Review — “Adrift in Soho” — Colin Wilson

Adrift in SohoAdrift in Soho by Colin Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a soft spot for Colin Wilson’s fiction. Not all of it is good, and the science fiction/fantasy of
The Mind Parasites 
or The Philosopher’s Stone can be laboured and preachy, filled with characters constantly declaiming meaningfully about sensitive souls, and the meaningfulness of life, or action, or non-action, and so on. I am drawn more towards his crime novels, which — while also having a distressing tendency to contain characters who suddenly talk like extracts from philosophical popularisations — do have plots, and absorb these “intellectual” characters more ably into those plots. (It should also be noted that Wilson was extraordinarily prolific, and there are many more novels available than I have dared reading!).

Adrift in Soho is Wilson’s second novel (originally published in 1961 by Gollancz and republished in 2011 by New London Editions). The novel is set in the mid-1950s and feels like a roman à clef of sorts. The novel is written from the first person perspective of Harry Preston, who leaves the Midlands (as Wilson did) and moves to London (as Wilson did) in pursuit of a more “meaningful” existence (as Wilson did).

Once in London, Preston falls in with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals as he attempts to live on the scant resources he has brought with him. The novel follows Preston’s adventures as he meets various bohemian and beatnik characters, largely centered around Soho; painters and philosophers and autodidacts and out-of-work actors. These characters are largely likable, although there is a large troupe of them, and we never get a chance to know all of them well. Several of them are, of course, simply mouthpieces for points of view that Wilson, or Harry Preston, can agree with or refute. The main characters of the book are, though, well-drawn, and stand out well enough in the zoo of minor characters to not become swamped by them.

Anybody who has read more than one of Wilson’s fiction or non-fiction books will recognise tropes, obsessions and concerns — will, freedom, the coming man, the sensitive man, artists of various types, the raising of consciousness, and Preston’s (Wilson’s) wavering between disgust and acceptance of the “ordinary man” and the “ordinary” life. And yet I find this all much easier to take dressed up in one of Wilson’s novels than in a more serious nonfiction work such as The Occult or The Outsider.

In the end, Harry Preston admits that though the people in this bohemian set interest him, he could never be a bohemian himself, as he is too bourgeois — which again reflects the reality of Wilson’s life. For although Wilson continued to think about “meaning” in life, and how humans would evolve towards some kind of “other” state, how their consciousness could be raised somewhere beyond the current mode of human existence, still he remained earthbound in Cornwall with a rambling house and a large library.

One attribute Wilson has always had — for me, at least — is an engaging, easy-flowing, writing style. It’s a little old-fashioned, perhaps, influenced by Somerset Maugham and Priestley, one feels; but I’m kind of old-fashioned in that way too. Adrift in Soho is, then, an entertaining, easy read that contains interesting characters and paints a picture of particular kinds of people in a particular location at a particular era — adrift between the end of the war and the dream-world to come in the 1960s.

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Review — “The New Girlfriend: And Other Stories” — Ruth Rendell

The New Girlfriend: And Other StoriesThe New Girlfriend: And Other Stories by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable selection of Ruth Rendell’s short stories. When deciding on the number of stars to give as a rating, I was minded to give three, as collections such as this often contain middling kinds of stories that are entertaining diversions without much to commend them, and there are perhaps one or such stories in this collection. In the end, though, I thought I’d go for four stars to match the best of the stories.

Of the stories here, “The New Girlfriend” is perhaps the most well-known, but in the end I found it quite slight. Of more interest were stories in which there was a feeling that a typical Rendellian psychological novella or short novel might have grown from the barer bones of the short story — into this category fell “The Orchard Walls” or “Fen Hall”. Other stories also tantalisingly hinted at themes, obsessions, interests, characters or locations in later novels — into this category fell “Fen Hall” (again) and “Father’s Day”.

The collection closed with “The Green Road to Quephanda”, a lovely surprise in that it was almost a metanarrative, a contemplation on genre and the roots (routes) of imagination.

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Dereham Connections – Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion”

So, after the contactees and spies and conspiracies of the early 1970s, Node 4 — Raven of Dispersion moves us into the middle of the decade, and the long, hot summer of 1976. We leave behind characters that we have followed through the two preceding novels. Now, instead of spies and contactees and night-club owners, we become involved with young adults.

But I don’t like to think of this as a young adult novel — the characters are simply young; when I was that age, I didn’t think of myself as a young adult. I just thought I was brilliant and knew everything.

The characters in Raven of Dispersion are burgeoning intellectuals, exploring the world of ideas through the unconventional route of UFOs and the paranormal, and their first explorations of T S Eliot, Karl Marx, DH Lawrence,  Colin Wilson, and so on. Of course, being young, there are feelings to contend with  — love, and that new-fangled word, relationships.

It is at this nexus of love and the unconventional that things go a little bit awry. Because the young can be just a bit too sure of themselves, certain that they know what they are doing. And the young might also think their experiments — with balloons and lights, let us say — can surely have no consequences beyond the scientific.

And yet one balloon, and one set of lights — mixed with a pinch of beauty and one lovin’ spoonful of psychosis — are the ingredients for a proper brouhaha.