At a party given forty-odd years ago by the suddenly-famous Angus Wilson, Dwight Macdonald ‘introduced himself, American-style, to Rose Macaulay, describing himself as an editor of the Partisan Review and founder of his own journal Politics: she stared at him and said, “Have you come all the way across the room to tell me that? How kind.” ’ ‘American-style’ may be a hint that in the writer’s opinion Macdonald deserved this put-down, for being an Anglophile American if for nothing else. I find it hard to believe she really takes this view, but whether she does or not, the remark she reports might still provoke an English snigger: any suggestion that it was an exhibition of shockingly bad manners would be met with surprise or more probably contempt. Its interest in the present context is that it is the sort of thing somebody might say in an Angus Wilson story, but it is also the sort of thing that he himself would in principle have deplored.
As Margaret Drabble emphasises, he disliked that anti-American reflex, attributing it (perhaps too simply) to simple envy. He loved the USA, where he had dozens of friends, whom he treated, so far as one can tell, with his usual amiability and generosity. Yet the gratuitous insult, the tease, even the rather cruel practical joke, are familiar ingredients of his writing, in some sense as much part of his world as his love of right conduct, one might just say, of goodness. Conscious of certain affinities with Kipling, Wilson called these minor social brutalities ‘Stalkyisms’. Ms Drabble observes that they can ‘go beyond the mere prank’, and mentions both the scholarly hoax in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and its parallel in Kipling’s great story ‘Dayspring Mishandled’. One cannot imagine Wilson ever wounding a polite stranger in the way Rose Macaulay wanted to, but he must have understood the impulse to behave so. He was aware of his own potential cruelty, and sadistic fantasies notoriously animate some of his fiction, but in life the desire to hurt was usually controlled by an extraordinary, habitual benevolence. Along with his gaiety and his sometimes almost childish enjoyment of life, his good nature was the personal quality for which almost everybody in his huge acquaintance is likely best to remember him. It was accompanied by a deeply-felt if rather helpless sense of the sadness and drabness of some lives, and of the courage so often peremptorily required of people who have not been taught to expect or endure guilt and sorrow.
The conflict between Wilson’s generous humanity and his apparently selfish delight in extravagant behaviour, in the crazy crowd, is a persistent theme of this large and satisfying biography. The famously freakish, feckless Johnstone-Wilson family, the source of so much in the stories and novels, is explored in detail. Expatriate, rentier, class-bound, sly, odd, sinking into genteel poverty, they provoked in Wilson, the youngest of his generation, an exasperated pity, and supplied him with many grotesque, comic and pathetic ideas and images.
The gay world he was destined to inhabit provided equally sad and delightful anomalies, occasions for compassion, ridicule and self-display. Presumably in reasonably secure conditions, Wilson, ‘wearing flame-coloured pyjamas and carrying a madonna lily’, played Buggery in an Oxford show of the Seven Deadly Sins. In an age when it was dangerous to advertise homosexual inclinations he was flamboyantly gay, indeed it was inconceivable that he might for any reason even pretend to be otherwise.
He supported the increasingly powerful movement for gay liberation with a mixture of boldness and caution; though devoted to the cause he was conscious that he could, if too bold, damage the sales of the books that provided his income. The uncertainty of that income, the likelihood that it couldn’t indefinitely support his comfortable (though not magnificent) way of life, was in his later years to become a constant and harrowing anxiety; but it did not stop him from speaking out on just occasion.
Drabble interestingly suggests that his familiarity with homosexual societies all over the world, what she calls his membership of the Homintern, was to Wilson what Freemasonry had been to Kipling: it valuably extended his range of congenial acquaintance. As he grew older he spent more and more time abroad; spoiled in childhood by the South African sun, he detested the English winter, and found he could write best in warm weather and out of doors. But the facilities offered by this notional club probably added to the pleasure of abroad, and as time passed Wilson’s desire to travel grew more and more exorbitant.
