‘I was the greatest writer of the twentieth century’

Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men, talks to spiked about the time Kingsley Amis tried to kill him, glimpsing Marilyn Monroe's tits, and why he's so cocky.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The Biblical line turned cheesy cliché – ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ – could have been written for Colin Wilson.

In 1956, when he was a 24-year-old, floppy-haired, black polo-neck wearing self-proclaimed genius – the closest thing Britain had to its very own beatnik – his first book, The Outsider, was published to heady critical acclaim. A collection of essays that explored the psyche of ‘the outsider’ through the works of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Hemingway, Nietzsche and others, the book propelled the precocious Leicester-born working-class-boy-done-good to the kind of celebrity status which is today reserved for footballers and footballers’ wives.

He was lauded in the broadsheets. When his father-in-law, wielding a horsewhip, knocked on the door of Wilson’s London home and threatened to give him a jolly good thrashing (the father-in-law thought Wilson was a ‘queer’ and a pervert who had corrupted his nice middle-class daughter) it made the tabloids. Imagine an up’n’coming writer knocking Kerry Katona from her drink- and drug-based pedestal on the front page of the Sun nowadays. Fat chance.

Wilson and John Osborne – whose play Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court in London in the same month The Outsider was published – were hailed as the founding members of a new literary movement: the Angry Young Men. These young turks, with their novels and plays about the grittier side of life in postwar Britain, lit a fire under the arse of the fey and quirky Noël Coward-dominated literary scene. Wilson became a celeb and literary London swooned around him. Except Kingsley Amis, who tried to murder him. At a literary do, Amis spotted Wilson standing on a balcony and said: ‘There’s that bugger Wilson. I’m going to push him off.’ He was held back by a fellow partygoer. Marilyn Monroe had a fleeting crush on him, or so Wilson hints. He tells me he met her backstage at a London production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (‘her tight dress kept slipping down over her tits’, he tells me) and he was surprised to find there was a ‘connection’. Monroe clasped Wilson’s hand when their party escaped through the crowds thronging outside the theatre into their waiting cars.

He even found himself taking a piss alongside Aldous Huxley. Both were attending a lunch at the Athenaeum in London when they bumped into each other (not literally, one hopes) at the urinals. ‘I never thought I would take a pee at the side of Aldous Huxley’, said the yoof-ish writer from up north. Huxley replied: ‘That’s what I thought when I once found myself standing beside King George V at a urinal.’ Wilson laughs as he tells me the story, still tickled pink by his WC run-in with Huxley 50 years after the fact.

Twenty-four and not bad-looking; his debut book, a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, hailed as ‘truly astounding’ (Philip Toynbee) and a harbinger of ‘the most exciting literary movement since the Romantics’, and who were certainly more fun than the modernists: the Angry Young Men; Marilyn fluttering her lashes and Huxley chatting with him as they slashed…. It wasn’t at all bad for a young man from Leicester who left school at 16, never darkened the door of a university, and who worked in factories and shops and slept rough on a golf course in Chetworth before finally hitting the big time with The Outsider in what he remembers as a ‘long hot summer of 1956’.

And then it all went horribly wrong.

His second book Religion and the Rebel, a sequel to The Outsider published in October 1957, was mauled. Toynbee, who had been so favourable of The Outsider, called it a ‘rubbish bin’. Time magazine said it revealed that Wilson was not a young genius after all, but a ‘scrambled egghead’ (1). Wilson fled London for Cornwall. As the Fifties fizzled out the media got bored with the Angry Young Men. Osborne, whose play Look Back in Anger spawned the AYM tag, had become a laughing stock by the end of ‘the angry decade’ (2). His play The World of Paul Slickey – an, er, musical satire about gossip columnists that debuted in London in 1959 – was booed by the audience, whose members included John Gielgud and Noël Coward (perhaps Coward was secretly pleased that the AYM, who had swept aside his drawing-room dramas with their kitchen-sink realism, were not so impressive after all). Angry audience members chased Osborne down Charing Cross Road screaming ‘bloody rubbish!’, forcing the petrified playwright to leap into a cab to make his escape. It was anger turned against the ‘Angries’.

