10 minute read

Colin Spencer Biography

Colin Spencer comments:

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1933. Education: Brighton Grammar School, Selhurst; Brighton College of Art. Military Service: Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1950-52. Career: Paintings exhibited in Cambridge and London; costume designer. Chair, Writers Guild of Great Britain, 1982-83. Agent: Richard Scott Simon, Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.



An Absurd Affair. London, Longman, 1961.


Anarchists in Love. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1963; as The Anarchy of Love, New York, Weybright and Talley, 1967.

The Tyranny of Love. London, Blond, and New York, Weybright andTalley, 1967.

Lovers in War. London, Blond, 1969.

The Victims of Love. London, Quartet, 1978.

Asylum. London, Blond, 1966.

Poppy, Mandragora, and the New Sex. London, Blond, 1966.

Panic. London, Secker and Warburg, 1971.

How the Greeks Kidnapped Mrs. Nixon. London, Quartet, 1974.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Nightworkers," in London Magazine, vol. 2, no. 12, 1955.

"An Alien World," in London Magazine, vol. 3, no. 6, 1956.

"Nymph and Shepherd," in London Magazine, vol. 6, no. 8, 1959.

"It's Anemones for Mabel," in Transatlantic Review (London), Spring 1963.

"The Room," in Transatlantic Review (London), Summer 1966.

"Carpaccio's Dream," in Harpers and Queen (London), December1985.


The Ballad of the False Barman, music by Clifton Parker (producedLondon, 1966).

Spitting Image (produced London, 1968; New York, 1969). Published in Plays and Players (London), September 1968.

The Trial of St. George (produced London, 1972).

The Sphinx Mother (produced Salzburg, Austria, 1972).

Why Mrs. Neustadter Always Loses (produced London, 1972).

Keep It in the Family (produced London, 1978).

Lilith (produced Vienna, 1979).

Television Plays:

Flossie, 1975; Vandal Rule OK? (documentary), 1977.


Gourmet Cooking for Vegetarians. London, Deutsch, 1978.

Good and Healthy: A Vegetarian and Wholefood Cookbook. London, Robson, 1983; as Vegetarian Wholefood Cookbook, London, Panther, 1985.

Reports from Behind, with Chris Barlas, illustrated by Spencer. London, Enigma, 1984.

Cordon Vert: 52 Vegetarian Gourmet Dinner Party Menus. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Thorsons, 1985; Chicago, Contemporary, 1987.

Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Thorsons, 1986.

The New Vegetarian: The Ultimate Guide to Gourmet Cooking and Healthy Living. London, Elm Tree, 1986.

The Vegetarian's Healthy Diet Book, with Tom Sanders. London, Dunitz, 1986; as The Vegetarian's Kitchen, Tucson, Arizona, Body Press, 1986.

One-Course Feasts. London, Conran Octopus, 1986.

Feast for Health: A Gourmet Guide to Good Food. London, DorlingKindersley, 1987.

Al Fresco: A Feast of Outdoor Entertaining. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Thorsons, 1987.

The Romantic Vegetarian. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Thorsons, 1988.

The Adventurous Vegetarian. London, Cassell, 1989.

Which of Us Two? The Story of a Love Affair. London, Viking, 1990.

The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Pullisle, FourthEstate, and New England University Press, 1992.

Homosexuality in History. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1995.

The Vegetable Book, photography by Linda Burgess. New York, Rizzoli, 1995.

The Gay Kama Sutra. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Editor, Green Cuisine: The Guardian's Selection of the Best Vegetarian Recipes. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Thorsons, 1986.


Critical Studies:

Interview with Peter Burton, in Transatlantic Review 35 (London), 1970.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: PlayKeep It in the Family, London, 1978.

