Hampstead Heath and the Rise and Fall of the author Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson on Hampstead Heath, 1956

Colin Wilson on Hampstead Heath, 1956

The author Colin Wilson once said:

I had taken it for granted that I was a man of genius since I was about 13.

For a short few months after the publication of his first book entitled The Outsider in 1956, it seemed that the rest of the world thought so too.

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The Outsider was a collection of essays that explored the philosophical idea of ‘the outsider’ in literature including that of Kafka, Camus, Hesse, Sartre and Nietzsche. It was an impressive collection of modern writers but it seems extraordinary today that the 24 year old Wilson, within a few days of publication, was rocketed into celebrity orbit for what was essentially a book of existential literary criticism.

For many of the tens of thousands who bought the book it was probably just a good way of making an acquaintance with intellectual foreign authors without the laborious obligation of actually having to read their stuff. But for whatever reason the book incredibly sold out its initial print run of 5000 copies on the very first day of publication.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson published in 1956 by Gollancz

The Outsider by Colin Wilson published in 1956 by Gollancz

Britain’s two main literary critics were both extremely effusive in their reviews of the book. Philip Toynbee in the Observer described the book as “luminously intelligent” and Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times pronounced it as “extraordinary” and “one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time”.

They weren’t alone, The Listener described The Outsider as ‘The most remarkable book on which the reviewer has ever had to pass judgement’ and Edith Sitwell stated ‘I am deeply grateful for this astonishing book’.

Colin Wilson drinking wine in a cup with girlfriend Joy

Colin Wilson drinking tea, or perhaps wine in a cup with girlfriend Joy

Wilson was a working class lad from Leicester who had left school at sixteen, worked as a hospital porter, a lab assistant and a labourer in a Finchley plastics factory and had never been anywhere near a sixth-form let alone a University, red-brick or otherwise.

The excited British press thought that Britain, at last, had its own existentialist intellectual to compete with the continental sophisticates. He even wore sandals, a ubiquitous oatmeal polo-neck jumper, and a pair of studious spectacles.

The myth of Colin Wilson really started, however, when the Evening News revealed that the author had saved money by writing The Outsider in the British Museum by day, but slept rough, with only the protection of a water-proof sleeping bag, on Hampstead Heath during the night:

The wind in my face was lovely and when I did go back inside to live I found it very hard to sleep. But towards the end I was getting very depressed, carrying around this great sack of books.

Colin Wilson reading on Hampstead Heath in 1956

Colin Wilson reading on Hampstead Heath in 1956

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By now the less high-brow newspapers were following the story. Dan Farson, one of Britain’s first television stars, but then writing for the Daily Mail, wrote:

I have just met my first genius. His name is Colin Wilson.

At this stage no one seemed to notice that Wilson was agreeing, slightly too readily, with the ‘genius’ part of his description.

Wilson quickly threw himself into his new celebrity status with relish and found himself invited to glamourous parties throughout the capital. One night he was standing at the urinals of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall and found himself next to the tall and almost blind Aldous Huxley. “I never thought I’d be having a pee at the side of Aldous Huxley” said Wilson. “Yes, that’s what I thought when I was standing beside George V”, retorted the famous author.

On the 12th October 1956 on his way home from another party (at Faber with TS Eliot in attendance no less), and apparently worse the wear from champagne, Wilson noticed huge crowds outside the Comedy Theatre situated just off the Haymarket. Intrigued he asked the taxi driver to drop him off and he managed to make his way through the thronging crowds to the stage door.

The huge crowds were there to see Marilyn Monroe who was currently in London to appear in a film version of Terrence Rattigan’s play ‘The Sleeping Prince’ – the film that eventually became ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ directed and co-starring Lawrence Olivier.

The original poster for The Prince and the Showgirl directed by Lawrence Olivier

The original poster for The Prince and the Showgirl directed by Lawrence Olivier

Marilyn and her husband Arthur Miller had arrived in Britain three months previously in July 1956. The couple had just gone through a tumultuous few weeks. Not only had they just got married the month before but Miller had appeared, three years after his play The Crucible had first been staged, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee accused of communist sympathies.

Miller had been subpoenaed after applying for a passport to accompany his new wife to London. He refused, in front of the committee, to inform on his friends and fellow writers, and was cited for contempt of Congress – the trial for which would take place the following year.

Monroe, against a lot of advice, had publicly supported Miller through these hearings but generally there was huge worldwide support for the acclaimed playwright. Wary of hurting American credibility around the world, the State Department ignored the committee’s advice and issued Miller with a passport enabling him to accompany his wife to London.

