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21 September 2022

AN Wilson: the assembly-line intellectual

The writer’s exasperating new memoir offers a full dinner service of clichés and an insight into the glib fogeyism of English letters.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

In a certain light, AN Wilson is the consummate man of English letters. Since 1877 – sorry, 1977 – the historian, biographer, novelist, literary editor, diarist and professional snob has written more than 50 books. His works include biographies of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth II, Hitler, Leo Tolstoy and Jesus, Booker-listed novels and a character assassination of Charles Darwin, as well as (by his own estimation) millions of words for newspapers, the Daily Mail and Spectator being among the most eager clients for his columns, which strike a near impossible balance of spry and fusty, predictable and yet madly uneven.

Fluency, AN (Andrew Norman) writes in the opening pages of his memoir of youth and young fogeydom, simply came naturally to him. His father was the managing director of the pottery company Wedgwood and he himself has become a non-stop, 7,000-word-a-day print factory. He cannot imagine not writing and so the assembly line keeps on running. But to what end, I wondered as I made my way through his rueful confessional, covering the first half of his life. Presumably, we can expect a follow-up on our desks by noon tomorrow.

Wilson has no issue filling pages. “My problem,” he admits, “has been trying to match the words to the truth of experience, whether I was composing a fiction, writing a work of history or biography, or keeping up my highly addictive work in the newspapers.” His difficulty lies in locating the authenticity of the great writers. Likewise, the character of LP Watson in Wilson’s 2004 novel My Name Is Legion is seduced away from his true vocation by his “appalling facility… to churn out 900 words at double-quick speed on any theme”.

[See also: What Harold Wilson can teach Keir Starmer]

I went into this book with a perverse desire to find something counter-intuitive. Wilson feels rather too easily dismissed as a literary Jacob Rees-Mogg for his episcopal manner and acidulated pronouncements. But alas, from a 21st-century vantage point, it offers very little beyond the stunningly predictable.

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We have here the full 24-piece dinner service of upper-middle class clichés: bombastic father, nanny attachment issues, Dickensian schoolmasters, boarding school abuses, by ’eck caricatures of the working class, three-piece suits, Staffordshire pots, misty-eyed memories of Oxford, religious wobbles, wicker-basket bicycles, yearnings for girls in Laura Ashley frocks, a flirtation with priesthood, bourgeois bed-hopping, dramatic presentations of Walter Scott’s life, a spat on a cruise ship, Spectator sackings, brushes with royalty, warm wine at literary launches, encounters with Amis pere et fils, waspish discussions of literary mediocrities, Private Eye lunches, a crush on Nigella Lawson, emotional evasiveness and a tendency to repeat Latin phrases ad nauseam. When I read an anecdote about an Oxford academic setting fire to a newspaper, I almost lobbed the book across the room.

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What’s most frustrating is that Confessions is very nearly fascinating. It initially looks like it’s going to be an examination of “the dynamic of marital power”: a story of what went wrong in both his first marriage to the Oxford Renaissance scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, and that of his parents, Norman and Jean, two hypochondriacs embroiled in an “everlasting war”.

Norman, a seventh-generation potter and “ceramic genius”, is perhaps the book’s most distinctive character. He belted out music hall numbers, smoked 50 Senior Service a day and referred to himself as “the Colonel” but was beset with anxieties after witnessing his elder brother die after falling from a haystack. This made him an ardent atheist, later a source of conflict with his wife, Jean (first spotted in the Wedgwood typing pool), who secretly baptised her third child, Andrew, born in 1950, when she thought he might die.

[See also: The “Five Eyes” spies who fought the West’s secret wars]

Andrew survived and grew up in Stone, Staffordshire, cared for by a fleshy nanny named Blakie. Aside from his parents’ marital warfare (“the air I learned to breathe”), it was an idyllic childhood. The young Andrew was treated like a “Crown Prince” and became a “spoiled brat”, until he was sent to Hillstone, a boarding prep school in Great Malvern run by his parents’ friends: the paedophile headmaster Rudolf Barbour Simpson and his sadistic wife, Barbara. The former masturbated while he caned the boys; the latter stroked their genitals in the bath. Years later, Wilson heard explicit stories of rape, and boys who developed drug addictions and took their own lives as a result.

These passages are some of the most careful and compelling in the book, as Wilson describes the complicated feelings evoked by his intimacy with Barbara. “I was not in love with her but I was entranced. While also hating her.” The most memorable scene is one in which the author throws a bowl of porridge and vomit in her face. Possibly, this is a fantasy, since Wilson writes movingly of how Dickens helped him survive boarding school. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby “brought the subversive knowledge that human grotesques such as Barbara and Rudolph, as well as being terrifying, were also ridiculous”.

In his late teens, kitted out by his father in tweed and flannel like a “toy 60-year-old”, Wilson moved on to Rugby, where he was almost expelled for an article in the school newspaper demanding public schools open up to non-fee paying students. It had been published on the day the Queen visited. Then he went to Oxford to read English literature under John Bayley. Here, he fell under the spell of Duncan-Jones, a scholar who was nine years older than him and took his virginity. By the time Wilson was 24, he was a married father of two children, consumed with regret, convinced his wife had “stolen my youth”. But decades after they divorced, when Katherine developed dementia, he would race up to Oxford several times a week to care for her.

It is often the case that in summary a book can sound more interesting than it really is. Confessions manages the unique feat of being both spirited and deadly dull, like reading half a century’s worth of enthusiastic parish newsletters. There are some poignant reflections, some delicate turns of phrase, as well as passages of engaging mid-century history – but there’s far too much cobwebby waffle about Wilson’s coevals (a favourite word of his, along with “slither”).

It’s hard to sustain interest over pages in which he name-drops long-dead dons, embittered minor hacks or suffragan bishops still hung up about the Second Vatican Council. One of his themes is that each human contains many selves. He says he wrote the memoir with the “wistful sense” of “never being completely sure who AN Wilson was, my lack of any feeling of connect between my inward being and the activities in which I have found myself involved for the last half-century”. But then there is an ellipsis and he writes: “well, I do not know how that sentence is going to end, so I shall leave it trailing”. It is wholly characteristic of his evasiveness and “superficiality” at work.

It’s hard to know who will be interested in this memoir beyond a clutch of Oxford coevals, some geriatric theologians and six or seven Fleet Street colleagues. However, the latter set are also the people who will review this book and therein lies the problem. Confessions is exasperating less because of what it says about Wilson and more because of what it says about British intellectual culture: its glib frivolity, its fetishisation of fogeyism, its perpetually arrested development, its unwillingness to take anything very seriously at all. It claims so many of our finest minds.

Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises
AN Wilson
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20

[See also: From Jim Crace to Cosey Fanni Tutti: recent books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke