Readers of Fortean Times will almost certainly be familiar with the work of Colin Wilson. In a career spanning nearly 50 years – and tackling subjects like existentialism, psychology, criminology and sex – Wilson has written a number of books on fortean topics: The Occult, Mysteries, Poltergeist, Alien Dawn, Afterlife, From Atlantis to the Sphinx, to name a few. Ever since he first came to a brief but incendiary celebrity with the publication of his first book, The Outsider, in 1956, Wilson has been what he calls a ‘writing machine’, producing book after book at a phenomenal rate. Incorrigibly prolific, at last count Wilson had written well over 100 titles, and there’s no sign of his letting up. His most recent work, Dreaming to Some Purpose, published in May 2004, is an autobiography, a fascinating account of his life and career so far. Highly readable, and full of charming anecdotes about himself and other writers – including Aldous Huxley, T S Eliot, Robert Graves and Henry Miller – Dreaming to Some Purpose takes us into the life of a writer who, whether we agree with him or not, has to be one of the most challenging and stimulating of the last half century.
Beginning with an account of his attempted suicide at the age of 16, the 73-year-old Wilson introduces us to the central obsession of his life: the search for a method of increasing the powers of consciousness at will, a theme that links the many, otherwise disparate, subjects in his considerable œuvre. Wilson is also refreshingly candid about the role of sex in his life, discussing in detail early exploits in the coffee bars of 1950s Soho, and later adventures when fame increased his opportunities to satisfy an already healthy appetite.
From being “A bum and a drifter… living outdoors to avoid paying my first wife maintenance,” the 24-year-old Wilson found himself an Angry Young Man, thrown into a whirlwind publicity campaign, hounded by the press and lionised by the literary set. But the honeymoon was soon over, and since those heady early days of The Outsider, Wilson has been more or less beyond the critical pale, his books either dismissed or, more frequently, ignored by the ‘serious’ critics.
Dreaming to Some Purpose has been no exception. The Daily Mail described it as ‘rollicking’ and emphasised his sexual adventures, but the book was quickly ambushed by the highbrow papers. The Observer ran an interview that treated him as an amiable but self-deluded crank. A more sympathetic interview appeared in the Sunday Times, but was nullified by a dismissive review by Humphrey Carpenter, although Carpenter at least admitted that he and Wilson were feuding because of a negative chapter in Carpenter’s recent book on the Angry Young Men. Not to be left out, the Times Literary Supplement rated Wilson as a writer who started interestingly as an existentialist with an optimistic bias, then turned into a hack, churning out books for money.
With a verdict like this on half a lifetime’s work, Wilson might be excused for throwing his typewriter away, but as Dreaming to Some Purpose shows, he is anything but a quitter.
I had arranged to meet Wilson in London a few days before the book’s publication. He was coming up from his home in Cornwall for some promotional events, and we agreed to meet at his hotel, the Imperial, across from Russell Square.
When I got to the door, I knocked lightly. When he opened it slightly and I stepped in, he jumped back, startled at my sudden appearance. He later explained that one of the side effects of the concentration exercises he’s been practising for several years now is a heightened response to sudden stimuli. I accepted this, but recalling my own reluctance at interviews, I thought that perhaps this one wasn’t getting off to the best of starts.
Wilson fiddled with the electric tea kettle, and after handing me a cup, settled back on the bed. “All right,” he said. “Shall we begin?”
My first question was his motivation for writing the book. Was he looking back at his career now and trying to pull everything together?
“No, not really. You see, I had already published a couple of books with Virgin, and a nice guy who works with them, Paul Copperwaite, said: ‘Why don’t you write your autobiography?’ I said I had written an autobiography nearly 40 years ago, called Voyage to a Beginning, and had turned down the idea of doing another one since then, simply because there didn’t seem any point in writing a second autobiography. But then I thought that after 40 years I could more or less start back at the beginning again. But Virgin wouldn’t come up with a big enough advance. They said they had had problems collecting on several books and weren’t willing to offer very much, although the books I had published with them had made back their advances. In any case, I thought that the best thing I could do was to go ahead and write the book anyway. The earlier one had come out in 1967 or so, and I had written it originally for a chap called Father Brocard Sewell, a Carmelite monk, who ran a monastery and put out a little literary magazine called the Aylesford Review. He more or less asked if I could give him something of mine, some old things that he could publish in order to make some money. Well, I didn’t have anything like that, but I told him that I would write an autobiography for him. This was later published by a small company called Cecil Woolf.”
I mentioned that I had read the American edition, published by Crown.
“Yes, Crown brought it out in the States. But they had one objection. They said I was a bit too reticent about sex. Well, I had written it for a monastery after all, but they asked if I could put more sex in it, and I agreed and said I’d put in anything they’d like! Sex with an elephant perhaps? So the US edition is somewhat longer.