While Marilyn was filming with Lawrence Oliver at Pinewood, Miller decided to put on a rewritten version of his latest play called View From The Bridge to be directed by Peter Brook. The crowds that intrigued Colin Wilson enough to stop his car to investigate, were surrounding The Comedy Theatre in Panton Street hoping to catch a glance of Marilyn Monroe who had come for the premiere of her husband’s play.

Marilyn in the crush outside the Comedy Theatre, October 1956

Marilyn in the crush outside the Comedy Theatre, October 1956

Arthur Miller was actually no fan of the ‘trivial, voguish theatre’ of the West End, considering it, not entirely unfairly at the time, as ‘slanted to please the upper middle class’. When the auditions started for View From A Bridge in London he asked the director Peter Brook why all the actors had such cut-glass accents. ‘Doesn’t a grocer’s son ever want to become an actor?’ he asked. Brook replied, ‘These are all grocer’s sons.’

Ironically at the end of the auditions a Rugby-educated lawyer’s son called Anthony Quayle came closest to portraying a working-class American accent and he was chosen to play the main part of Eddie the New York docker.

Mary Ure and Anthony Quayle at the rehearsal of View From A Bridge, 1956

Mary Ure and Anthony Quayle at the rehearsal of View From A Bridge, 1956

Rehearsals of the London version of View From A Bridge

Rehearsals of the London version of View From A Bridge

The Comedy Theatre in Panton Street, January 2010

The Comedy Theatre in Panton Street, January 2010

Luckily Colin Wilson had recently become a slight acquaintance of Anthony Quayle and after pushing through the crowds surrounding the stage-door he used Quayle’s name to be allowed to the party back-stage. He soon saw Marilyn standing alone in front of a mirror where she was trying to pull up a, very beautiful, but tight strapless dress. Wilson noted that, despite her best efforts, the dress ‘was slipping down towards her nipples’. Not wasting the chance of a lifetime, he went to introduce himself – ‘I had been told she was bookish’, he once remembered .

According to Wilson there was a definite ‘connection’ with Marilyn and she actually grasped his hand as they made their way through the throng to their waiting cars.

Marilyn and Miller at the opening night of View From a Bridge

Marilyn and Miller at the opening night of View From a Bridge

Marilyn checking her dress at the premiere

Marilyn checking her dress at the premiere

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A gossip columnist buttonholed Wilson before he left the party and asked what he was doing there. Wilson said that he had spent the evening hoping to talk to TS Eliot and ended up meeting Marilyn Monroe.

The next morning the columnist duly wrote about the young author meeting Marilyn at the premiere adding that Wilson, while there, had been asked to write a play for Olivier.

It was publicity like this that made his supporters question whether he really was a serious writer. The New York Times had written about his almost over-night ascendancy – “he walked into literature like a man walks into his own house”.

If it’s easy to walk into your own house, it’s presumably just as easy to walk out, and Wilson’s fall from grace was almost as quick as his initial success. The tabloid backlash began in December 1956 when a story in the Sunday Pictorial informed the public that Wilson had a wife and a five year old son but was living with a mistress – his girlfriend Joy – in Notting Hill. Indeed, one of the reasons he lived rough on Hampstead Heath, while he was writing his acclaimed first book, was to avoid paying maintenance to his estranged wife.

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Around this time Joy’s father came across Wilson’s journals. He was shocked to read what he took to be horrific pornographic fantasies about his daughter (in reality, according to Wilson, they were notes for his novel he was currently writing). Joy’s father, along with her mother, sister and brother, arrived at the front door of the flat that she and Wilson shared, intent on rescuing her. Incredibly the story became front page news for days, even Time magazine in America wrote about the incident involving their favourite ‘English Egghead’:

Without warning, the door of the book-glutted flat was suddenly flung open and in burst Joy’s enraged father. “Aha, Wilson! The game is up!” roared accountant John Stewart, 58, brandishing a horsewhip. Beside Father Stewart stood his wife, bearing a sturdy umbrella…with no further pleasantries, Mrs. Stewart fell to pummeling Philosophy Collector Wilson with her weapon, while the others tried to drag Joy from the villain’s premises. They screamed at Joy: “You will go to hell!” Their efforts were futile. Wilson was unbruised, Joy unbound, when bobbies swooped down on the domestic scene. Crimson with anger, John Stewart offered Wilson’s diary as proof that the rapscallion was “not a genius” but just plain “mad.” Rasped Stewart: “He thinks he’s God!” The diary, noted newsmen, was indeed rather bizarre. Excerpt: “I have always wanted to be worshipped … I must live on longer than anyone else has ever lived. I am the most serious man of our age.

