The Prophet of Exhaustion
Being Yet Another Remembrance of
Bill Hopkins (1927–2012), Part 2
Part 2 of 2
3. “The corrupt vigour of fascism.”
In early 1958, Time magazine ran a humorous squib titled “Sloane Square Stomp.” It told how Colin Wilson (and presumably Bill) had attended a premiere of their friend Stuart Holroyd’s new play at the Royal Court Theatre. Bill and Colin’s onetime friend Christopher Logue stood up in the stalls with Kenneth Tynan, denouncing Holroyd and Wilson as fascists. During the interval, this led to a shoving match in a nearby bar. The whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, but since it involved Angry Young Men, the Royal Court and maybe Mosleyites as well, it made it into the tabloids and eventually Time.
I found this article in some library stacks in San Diego. I sent a photocopy to Bill.
He wrote back immediately, very amused. “I saw [Logue] in Covent Garden in early 1958. I said hello to him and he didn’t reply. I was with a lady friend and when we were out of earshot she whispered to me, ‘You know he hates you.’” Bill had no idea, apparently.
Christopher Logue and Bill had been great pals and fellow poets in Paris, in the early 1950s. Then in London, about 1957, Logue fell in with Ken Tynan, who informed Christopher that Bill Hopkins, Colin Wilson, and Stuart Holroyd were proposing to start a new fascist political party, and should henceforth be avoided.
The whole idea was amazing, preposterous. Bill Hopkins, a hard-core political activist? It does seem that in 1957-58 he and Colin Wilson were batting around the notion of starting a new rightist political faction, to be called the Spartacan Party or Spartacan movement.
Both Colin Wilson and Stuart Holroyd have written memoirs that describe Bill in the 1950s, but Colin’s book, The Angry Years (2006), is strangely reticent when it comes to talking about the Spartacan movement. For that you have to go to housemate Holroyd’s memoir, Contraries: A Personal Progression (1975), wherein he gives us this rather comical snapshot of the Spartacans’ brief shining moment, c. 1958:
Oliver Moxon’s spacious Belgravia house seemed an oddly inappropriate setting for a meeting of a subversive political society. Everything about it proclaimed a vested interest in the class-structured, privilege-ridden order of society that the Spartacan philosophy as Bill [Hopkins] expounded it, regarded as a brake on the advancement and effectiveness of the man of genius and vision. But Oliver himself was quite a catch for the Spartacan movement with his wealth and political experience…
About fifty people had gathered for this particular meeting which Colin [Wilson] was to address. The room was packed and a lot of us had to sit on the floor. I knew about half the people there and recognised several of Bill’s recent catches – a septuagenarian titled lady, a pretty actress, a publisher – and several writers and journalists, and there were others whom I couldn’t place although their faces were familiar . . .
Suddenly Bill was standing before the assembly with his arms outstretched above him, as if he were offering himself as a candidate for crucifixion or acknowledging the roar of a crowd after a boxing triumph. This gesture achieved the intended effect of reducing the loud hubbub of conversation to a low murmur . . . He [Bill] proceeded to introduce Colin . . . He [Wilson] started to talk about an American psychological researcher who had conducted experiments with rats and proved that only five per cent had leadership qualities and without them the rest became malleable and completely without initiative. The same applied to human beings . . . The implications were inescapable, Colin said. The effective political power ought to be in the hands of the five per cent minority who were equipped to use it . . . 
The Spartacans might have been dismissed as mere harmless eccentrics—like Greenpeace people or Fortean societies—except for one thing. Bill and Colin were already taking a drubbing from the lefties and the press because word got out that they had been friendly with Sir Oswald Mosley. (“I called him Tom. He called me Bill. Lady Mosley I called Diana,” Bill told me.)
It wasn’t much more than a nodding acquaintance, but it was catnip to the tabloid press. First thing, the journos turned on Colin, whom they’d been lionizing for the past year. (24-year-old philosopher/critic—author of The Outsider —wrote it by day in British Museum—slept rough in Hampstead Heath—etc. etc.) They savaged his second book, then aimed their sights on his best friend Bill Hopkins, and derided Bill’s soon-to-be-published first novel:
Recently (c. September 1957) the Daily Mail went so far as to warn people, a few weeks before the publication of a young author’s first book, that they were about to beset by “a new espresso evangelist, another seers of the Soup Kitchens, a fresh messiah of the milk bars . . . !”
