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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Yes, it’s Number One, it’s Top of the Pops!

And number 1 is… Michael Moorcock!

What are you talking about Steve?, I hear you ask.

Well, a couple of years after I started to read a lot, I began to record the books I’d read; first on paper, then in databases. Being a man of a certain age, this means I have records going back to the 1970s. Being also OCD enough to have copied my database of books to Goodreads, I can now easily see that the author I have read most is Michael Moorcock. Now, in the course of nearly 40 years, some of these books I have read more than once, and those that have had repeated readings will most likely be my favourites. Only my database can reveal which books have had multiple readings… However, I know I was a big fan of 1970s British New Wave Science Fiction, so I have read and reread the Jerry Cornelius books — A Cure for CancerThe Final Programme, and The English Assassin. Some of the 31 books in my Goodreads list for Moorcock are in fact collections for which he was editor, such as the various New Worlds anthologies; without these collections, Moorcock might have been under pressure from the author at position two in the charts…

In second place is Ruth Rendell. Now, as I only discovered Rendell, and her alter ego, Barbara Vine, in the late 1980s, I can easily recall those books of hers I have read multiple times. So, I recommend highly Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, which I have read about six times, King Solomon’s CarpetThe Brimstone Wedding; and Rendell’s Going WrongThe Crocodile Bird, and Talking to Strange Men. I have never been a fan of police procedurals, so the Wexford books do not interest me.

At number three in the chart is Frank Herbert. I read Dune in my teens and was enamoured by it. The fact that I have read all the canonical Dune books accounts, of course, for about a third of the total for Herbert. There are other books by Herbert that I have read more than once — Under Pressure* and Destination Void — but it is, in general, the Dune books to which I return. One of my friends once said Herbert’s books were full of half-arsed so-called philosophical ramblings. This perhaps accounts for the fourth entry in my chart.

In with an invocation and a silver bullet at number four is Colin Wilson, purveyor of much half-arsed nonsense and profligate philosophical posturing. I read and re-read The Occult when I was a young adult, and was almost tempted to become the next Cagliostro, or Count de St. Germain. I also read The Outsider and other of his “philosophical” works. Why Wilson attracts me, I think, is that he is an easy read; so he is often a good place to start with a topic, even if he is often wrong or muddled about something. It is his novels, however, such as The Glass CageThe Schoolgirl Murder Case, and Ritual in the Dark, that are I think under-rated. Crime thrillers set in the 1960s with more of that half-arsed philosophical rambling, they are well-written and a better vehicle for his ideas.

I could say more, but for the moment, I’ll stop here and simply note there are an awful lot of 70s sci-fi authors in this list…

1     Michael Moorcock  31
2     Ruth Rendell  23
3     Frank Herbert  19
4     Colin Wilson  18
5     Philip K. Dick  15
6     D.H. Lawrence  13
7     Henry Miller  12
8     J.G. Ballard  11
9     Barbara Vine  10
9     Aldous Huxley  10
11    Roger Zelazny  9
11    Isaac Asimov  9
13    Robert A. Heinlein  7
13    Keith Roberts  7
13    Iain M. Banks  7
16    George Orwell  6
16     William Gibson  6
16     John Fowles  6
16     Hermann Hesse  6
16    Jacques F. Vallée  6

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* Also known as Dragon in the Sea in the UK, and 21st Century Sub