Colin Wilson drinking tea with girlfriend Joy

Colin Wilson drinking tea with girlfriend Joy

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The members of the British literary establishment must have appeared like the characters in an HM Bateman cartoon, looking down at the young working-class author, they originally feted, utterly aghast.

Philip Toynbee, in his books of the year article in the Observer got the backlash rolling, writing, “I doubt whether this interesting and extremely promising book quite deserved the furore which it seems to have caused”. By now The Outsider had earned around £20,000 (approximately £430,000 today) for Wilson, and the critical reappraisal by many of his former supporters may well have been driven, not a little, by a touch of envy.

There can’t be many second books that have been set up so beautifully for an author’s reputation to be critically destroyed. Sure enough Wilson’s second book ‘Religion and the Rebel’ published in September 1957 was witheringly and disparagingly panned – “half-baked Nietzsche” wrote the Sunday Times, a “vulgarising rubbish bin” wrote Philip Toynbee who was now remembering The Outsider as “clumsily written and still more clumsily composed”.

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The future Mr and Mrs Wilson, 1956

The future Mr and Mrs Wilson, 1956

Wilson and his girlfriend fled to Cornwall to avoid the still-frenzied press, not before he handed his journals to the Daily Mail who gleefully printed excerpts including “The day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet,” and “I must live on, longer than anyone else has ever lived…to be eventually Plato’s ideal sage and king…” Not to be outdone, The Daily Express had Wilson musing that death could be avoided by those with a sufficient intellect: “Why do people die? Out of laziness, lack of purpose, or direction.”

Whether it was due to laziness, lacking purpose or direction, or the far more likely reason that he failed to recover from a stroke in June which left him unable to speak, Wilson died in December 2013.

Almost sixty years after sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath and walking to the British museum to write it, The Outsider is still in print.

Colin Wilson having the last laugh

Colin Wilson having the last laugh

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28 Responses to “Hampstead Heath and the Rise and Fall of the author Colin Wilson”

  1. BristleKRS says:

    It’s interesting that you mention Dan Farson in this profile of Colin Wilson, seeing as both became known to many outside of their usual field of interest as ‘Ripperologists’.

    Love the blog, always fascinating stuff here, keep up the good work!

  2. Tardy says:

    Wonderful post. Deserves to be read by many: it says much about how criticism really works.

  3. F Craye says:

    Just wanted to let you know that this post is currently showing up in google reader with lots of spam links. It is fine here on the blog, but there is something wrong with google reader. A troubleshooting thread is here: http://groups.google.com/group/google-reader-troubleshoot/browse_thread/thread/39a7eef288c65dd0/079df7e3e1f018b3#079df7e3e1f018b3

  4. LondonLee says:

    Must admit I’ve tried to read ‘The Outsider’ a few times in the past, it’s one of those books like ‘On The Road’ and ‘The Stranger’ that the young would-be hip intellectual rebel was “supposed” to read, but could never get beyond the first chapter or two.

  5. rob says:

    Same here. I vaguely remember it lying around my room while I was art college. It was lent to me by my flatmate who loved reading the books students were meant to read. He’s a teacher in Crawley now.

  6. Lito says:

    Fascinating read (as always). Thank you.

  7. Docjackz says:

    S always a pleasure to read.

  8. Stewart Home says:

    Great post. I’ve never enjoyed Colin Wilson although I read with him once in the 1990s, he said hello to me and that was pretty much our entire conversation.One small correction, as I understand it he fled to and lives in Cornwall which is the English county immediately to the west of Devon.

    Moving on, if you don’t know it, you may find Bernard Kops’ first novel Awake For Mourning (1958) interesting because there is some great satire of the Wilson circle in it (his Notting Hill right-wing writer gang). I’ve a page about the Kops book, so if you click on the link on my name here you should find it, and if you read down you’ll see I go into the Colin Wilson & Co. satire a bit down the page….

  9. Karen says:

    Loved this!

  10. ruth says:

    hi,
    please could you email me
    I am doing a book about Holloway Road and would be interested in speaking to you,
    regards Ruth

  11. Erin says:

    Hello,
    I was reading your post about Cafe de Paris, specifically Snakehips Johnson. I am working at an archives centre and currently doing a project on the Blitz, using that specific incident. The photos were fantastic, where did you find them? I would really appreciate it if you would e-mail me, you would be a lot of help.
    Thank you,
    Erin

  12. Jill Dearman says:

    Check out “The Mind Parasites” by Wilson.