Aside from Alan Sillitoe and Doris Lessing, not many of the AYM fulfilled their potential. In Wilson’s telling: Osborne ended up bankrupt in Shropshire and was forced to sponge money from the Royal Literary Fund to get his dodgy teeth fixed; Amis, whose comedic novel Lucky Jim (1954) was considered a precursor to the AYM movement, became a red-eyed alco and an anti-humanist with a penchant for walking around with his flies undone, and was incapacitated by his phobias of flying, folk dancing, hailing a cab and various other things; John Braine, author of the still-breathtaking novel Room at the Top (1957), also turned to booze and became ‘downright stupid’, Wilson says.

And as for Wilson himself: despite writing more than 100 books over the past five decades, he never repeated the success of The Outsider. He’s now best known for his strange interests and habits and for insisting that he is a genius rather than actually being one. As Lynn Barber said in a barbed piece for the Observer in 2004, reviewing Wilson’s autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose: ‘In 1956, The Outsider made him an overnight sensation, but ever since Wilson has been an outsider himself – a knicker fetishist, a social misfit and the author of 100 books that even his publisher didn’t want. He hopes his autobiography will finally convince the world of his greatness.’ (3) Ouch.

Now 76, Wilson is back with a new book, The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men. Yet again he’s received a mauling from some critics, but not all – ‘the prose is flatter than a cartoon cat hitting a wall’, said the Telegraph; it’s ‘sour grapes’, said the Spectator. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a punchy, record-straightening, grave-spitting account of the ‘Angries’ and their successes and failures. Has he mellowed? Has he become less angry? Has he got over the idea that he’s up there with Shakespeare in the genius stakes? Not a bit of it. ‘I was the greatest writer of the twentieth century’, he tells me. And he’s serious.

* * *

Wilson says he wrote this colourful and personal history of the AYM partly in response to Humphrey Carpenter’s 2002 book The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s. ‘What an absolute shit’, says Wilson of Carpenter. ‘He drove the knife into my back as deeply as he could.’ (Clearly Wilson doesn’t mind speaking ill of the dead: Carpenter died of heart failure in 2005.) He tells me that in the early 2000s he invited Carpenter to Cornwall (yes, 50 years on, Wilson is still there – and yes he’s still married to the nice middle-class girl of the horsewhip-wielding parentage) so that Carpenter could interview him for the book. He gave Carpenter ‘a very nice meal and we drank a very old bottle of wine’. And yet Carpenter had actually already written his book, including a pretty cutting chapter about Wilson, and apparently only wanted to meet Wilson to confirm what he had already committed to paper. ‘The total shit.’

What’s more, Carpenter’s book was ‘lightweight and unobjective’, says Wilson, in which ‘an influential literary movement was dismissed as a “comedy” of the Fifties’. Where Carpenter was agnostic over whether the AYM were actually a proper movement or just a ‘comic bunch of boozers and fornicators’ (4), in The Angry Years Wilson seeks to place the AYM in their historical context. He even compares them to great Enlightenment thinkers whose words inspired revolutions. The angry movement ‘was based on a real political protest that hoped to get something done, to change things as Rousseau and Cobbett and Godwin had wanted to change things’, he writes (5). Take a character like Joe Lampton, the brilliantly ambitious, womanising hero of John Braine’s Room at the Top: Wilson writes that such characters ‘expressed the spirit of rebellion that had kicked and struggled since Rousseau, and had finally brought about the French Revolution’ (6).

That is why Wilson thinks the AYM are far more interesting, and important, than the middle-class satirists who followed them – the Oxbridge poshos who, in the 1960s, made the satirical theatre show Beyond the Fringe and TV series That Was The Week That Was, winning widespread praise for ‘daring’ to mock the monarchy and stuffy Tory politicians. In truth, they were riding on the duffel coat-tails of the properly daring AYM, says Wilson: those working-class or lower middle-class authors who had already given a very large two-finger salute to the powers-that-be (the ‘swivel-eyed gets’ who rule over us, as one of Alan Sillitoe’s characters described them) in the angry decade of the 1950s. ‘[The AYM] deserve to be taken more seriously than satirists who fire their arrows and then duck’, says Wilson.