(Editor Tom Maschler in Introduction to Declaration, 1957.)
Leading the charge against Bill, Colin, and their friend Stuart Holroyd was Stuart Allsop, a critic and TV presenter. In his 1958 book, The Angry Decade, Allsop lays into the trio, with particular rage at Bill Hopkins. Allsop belittles their motivating philosophy to be a kind of “Religious Existentialism which they say requires a higher type of man, a superman, to thrust humanity through to safety . . .”
[A]lthough all this may be thought to be public poppycock [Hopkins] is getting a public platform, he’s getting books published and that presumes an audience. It ought to be recognized that what would have seemed quite impossible fifteen years ago [i.e. 1943]—even five years ago—is happening. A cult of fascism has grown among a generation who were babies when Europe’s gas-chambers were going full blast, a set of under-privileged romantics in the coffee bar network, more formidable than Angus Wilson’s Huggett and the Crowd [see discussion of “A Bit off the Map,” below] who get their kicks in a low pressure culture from wishful thinking about torture, pain and killing. We seem to be on the edge of a new romantic tradition which is sanctifying the bully as hero. It is exceedingly strange, and profoundly disturbing, if the dissentience (the ‘anger’) in our present semi-socialized compromise welfare society is going to swing retrogressively to the mysticism which perished in its own flames. We know that there is political boredom and apathy in Britain, that the drive seems lost and blood runs thin. Can it be so intolerable that it is creating an ardor for the corrupt vigour of fascism? 
Of course by the time this criticism was gathered up between hard covers in 1958, Bill Hopkins’s “public platform” had disappeared.
Allsop’s remarks now read like over-the-top ravings, but such attitudes were very much in the air then and they would be for a long time to come. A few years after this, Anthony Burgess would write A Clockwork Orange, a slightly different sort of saga about lively young rowdies in the milk-bar and coffeehouse scene. Burgess went to great pains, when discussing the novel and subsequent Stanley Kubrick movie, to pretend that his story of Alex and the Droogs was inspired by a 1961 trip to the USSR as well as his wife’s brutal rape by American GIs in London in 1944. A Clockwork Orange had nothing to do with kindling an “ardor for the corrupt vigour of fascism.”
So Burgess claimed. But Clockwork was almost certainly inspired by the controversy surrounding Wilson and Hopkins when Declaration was released, and Allsop’s criticism written, in 1957-58. This was a time when Burgess was mainly back in England, on and off, after stints of teaching in Malaya. It is inconceivable that Burgess would not have been aware of the fear of “fascistic” violence that seemed to accompany any discussion of Angry Young Men and disaffected youth.
When the Stanley Kubrick film of Burgess’s novel was released at the end of 1971, and some American film critics—two Jewish women, Pauline Kael and Judith Crist—openly described its narrative as fascistic, Burgess again found himself denying “fascist” intent. It was a weird, paradoxical situation. There aren’t any overt fascist symbols in the film A Clockwork Orange (unless you count the brief Triumph des Willens marching to Beethoven’s Ninth during the Ludovico Technique aversion-therapy scene . . . and those visuals are hardly intended as admirable or heroic).
It appears then that Kael, Crist, et al. were commenting not on the properties and merits of the film itself, but were rather echoing Allsop’s 1958 denunciation of “under-privileged romantics . . . who get their kicks in a low pressure culture from wishful thinking about torture, pain and killing.” They were bleating a pre-packaged critical dogma, in other words, one that went back to the half-forgotten leftist criticism about some Angry Young Men.
4. Bill Hopkins, in Fact and Fiction.
As I’d met Bill a full generation after Declaration, and had never read any of these denunciatory screeds from Allsop et al., I sometimes wondered if there weren’t something chimerical about Bill’s notoriety—this notion of him as a Dark Prophet ahead of his time, with his writings suppressed, his books pulped. It was all rather like the recent fulminations surrounding the “Neo-Reactionary” or “Dark Enlightenment” movement, with lots of gaseous innuendo but little substance.
“I’m a very serious writer,” he insisted to me on the phone before we met. (This was in reply to something I’d just said, girly and inane, e.g., “You sound like a fun guy.”) But whatever he was doing with his time, he never seemed to be doing any writing, serious or otherwise. I kept thinking he might an oversold fraud, a literary footnote to a footnote, prized mainly because some old Blackshirts liked him.