I have the impression that my work taken as a whole can be confusing to a critic or a reader. Both the novels and the plays appear to be written in too many various styles; if this is true I make no apologies but will attempt an explanation. The main core of my work as a writer is found in the four volumes of the unfinished sequence of novels: Generation. This, in its simplest form is nothing but fictionalised autobiography—the line where fiction begins and reality ends is a philosophical enigma that continually fascinates me. The volumes are sagas of various families, their children and grandchildren, their marriages and relationships; their social context is firmly middle-class though in later volumes some of the characters move into the upper-middle stratas while others remain socially rootless. I have struggled in these books to make the characters and their backgrounds as true to what I have observed and experienced as my perception and recollection allow. For I believe that the novel form is unique in being as exact a mirror to our experience as is afforded in the whole range of art forms. For not only can the novel communicate the great obsessive passions, frustrations, and longings of individuals, but it can also conjure up a picture of all the myriad details—quite trivial in themselves—which at certain times affect major actions. In form I based these interrelating novels on the nineteenth-century tradition (it is a complicated story with many characters) but I have allowed myself within that framework to use all the literary experiments forged in the first half of this century. The characters that I have created from my experience and observation are not puppets; I cannot control and guide them into some preconceived aesthetic pattern, for they exist in life and in the narration I have to pursue and relate as truthfully as possible their own tragic mistakes, their comic failures and triumphs, their self-deceit and affirmation of life.

But in my plays there is no direct autobiographical experience: they are, like some of the other novels, satires on social problems that oppress individuals. I like to entertain in the theatre, to make an audience laugh but at the same time debate at the core of the work a serious and unresolved problem. The novels Poppy, Mandragora, and the New Sex and How the Greeks Kidnapped Mrs. Nixon also use comedy to expose gross injustice. Panic treats another subject, that of child assault, on the surface as a murder mystery, yet its main intention was to induce the reader to understand the psychological nature of the killer. I would dismiss my first novel, An Absurd Affair, as merely a public rehearsal in the craft of fiction. But there is one novel that falls outside any of the above categories—Asylum. The Oedipus myth has always fascinated me. (The play The Sphinx Mother is a contemporary account of the Jocasta figure refusing to commit suicide and struggling for final and complete possession of her son/husband.) Another myth, the Fall of Man, with its pervasive sense of original sin corroding free will seems for me with the Oedipus myth to have influenced the compulsive aspirations in Western culture for over two thousand years. In Asylum I created a plot, loosely based on a 19th-century American scandal, where I united both myths in the same family and set it in a hierarchic social commune, almost a science-fiction Asylum. I then tried to imply how our religious and judicial structure worked through arbitrary indifference and cruel repression. I might add that for large passages of the book I allowed myself the indulgence of writing in a style akin to poetic prose.

If I may sum up I would say that I feel my job as a writer is to state the truth in as vivid a manner as is possible and to involve the reader in a celebration of life, while uncovering the injustices that as individuals and as society we impose upon each other.

* * *

Colin Spencer's novels revel in the eccentric, the bizarre, and the grotesque while tending toward social commentary. His event-filled books examine human relationships buffeted by sexual antagonisms of various, extreme types. In depicting his frequently polymorphously perverse characters, Spencer plays a recurrent theme of protest against conventional mores and morality, although, perhaps unintentionally, the alternatives he presents hardly seem more satisfactory. With casts of almost Dickensian proportions and curiosity, he runs the gamut of sexual expression, particularly homosexual. Sympathetic understanding, graphic detail, and a fine talent for low comedy do not often, however, extend his narratives beyond the superficial or raise them from mere sensationalism to genuine significance. Nor does his tendency to have protagonist-spokesmen speechify make his arguments more appealing.

In An Absurd Affair Spencer sketches some telling scenes of marital dependence and oppression, but soon gives way to improbable melodrama. Conceited, petty, and dull, James dominates his immature, thoughtless child-wife, Sarah. Though he is undereducated and boring, James finds his wife inferior and her love of art beyond his comprehension. By accident, Sarah finds the negative of a "dirty" picture, and, to the prudish James's shock, she is fascinated. Undue influence by this "art," along with romantic infatuation and huge amounts of alcohol, leads the insecure woman into a ludicrous pursuit of a sadistic schoolteacher and finally into a delusory affair with a Sicilian gigolo. Though James rescues her, she finds she no longer loves him and declares her independence. For all Spencer's obvious and overdrawn psychologizing, both characters remain rather implausible caricatures in what is, indeed, an absurd affair, unredeemed by the crude poetic justice—or ladies' magazine moralizing—of its pat ending.

