John Summers


Interview with Angus Wilson

by John Summers, published in the Mandrake column of the Sunday Telegraph, 1965

So this lion comes rushing, roaring openmouthed at this fellow standing there ...

The Fellow (of the Royal Zoological Society) Mr A Wilson, stood his ground like a Hemingway hero and snapped two fingers up: “Come on, now! Puss-puss, smile for the picture ...”

On the threshold of 1965, Angus Wilson was standing about considering the fact that the. next five-year period of government will bring us right up to when violent, greedy and power-mad society will be taking over Britain – a jungle Britain described in Mr Wilson’s much debated novel The Old Men at the Zoo.

All around him hyenas and jackals fought raving ... “Violence,” acknowledged Mr Wilson. “is already on the increase in Britain. If the economic situation of this country should fall to bits in the next five years then violence could break out in its most horrible forms. And I really believe that.”

The dozen Australian dingo dogs were fighting over a bitch.

“Sex …” said Mr Wilson, “but I’m delighted because what’s so interesting is that all the young people today – and I see a lot of them – they haven’t got all the big sex problems the older generation used to have ... by the time they’re nineteen they’ve worked it all out for themselves. Doesn’t bother them at all. Just get on with the job. But except for the marvellous young people I can see a lot of unpleasant things happening around me in Britain right now ...

“Where’s the British Empire gone?” asked Mr Wilson. “Ruined ...!”

The lion turned away with a flea in his ear and started dryshaving himself on the cage bars.

“The British Empire was won by grocers’ sons and clerks – chaps like Clive of India and Captain Cook. Ruined by public school types with money inherited from their fathers, like Haig, bringing their incompetent brains into dangerous businesses like running wars for us. And Britain is still bogged down today by the same worn out old snobbery and fetishes ... all bowler hats, umbrellas and public school. City types. Judges insisting on parading in scarlet robes and ermine.

That’s what’s bogging down Britain. Old-fashioned snobbishness. The public school image ... Parents killing themselves to pay fees sending their children to a public school where they’ll get a worse education than if they went to the local grammar school for nothing. Nobody gives a damn about public schools any more. It’s more of a liability to admit you had a public school education than anything else.

“No, I was never a young literary lion or anything. Never thought of being a writer until I was nearly forty ... didn’t have any literary background. My father – all he was interested in was prize fighting, stuff like that ... He sent me to a public school, of course.

“I’m terribly concerned about the cult of violence everywhere. Hemingway’s fault … the harm that man did. Oh my God! Made out it was something to do with virility. Hair on your chest. Having women ... Americans go fighting mad all the time trying to prove their virility.” Mr. Wilson’s shriek of laughter. “The scream is, America is now almost totally run by women – they run the whole country. Not men at all.”

Away from the jungle noises of the zoo, we strolled through the peaceful Regency dignity of the park. A Rolling Stone comes driving down at us at 30 mph – a pair of eyes under Mr Mick Jagger’s Neanderthal hairfringe peering from behind the steering wheel of a big green automobile.

Mr Wilson flew back on to the pavement. “Oh who was that then – did you see him? That’s one of the Beatles, isn’t it ...? But as I was saying, if the young people don’t help this country get rid of all these old-fashioned isms – then for the rest of the world we Britons, we’ll all just become something for tourists to come and point their cameras at and giggle over.

“All of us here – bowler hats, Beefeaters, Tower of London, zoos, ye olde gifte shoppes, the lot – we’ll become a lot of darling nearly extinct dodos ...”