With the help of his companion Tony Garrett, who patiently made the plans and drove the cars, he expended much of his energy on travel, with all the readings, lectures, interviews that usually accompanied and helped to pay for it. And he has been fortunate in his biographer, who seems almost as tireless as he was. She has been everywhere relevant and has sought out and talked patiently to hundreds of people, who doubtless often wasted her time by dwelling on memories of more importance to themselves than to her. If her manner occasionally becomes Tatler-ish, the prose a little rushed or predictable, these apparent lapses can be justified as befitting her restlessly gossipy, anxious subject, who also often spent his energy on what might seem trivial pursuits. Her zest for detail is such that she will describe the contents of the sandwiches served at some long-ago Midwestern university reception with the care devoted to weighty dinner-table conversations (‘we discussed Perkin endlessly and then nuclear war’). Her obvious affection for Wilson during his life gives the book an acceptably personal tone, and she often appears in its pages as ‘Drabble’ or ‘M.D.’, observing him in various scrapes and triumphs. When the occasion seems to require it she compares, with compassion, her own literary earnings with his. She describes in some detail a disastrous dinner party at her house, when Wilson misbehaved embarrassingly, as he very occasionally did.
Altogether, with the assistance and consent of Tony Garrett, the dedicatee and second hero of the book, she has given a minute, intimate and candid account (though happily observing a ban on sexual detail) of Wilson’s hectic life. In the years of his greatest celebrity that life called for remarkable endurance, not only in the great man himself but in his friend; and now, when the time has come, in his devoted chronicler. Ms Drabble wonders whether her book, because it is a woman’s, will inevitably be less attentive than a man’s might be to ‘certain aspects of Wilson’s life’; but there is sympathy and even a special interest in her handling of the theme of male homosexual social relations. Wilson knew what it was to be blackmailed by a butcher’s boy, yet seems to have borne the culprit no ill-will. As time passed he came to admire E.M. Forster less and less, partly because the older man wasn’t as militant in the gay cause as he valuably could have been, partly because Forster’s own affairs were more discreetly dealt with – and, it may be, partly, though she does not say this, because Wilson genuinely liked women, couldn’t have written Late Call or The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot if he hadn’t; and Forster didn’t. But they shared an attitude familiar from other memoirs and biographies, a fondness, as across a distance, for the working class or selected aspects of it; so that Wilson, we’re told, was unwilling to think ill of anybody with a Cockney accent. He seems not to have cultivated working men in the manner of Forster, Ackerley or Sprott; as a rule he preferred the company of his peers, writers and intellectuals. And with them the distinction between friendship and sexual attraction becomes more indistinct.
It is instructive to see such men sketched, as they are here, solely in their relation to Wilson. Ian Calder, for example, had been one of Wilson’s lovers. He was a brilliant and charming young man – not, perhaps, quite the Adonis, the nonpareil, he is here made out to be, but found fascinating by everybody. Miraculously free of ill-will, he was always, it seemed, on the point of panting with pleasure at simply being around; at knowing so much and wanting to tell it all, rejoicing in the purity and scope of his scholarship. Proud of his now famous friend, he introduced me to Wilson in 1950, and happily acknowledged that his family had provided the plot of the story ‘Crazy Crowd’. I suppose I was imperceptive, though apparently no more so than the Italian novelist Luigi Meneghello, a worldlier man than I, who, when first asked to call on Wilson, brought flowers for his wife. Anyway, it simply never occurred to me that Wilson and Calder had been, perhaps still were, lovers – even, it seems, partners at one time in a three-way ménage. Like many other affectionate colleagues of the enchantingly encyclopedic Calder, surely on the verge of a dazzling academic career, I watched, first with amusement and then with mild dismay, his increasingly erratic courses. Not myself deeply involved, I was surprised by a certain hard sadness in Wilson’s tone when he observed Calder’s misguided assault on the theatre and then, as he saw it, his misguided marriage, and finally his misguided wanderings on the face of the earth. Wilson said firmly that he was sorry but he had decided to drop out: nothing more could be done for Ian. I remember thinking this harshness unlike him, but I suppose he couldn’t always be bubbling and affectionate; there needed to be steel in him to get him over an early breakdown and then work, as he did, with such concentrated force. D.P. Walker took the same tough line on Calder; I suppose they had had a serious talk about him. One could be expelled from this club.