So, the AYM: a funny bunch of wild-haired drinkers who also happened to write, or rebels in the mould of Rousseau? I think the truth is somewhere in the middle of Carpenter’s take and Wilson’s view. I have long been a fan of the AYM, especially Alan Sillitoe and John Braine. Carpenter – whose rather ripping tale of the AYM is better than the unforgiving Wilson will allow – is right that these writers were not, strictly speaking, a movement. Sillitoe, for example, never considered himself an ‘AYM’; neither did Doris Lessing (or she didn’t consider herself an ‘AYW’, one should say). Yet Wilson is also right that the rise (and fall) of various different authors who, for the first time, wrote about working in factories and offices, getting drunk, fighting and fucking, thieving and vomiting, revealed something about social and political shifts in the 1950s.

Here was a new group of writers, many of them from working-class backgrounds, who felt dislocated from the traditional values of their parents and society at large: most of them too young to have fought in the Second World War, they did not feel part of the postwar ‘victorious’ society, the idea that Britons should be ‘happy and grateful and dutiful’ to their saviours in authority (7). At the same time, the AYM were suspicious of the alternative: communism. Some of the AYM, most notably Lessing, had been members of the Communist Party, but they became disillusioned following the Stalinists’ crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 – the same year that Wilson and Osborne swept on to the British literary scene and the AYM were born (8). In Chicken Soup with Barley, the 1958 play by the EastEnd-born AYM Arnold Wesker, the young hero turns against his family’s long commitment to communism after the Hungarian Uprising, angrily saying to his mother: ‘You didn’t tell me there were any doubts.’ (9) This sense of the AYM rejecting both tradition and communism is personified in Arthur Seaton, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving hero of Sillitoe’s 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He says: ‘I am me and nobody else; and whatever they say I am, that’s what I am not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.’ (10) His stirring words – which recently formed the title of the Arctic Monkeys’ first album – perfectly captured the Angry Young Man as a label-dodging entity, an indefinable rebel who couldn’t give much of a stuff for the bastards at the top or the sell-outs agitating for change from below.

Indeed, for all Wilson’s grand and admirable comparisons between the AYM and earlier writers who inspired revolutions, in truth the most striking thing about the cast of characters created by the Angries is that their rebellions are of the individualistic and experimental variety rather than having any revolutionary bent. It’s notable that, although Seaton is pissed off about the conditions in his factory, and flirts with the idea of becoming a Red, his rebellion takes place outside of the world of work – primarily in the pub and the bedroom. He is a ‘bloody billygoat trying to screw the world…because it’s trying to do the same to me’. When he is not pursuing ‘his rebellion against the rules of love, or distilling them with the rules of war, there was still the vast crushing power of government against which to lean his white-skinned bony shoulder, a thousand of its laws to be ignored and therefore broken’ (11). He’s one man taking on the world. In Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), the heroine Anna flirts with communism, but it is her flirting with men – her sexual swagger – that really marks her out as a rebel (12).

Joe Lampton, the cocky red-blooded hero of Braine’s Room at the Top, simply wants to get to the top of the ladder and make a bloody good living – even if that means bedding the boss’s daughter. Hence the title of the novel, which comes from the adage: ‘There’s plenty of room at the top.’ As Braine said of his character Lampton: ‘Joe doesn’t want to do away with the class system. But he would say that from now on it’s achievement that counts. It shouldn’t matter who your father was.’ (13)

If there is an historical context to the AYM, it is the crisis of tradition coupled with left disillusionment that emerged in the decades after the Second World War. The literary creations of the AYM, disrespectful of the powers-that-be and wary of Stalinists, made their own rebellion: breaking rules, sleeping around, blowing their disposable income on drink and fags and gifts for their mistresses. And if anyone tried to claim them – whether it was the Borstal screws trying to whip the rebellious Smith into shape in Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) or the left claiming that Braine’s Joe Lampton was a class rebel – then the AYM’s response was: ‘Whatever you say I am, that’s what I am not.’