But the legend of Bad Bill did seem to check out when I asked around. Old journos who remembered the late ’50s knew who he was. One of these, an editor and satirist who founded two humor magazines (both still going strong), was a very tall man with a long, stony face. Around 1996 I said to him, “R____, how’s about a ‘Still With Us’ piece about Bill Hopkins, one of the Last of the Angries?”
No need to explain further. I saw that huge Easter Island visage crumple into a grimace. “Oh, no . . . I don’t think any of our readers would enjoy that,” said R after a moment, his features settling once more.
Another thing that checked out about Bill was that he knew all the trivia he ought to have known, and more. For a while in the 1950s he (along with Colin Wilson and Stuart Holroyd) lived together in the same building in Notting Hill, 25 Chepstow Road. (Again, this is just a stone’s throw from 21 Kensington Park Road.)
25 Chepstow Road was owned by Peter Rachman, the notorious “Slumlord of Notting Hill,” who is popularly blamed  for turning that postwar shabby-genteel neighborhood into a squalid hellhole of rioting Caribbean Negroes. But the Jewish Mr. Rachman liked to think of himself as a patron of the arts and a sociable fellow, so he let Bill Hopkins and company live at 25 Chepstow Road rent-free. They were suspected of being fascists, yes, but they raised the tone of the neighborhood.
I gathered that Rachman also introduced Bill to the Stephen Ward circle, including Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, Bill Astor, and other Profumo Affair notables. Bill also knew Johnny Edgecombe  (a fellow Rachman tenant), the black drug dealer who shot up Stephen Ward’s flat in December 1962, and thereby began the unraveling of the spy-and-slut scandal that brought down Harold Macmillan’s government.
“Oohh,” drawled Bill, with a puff on his Silk Cut. “World’s End Estate, I believe.”
(I looked her up and indeed she was.)
* * *
Because he officially stopped writing in the late ’50s, Bill’s literary reputation rests entirely upon his notorious novel, The Divine and the Decay, and a dense philosophical essay, “Ways Without a Precedent,” in the book Declaration, both published in 1957 by MacGibbon & Kee. 
Declaration was a collection of manifestoes by young literati including Bill, Colin Wilson, Stuart Holroyd, John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson, Kenneth Tynan and some others. Along with Kingsley Amis (who chose not to participate), the contributors to the book are generally considered to constitute the “Angry Young Men,” a journalistic fad-term that everyone derided at the time but is now useful shorthand for the literary era.
The book was Bill Hopkins’s idea. Its proposed title was, approximately, Declaration of Intent by the Angry Young Men. “Angry Young Men” was then a fresh new journalists’ meme, meant to encompass John Osborne of Look Back in Anger (1956), Colin Wilson of The Outsider (also 1956), and anyone else who wanted to come aboard.
Editor Tom Maschler was very enthusiastic about Bill’s suggestion, and set the wheels in motion. Alas, he let his girlfriend Doris Lessing contribute a manifesto. This rather ruined the “Angry Young Men” aspect of the title. (Doris was smart. She knew there wasn’t going to be any anthology of Angry Young Women. She got boyfriend Tom not only to include her, but to put her at the very front of the book.)
Since he came up with the whole idea, it’s fitting that Bill Hopkins’s manifesto is the best contribution to the book, or at least the most philosophical, and the one that stands up as more than a period piece today. The other contributors talked about postwar dreariness, or the need for socialism, or the tragedy of youth. Kenneth Tynan mocked journalistic criticism, reserving special scorn for the middlebrow pretensions of The New Yorker. (Clever career move. A few months later The New Yorker offered our Ken a job as drama critic, and he was on the next boat from Southampton.)
Bill’s essay, “Ways Without a Precedent,” eschewed fireworks and theatrics, laying out arguments calmly and methodically from the first sentence: “The literature of the past ten years has been conspicuous for its total lack of direction, purpose, and power.”
The fact that the decade in question has shown the highest ratio of adult literacy in British history makes this inertia an astounding feat. So astounding, indeed, that the great majority of readers have turned their attention to the cinema, television and radio instead. Their reading talent has been commandeered by the more robust newspapers.
