savidge-book-collector).
Of course, I have been, and still am, a collector and avid reader of Colin’s works, ever since I was handed a copy of The Outsider by a schoolfriend in 1964 – I confess I never returned that Pan paperback and it still resides on my shelves today along with another 110 books mainly by, but also about, Colin, including some first editions and several autographed copies.
Upon reading The Outsider, I identified immediately with this inspired study of alienation in the modern world, and how certain writers, poets, artists and other thinkers reflected it in their lives and works. For me, it was a literary and philosophical turning point. C S Lewis once said: ‘A book sometimes crosses one's path which is ... like the sound of one’s native language in a strange country.’ With The Outsider, that was it exactly. In retrospect, I have a lot to thank that school friend for; over the years, the cumulative effect of Colin's ideas led to a considerable expansion of my consciousness, as I’m sure he would have hoped it would.
So, at that point in 1999, when we arrived at Colin’s front door at Tetherdown, Gorran Haven, on the east coast of Cornwall not far from Goonhilly Downs, I’d been reading his books for 35 years. Past a sign stating ‘Tetherdown: Private Road’ (on future occasions, sometimes obscured by foliage), we approached the house on a long narrow drive between high hedges. It opened out into a spacious yard with cabbage palms, outbuildings and various vehicles parked in front of a large, four-bedroomed house which, on first impression, seemed rather gaunt and unprepossessing, metal window frames peeling paint, and surrounding shrubberies overgrown.
I climbed the few steps outside the door and knocked, but there was no response. All was quiet, and we wondered if there was anyone at home, although we were there at the agreed time. But then it was the kitchen door, to the side of the house, that was opened to us by Colin's wife Joy, before Colin himself presented his imposing if somewhat craggy appearance. Tall – over six feet in his carpet slippers and baggy trousers – and with a thatch of unruly hair under an old trilby hat, his spectacles giving him a studious look often broken by a boyish grin.
It was then we found out that the front door was never used because it was blocked off by bookshelves. Indeed, Colin’s house was half-home, half-library, with thousands of books lining almost every wall of every room and filling three sheds in his back garden, not to mention his collection of many thousands of records and videotapes – a veritable information universe all his own. And he appeared to know where everything was!
A warm greeting was immediately followed by an offer of smoked salmon and white wine, the latter coming to flow copiously on this particular afternoon as one of Colin's three sons, Damon, who helped his father in the compilation of a number of works, and his daughter Sally's husband Mike, with their young daughter, arrived to visit (Wilson's eldest son is Roderick, by his first wife Betty, and his youngest son is Rowan).
During the afternoon, Tyrone happened to ask where Colin kept his philosophy books and was told: ‘They’re in the bedroom – go and have a look.’ Colin gave Tyrone signed paperback copies of The Occult and Mysteries, and also signed an autograph book for our daughter Ramona, then 17, although Colin must have thought she was much younger because he drew a little cartoon of ‘Woosey’ the ghost next to his signature!
Angie and I received gifts of two of Colin’s recent books (The Books in my Life and the reprinted Below the Iceberg: Anti-Sartre and Other Essays, both published in 1998) and he signed copies of several of his books we'd brought with us, in the hope that he would sign them. He was always happy to autograph his books: one I took along at a later date was a second-hand hardback first edition of Voyage to a Beginning: An autobiography (1969) which happened to have been already signed by Colin for someone else. Wittily, in signing it again for me, he wrote: 'Ownership officially transferred to Geoff, with affectionate regards ...'
After we left him on that weekend in 1999, Colin even took the trouble to record a tape of many further thoughts about our conversation and mail it to me, addressed quaintly to ‘Mr G Ward, Esquire’.
Life and works
I was fortunate to meet and/or interview Colin on a number of occasions over the next eight years. He was generous with his time and always spoke with great conviction and candour, with neither pretension nor affectation, yet with tremendous assertion of self, about his life and works – and not without humour and a sprinkling of expletives as he occasionally became moved by some angry emotion or recollection, or spotted the pet parrot Clovis (originally belonging to Sally, I believe) nibbling books on a shelf adjacent to his cage!
Colin would sit back comfortably in his armchair opposite the TV, his feet on a footstool, with a pile of books and papers and perhaps a drink on a side table beside him. There was no need to keep prompting him with questions as he could easily talk for half an hour at a time, and with amazing recall. I noticed that, as I revisited him over a period of years, the same bulky film guide remained in exactly the same place on that side table.
In 2000, I felt no little sense of disappointment when another of those potted guides to matters philosophical was published in the UK, this time 101 Key Ideas in Existentialism, without any reference at all to Colin, whose ‘new existentialism’ had laid the foundations for fresh paths of philosophical and psychological inquiry in the 21st century, and prepared a paradigm for a renewed humanity.
But then, since the publication of The Outsider in 1956, Colin had presented critics with one of their most significant challenges. Sadly, few rose to this challenge, a condescending academia choosing instead to frown upon Colin’s ‘autodidactism’, which evidently remained a pejorative term in those rarefied regions. Thus Colin's works always prompted an intense, and frequently negative, critical response, certainly in the UK.
As a journalist, I regarded Colin’s 70th birthday, on June 26, 2001, as a significant literary occasion, and so I interviewed him at his home shortly before. However, during a series of attempts to place an article in the British national media, I came up against a disconcerting lack of interest – although one literary editor who rejected the idea of a birthday tribute article nevertheless told me that he saw Colin as ‘one of our great forgotten writers’. A back-handed complement indeed!
