Tag Archives: Colin Wilson

The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

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Beats in London

When Ned Polsky wrote Hustlers, Beats And Others his pioneering sociological study of the Beat subculture as it was in 1960, he was scathing of their literary value. ‘Most beat literature is poor when it is not godawful,’ he opined. ‘And this is certainly true of its best-publicised examples, which have been surpassed by even the minor Victorians: James Thomson’s poetic howl of urban despair, The City of Dreadful Night, is greater by far than anything Ginsberg offers, and in on-the-road literature the genuine gusto of George Borrow is preferable to the faked-up fervour of Kerouac.’

Stinging stuff – and that faked-up charge must have hurt – but times change, and while the Beats are still an acquired taste, one can’t image George Borrow being the subject of a special exhibition at the British Library, as is currently the case with Jack Kerouac.

On The Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll is a small but welcome look at the basics of Beatery, offering an overview of the main protagonists – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso (the only one Polsky rates) – and trying to explain where they fitted within the American literary tradition. The exhibition is illustrated by photographs, many of the American landscape as explored in On The Road, but also of the writers themselves. I particularly liked this shot of William Burroughs, dressed like a fugitive Nazi, hand shielding eyes from the sun as he stares back with clinical impassivity. Burroughs is possibly the most photogenic writer there has ever been.

The main exhibit, though, is the extraordinary scroll on which Kerouac wrote a key draft for On The Road. You do not have to like the book – and I don’t, particularly – to appreciate the sheer thrilling insanity of this object, 120 feet of closely typed pages, filled with ‘spontaneous prose’ and occasional pencil marks. I have never seen a manuscript like it.

Kerouac’s second novel has been described as the book that ‘started
a whole new youth culture of which drugs were an accepted part’, so sodden is it in dope and speed. It was based on a series of road trips Kerouac took with
Neal Cassady (the pair are reinvented as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively) between 1947 and 1950, and most of the characters are based on Kerouac’s friends. Mythology states that it was written in a three-week
splurge fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine, but Kerouac actually began it as early as 1948, when he also came up with the title. He spent a while searching for a voice, but eventually settled upon a stream-of-consciousness, jazzy, impressionistic style. This was inspired by a 40,000-word letter written to him Cassady, a charismatic sociopath described by his biographer as ‘a slim hipped hedonist who could throw a football seventy yards, do fifty chin-ups at a clip and masturbate six times a day’. Cassady was trouble; he was also said to have ‘one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known’, by a friend of writer Ken Kesey.

Kerouac sat down to write his famous ‘scroll’ draft on 2 April 1951 on a 120-feet sheet of paper that had belonged to Bill Cannastra, a wild-living friend who had been decapitated after sticking his head out of a New York train window.
Kerouac spent many years rewriting the manuscript as he tried to find a publisher, and it was eventually brought out by Viking in September 1957 – Kerouac belatedly considered renaming it Rock and Roll Road
to catch the spirit of the time – and immediately received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, which claimed it was ‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as Beat’.

On The Road is one of the most important books of the post-War era, but it’s questionable how much it influenced English culture given that it is such a specifically American book on such an American topic written in the American vernacular. London was more taken by Burroughs and Ginsberg, both of whom would spend extensive time in the city while Kerouac only visited for a few days in the 1940s when serving in the Navy. By 1959, Barry Miles, Jeff Nuttall, Michael Horovitz and the rest of the British counterculture scene were soon discussing, publishing, imitating and eulogising the Beat poets. 

Being more of a philistine, though, I prefer the exploitation stuff. Tony Hancock frequently mocked Beatnik culture, notably in The Poetry Society.

Hancock: You see, Sidney, we are a collection of kindred spirits who are all revolting against the Establishment.

Bill: How long have you been at it?

Hancock: Three days.

I also like Colin Wilson’s often sardonic but hugely charismatic novel, Adrift In Soho, which has that time-honoured plot of a young ingenue coming to London and getting drawn into a curious sub-culture, in this case the Beats. It is apparently currently being made into a film.

