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A Book of Booze

MARK BREND:  The other day I came across a first edition of Colin Wilson’s Book of Booze in a second-hand bookshop in a Devon National Trust property; it was only £1. Resisting the temptation here to tease out a ‘national treasure’ connection, let me instead offer a few words about the book, and Wilson himself, by way of an encouragement to delve into his considerable and still-expanding oeuvre.

I read a good part of the Book of Booze that very day, in, appropriately, a pub. It is, as the title suggests, all about alcohol. But being a Colin Wilson book, it is also a far-ranging discourse taking in philosophical speculation, historical anecdote and some rather fine fragments of autobiography – particularly the last chapter, in which Wilson takes us on a pub crawl around his adopted county, Cornwall. He introduces us to his drinking companions who, it seems, are typical small-town folk and not the artistic cabal you might expect. I wonder what they made of him. He wrote the Book of Booze in 1974, by which time he’d already published dozens of books, his hinterland encompassing the occult, esoteric religion and sexual deviance. Perhaps he landed on an alcohol book as a way of relating to his Cornish pub friends, having tired of awkward exchanges along the lines of “what are you working on, Colin?”, “Oh, a little something called New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution.”

To be honest, I find a lot of Wilson’s philosophical writing rather heavy going. It’s the autobiographical writing that really attracts me. His classic, The Outsider, is as much an autobiographical book as it is a philosophical and literary one, and two recent titles, Dreaming To Some Purpose and The Angry Years, are among the most engaging memoirs I’ve read. Good books, by any standard, I think; yet Wilson is routinely dismissed as a crank – a sort of David Icke of the literary world. I think this is rather unfair, although perhaps he hasn’t helped himself by knocking out potboilers about Uri Geller and Fred West, amongst others. Rather, I see him in the tradition of working class literary autodidacts which the 20th century occasionally threw up – Charles Williams being another, earlier example. These are men who occasionally make forays into the establishment, and even bestsellerdom, but always, on account of their odd interests, their obsessions, and their backgrounds, drift back to the margins, where they carry on undaunted to the end.

Wilson will be 80 next year. He’s still in the same house in Cornwall that he moved to more than 50 years ago; and he’s still writing. His geographical isolation is a rather obvious metaphor – a man alone by the sea etc – but an accurate one, as Wilson has become the quintessential outsider. It takes a peculiar sort of courage to proclaim your own genius and stick to your guns for more than half a century, when the world doesn’t listen; and it’s easy to imagine that anyone who has lived like that will turn out to be mad and difficult at best. I’m happy to report that Wilson appears to be neither. I have used a recording of him reading from one of his novels on a new album by Ghostwriter (due out on Second Language in April), and in seeking his permission and blessing found him to be cheerful, charming and enthusiastic. Have a listen to him here: http://www.secondlanguagemusic.com/podcasts.html then go down to your nearest National Trust second-hand bookshop and see what they’ve got.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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