  13. nickelinthemachine says:

    Why should I check out ‘The Mind Parasites”? Are you accusing me of something or just recommending to me a good book?

  14. sph says:

    really great piece.
    i’ve read some of wilson’s stuff about crowley and lovecraft but never looked into the man himself.

  15. My copy of the Outsider has lived a long life on that shelf in my library, where books with similar intellectual character sit or stand with only the first few pages thumbed.

    Coincidently they were mostly bought at Waterstone’s in Hampstead High Street on a Sunday afternoon

  16. David Archer says:

    An excellent description of Wilson’s early life but those ” hundred books” are criminal investigations, psychic paraphenalia, rippers shrouds and closer to journalism than literature.
    The question is not what is the value of Wilson but are there any other artists feted by society who fall out of favour quickly? Not because they produce lesser work but because the work was always pretty small in the first place and they were mistakenly ascribed the word because of their posturing for genius?. In the mass market they fall quickly, Wilson is only one of a long litany. In the graphic arts, where the works become valuable commodities it takes longer to disestablish a genius. Alma Tadema anyone? There is ALWAYS a market for bad art, Jeff Koons value will not fall as Wilson’s did.

  17. It strikes me that the critical reaction to Wilson – both the initial and the subsequent – says far more about the critics than it does about Wilson. It reminds me of Chris Morris’ ‘Cake’ or William Boyd’s ‘Nat Tate’ – except Wilson wasn’t hoaxing anyone – the critics did what they did entirely under their own steam – propelled by their own view of themselves….

  18. ar says:

    Who owns the copyright of these photos?

    Would like to buy them for upcoming CW related project.

    Any ideas?

  19. [...] Nickel in the Machine, writes about the early career of occult writer Colin Wilson in “Hampstead Heath and the Rise and Fall of the author Colin Wilson“. It’s a wonderfully photo-rich piece. (Who knew Wilson was such a looker in his [...]

  20. Hyelim says:

    Very pleased to bump into your post. I am Korean and read “The Outsider” very recently(yes in Korean). He has never been a well-known figure among Koreans, perhaps for his short glorious times. At the first, the book appeared excellent and extraordinary to me like such a ignorant and immature reader but I also easily could get the following published books even embroidered by some decorative Koreans are …bad. Of course, I really did not why he gave himself up remaining a great author just like when he wrote The Outsider,instead started to writing hardly understandable topics. Anyhow thank you so much for your wonderful post. deserve read absolutely!!

  21. nickelinthemachine says:

    Thank you for your comment. I’m sure its the first one from Korea. Really appreciate you getting back to me.

  22. Heather Stubbs says:

    I discoved Colin Wilson after reading “the Outsider” which was a fasinating insight into many other authors and a great read. his novels dont interest me but other of his books on a wide range of subjecst are beautifully written. To have an English writer of such clarity, depth of thought, and with a compassionate outlook is a miracle.

    I agree with him. Let’s not compromise. He is a genius. But a dam hard working one and that’s what made the difference. There are lots of genius down at the pub who go nowhere. He overcame many obstacles and got stuck into life with curiosity, determination and purpose. The end result was an outpouring of high quality journalsim and literature which has improved our life and thoughts immeasurably. Would that we would all do the same. Way to go Colin. I salute you.

    Also thank you, the writer of the post for showing us how critics and literary criticism works. Great stuff.

  23. dgm says:

    Wilson’s “A Criminal History Of Mankind” is a fascinating read. Not a genius, but a very well read man whose skill lies in his devotion to gathering information & connecting the dots. A father of conspiracy theory?

  24. Thanks for all the wonderful and insightful comments posted here.

    No doubt Wilson was economically compelled to grind out a number of trashy tomes; writing for publication was the best approach he knew to making a living. Some of his personal wrinkles did correspond with some of the trashy fascinations he shared with significant numbers of the rest of rest of us so that that material kept him afloat while, at the same time, he continued to contribute material of value through his well honed journalistic skills.

    It’s not much challenge to see which publications actually interested Wilson and which were more strictly for the bucks.

    Mind Parasites is an exception to my general lack of enthusiasm for his novels. While they’re arguably a real phenomena, they may not be quite so readily disposed of as in his story…

  25. [...] Marilyn Monroe in London during filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, as retold on the excellent Nickel in the Machine [...]

  26. [...] There’s a long and interesting piece about Colin here. [...]

  27. Sam Ekren says:

    Thanks for this post. I am reading The Outsider and wondering which Wilson book is the best to land on next. Any recommendations?

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