“It turned out to be a great advantage to have already written an autobiography. One thing you discover as you get older is how much you forget. I also always kept journals, and I have piles of letters that I wrote to Joy over the years while I was away in America teaching, and so on, and there were letters to my mother as well. So I had a lot of material and I settled down to write this book.”
I mentioned that in the earlier version he had begun with his childhood, but Dreaming to Some Purpose starts off with his aborted suicide attempt at the age of 16.
“I decided to skip my childhood – most readers aren’t interested in that sort of thing anyway – and jump in when I was a teenager. So, when I got to the later part, I had a lot of stuff I hadn’t used before. The book is maybe a quarter Voyage to a Beginning. The rest is all new.”
“How long did it take you to write it?”
“I did the book fairly quickly. I started it about two years ago in May, and had finished it by August. I always write fairly clean copy, so I was able to get it done in a few months. You know, I wrote The Occult in just a few months.”
When I expressed surprise at this – The Occult is a fairly long book, nearly 600 pages – Wilson remarked that if you write a couple of thousand words a day it begins to add up pretty quickly.
“But to get back to how the book came to be… When I had travelled down the Nile a couple of years earlier with Robert Bauval, Robert Temple, and various other people connected with this ‘movement’ [writers interested in the evidence for advanced ancient scientific knowledge] – Graham Hancock had been there but he hadn’t actually come with us – a very nice guy named Mark Booth, from Random House, was there. And a nice chap named Robert Lomas who had written The Hiram Key suggested I meet Mark. Actually, at that point we weren’t talking about the autobiography, but about the sequel to The Atlantis Blueprint [co-written with Rand Flem-Ath]. When I mentioned Atlantis and the Old Ones – the sequel’s title – Mark Booth expressed interest and asked me to show it to him when it was done. Then he asked what I was working on at the moment. I said: my autobiography. He immediately said he would like to look at it, so when the book was done I sent it to him as an email attachment. A few days later he replied saying they would definitely do it! And they offered a very nice advance.”
Readers of Dreaming to Some Purpose will notice that Wilson is very forthcoming about the amount of money he’s made – or not – on his books. It’s something of a revelation to discover that even a best-selling author like him has trouble keeping out of the red. When I mentioned to him that I thought a suitable subtitle could have been Permanent Overdraft he laughed.
“It’s hard work. As it is now, I still have a £10,000 overdraft. But it’s always been an uphill battle. When I was young, I had to generate an extraordinary sense of self-belief and purpose, merely in order to keep myself going, otherwise I might have ended up committing suicide. Meeting Joy was terribly important, but even then I was always telling her I was a genius. In fact, Joy tells the story that I banged her head against a wall one night, telling her I was a genius. But actually, I wanted her to stay the night after a party, and she wouldn’t!”
The “I am a genius” tag stuck to Wilson years ago. He explains that when he first started writing, he felt there was such a tremendous amount of work to be done, that he had to convince himself of his own talent in order to make a start.
“From the very beginning I felt that the problem of the present age is the enormous amount of gloom that everyone takes for granted. When I was in Paris in the early 1950s, Samuel Beckett had just been discovered. Waiting for Godot was on in Paris and I thought ‘What fucking shit! Who is this half-witted Irishman who’s going around saying life’s not worth living? Why doesn’t he just blow his brains out and shut up?’ I felt the same about Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and later on others such as William Golding. I had always had a passionate feeling that certain people I deeply approved of – like G K Chesterton, who spoke of ‘absurd good news’, for example – and people like Thomas Traherne… the mystics in general, that they were saying that we’re basically blind. One of my basic obsessions is what I call the bullfighter’s cape. Ordinary reality is permanently in front of our eyes, rather like the bullfighter who keeps a cape in front of the bull. It’s only when he twists his head that the bull can see straight ahead. Someone like Beckett just accepts the cape and leaves it there.
“What I always wanted was to get known, to be in a position to say, ‘Now wait! All this is wrong.’ And to point out the enormous problem of modern culture. It was as if some tremendous log had fallen across modern culture and had stopped everything from moving. I saw my job was to get a bulldozer and move it out of the way. So, when The Outsider came out, I thought ‘Good! Finally, I can get started and people will listen to me.’ But of course this didn’t happen. Because of the Angry Young Men publicity (Wilson frowns when he recalls how he was mistakenly associated with John Osbourne and the ‘kitchen sink’ school of literature), no one was really interested in my ideas. It was different, say, when I went to Norway. There, the reporters actually asked questions about the ideas, not about my sex life or some other nonsense. And it was the same when I went to America to lecture. I had so much to say, I thought I wouldn’t be happy until I was 70 and had 50 books behind me.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re 73 and you’ve published twice that number, so you should be doubly happy.”
“Ha. Yes. But the problem with having so much to say is that you write too much and you cover too many subjects. You’re also forced to write at a tremendous pace, just in order to make a living.”
