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

Sunday, January 10th, 2010
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



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


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.


Around this time Joy’s father came across Wilson’s journals and 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


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”.


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.”

Not due, almost certainly, to any of the above but from the aftermaths of a stroke, Colin 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


Camden Town, Verlaine and Rimbaud, a toilet, Sid Sods Off and the McAlpine Fusiliers

Monday, December 31st, 2007
‘Those were wild days you know’
The Electric Ballroom opened in 1978 and, amongst others, Public Enemy, Joy Division, Madness, U2, The Smiths, The Pogues and Iggy Pop have all been on the famous Camden stage. However the place, initially called The Buffalo, has long been part of the Camden nightlife and originally opened in the mid-thirties catering for the large numbers of Irish immigrants who lived locally. It was a rough and ready sort of place with different tribes of drunken Irishman fighting every weekend and after the police were called out one too many times the ballroom eventually closed down.
At the end of 1937 The Buffalo was saved by a red-haired Irish man, a 20 year old contractor and amateur wrestler from Kerry called Bill Fuller. It was still a tough place – “We’d get all the Connemara lads in, and they were all well used to fighting, those were wild days you know”. In 1941 a bomb fell on Camden Town Tube station that also blew away the back of The Buffalo as well as the adjacent terrace, Fuller took the chance to extend the ballroom so it could now hold 2000 people.
The Big Bands all played there, the most famous of which was led by Joe Loss, one of whose singers was named Ross McManus – the father of Elvis Costello. McManus was the man who wrote and sang the song The Secret Lemonade Drinker in the famous R Whites Lemonade commercial which featured a man in striped pyjamas creeping downstairs to raid the fridge for lemonade. His yet to be famous teenage son sang backing vocals.

Jim’s not playing

In February 1964, to great excitement to the locals, the Country and Western star Jim Reeves was booked to play at The Buffalo. It’s difficult to believe now, but at the time and as far as the local Irish Catholic community was concerned, if there had been a popularity contest Jim Reeves would have come somewhere between the Pope and John F Kennedy. Reeves had but one request on his rider – the piano must be in tune. Unfortunately the piano wasn’t in tune, and the star’s manager turned to the promoter and said ‘Jim’s not playing’. By this time the ballroom was utterly packed with expectant punters and the manager of the ballroom and his staff soon realised what was likely to happen. They took the not inconsiderable amount of money from the cash box, hid it in a manhole behind the building and to a man did a runner. It didn’t take long for the audience to know what was going on and they began to riot and smash up the place. The police soon arrived, literally riding into the ballroom on horseback to disperse the crowd.

Jim Reeves died in a plane crash just five months later and never had the chance to return to Camden. Luckily, he lived a lot in his time:

Sid Sods Off

In July 1978 Bill Fuller, along with the former tour manager of Thin Lizzy, Frank Murray, changed the old two-levelled ballroom into a rock venue, renaming it to The Electric Ballroom. Sid Vicious formed a band called the Vicious White Kids which included the original Pistol’s bassist Glen Matlock (the musician he ironically replaced in the Pistols) and played their one and only gig just two weeks after the renamed ballroom opened. The gig was entitled ‘Sid Sods Off’ – the point being to raise his and Nancy Spungen’s air fare to the US. Shane MacGowan remembered the concert – “It was a great band and the place was packed out with a really hip audience. There were a lot of transactions going down – people joining groups, buying drugs, fucking each other in toilets, you know, the usual stuff.” A fortnight later, Sid and Nancy, as promised, did sod off, of course never to return.

You Really Look Like A Dick!

For me, my glory is but an ‘humble ephemeral absinthe’
Drunk on the sly, with fear of treason
And if I drink no longer, it is for good reason!
Paul Verlaine
Camden Town is world-renowned for its music scene, but two former Camden inhabitants had a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that most of the musicians who live or work in the London borough these days can only dream about, perhaps even Amy Winehouse, and the two men lived there over 130 years ago.
There is a small plaque, placed anonymously in the 1950s, on the wall of number 8 Royal College Street in Camden – it marks where the French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud lived, somewhat rumbustiously, during the year 1873.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 and from the age of 6 was brought up solely by his mother. He ran away from home consistently during his childhood and eventually left home to join the Paris Commune in 1871. He had already decided that he was to be an anarchist and a poet, and had started drinking very heavily. He sent poems to the eminent poets of the time, one of whom was the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, and due to the ridiculously prodigious quality of Rimbaud’s writing and troubled home-life he invited him to stay at his family house in Paris.
Verlaine, who was ten years older than Rimbaud and was until then happily married with a small baby boy, promptly fell in love with the sullen blue-eyed adolescent prodigy and he left his wife. The two lovers scandalised literary Paris with their general licentious behaviour usually involving absinthe or drug-taking of some sort. They eventually ran away, initially to Brussels but then travelling to the huge and haphazard city of London, losing themselves amongst the hundreds of thousands of refugees and where they revelled in the city’s strange language:
Dans le brouillard rose et jaune et sale des sohos
Avec des indeeds et des all rights et des haos
Le feu du ciel sur cette ville de la Bible

