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The incredible sulk, Angus Wilson - Michael Barber

Features | By Michael Barber

Anglo-Saxon attitude: Sir Angus Wilson (1913-91) in 1974

Angus Wilson was once a grand old man of letters. By the time of his death 31 years ago, his fame was in freefall. By Michael Barber

In Martin Amis’s latest book, Inside Story, there’s a passing reference to the shocking eclipse of Angus Wilson, once hailed as the natural successor to Evelyn Waugh. He died discredited, destitute and demented 30 years ago, on 31st May 1991, aged 77.

At Wilson’s 70th-birthday party in 1983, a huge bien-pensant jolly held at London Zoo, of which he was a Fellow, who could have predicted the fall to come?

For Sir Angus – sprightly, white-maned, histrionic – was not just a distinguished novelist. Like Bernard Sands, the protagonist of his provocative first novel, Hemlock and After, he was a ‘Grand Old Man of Letters’, as at home on a rostrum as at his desk. He was knighted for his services to literature, which included presiding over the ground- breaking creative writing course at UEA.

Wilson’s disorderly upbringing shaped his life and work, both of which had a restless quality. His father, from a landowning family in the Borders, was a wastrel who ran through his wife’s money and then lived on his wits. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy South African jeweller, wore herself out trying to keep up appearances.

Wilson, the youngest of their six sons, grew up in a succession of seedy residential hotels, from many of which the family decamped. Surrounded by adults who were putting on an act, Wilson inherited the family talent for mimicry (Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald recalled his ‘painfully brilliant imitations’). This blossomed at Westminster School, where, despite his shrill voice and outré demeanour, he held his own.

Two of Wilson’s brothers were gay and, long before leaving Oxford, he had joined them ‘in the club’. He knew all too well the vicissitudes of being a male homosexual then – ‘Our latest nancy knight’ was how the Daily Express greeted his KBE in 1980. But unlike, say, E M Forster, he enjoyed the company of Anglo-Saxon attitude: Sir Angus Wilson (1913-91) in 1974

women and wrote two novels, Late Call and The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, with female protagonists.

He found the perfect partner in Tony Garrett, 16 years his junior, who dedicated himself to Wilson, becoming his secretary, driver, cook and lover.

Oddly, given the praise heaped on his early work, Wilson was 35 before he began to write. Highly strung, he emerged from a war spent breaking naval ciphers at Bletchley Park with his nerves shredded, and took up writing as a form of therapy.

Drawing a bead on the dispossessed rentier class from which he had sprung, who were now ‘suffering under the Socialists’, he produced a series of hard-boiled short stories that put him squarely on the map. One, Raspberry Jam, about two little old ladies who torture a bullfinch in front of a traumatised young boy, was described by the critic John Bayley as ‘one of the wickedest stories in the world’.

Wilson had, he admitted, a Grand-Guignol side that emerged in his fiction. Cue Mrs Curry, the bloated, doll-like procuress of under-age girls whose machinations turn the screw in Hemlock and After. She’s a deceptively nasty piece of work whom Wilson depicts with malevolent gusto – to the surprise of many, she was drawn from life.

The success of his next novel, Anglo- Saxon Attitudes (1956), persuaded him to give up his demanding day job at the British Museum and write full time, despite having only £300 in the bank.

Wilson stopped writing short stories because he grew tired of trying to devise deft endings. By the late Sixties, he’d also come to believe that the ‘solid bourgeois novel’ had had its day. ‘Reality’ was no longer enough. ‘If you want to reach readers – even those who are not at all highbrow – you must confess that it’s a bit of a game,’ he explained.

Hence his ‘experimental’ novels, As If By Magic and No Laughing Matter, which intrigued critics but exasperated readers who didn’t get the joke.

Insisting that he had ‘the right to appear in a totally different light each time’ and misled, perhaps, by the number of visiting professorships he clocked up, particularly in America, Wilson ignored the bottom line.

What he couldn’t ignore was the arrival of Mrs Thatcher and the threat she posed to his progressive, humanist beliefs. When his last novel, Setting the World on Fire, did nothing of the sort, he began a long sulk which culminated, in May 1985, with a ‘Good riddance to England’ speech on the steps of the Athenaeum.

He was going, he said, to France, where they took serious writers seriously. But no sooner had Sir Angus and Tony Garrett settled into their fifth-floor flat in Provence than he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a brain disease which within a few years had robbed him of most of his faculties. When his partner could no longer nurse him, the couple returned to England.

Thanks to a grant from the Royal Literary Fund and friends’ donations, he was installed in a private nursing home in Suffolk, where he died.

Not a happy ending, it was one his readers would have recognised.

This story was from May 2021 issue. Subscribe Now