This helps explain why the AYM have such an enduring appeal, influencing the Mods of the Sixties, the more destructive punks of the Seventies, social realist writers and filmmakers in the Eighties, and the New Scottish Wave of gritty fiction in the Nineties: in a time of political flux, the AYM seem to have set the standard for individual rebellion, for a kicking against the pricks by angry or ambitious young people who want more from life, but are not entirely sure how to go about getting it. The AYM can be seen as an early expression of what has now become, unfortunately, cynicism with politics and the idea of change. Where the AYM rebelliously declared ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’, today’s AYM – that’s Apathetic Young Men – are more likely to simply shrug: ‘They’re all bastards….’

* * *

The surviving Angries can still make others angry – and that’s especially true of Wilson. Why do you get people’s backs up? ‘I am a writer of ideas and they find that difficult’, he says, sounding 24 and precocious again. One thing reviewers dislike about The Angry Years is its brutal edge. No detail is spared. We’re told that Kenneth Tynan, the famous literary critic whose early praise for Osborne helped to give birth to the AYM, was a fan of spanking: he took out a lifetime subscription to National Bottom, a magazine ‘which dealt exclusively with events in and around the anus’. Samuel Beckett was ‘pathologically shy and anti-social’ and wrote ‘dreary rubbish’, writes Wilson. Other writers are drunks and losers with not a decent idea to their name (14).

The other thing the literary set dislike about Wilson is his (admittedly bizarre) self-conviction that he is a genius of twentieth-century literature, when in fact he will likely be remembered for one book only: The Outsider. ‘What they don’t understand’, he says, ‘is that if you come from my kind of background, a working-class background in the Forties and Fifties, then you have to be quite arrogant to get ahead. Unlike them, I was not born into writing. I would never have escaped Leicester and become a writer unless I truly believed and convinced myself I was one of the greats.’ He has a point, actually. The working-class-done-good have always needed a measure of arrogance – of self-belief bordering on cockiness – in order to smash their way into cultural or literary worlds or the boardrooms of big business.

For all his faults, we could probably do with a bit more Wilson-style cockiness around today. If the Fifties were ‘the angry years’ then the Noughties are ‘the anti-angry years’. Where the AYM celebrated the anger of ambitious young men and women, today the authorities put loudmouth youths on anger management courses. Instructions on how to control your anger are dished out in schools, colleges and workplaces (15). The sexual experimentation of the AYM (and AYW) would today be denounced as ‘too risky’. Weekend boozing, an activity beloved of Arthur Seaton, is now denounced as ‘binge drinking’, and as of next weekend you won’t be able to light up a fag in any pub in England. Today, an AYM or AYW would not last very long before having their bollocks removed by the swivel-eyed gets.

Wilson credits John Braine with turning around a 200-year-long ‘Age of Defeat’ with the publication of Room at the Top in 1957. Where serious fiction had been dominated for decades by ‘defeated men’ whose working premise was ‘you can’t win’, Braine created a character, Joe Lampton, who was ‘an intelligent hero whose outlook was cheerful and positive’, writes Wilson (16). It is high praise indeed, and almost deserved (but then, as a Braine fan, I would say that). The question is: where are the new Joe Lamptons who will rail against today’s anti-angry Age of Restraint?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men by Colin Wilson was published by Robson Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

(1) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(2) The Angry Decade, Kenneth Allsop, 1958

(3) ‘Now they will realise that I am a genius’, Observer, 30 May 2004

(4) Not raging but clowning, Observer, 1 September 2002

(5) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(6) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(7) The Angry Young Men, Humphrey Carpenter, Allen Lane, 2002

(8) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(9) Chicken Soup with Barley was revived at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2005. Read a review here.

(10) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe, 1958. See Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Sillitoe in LM magazine here.

(11) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe, 1958. See Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Sillitoe in LM magazine here.

(12) See Chapter 8 of The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(13) See the Preface to The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(14) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

(15) See The anti-angry brigade, by Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 23 October 2004

(16) The Angry Years, Colin Wilson, Robson Books, 2007

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