It was now that I became aware of Colin’s daily routine. It began at 5.30am with two hours of reading before preparing breakfast for himself and Joy, usually fruit and toast, which they often shared together in bed. Then it was to work at his basement writing desk, allowing no interruptions except perhaps for a light lunch, until 4.15pm when he took his two dogs for a walk in woodland a mile or so from his home – he was worried about his weight at that time and, as well as dieting, was keen on this daily constitutional.
On more than one occasion, he insisted I join him to rattle at speed down the narrow lanes with him at the wheel of his 20-year-old Land Rover, and then tramp through the woods with the dogs for an hour by a circuitous route he seemed to favour, he thrusting the undergrowth aside with a stout stick.
After the outing it was time to relax with some glasses of vintage wine from his plentiful cellar, and to watch the 6pm TV news, leaving a few hours in the evening free of the mental rigours of authorship.
By 2001, Colin had cut back on speaking engagements because he disliked too much travelling and preferred to tie in such occasions with holiday breaks for himself and Joy. ‘I'm a Cancer, you see,’ he would say, referring to his astrological sun sign, one of the typical qualities of which is being a ‘home bird’ who likes home comforts.
In any event, he revealed he was rarely paid for his lectures, frequently accepting expenses for himself and Joy instead. Yet on his 70th birthday, and on the day before, he was to be addressing occult and psychic forums in the UK, at Brighton and in London.
In 2002, I set up the Colin Wilson World website, following our meeting that year during which we discussed the idea. There was a Wilson website in existence at that time, John Morgan’s, but it was moribund and I saw the need for a new one.
May 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Outsider, and I interviewed Colin to find out what his feelings were as he looked back over that half-century; the article was placed at Colin Wilson World shortly afterwards. On this visit to Tetherdown, I was invited to stay overnight and was privileged to be given Damon’s old room, still decorated with teenage paraphernalia, and to be greeted, just as I was about to turn in, by the spectacle of Joy arriving with a bucket. This, she informed me, was in case I couldn’t make it down the stairs to the bathroom during the night! I was fortunate, and so was the household, in not having to avail myself of the facility.
‘Fifty years of the Outsider’ was the last of my formal interviews with Colin. All my interviews with him were recorded on cassette tapes which I donated to the Colin Wilson Archive at the University of Nottingham in the summer of 2018.
Also in 2006, Colin, who was well known for helping and encouraging other writers despite the demands on his time, was kind enough to write a 2,300-word introduction for my book Spirals: the Pattern of Existence, being published that spring (his introduction was retained for the second edition in 2013). It seemed to him that I’d ‘written a book that will become a classic of forgotten knowledge … I am delighted to play my small part in launching his voyage on intellectual discovery upon the world.’ I was delighted that he did so.
The following year, upon receiving a review copy of Colin’s then new book, The Angry Years – his personal account of the ‘Angry Young Man’ literary phenomenon of the 1950s – I was surprised and flattered to see that, in the Acknowledgements section at the front of the book, he’d written: ‘Other friends who have been helpful have been Christopher Logue, Laura Del Rivo, David Mason, Maurice Bassett and Geoff Ward.’
Occasionally, during these years, we’d also talk on the phone or exchange emails on matters pertaining to Colin Wilson World.
The last time I met Colin was in 2008 at Stratford-upon-Avon’s first international literary festival where he talked entertainingly about his then latest work, Will Shakespeare’s Hand, co-written with Donald Leslie Hotson, nephew of Leslie Hotson (1897-1992), the Canadian scholar of Elizabethan literary puzzles. The book remains unpublished.
In 2011, following a spinal operation following a period of severe back pain, Colin suffered a stroke which left him without speech and unable to move on his right side. Over time, his condition deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia in October, 2013. He died from complications in the early evening of December 5, 2013, aged 82.
At 2.05pm that day, I heard a crash upstairs in our house and, upon going to see what had happened, I found that, in my study, a book had fallen to the floor from the top of the bookcase which holds all my Colin Wilson works. The book that fell was Philosophical (a)Musings: Colin Wilson, Me and the Meaning of Life by Vaughan Rapatahana. Only hours later came the news of Colin’s death – and that sub-title couldn’t have been more meaningful for me at that moment.
*** The Sage of Tetherdown: Personal recollections of Colin Wilson by his friends, edited by Colin Stanley (Paupers’ Press, limited edition, UK £14.95, June 2020). The title ‘the sage of Tetherdown’ – this being the name of Colin’s house – was applied to Colin by Professor H D Purcell in a critical essay published in 1988 in Colin Wilson: A Celebration, a volume from which most of the 19 contributions in The Sage of Tetherdown are taken and republished. Contributors include Colin’s contemporaries Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins and Laura Del Rivo, as well as Angus Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, A E van Vogt, Gary Lachman, Steve Taylor, Terry Welbourn and Colin Stanley.
* Colin Wilson in his garden at Tetherdown, above and below. Photos: Geoff Ward
* Colin with his wife Joy in the garden at Tetherdown. Photo: Geoff Ward
* Colin's armchair, footstool and side table in the living room at Tetherdown. Photo: Keiko Tsutsumi
* Colin's 1985 Land Rover.
* Colin's headstone in Gorran churchyard.