I had some idea of what Wilson meant, recalling that I had produced six books and quite a lot of journalism in the last four years, and was still broke.
“But,” he continued, “I kept seeing how I could say the same thing, but in a different way. But as far as reviewers were concerned, they couldn’t understand how I could write a book about music and then one about sex and then one about wine and then one about Rasputin! One reviewer even wondered if I was the same Colin Wilson who had written The Outsider. But what I think now is that this autobiography does it, it says what all my books have been trying to say, and shows that they’re all about the same thing.”
And that ‘same thing’? It’s the holy grail of more intense consciousness, a kind of permanent peak experience, on tap and ready to be used at will. Readers of Wilson’s books will be familiar with the many metaphors and analogies he uses to express this point. Newcomers could do no better than to read the chapter ‘Dreaming to Some Purpose’ in the autobiography, where he brings together some of his central points into a concise kernel of his philosophy. It all centres around the grip our negative emotions have over our consciousness, a condition he calls ‘upside-downness’.
Dowsing at the Merry Maidens stone, 1990s. Image: Joy Wilson
“Once people get trapped in their own negativity,” he explains, “it’s almost impossible to get them out of it. Stan Gooch, for example, a great friend who also strikes me as a brilliant genius… I got a letter from him the other day, and I wrote back suggesting he get a computer, so that we could communicate through email, which is so much easier. Now Stan’s books on Neanderthal man are absolutely brilliant, and for me prove that civilisation goes back much further than we think. But he wrote back saying, ‘I’m tired. I feel fate has it in for me and that I don’t have the strength to struggle any more,’ and so on. Now, Rand Flem-Ath did cut out a section on Neanderthal man and Stan’s work from The Atlantis Blueprint – hence the need for the sequel – and this was a blow. But I had to write back: ‘Now come on, get off the self-pity, will you? You know perfectly well that if someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Would you like me to blow your brains out?’ you’d scream, ‘No!’ Stan’s not as bad as Beckett and the others, but the real problem with this attitude is self-pity. The problem is when our emotions get the upper hand and overthrow our reason and common sense. One of the most interesting realisations I’ve come across in the last year is that the sudden feeling of mental intensity, which I describe in the first chapters of the book – after trying again and again and not getting anywhere with it, well, I think I’ve actually managed to do it, more or less permanently. Most people, especially when they’re young, go in and out of it. When I was suffering from my panic attacks [described in the chapter ‘Breakdown’], I could see that I had to get out of this, otherwise I was finished. And so the panic attacks, as shattering as they were, were actually good for me, because they forced me to get out of negativity.
“I tend to be an extremely impatient and irritable sort of person – particularly towards poor Joy – but on the whole I tend not to go into negative emotion at all.”
Hmm. I wondered about this. After all, Wilson did have some strong words about his co-author on The Atlantis Blueprint, Rand Flem-Ath.
“Even with this business with Rand,” he explained, “Robert Bauval said: ‘Oh why don’t you forget about it?’ But I can’t really, otherwise how could I explain writing the stuff about Neanderthal and the sequel to the book? Rand taking the stuff about Neanderthal out of The Atlantis Blueprint is one of the reasons why Stan Gooch seems so down – I had written a long section about how brilliant his ideas about Neanderthal man are, and Rand just cut it, without telling me. But even that didn’t make me too negative, and if I didn’t have to explain the reason for the sequel, I would happily forget it.” Wilson smiled and added: “You know, the problem of getting your own back is that by the time you get it it’s no longer your own.”
I asked Wilson what he felt was his most important contribution over the years. “Well, I hope that quite apart from my ideas and philosophy, that I’ve left behind a body of literature, and that the best literature is my fantasy series, Spiderworld. I hope that in 100 years if you say, ‘Colin Wilson’ to some teenager, he won’t think of The Outsider but of Spiderworld. Ever since I was young, I wanted to write a vast fantasy novel. I’d also like to be the oldest writer to produce a masterpiece. I’d like to produce a real masterpiece at the age of 90. I’ve had this obsession with living a long time ever since reading Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. When I met Iris Murdoch, I told her that I’d like to live to be 300. Obviously there are physical problems with that, and a mini-stroke I suffered a year or so ago has slowed me down a bit. Nevertheless, I think it’s a fact that people today do live longer.
“Life after death is also an important idea for me, because, apart from anything else, it offers a basis for optimism. People are pessimistic because they believe that when they die, everything just vanishes. So, if we could prove the reality of life after death, it would be an enormous achievement. What people like me have to do is to convince people not to give up. Provided you don’t give up, the life force will keep subsidising you. But as soon as you start giving in to negative emotions and start playing with ideas of suicide, it drops you.”
Before I left, Wilson talked a bit about some of his upcoming projects, including a book about Shakespeare, and another instalment in his Spiderworld series. My impression is that the life force won’t be dropping him any time soon.