From these observations Bill builds up his argument. “Our” ability to believe is exhausted. “We” have no transcendent goal or drive. “The truth is that Man, for all his scientific virtuosity, cannot defeat his own exhaustion . . . Man has become a rational animal; he rejects any suggestion of religiosity as scrupulously as an honest beggar denounces respectability.”
That last zinger about the beggar really drives the point home. You—we—are too proud to “believe”; you are too sophisticated to be an enthusiast.
The word “exhaustion” appears nine or ten times in the essay, as Bill Hopkins makes his case. So what is the solution? Well, he spends a few pages toying with the idea of religiosity but (perhaps because he is exhausted and unchurched himself) dismisses traditional Christianity. Then he presents us with the three choices we have here in 1957:
- We can start a new religion. (However, the lack of tradition makes its success rather unlikely.)
- We can revitalize and reconstruct Christianity. (Here we at least have tradition. But the basic beliefs are ossified, Bill thinks, and the original visionaries are dead.)
- Finally (says Bill) we can trace belief to its original source and turn it our own, new, account.
And what is that “original source”? Bill believes it is a sense of both exhaustion and desperation. The problem “today” (1957) is not lack of energy, but lack of Drive and Will. It is not too hard to see why this point of view might have been scary to some folks in 1957 and 1958.
This was also the theme of Bill’s one novel, published about the same time, then swiftly withdrawn and pulped. It was a slim volume of dense prose called The Divine and the Decay.
Apart from its irritatingly oblique exposition, it is very hard for a first-time reader to see what was so scandalous about this book. There is little explicit ideology or politicking. Decay has scarcely more action than Waiting for Godot. Almost nothing happens until the very end, when the hero drowns (except, he doesn’t, quite!). To all extents and superficial observations, The Divine and the Decay is an experimental, philosophical novel.
It was reissued in the 1980s with a new title (The Leap), new dust-jacket (a painting of a white-stucco streetscape) and some indignant forewords by Bill Hopkins and Colin Wilson decrying the book’s suppression and its mistreatment in the press. Bill gave me a copy of this later edition, and I said I’d try to get a publisher for it in America, it being such a legendary banned book and all.
But of course I didn’t. I suggested it to Mr. Parfrey at Feral House—that imprint of the outré and arcane—but he made a verbal wince. “Oh no, urr, it’s so . . . British!”
Britishness was not the problem. The book needed illustrations—sinister line-drawings or Rockwell Kent-style woodcuts. Something to hold onto, a visual guide to what was happening in the book. Oh, this chapter is supposed to be scary. Oh, this character is having a nightmare. These two people are going to have Sex. That sort of thing. I always say, long-form fiction has declined because novels don’t have illustrations anymore. Except of course for graphic novels, the huge popularity of which proves my point. Novels need illustrations; just ask Evelyn Waugh or Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Future reprinters, please take note.
It’s hard to find a copy of The Divine and the Decay, original edition. In New York and even in London, if you wish to read it, you have to go to the library and read a non-circulating copy. I re-read it recently for the first time in twenty years and must say it went down much smoother second time around. But this may have been merely because I knew so much about the troubled histories of the book and Bill Hopkins. As I said, the story doesn’t have much action. It’s a long mood study in a depressing setting populated by depressing people. Clammy rocks, slate-grey skies, a sense of forboding disgust; with some free-floating anxiety and nausea thrown in for good measure. The central character, a fellow named Plowart, is taking a very un-jolly ‘oliday on one of the lesser Channel Islands, herein called “Vachau,” based upon Sark. 
Plowart has nightmares, he frets, he fights, he meets a collection of crippled or otherwise unattractive people, he has an unpleasant romance with the Dame of Sark, or rather Dame of Vachau. It gradually unravels that Plowart has gone to this island to provide an alibi that will cover his involvement in the murder of a political colleague, the co-founder of what seems to be a fascist or nationalist political party. The Dame attempts to drown him off the rocks, but he survives, desperate and triumphant, while the Dame drowns instead. “I’m indestructible!” shouts Plowart.
So why was the book controversial? So far as I can tell, the novel per se was not. It got good coverage in Books and Bookmen. What was controversial was Bill Hopkins and his circle. No platform! the lefties and antifas would shout today, and that’s pretty much what happened then. MacGibbon & Kee were pressured to pull the book from the stands, and pulp the remainder.
* * *
By late 1957 a consensus had formed among the bien-pensants that the “messiahs of the milk bars” were little more than quasi-fascist hooligans. This comes out in a short story of the period, “A Bit off the Map,” title story of a collection by Angus Wilson (a friend and patron of Colin’s, but no relation).
