Colin Wilson: Now they will realise that I am a genius

In 1956 The Outsider made him an overnight sensation, but ever since Colin Wilson has been an outsider himself - a knicker fetishist, a social misfit and the author of 110 books that even his publisher didn't want. He hopes his new autobiography will finally convince the world of his greatness

This is the first time I have interviewed a self-declared genius, also the first time I have interviewed a self-declared panty fetishist, so Colin Wilson is quite a catch. He has been declaring his genius ever since The Outsider came out in 1956 and he awoke to find himself famous. He wrote it in the Reading Room of the British Museum while living in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. He was a Leicester factory worker's son who had left school at 16 and avoided National Service by claiming to be homosexual. He supported himself in odd jobs while reading seemingly every book ever written, and writing The Outsider, which was hailed as England's answer to Albert Camus.

But he went from literary lion to pariah in less than a year. His immediate crime was too much party-going, too much name-dropping, too much publicity, but his subsequent, much worse, crime was writing too many books - 110 at the latest count - on subjects ranging from serial killers to alien abductions to The Lost City of Atlantis. The critics at first attacked him then ignored him - he has not had a serious review for years. But now, at 73, he has written an autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, of considerable charm. It is jaw-droppingly - one might say cringe-makingly - honest and often unintentionally hilarious.

I particularly enjoyed his account of how, as a panty-fetishist and visiting lecturer at an American university, he contrived to look up his students' skirts with the aid of a glass-bottomed mug. But the story of his struggle to become a writer, and the tenacity with which he stayed one - despite the fact that even his publisher advised him to give up - is heroic and strangely moving.

I go to meet him at his home in Cornwall, where he has lived for almost 50 years. He picks me up from St Austell in his ancient Jaguar and seems like the sort of amiable tweed-jacketed cove you see in glucosamine sulphate ads. But as we tootle along the lanes his con versation became increasingly odd - he periodically throws out the word 'fucker' with extraordinary venom, accompanied by a sly sideways glance to see if I am shocked. The fucker in question was Humphrey Carpenter, who had been to interview him and then betrayed him: 'We got on terribly well, I thought, though I did notice that Humphrey fell asleep when I was explaining what I meant by non-pessimistic existentialism.'

'How awful,' I murmur, resolving to avoid the subject of non-pessimistic existentialism at all costs.

It is a relief to arrive at his bungalow and meet his wife, Joy, who is reassuringly normal, friendly and in no way likely to say 'fucker'. She bustles round making coffee and apologising for the parrot hopping round the room. The room - like the whole bungalow - is so densely encrusted with books you feel you could peel the pebble-dashed walls away and still leave the house standing.

He has never thrown a book away - he reckons he has about 30,000. They are all carefully arranged by subject, then author, and the paperbacks are sent away to be library-bound in plastic. Some sections are stored in sheds in the garden - a crime shed, a UFO shed, a biography shed - and the complete works of Colin Wilson shed. He wants to have another shed in the orchard but Joy is putting her foot down. When he dies, he says, he hopes the bungalow and sheds will be kept as a museum 'because people will probably turn up wanting to see it, like Dylan Thomas's cottage'.

'Although of course,' he adds, seeing my expression, 'it's not inevitable.'

The obvious time to have produced his autobiography would have been in 2006 - the 50th anniversary of The Outsider - but, as always, he was pressed for money, so he did it at the first whiff of a publisher's advance. The virtue of an autobiography, he explains, is that it will enable critics to see how his work is all intertwined. He admits he's written too many books on too many subjects, which has confused people. 'But now people can see there is one central point. William Faulkner in about 1947 let his work be anthologised in The Portable Faulkner and he suddenly became famous, a bestseller, and won the Nobel prize. So my volume of autobiography is The Portable Wilson!'

Hmm. The most engaging part of his book is the factual stuff, about his early struggle to be a writer and his relationship with Joy and their children. Where it drags is when he gets on to his ideas. His philosophy is basically existentialism with non-rational excrescences and characterised by bizarre nomenclature - Faculty X, Upside Downness, Peak Experiences, Right Men, The Dominant Five Per Cent, King Rats. It seems to constitute an attempt to classify human feelings and behaviour as written by a Martian who has never met an Earthling. This is, of course, Wilson's weakness and also, in a way, his charm - he has no understanding of other people whatever. When I ask if he would say he is low in emotional intelligence, he readily agrees: 'That is fair, yes.'

