Sunday, 4 May 2014

My Colin Wilson Project

I've been switching back and forth between two writing projects for the last four years! The follow-up to Avalonian Aeon, Aquarian Phoenix and Dion Fortune and the Age of Michael, the complementary work to Aleister Crowley and the Aeon of Horus, are both substantially advanced. I have nearly a thousand pages of material and some massive editing is in order considering lots more still needs to be written.

An event at the end of 2013 overrode both and set something else in motion. Colin Wilson died.

The first Colin Wilson book I read was The Occult in 1978 when I was nineteen years old. It introduced me to an enormous range of extraordinary people and subjects, many of which I followed through on with further reading, and in some cases developed an abiding passion for. Looking back on where those interests led, and seeing the clear point from which they began, is enough for me to feel an eternal gratitude for that book alone. Although I appreciated that it was wonderfully well written I didn’t particularly have a clear sense of the author himself in the narrative at that time.

In 1980 I came to the follow-up, Mysteries, which had quite a strong autobiographical theme as well as the same encyclopaedic density of material as its predecessor. I started to get a definite sense of Colin Wilson himself and the feeling that he seemed a mighty fine fellow. 

During the next few years, during time at university, I took the almost obligatory student step of reading Wilson’s first book The Outsider and started to appreciate just how wide his subject matter really was and how many books he had already written. A few more titles followed.

I keep one-line diaries on A4 paper on which I record the most basic daily activities such as, for example, when I might start and finish reading a book or watching a movie. I also have separate sheets just for listing books read. I have always found it interesting to look back and note the particular flavour of various years, to ponder on why I might read an enormous number of books in one year and what seems like hardly any during another. These details reveal the mysterious rhythms of one’s inner life. 

At the end of 1982 I read Poltergeist and found it such tremendous entertainment that I started the following year with a voracious enthusiasm for all things Wilson. It still gives me a warm glow of nostalgia and satisfaction to see that I read 21 Colin Wilson books in 1983, followed by a further 10 in ’84. During my final terms at university, when I should have been focusing on course work, I was giving far more energy and attention to Wilson. I vividly remember one morning, when I had arrived on campus and was sitting in a coffee bar awaiting the first lecture of the day, when someone told me that the latest edition of the music newspaper Sounds featured a large piece on Colin Wilson. I leapt out of my chair and ran off to the campus newsagent and bought it to read immediately with no further thought for the lecture timetable. A week before my final exams I started reading New Pathways in Psychology and I wasn’t even taking the subject. At that point Colin Wilson books were like drugs to me. They got me high and expanded my consciousness. And there was no comedown. The after-effects lasted forever. I ordered books that were in print and got great pleasure from finding second-hand items on market stalls and suchlike. I loved the Grafton Panther paperbacks that always had Wilson’s name in the same font style. Some weird association of the physical feel of those books and the anticipated pleasure that reading them would bring came together. 




Eventually I came to meet people who knew Wilson and it was heartening to hear him universally lauded as a fabulous bloke. Andrew Collins got to know him during the mid-nineties Alternative Egyptology era of From Atlantis to the Sphinx. He loved the way that Wilson would hold court in his local pub, staking out an area and getting the drinks and sandwiches in for small groups of people who wanted to talk to him, being fantastically generous with his time and attention, showing a definite sense of responsibility to inspire the next generation. 

I only met him a few times and spoke to him briefly but one of those occasions impacted very strongly on me. It was at the 2005 Questing Conference in London hosted by Andrew Collins. The autobiographical Dreaming to Some Purpose had recently been released and copies were in evidence. Wilson was there with his family sitting in the audience. Son Damon was clearly a chip off the old block. I had a first edition of New Existentialism which I was very happy that he autographed. I sat down to enjoy the conference lectures in his vicinity and found myself getting increasingly moved. It was so marvellous, so cool, that he had escaped the London scene to make a home in Cornwall and successfully raise a family and produce a truly gigantic corpus of work over a period of decades. I was in the process of writing my first book then and here was the inspirational template. 

When he died in December 2013 I was profoundly moved, rapidly recapitulating the immense extent of the inspiration he had provided for me. When someone dies it seems obvious to me that, unless they’re a serial killer or genocidal dictator, it is appropriate to praise that person for their best achievements and generally bid farewell with some love and respect. 

I was shocked to see some of the material that appeared in the British press amidst the obituaries. One piece in particular used a photo of Wilson that must have had a humorous intent when taken but was now opted in to a snide cynical put-down suggesting he was a failure and in some respects a bit of a joke. This was a matter of days after his death and was met with a barrage of angry comments. The author later back-pedalled slightly and acknowledged a possible error of judgement. I have to say that if I had met him at the time I think there is a good chance I would have physically attacked him. The extent of my anger and contempt towards him would be difficult to express.

I know that Colin Wilson was a bit naughty in not checking details of quotations used in The Outsider. I’ve caught him getting facts wrong here and there in his enormous output. Some of the paranormal material doesn’t look too good these days. Maybe, in his great enthusiasm, he believed a few too many impossible things before breakfast. I get that. These can be considered to be entries in the minus column. To imply that this is sufficient to negate his entire work seems beyond absurd to me. 

I’ve noted comment threads where people have said that The Outsider was the only important book he ever wrote but it was in fact rubbish, a mess. I also saw a few remarks by people who said they had read Wilson in their younger days but had now grown out of all that nonsense, or words to that effect. People I knew sneered at the idea that Wilson was a philosopher, and that any answers to life’s problems could be found with him. Hadn’t I read Karl Marx yet? It was about time I did. Grow up Paul!

It wasn’t enough for me to heartily laugh at such manifestations. I still feel the same way about Colin Wilson as I did when I read 21 of his books in a year. I am totally unrepentant. In fact, seeing the extent of his inspiration on me over decades and where that has tangibly led, I can sing his praises even more. Within a few days of the scathing newspaper piece I had arranged to present a tribute to him in my home-town of Glastonbury. The earliest date I could get was at the end of March. As the time approached I prepared to read a few Wilson books in preparation. I got a bit carried away, completing The Occult and Mysteries back-to-back in a week, steaming through the likes of New Existentialism and Order of Assassins in a day each. It was like 1983 again. I started to feel like it would be a great idea to try and write a short book about Wilson like the ones he had produced on Gurdjieff, Jung, Steiner, and Crowley. To do so would mean I would have to bring forth in myself the very qualities of which Wilson wrote. And it would justify me reading lots more of his books. It would be great to do this for a lot of reasons. 

I commit myself to this undertaking and I affirm it using a photo of Colin Wilson dating from the time of his overnight fame in 1956 following the publication of The Outsider.