Monday, January 18, 2010
Colin Wilson: an outsider in Brockley library
The always excellent Another Nickel in the Machine has an interesting piece on the the writer Colin Wilson. Wilson was feted as a genius after the publication of his book The Outsider in 1956, which popularised existentialism. Soon though the newspapers turned on him when it became known that - shock horror- he had left his wife and child and was living with his girlfriend Joy. Wilson may never have regained his reputation as the English Jean-Paul Sartre, but he has done OK as a writer, publishing continuously ever since, especially books on the paranormal.
As Another Nickel... documents part of the early myth was that he had written the book while sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath and studying in the British Library. This may have been partly true but, as Wilson has subsequently confirmed, the title was conceived in New Cross. In his book 'The angry years: the rise and fall of the angry young men' (2007) he writes: ''By September 1954, the autumn rains had driven me back indoors, and I took a room in the auspiciously named Endwell Road in New Cross, and found a job in the Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square. Joy had now become a librarian in Stanmore, and we were so far apart that I saw her only at weekends having convinced my landlady - a kindly soul named Mrs Harris - that we were married and obliged to live apart until Joy passed her librarianship exam'.
Wilson spent Christmas Day 1954 in his room 'dining on egg, bacon and tinned tomatoes... and that afternoon headed a page in my journal: "Notes for a book The Outsider in Literature", followed by the words: "To show that the outsider is evidence of a particular type of moral development that has its finest fruit in the Christian tradition"... In the local library I had discovered an excellent section on the mystics, and I had been reading Jacob Boehme and Saint John of the Cross. Within an hour I had sketched out the whole book'.
In his autobiography 'Dreaming to Some Purpose', Wilson states that the exact address was 31 Endwell Road and that 'Brockley Public Library had the best collection of the mystics in London - most of them in the reserve section in the basement'. Before the book was published he had moved back across the river, but evidently the local library had almost as much of a role as the British library in the conception of his best known work.