As a child he was so introverted, so uninterested in other people, he might have been diagnosed today with Asperger's syndrome. 'I wouldn't be surprised. I wasn't cut off from other people, but, as I keep saying in The Outsider, other people were the trouble. They kept intruding into my world whether I wanted them to or not, because what they did was to drag me away from the world of ideas and abstractions I wanted to be in. When I was a teenager I was a total romantic escapist. My world was books. I felt as Axel did in the Villiers de L'Isle-Adam play - 'As for living, our servants can do that for us.' But that all changed when I was 16 and discovered Rabelais. Suddenly I had that wonderful feeling - my God, life is good after all!'

In a way, sex was his salvation - he wanted to sleep with girls so was forced to talk to them. And he was lucky in that, at 18, he met a 14-year-old seductress who gave him a considerable sexual education. Then he met his first wife, Betty, and became a father when he was 19. He found to his surprise that he loved being married, but wasn't so keen on fatherhood (he is now - he has four children and five grandchildren - but thinks then he was too young) and never quite saw the point of baby Roderick.

There is an unintentionally funny scene in the autobiography when he decides to spend Christmas Day meditating and is furious when Betty interrupts to ask him to hold the baby. They separated soon afterwards. She reappeared when The Outsider came out, but by then he was in love with Joy. He admits that Betty is 'the one thing that often worries my conscience'.

He met Joy on one of his countless temporary jobs - he was a Christmas shop assistant and she was in charge of the cash registers. He fell for her immediately, partly because she was middle-class. 'I knew I could never bear a girl who talked with a Leicester accent or with any kind of local accent. And when I heard Joy, I thought "Oh marvellous, that's what I want." And when I asked her, "What books have you got on your shelf?" and she said she'd got Yeats and Ulysses, and Proust in French, I thought, "My God, that's the girl I really want!" Betty didn't read at all.'

He thought Joy was unattainable because she was wearing an engagement ring. 'But to my amazement, six weeks later there I was in bed with her. Couldn't get into her, mind - she was a totally impenetrable virgin - but just to lie there kissing and cuddling and feeling her bum through her pants was tremendously exciting. I was absolutely astounded - that was the greatest Peak Experience of my life.'

At this point Joy walks through the room and he tells her amiably: 'I was just saying how difficult it was the first time I got into bed with you.' Joy smiles her sweet smile and says: 'Well I'm just taking the rubbish out.'

He claims to adore women - though he thinks they are as different from men as horses from cows - but also admits to being a devoted panty fetishist. As a boy he used to try on his mother's knickers. He once stole panties from a washing-line: 'I mean, if somebody left her panties behind, certainly I would make use of them. I could masturbate with panties once, whereas now I couldn't masturbate anyway because I don't have the sexual energy but I make love to Joy virtually every day.'

Well that's nice to know. I keep praying Joy won't walk through the room again, but I suppose she must be embarrassment-proof by now. She is everything to him - his only point of contact with the real world. He has few or no close friends, especially now he has given up drinking (after a mini-stroke a year ago) and no longer goes to the pub. He used to have a sort of local fan club who met on Saturdays and produced a newsletter called The Colin Wilson Quarterly, but he no longer attends. Occasionally 'disciples' arrive - there was a girl called Kathy who turned up on the doorstep. 'We had this terrible fortnight when she kept undoing my flies and taking out my prick every time Joy left the room.' But he didn't like to evict her because he was afraid she would commit suicide.

He is exceptionally tolerant of nutters and happy to engage in long correspondence with people who have theories about, say, alien abduction - or with Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, with whom he corresponded for 10 years till Brady dumped him. But ordinary social contact - apart from with his family - seems completely missing from his life. Missing, but not missed. He says that about 10 years ago Joy insisted on going out for a drink on New Year's Eve. 'We finished off drinking champagne at midnight in our local pub and it took me a year to shake off all the people that I'd met!'

He used to say he planned to live to 300 but after his mini-stroke he now says he hopes to make 93, the age at which his hero George Bernard Shaw died. What does he expect his obituaries to say? 'I don't really care. I said at the end of Voyage to a Beginning [his first autobiography, written 40 years ago] that I regarded myself as the most important writer of the 20th century and I'd be a fool if I didn't know it, and a coward if I didn't say it. And I still feel that. With a little luck, the world will agree with me by the time I die.'

Does he think he's had much influence as a philosopher? 'Oh no. None at all. Daphne Du Maurier, who I knew when we first moved here, said to me that everyone who has a great success finds that the next 10 years are very difficult - they have a period when people take no notice of them. And I thought, No, not 10 years, I couldn't bear it! But I've been forgotten for almost 50 years. It's been a bit discouraging but I've learnt to swim against the current. But when I'd done this new autobiography, I looked at it and thought my God, this is a bloody good book! Now they'll see what I'm getting at! Now they'll see the overall view, because everything's in here - this is my life!'


Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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