AN Other

When A.N. Wilson was growing up in the orbit of the Staffordshire potteries in the 1950s and 1960s, it was understood that he would be a writer – perhaps the new Arnold Bennett. The boy read, scribbled a good deal and had strong opinions; Sometimes he put all those characteristics together, as when he contributed an article to his (public) school magazine arguing that public schools should be closed.

His father, Norman Wilson, rose to become managing director of Wedgwood. Though somewhat in thrall to the firm’s owner, Josiah Wedgwood V, he had helped to transform a once dirty industry that had choked thousands to death before the age of thirty-five. “He did this while designing and making objects of purity and elegance,” writes AN in his memoirConfessions, “whose beauty continues to adoren any room, any human life, in which they find themselves. Yet Norman believed that to be a writer was a higher calling than this.” The family admiration for literature seems full and sincere.

Wilson’s confessions aren’t quite to be understood in the Augustinian sense, though that hovers over the text. They are, though, confessions in another, more positive sense, a commitment to the act of writing and an acknowledgment of the role of memory in that act. Though there are Dickensian cadences throughout the book, it would be unfair to use the adjective of Wilson’s family portraits. His father was widely known as “the Colonel”, and he barks and harrumps his way through Andrew’s childhood, perpetually exasperated, demanding and snobbish. Andrew’s mother, Jean, bobs along in Norman’s wake, but it is clear that she nurses a private sorrow; Another young man who had seemed an ideal suitor failed to propose, and when she meets him in later life and he mutters the inevitable words – “We should have…” – she is furious. Her capacity for anger runs disconcertingly deep. Having spent the only genuinely happy time of her life in prewar Germany, she is asked after the war begins how she would have reacted if the son of her hosting family had marched up the garden path in Barlaston: “I’d have shot him in the head”. The only uncomplicated love young Andrew receives is from his beloved nurse Blakie. These central characters are all vividly present and by no means caricatured, though certain aspects of Wilson’s father might lend themselves to that treatment – ​​his signature “Tch tch tch tch” of irritation at the emergence of a forbidden topic, for example, or his exasperated “Andrew, honest-LEE!” as the boy breaks down en route to a school where his headmaster masturbates while caning him.

After Hillstone School in Great Malvern, Wilson moved on to Rugby and then to New College, Oxford. There was a brief hiatus while he considered taking holy orders – this is more consistent with the “young fogey” reputation he acquired than with his earlier interest in Marx and Mao, though many overestimate his conservatism – but he rejected the idea. A novel came out of it, Unguarded Hours (1978), heavy with guilty sexual longing; this followed his debut, The Sweets of Pimlico (1977), which was similarly concerned with the struggle between sexual permission (or permissiveness) and restraint, love and the failure of love. “My sense of myself is of a multiple personality”, Wilson observes in Confessions, “which is one of the reasons, perhaps, I wrote so many novels, trying on the guises of different personae.” When one writes, one becomes AN Other, so his initials are singularly appropriate.

In 1983, with five further novels to his name (and a biography of the then largely unread – or unloved – Walter Scott), Wilson was listed among the “Best of Young British Novelists”, a brand marque of Granta magazine. He was cast as the three-piece-and-tie straight man to the open-necked Martin Amis, and a distant also-ran to his older Rugby schoolfellow (different house, he points out) Salman Rushdie. Yet, though he doesn’t say so himself, Wilson is among the more overlooked of the YBNs. Though the 1983 class numbers a Nobel prizewinner in Kazuo Ishiguro, Wilson’s most personal and underrated novel, The Potter’s Hand (2012), a striking and well-informed evocation of the first Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), is among the best of its vintage. As if to sustain a thematic concern with damaged sexuality and disappointment, the book begins with the harrowing amputation of Wedgwood’s right leg, both a symbolic castration and a reminder that it is often at the peak of world success that comes along and slaps one down .

On his own deathbed, Wilson might ask to be shriven of the sin of being too prolific. He willingly confesses now to having surrendered at times to the enemies of promise:

Writing bad novels and thinking they might pass as good novels because they have been made into TV shows; going to early evening drinks parties; sleeping with people not one’s wife; gossiping and chattering … it was all too enjoyable, and it numbed the capacity, not merely to create, but to hear the messages sent to us by great art.

He makes clear that, while writing is a lifelong avocation, reading is as necessary as air and water; The little boy always buried in a book becomes the man always buried in a book.

When the Augustinian strain does make itself felt, Wilson admits not just to failure in marriage, but a terrible sense of having been trapped into it, with the older, brilliant Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones. He was twenty when they married in 1971 and a father of two by the age of twenty-four, future progress blocked by the pram in the hall. The first novel didn’t come for a further three years, but Wilson was by this point an Oxford don, and novel-writing wasn’t part of that particular persona. Although Andrew and Katherine divorced in 1990, they became friends and co-dependents much later, and the opening chapters of Confessions, before the more novelistic tone of his childhood memoir kicks in, are affecting accounts of their later bond. Duncan-Jones developed dementia and was eventually moved to a care home, by which time

something beautiful had happened between us. All the feelings of rage (on my side), which could still, unpredicted, flare up, clashing with genuine fondness, had evaporated. This was not by any effort of will. What we went through in the last eighteen months of her life at home had been a tragedy in the purely Aristotelian sense; fear and pity had been purgative, cleansing.

Whether writing Confessions has had the same effect on its author is uncertain. One is never sure – and this is his power as a novelist, rather than a failing as an autobiographer – whether AN Wilson’s clarity of vision comes at the cost of emotional intimacy. There are moments at various points in his career, though the question is quietly elided here, when his soul seems too perfectly balanced between belief and unbelief. One understands that all autobiography, anything remembered, is always fiction in some sense, but it’s difficult to discern whether we are getting a rarely unmediated glimpse of a very private man who has lived very publicly or whether, with the cover picture – suit, tie , bicycle with basket, unreadable smile – and the teasing title, we are being softened up for AN Other fictional persona.

Brian Morton farms and writes in Kintyre

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