It is a black comedy about London subcultures colliding. There is a dim teddy-boy male prostitute named Kennie, who has attached himself, mascot-like, to a gang of espresso-bar bohemians in Soho, known as “The Crowd.” As the evening progresses, they migrate to a birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then to North London where some grandées of the lit world are holding court (Edith Sitwell, perhaps, and Cyril Connolly). The party dribbles off and Kennie ends up on a bench in Hampstead Heath, where he kills a crazy old man.
Reg believes in Power and what he says is Shit in the face of humanity—if millions have to be liquidated what’s it matter? most people are never alive anyway but Huggett believes in Power and Leadership for the Regeneration of the World.
Reg is writing a novel with a character named Rawston, who is supposed to personify of indestrucible “Heroic Will” (this would be Plowart, of course, from The Divine and the Decay).
The Crowd is so transparently Colin Wilson and friends that the author feels obliged to “lampshade” the fact with this tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, spoken by teddy-boy Kennie:
The Crowd’s not the same as the Angry young men which you read about. Someone said it was and Huggett got very angry, because it’s by Love and Leadership that the Will works. And all these angry young men believe in democracy and freedom and a lot of stuff that Huggett says just gets in the way of real thinking.
Colin and Bill seemed to have enjoyed this cartoon depiction of them . Technically, you might say, it wasn’t really about them. It was more of a “meta-caricature,” a send-up of the way popular journalism had been portraying them.
* * *
Not every caricature was friendly though. Bernard Kops, an interesting if under-appreciated East End Jewish novelist, put a wild and wacky caricature of Bill Hopkins into his Awake for Mourning, published in 1958—curiously enough by the selfsame MacGibbon & Kee publishers (perhaps to make back the money they lost when pulping The Divine and the Decay?).
Halfway through the book a character appears named Derek Bishop. Derek is an ex-journalist and the founder of the fascistic New Youth Party. He meets an ex-con pickpocket named Mike Lewis, whom he seeks to transform into Mike Rebel, teen idol and front-man for the New Youth Party.
LET’S GIVE THIS BLASTED, LOUSY, STUPID, BACKWARD COUNTRY A JOLT — FRIGHTEN THE SWINE IN WESTMINSTER
says the first-page blurb in the paperback edition. And just so you know that these are not meant as admirable sentiments, the blurb also describes Derek Bishop as a “bored and power-crazy homosexual”!
In the Kops version, the Hopkins stand-in doesn’t much care for his Angry Young Men associates, who are here called The Group (versus The Crowd in Angus Wilson’s version):
“They make me sick,” Derek cleared his throat and spat into a handkerchief. “I despise them, but no party is complete without them. They’re known as The Group.” He looked up to heaven expressing boredom.
“What do they do?” Mike asked.
“Two are playwrights, one is a novelist, and one is a philosopher, playwright and novelist. All very up and coming. All genuine geniuses. I hate them.” 
9. Time issue of March 24, 1958.
10. Stuart Holroyd, Contraries: A Personal Progression (1975).
11. Colin Wilson, The Outsider, originally published in 1956 by Victor Gollancz.
12. Kenneth Allsop, The Angry Decade (1958), pp. 186-87.
13. The rape story itself is highly doubtful, and was probably invented after Lynne Burgess’s death to create an inspirational backstory for the violence in A Clockwork Orange (Andrew Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess ).
14. From 2010, “The Notting Hill Effect” in The Independent.
16. A 1960s public-housing or “council flat” development off King’s Road in Chelsea, a mile or so west of Sloane Square.
18. Declaration, 1957.
19. I thought the island sounded like Sark, and Bill told me it was indeed supposed to be Sark. It is the only Channel Island Bill ever visited, and that occasion was to research the book. But Jonathan Bowden firmly suggests the island was really Brecqhou, a small rocky outcrop off the west coast of Sark. Jonathan may simply have thought that the names looked more similar. To me, Vachau suggests wordplay: Vacation in Dachau.
20. According to Colin Wilson in The Angry Years (2005).
21. Margaret Drabble, Angus Wilson: A Biography (1995).
22. Bernard Kops, Awake for Mourning (1958). The novel, and its connection to Hopkins and company, are critiqued at length here.
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