The early death of Calder coincided almost to the day with that of Walker, Perkin as he was called – Wilson’s friend from Westminster days. Drabble seems to know all about him; her portrait convinced and surprised me. Here, it emerges, was a man given, like Wilson, to nightmares, to bouts of uncontrolled weeping, to sado-masochistic fantasies. He would sit in noisy pubs, reading Hebrew texts amid the din of jukebox and pinball machines. On one occasion he felt obliged to confess that he and his family, to whom Wilson was deeply attached, returned his affection only with rather severe reservations: ‘there was a very nasty side to our affection for you – at times, at least, regarding you as a very amusing clown or freak who could be treated, and sometimes was, as less than a person.’ Of course there was a freakishness, a habit of clowning, an ebullience that was to become an ingredient of Wilson’s huge but, as it turned out, transient popular success; but it isn’t a happy thought that it diminished his standing in a house where he thought he was quite at home, and welcome. It was surely rather cruel to tell him the truth.
Drabble puts Walker, along with Calder and Robin Ironside, in the class of ‘self-destroyers’. Yet he, too, was a scholar of exceptional resource, and, unlike Calder, of achievement and repute – a musicologist of distinction, as profound a Dickensian as Wilson himself, the possibly more level-headed equal of his friend Frances Yates as a student of Renaissance occultism. He was a tennis player good enough to turn out at Wimbledon, a fine pianist and an exceptional linguist. He was happy to help the less well endowed, me for example, with magisterial solutions to technical scholarly problems. He was hospitable, cheerful over wine or his favourite East Anglian beer, harsh of laugh, though no doubt occasionally sullen or sad, as anybody might be. More than most people you would say he fulfilled himself. Yet this admirable, talented man, who had so many friends and a cheerful household in Regents Park Terrace, frequented by so many lively people, can be said by Ms Drabble to have destroyed himself with unhappiness.
One feels that she is likely to be right about this and other sadnesses. Many of her characters, including of course her protagonist, had to endure painful vicissitudes and disagreeable ends, which doesn’t of itself distinguish them from the rest of humankind; but we single out the great for biography, supposing them to be of more interest at all points, as perhaps they are. I remember Wilson telling me, with some regret but with no doubt, that the novel, or anyway his kind of novel, must always concern itself principally with the upper classes – the intervention of the lower orders in his fiction usually means trouble, as, for example, in Hemlock and After – because the higher bourgeoisie is manifestly more subtle, varied and devious than the proletariat. Working people’s lives, houses and preoccupations tend to uniformity, and the novelist needs sensitivities, strangenesses, varieties of consciousness and conscience, plants that grow in gardens more privileged, or at least remembering such privilege. Such gardens, ill tended, may decline into eccentricity and wildness, but that is after all interesting in itself, and may arouse in the qualified observer a kind of pained satirical compassion, or even a fairly desperate hilarity.
Ms Drabble offers detailed accounts of some of the glories of the Johnstone-Wilson garden: brother Colin, after leaving St Paul’s in 1913, indulged ‘the family talent for doing nothing much’ until at the end of the war he
joined the Black and Tans and went to Ireland where he was seduced by a sergeant, who gave him a make-up box and encouraged him to paint his face. He became a practising homosexual, and developed a dislike of the Protestant Church that culminated in his becoming a Roman Catholic convert. Or so the family said.
Himself an oddity, yet happy at Westminster, Wilson eventually became a noted and highly recognisable figure in the British Museum Reading Room. Here once again, doubtless in part as a result of the old-boy system of appointments, he found himself among eccentric though variously gifted people. Even the Museum servants were droll – for example, Mrs Mainwaring, keeper of the ladies’ lavatory, ‘with her little fox fur, her little eye-veil, her unrealistically red hair and her outrageous stories ... Her conversation would swoop from the heights of refinement to the depths of obscenity, hardly registering the transition.’
The pleasures other people had to find in the music halls or in fiction were often more immediately available to Wilson. When it was alleged that Mrs Curry, in Hemlock and After, a nauseously sweet procuress of children, was incredible, Wilson affirmed that she was drawn from the life, and congratulated Evelyn Waugh on understanding that. He did a lot of drawing from the life, and the models sometimes recognised themselves. Not all were weird or wild: I was surprised to read that Christopher Morris, later a friendly colleague of mine, correctly identified himself and his wife as the ‘darling dodos’ of the excellent story that provided the title of Wilson’s second volume.
