Although Angus Wilson is almost as unfashionable as F. R. Leavis these days, there was once a time when members of the chattering classes could hardly wait for his next novel or collection of short stories.
We are talking about December 1953, which is when John O’London’s Weekly ran a cover story entitled ‘ Author from the Museum ‘. In it Wilson is depicted as a sort of Larkin-like figure of prose (although at this time the Bard of the Humber had yet to achieve the elevated position he now occupies).Like Larkin, he was a librarian of an academic institution—in his case the British Museum, where he was Deputy Superintendent of the Reading Room—and like Larkin at Hull, he seems to have become a bit of a celebrity there. This is how the journalist Sewell Stokes described him:
‘Small of stature, with a luxuriance of prematurely silvered hair, and the gentle and accommodating manner of a diplomat, he might be cast by a film director as someone attached to the retinue of Marie Antionette. His appearance somehow vaguely suggests his belonging to another century. Diplomacy he certainly needs to maintain friendly relations with those readers of various nationalities, and varying temperaments, who use the Museum. An American lady used it recently for no more legitimate purpose than to have a peek at Mr Wilson, whom she had come to regard, through her admiration for his books, as rather a landmark.
But Mr Wilson is unlikely to have his head turned on that account. His is a scholar’s mind, more concerned with medieval history and obscure mammals—his two pet subjects—than with himself. Indeed, the one occupation likely to absorb his attention to the extent of interfering with his literary output is the imaginative construction with little more than a shin-bone to assist him, of some prehistoric monster. While up at Oxford he also made a particular study of the Dark Ages, their attraction for him being the opportunity they afford for making fresh discoveries. ‘
What Wilson told Stokes about his interest in ‘ obscure mammals ‘ and the Dark Ages, let alone prehistoric monsters, it is difficult to imagine. Perhaps the acclaimed social satirist of Hemlock and After and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was leading the gullible journalist along. What we do know is that Wilson was interested in animals and that in 1983 his huge seventieth birthday party, to which just about everyone who was anyone was invited, was held at the London Zoo. Luckily for me, or perhaps unluckily, this event coincided with my request for him to write something nice about Geoffrey Grigson for a festschrift I was compiling. He politely declined by letter—offering as an excuse that he was off to celebrate this birthday. So I had no contribution from him to publish—but I have kept the letter. [RR]