Angus Wilson (1913 – 1991)

To my mind the most perceptive observer of British society in the period after the Second World War was Angus Wilson, a writer of enormous skill who has not received the critical recognition he deserves. In addition to writing fiction of great distinction, he was also a perceptive critic and biographer, and his The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling is one of the most illuminating accounts of that complex character. He wrote too about Dickens and the 19th century naturalist French writer Emil Zola, which indicates the wide range of his sympathy as well as his knowledge.

He was born in the same year as Orwell, but took a long time to publish, beginning only just after the war with a couple of short story collections. These, The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, carried sharper versions of the critiques of literary and genteel society that Anthony Powell had already engaged in, in his earlier work.

Wilson’s skill in exposing pretensions as well as commanding sympathy for weakness was evident here, but he really came into his own only in 1952 with Hemlock and After, a vivid account of a married homosexual writer dealing with shortcomings in his own personality. The turning point in his understanding of himself comes when he sees a man being arrested for soliciting in Piccadilly, one of his own haunts, and finds himself baying for blood along with the rest of the crowd. The revelation of his own defensive instincts causes him more anguish than the possibilities of exposure through blackmail and outside enemies.

The moral analysis is subtle, and would not perhaps have appealed to all, but Wilson was evidently an original and able writer, and was able to command considerable attention for the three major works that followed. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes dealt with reactions by the earnest hangers on of culture to an archaeological fraud, while The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot explored the efforts to return to life of a woman whose husband was killed in an unexpected terrorist attack – perhaps the first major appearance of modern terrorism in fiction, in 1958.

The third of these major novels, The Old Men at the Zoo, is I think Wilson’s best. It deals with the administration of the London Zoo, the management of which is the subject of great controversy, in a manner that symbolizes social trends – one Director wants an open plan for animals to be in a state of nature, another wants the traditional zoo with artificial cosy enclaves, a third is more concerned with precise scientific classification, and so on. The chief protagonist is the Secretary to the Zoo, who observes the shifting perspectives whilst personal predilections and individual emotions confuse issues, even as political changes loom larger and larger. Almost suddenly, the landscape changes and Britain is taken over by a fascist leadership, which is in turn overturned. The novel ends with the Secretary, under suspicion as having collaborated, throwing his hat into the ring for the vacant post of Director, against someone who had stood up against the fascist regime, but seems potentially dogmatic in a different way. The different representatives of the different schools of thought are brilliantly drawn, culminating in the large heptologist, a specialist in snakes, who collaborates with the fascists through a strange mixture of innocence and devotion to his own scientific concerns.

I still think the novel one of the most illuminating about human nature when confronted with professional demands, while it also lays bare the political compulsions that affect all of us, however apolitical we like to think we are. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the more parochial nature of British concerns during the Butskellite consensus of the sixties (named after Hugh Gaitskell the moderate Leader of the Labour Party, who never became Prime Minister, and R A Butler, the longstanding anchorman of the Conservatives who never achieved the leadership, which came then through anointing by the party hierarchy), Wilson did not write anything in the same league subsequently. However a couple of novels about middle class families were entertaining as well as illuminating about gentility succumbing to social change, while in the seventies he produced As if by Magic, an extraordinary book about a homosexual scientist travelling in Asia in search of a new strain of rice as well as adolescent boys. When I first read the book I disliked it, thinking it exaggerated and excessive, but a recent rereading convinced me that Wilson’s eye was particularly sharp, even if his style required exaggeration of all foibles.

The scene set in Sri Lanka, which Wilson visited very happily in the early seventies, is riotous. It involves Hamo lusting after a boy he sees on the street and follows into a home, where he is mistakenly welcomed as the guest they have been expecting. He stays on for dinner, trying to lay his hands on the boy who has no idea what is going on. Neither has his hostess, though what she sees leads to Hamo’s hasty retreat while the boy goes back home, unwilling to put up with such excesses.

Home happens to be Jaffna, which Hamo goes to on work, only to see the boy in the distance. Failing to track him down, he asks his host to do so – and receives in India a gentle but firm rebuke from the messenger who had deduced what the whole business was about. The dignity of that message provides a brilliant contrast to the solipsistic view that Hamo, and until then the reader, had brought to bear on the whole episode.

Hamo’s story is counterpointed with that of his niece, who is on the hippy trail, which leads to them coinciding in India, with dramatic consequences. The book then provides wonderful insights into the very different dimensions of British interactions in Asia after the heyday of empire had passed.

Wilson’s last novel, Setting the World on Fire, though less powerful than his earlier work, dealt with the then burgeoning topic of urban terrorism. It is set in fashionable London, with two contrasting brothers who respond with flamboyance and caution respectively to life and art. Interestingly enough a number of major writers, Golding and Doris Lessing as well as Wilson, looked into terrorism before it became fashionable. In Wilson’s case he looked, not at concepts of destruction and evil, but into the fashionable dimension of terror, the upper class dabbling in it that characterized some elements in the Italian Red Brigade and the German Baader-Meinhoff gang. Sadly enough, we were to see similarities in Sri Lanka too, with the valorizing of the LTTE recently by people who should have known much better.

Wilson presented his social criticism through a prism of personal relations, which contributed to capturing memorably a wide range of events and experiences, while presenting subtle insights into human frailty as well as motivation. I have no doubt then that he deserved the knighthood he was awarded in 1980, ironically in the time of Mrs Thatcher, whom he loathed.

In fact he left England to live during his last days in the South of France, to escape the destruction he thought she was bringing down on Britain. This was sad, because he gave up for this reason the beautiful country house he had in Norfolk, where he had helped to set up the famous course in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. I once stayed with him there and he had Stephen Spender over for lunch.  It was a memorable day, and exemplified Wilson’s enormous kindness to young literary aspirants.

The Island – 11 November 2010