This account of him inevitably raises the question why, with all his remarkable gifts, his delighted celebrity, Wilson before the end of his life fell at least some distance from the peak of favour. For a decade or more he was among the two or three most celebrated writers in the country, constantly interviewed, a television favourite, a tireless reviewer (his announcement that he was going to do television reviews for Queen was made with especially mischievous satisfaction). His earlier novels were well received but somehow the enthusiasm and the sales waned. The disappointing reception of As if by Magic, rightly described by its author as ‘an intricate and interesting work’, spoilt his 60th birthday in 1973, and by then he was already worried about money. Tony Garrett had been forced to give up his job because of his association with Wilson, and despite his part-time professorship at East Anglia and his many visits to American universities there were difficulties about maintaining a seemingly irreducible life style and providing for the future of both partners, one much younger than the other. And if they wondered why on earth it should need to be reduced – why, apparently successful beyond the dreams of most men of letters, they should be so straitened – one can only sympathise. They were right to believe they deserved much better.
The relative failures of As if by Magic and No Laughing Matter are indeed hard to understand. Weightier, bolder in conception and better written than the early novels, you might think they could be neglected only by a reading public more richly supplied than we normally claim to be. Part of the explanation may be a quite general decline in the sales of novels, and the supersession of the ‘literary’ novel by the blockbuster, but there are authors who seem little affected by these developments, and Wilson could have reasonably expected to be among them. Yet it seems he tended to do badly by comparison with others, especially since some were younger than he. Perhaps he was always, even in early days, unlucky in matters of money. While he was being paid £250 a year, without pension rights, at the Museum, C.P. Snow, we are told, was pulling down £750 plus perks as a young fellow of what is here described as Christ’s Church College, Cambridge (perhaps the salary was as imaginary as the college). Later, and closer to his heyday, his income compared unfavourably with that of writers who were his friends. His last novel might have won the Booker Prize, but it went to William Golding, whom Wilson, though disappointed, gallantly congratulated.
He himself attributed his ill fortune partly to philistine reviewers, singling out Auberon Waugh, but more generally to his failure to please the young. The young he knew best from a possibly unrepresentative sample at the University of East Anglia (‘full of fierce young smartyboots’, more interested in movies than books, according to Jonathan Raban). In fact he was very popular at UEA, but may have felt that some of the creative writers so successfully recruited and taught there found him old-fashioned and insufficiently ‘experimental’. Or perhaps more simply, as he said to Ian McEwan, he feared ‘the young were no longer interested in what he had to say, that he himself no longer understood his readership.’ McEwan thought he was ‘striving over-anxiously to stay in touch’.
It may well be that the Johnstone-Wilson age, the age of the bourgeois freaks, was suddenly over, that its interest must henceforth be merely historical. And it may be that Wilson’s erudition – his intimacy with the great novels of the world was extraordinary – or even his old-style left-wing politics and ‘gay humanism’, were out, so that he was now no longer a fashion but came to be regarded as a sort of anachronism.
In these circumstances the Eighties were, for Wilson, ‘puzzling and paradoxical’. The decade began with a knighthood – a cause of much satisfaction to him, though it inspired the Daily Express to call him ‘our latest nancy knight’. But Setting the World on Fire, though bold and in its own way ‘experimental’, had what had become the usual mixed reception. Thereafter, for whatever cause, his fame and his income dwindled, and his anxiety increased.
It is not easy to read the account of his last years without sadness. Most of what could go wrong did so: the apparently undiagnosed progressive illness; the emigration, at least by hindsight ill-advised, to Saint-Rémy; the deaths of Walker and Calder; the bad luck with money and with doctors; the ever-increasing, all but intolerable strain on Tony Garrett. ‘The world had become baffling to him.’ It became clear at Saint-Rémy that he would write no more. Soon he ceased to be able to recognise his friends, though remaining as always courteous to visitors. He was now totally dependent on Garrett. In 1989 they gave up the Provençal experiment and he was moved into a Suffolk nursing home. His income that year, pathetically, was a little over £7000, and that included a non-recurring grant of £5000 from the Royal Literary Fund. His nursing home fees were £1160 a month. Garrett, having lost his job so early, had no pension; this had worried him and Wilson for years, and now the worst had come, almost, to the worst. Well-wishers contributed to a fund. Wilson died in May 1991. The obituaries were warm and respectful. The memorial service, an event managed with the utmost decorum, was crowded with friends and admirers.