But the pull of the Beats, that desire to be different, was probably best expressed by Hancock again, in the opening scenes to his film, The Rebel. ‘Where are we going?’ It’s what Kerouac was asking, and it’s what Hancock wanted to know as well. Well, where?

Angry Young Men and me

I forget which of my teachers called me an ‘angry young man’, which is a shame as it lead to just about the only useful thing I took from school. I was a cocky wee gobshite and regularly got ticked off in class, but the phrase ‘angry young man’ clearly had something more about it than the usual earbashing, so I asked my mum to explain. She told me of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine, and I rushed off to the library to devour ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Lucky Jim’, ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’, ‘Room At The Top’ and whatever else I could find about these 1950s writers who raged against the establishment.

As I learnt more, I kept finding references to a writer called Colin Wilson, whose book ‘The Outsider’ had kicked the whole movement off. He’d written it at the British Museum while sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but, pre-Amazon, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

I never read ‘The Outsider’ or thought of Wilson for years until I came upon this excellent summary of Wilson’s life on Another Nickel In The Machine. Then came two more references in quick succession, in Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ and David Kynaston’s ‘Family Britain’. When I saw Wilson’s ‘The Angry Years’ for £3.99 in a remaindered bookshop in Waterloo, I knew I shouldn’t resist.

I’m glad I did. What a treat. Wilson’s book is a lively package of memoir, biography, literary criticism and score-settling as he describes his life with the ‘Angries’ in the 1950s. At times, Wilson comes across as a sort of intellectual Forrest Gump, who becomes unexpectedly famous and then wanders round the literary scene telling his peers why they aren’t as clever or important as he is, acting baffled that they take this the wrong way. It is bracing stuff: ‘I wrote [Kingsley] Amis a letter… trying to explain what I found unacceptable about his attitudes’; John Wain ‘seems totally unaware of how real people behave’; Beckett writes ‘dreary rubbish’; ‘Osborne’s use of a current event only demonstrated his lack of invention and the bankruptcy of his creative talent’. Larkin and Tynan also get it in the neck, and there are walk on parts for Sillitoe, Wesker, Braine and Alex Trocchi.

Wilson may not be subtle – and the latter part of the book, tracing the Angries’ decline is genuinely sorrowful – but by and large he’s right. When I first read ‘Look Back In Anger’ I thought it was nasty, fatuous and improbable, but was too frightened to say so. Ditto ‘Lucky Jim’. If this was meant to be a comic novel, why is it so bloody unfunny? And Jim Dixon isn’t angry (or all that young), he’s a middle-class twat with arrested development. I guess context is everything, and these works were revolutionary when they came out, paving the way for the novels that I loved: ‘Billy Liar’, funny, touching and true in all the ways ‘Lucky Jim’ wasn’t, ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’, a rabble-rousing morality tale that made a virtue of its simplicity, and above all David Storey’s ‘This Sporting Life’, which towers over everything else produced by or sucked into the Angry Young Men/Kitchen Sink orbit.

For me, the Angry Young Men worked best when rooted in the working class, and dilettantes like Amis’s Dixon and Osborne’s Porter just seemed to be a slightly different and no more appealing version of the very phoneys they raged against.

Throughout the book, Wilson writes engagingly and incisively and it’s sad that he has been so neglected (an issue this article takes up). But Wilson is a hard-to-pigeonhole oddball with a tendency to rub people up the wrong way, utterly convinced of his own seriousness but also happy to write books about things that aren’t allowed to be serious such as aliens, murder (at one point he mentions his ‘homicidal acquaintance Ian Brady’) and the occult.

I liked the book a great deal, but still won’t be rushing out to buy ‘The Outsider’ as I think I’d rather leave it unread. But I’m delighted that Wilson has reintroduced the Angry Young Men to me after a decade and am hugely grateful. So thanks Colin, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.