In the pink and yellow and dirty fog of the Sohos
With ‘indeeds’ and ‘alrights’ and ‘hos’
O Heaven’s fire fall on this city of the Bible
Both were at the height of their poetical powers and were writing poetry that remains central to 19th century French literature, but they were desperately poor and advertised in the Daily Telegraph, offering lessons in French, Latin and Literature and promising ‘perfection’ and ‘finesse’. However the beginning of the end of their stormy, infamous relationship took place while living in Camden and summed up their life together being equally comic and grotesque.
Verlaine had gone to the market in Camden for lunch and brought back two kippers and some oil to cook them in. He was holding the kippers out in front of him at arm’s length and Rimbaud sitting on the window ledge of the room they rented at the top of the house caught site of his older lover and burst out laughing. When he knew Verlaine was in earshot he shouted out ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (You really look like a dick!). Verlaine, with all the dignity he could muster, walked quietly into the house, packed his case and while not saying a word walked out of the door. Rimbaud tried, but failed, to get him to see the funny side of his comment, but Verlaine hailed a cab and subsequently caught a ferry from St Katherine’s Dock to Belgium.
A week later they were briefly reunited in Brussels, but after a drunken night full of arguments and fighting. Their fights often involved one or both of them drawing knives or razors, however this time Verlaine went further and shot Rimbaud through the wrist. Verlaine was arrested and subsequently imprisoned, officially for assault, although realistically it was for sodomy. The two lovers never met again.

Sanitary Accommodation

George Bernard Shaw was a councillor in the borough of Camden between 1897 and 1906 and championed the cause and energetically campaigned, for “the unmentionable question of sanitary accommodation” for women. He also thought that the normal charge of one penny “an absolutely prohibitive charge for a poor woman.” He was criticised by other councillors who thought that women who so far ‘forgot their sex’ did not deserve toilets. Despite this eventually Shaw got his way and in 1910, at the junction of Parkway and Camden High Street, he was more than responsible for the first ever purposely built free public convenience for women in the United Kingdom.

Building on an angry hangover
One of the best songs written and recorded by Madness, but less well-known than many, is One Better Day which has the opening line Arlington House, address: no fixed abode. The song was written about a huge homeless shelter, one of a chain of hostels, built in 1905 by the Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton. Rowton wanted to provide clean and healthy accommodation for working men, who in those days were forced to stay in filthy and flea-ridden lodging houses or often, of course, nowhere at all.
George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London written in 1936 wrote about Arlington House, “The best lodging houses are the Rowton Houses, where the charge is a shilling, for which you get a cubicle to yourself, and the use of excellent bathrooms. You can also pay half a crown for a special, which is practically hotel accommodation. The Rowton Houses are splendid buildings, and the only objection to them is the strict discipline, with rules against cooking, card playing, etc.”
Other writers who have in their time stayed at Arlington House are the Irish poets Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh who wrote in his autobiography The Green Fool – ‘Many Irish boys made Rowton House, Camden Town, first stop from Mayo…the soft voices of Mayo and Galway sounding in that gaunt impersonal place fell like warm rain on the arid patches of my imagination. These boys were true peasants. They walked with an awkward gait and were shy. To me they looked up as to a learned man and asked me questions I couldn’t answer.’
The area around Camden has had a large Irish community since the 1840s when waves of Irish emigration occurred mainly because of the devastating famines in Ireland, but also because of the workforce needed to build the network of railways spreading across Britain at an incredible rate. After the Second World War another generation of Irish immigrants arrived to help re-build ‘on an angry hangover’ swathes of London destroyed by the German bombs. Thousands of men mostly from rural close-knit communities descended on London working ‘on the lump’ for Murphy, John Laing, Wimpey and McAlpine. Many of these hard-working, hard-drinking Irish navvies, especially as they grew older, became destitute and alcoholic and often both, ended up living at Arlington House. It still exists as a hostel today with a third of its inhabitants of Irish extraction – victims of displacement and poverty amongst what has become one of the flashier and trendier parts of London.
photos of Arlington House from Hide The Can by Deidre O’Callaghan