Of considerably more merit and interest are the volumes of the series Generation, a sizeable contribution to the large corpus of English novels examining life in reaction to post-World War II conditions, in this case a sprawling saga of the Simpson family from World War I through the 1960s. Shifting back and forth over the years, Spencer draws vivid, well-rounded portraits of several characteristic types, some of which develop into unique personalities; the ever more complicated alliances and misalliances of the heterogeneous Simpsons reveal a fascinating panorama of several social milieus. While realistic scenes are well-executed, the more emotional confrontations take on the unfortunate tone of a soap opera. And though characters occasionally mention and blame the war for their uncertain, disjointed worlds, its significance for their individual struggles is implied more than clearly stated.

Weaving in and out of the separate stories of the factional family members, friends, and lovers, Eddy Simpson's raunchy career, depicted in short, often raucous vignettes, becomes a central focus for understanding the wayward, amusing, and sometimes pathetic journeys in the novels. Crude and conscious only of his own desires, paterfamilias Eddy jokes, drinks, and womanizes. His Rabelaisian zest for life can be hilarious, but it is also ruinous for the rest of the Simpsons. Long-suffering wife Hester turns to religion, whose comforts are of little use to her artistic and volatile children Sundy and Matthew. The major portions of the novels are devoted to their painful growing up and tortured adulthood.

Hetero-, homo-, and bi-sexual roles are played out in several combinations; in the convoluted course of the interconnected plots there is more changing of partners than in a country square dance. Sundy is most original. After dallying with lesbianism, she is caught briefly in an incestuous bond. She takes up with Reg, a handsome liar, self-proclaimed anarchist, and sometime rent-boy, aborts their illegitimate child, and finally, confusedly, marries him. After losing Reg to her brother Matthew, she leads a bohemian life with an unreliable publisher. Through tumultuous years, Matthews's reactions to his father's boorishness and cruelty alternate between dejection and desire for revenge, religious fanaticism and self-hatred. His homosexuality comes slowly to consciousness but not acceptance, and his ambivalence ends in a disastrous and mutually destructive marriage to a priggish, unstable shrew.

Along the way Spencer portrays lower-, middle-, and upper-class life, as well as the more baroque aspects of the homosexual world, with deftness and insight. Sometimes his prose sags, but generally Spencer's humor, irony, and use of contrast are skillful, allowing his themes to reveal themselves by inference. Perhaps his strongest points are made by the self-inflicted wounds of the "anarchists" whose intellectual poses ineffectually mask their adolescent, mixed-up libertinism.

Constructed in a fantastic mode, Asylum displays Spencer's penchant for the macabre. The patients in the ultra-modern insane asylum are prompted to act out their twisted pasts and perverse imaginings by the equally but scientifically demented psychiatrists (who are, in turn, directed by monstrous computers), before they are hunted and left to die. Spencer's surrealistic vision combines and curiously reworks Oedipus and the Book of Genesis through phantasmagoric permutations. In the confused dimension of illusion-reality, Cleo-Jocasta tries to work her incestuous vindictive will upon her priest-husband Max (Addams) through their dark-skinned son Carl, but Carl prefers the charms of his fair-skinned brother Angelo. While the inversions and embroidery of the Greek and Judaic myths are imaginative, their point is often as obscure as Cleo's mad history.

Perhaps Spencer's most mature work is his probing analysis of the mentality of the child molester in Panic. With the seamy Brighton underworld as a backdrop, the novel unfolds the wretched life of Woody and his mother Saffron May and their increasingly perverted relationship, culminating in the tragic child-murders. Spencer tells the gripping story through the voices of the major characters, carefully controlling the tensions to the last climactic moments. What was once used largely for shock value in earlier books, is now integral to theme and structure. Both killer and victims are revealed with sympathy from the inside, and even the freakish characters of the lesbian burglar Trigger and the wretched dwarf Jumbo emerge as strange but human beings.

—Joseph Parisi

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II Biography