Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises by A. N. Wilson

One word is conspicuously absent from the 312 pages of this autobiography: fogey. In the 1980s London media-land started to notice the existence of Young Fogeys—a cabal of writers and aesthetes in their twenties and thirties, typically dressed in formal clothes, riders of push-bikes and devotees of classical art and architecture—of whom AN (Andrew Norman) Wilson was the most visible exemplar. The cover of Confessions shows him in arch-fogey mode at 32, with his natty attire, midwife’s bicycle and meek demeanor—but this memoir, which takes us up to his mid-thirties, wants to demolish such an image. From the start Wilson presents himself as a shameless badass.

In Chapter 1 he describes his first wife, the Oxford academic Katherine Duncan-Jones, in the grip of dementia; her slide from sanity is signaled by her consumption of Co-op chardonnay and prawn sandwiches. And Wilson says: “I broke every vow and promise I made to that woman.” In Chapter 3 he’s lying in bed with a lover who, when asked by a friend, “Do you fancy Andrew?” had replied: “I can imagine tearing off his three-piece suit only to find another three-piece suit underneath.” Evidently she found something else. Wilson reports: “I was happy, as only very selfish young men can be happy.”

In another scene our hero and the pre-dementia Katherine are cruising around classical sites in the Mediterranean. They proudly befriend Roger Lancelyn Green, the veteran adapter of Arthurian myths — but everything goes tits up when Green’s wife reads a Sunday Times interview that calls Wilson a notorious adulterer. “We did not realise what kind of a person you are,” she says coldly. “Roger has asked that you do not approach us for the remainder of the cruise.”

“I was happy, as only very selfish young men can be happy.”

Wilson’s intention, in writing Confessions, was not to mimic St Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau; he wrote it because he was “aware of [being a] failure, both as a writer and as a human being, as a husband, a parent, a son, a friend”. To claim he has “failed” as a writer is strange, given that he has published 24 novels, some highly praised (he tells us Princess Margaret “thought my best book was Wise Virgin, probably true when she said it”), and a dozen mostly well-received biographies, of Tolstoy, Milton, Queen Victoria, Jesus, Hitler and others. But how he “failed” as a son and a husband is the book’s main theme.

His father, Norman, came from several generations of potters; at 50 he was managing director of Wedgwood, a rumbustious show-off, a performer of music-hall songs and a social climber. He came to hate religion because his mother died soon after his birth and his elder brother Stephen died of tetanus poisoning at 11. In later life he’d bore listeners with anecdotes about his adventures with the Wedgwoods; fans of Wilson’s fictional Lampitt clan will remember their endless rehearsals of “Lampitt lore”.

Wilson’s mother, Jean, came from a broken home. Her mother, Selena, hated her, smacked her and locked her in wardrobes. She escaped to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and later to school in Koblenz, where the headmaster’s family took her in. She had, says Wilson, “a greater capacity than anyone I ever met to squeeze discontent from the happiest of circumstances”. An inferiority complex meant she hated anyone mentioning a book or work of art; to her it was “showing off”. Having such a bookish son must have been a torment.

Wilson’s early years come across as an expulsion from Paradise. He grew up in an earthly Eden, cosseted by “Blakie”, his gypsy nanny, with her rough red hands, fleshy body and canal-side garden full of sweet peas and geraniums. The face of Sister Mary Mark, head nun at the nearby convent, could have been “painted by Giotto”. Then, abruptly, he’s taken to boarding school at Hillstone in Worcestershire and enters hell. It’s shocking to read about the savagery of his headmaster, Rudolph Barbour-Simpson, who would openly play with his “tube” while thrashing Wilson with a cane; but also about the creepiness of his wife, Barbara, who watched young boys in the bath with her “seductively cruel eyes” while stroking their genitals; those who displeased her would be locked in a cage until they wet themselves. Reading Dickens came to Wilson’s aid. The way he takes revenge on Barbara — it involves a flung bowl of porridge and vomit — is straight from Nicholas Nickleby.

To claim he has “failed” as a writer is strange, given that he has published 24 novels, some highly praised, and a dozen mostly well-received biographies, of Tolstoy, Milton, Queen Victoria, Jesus, Hitler and others.

From there, encouraged by his Shakespeare-quoting aunt Elizabeth, it’s literature all the way — and journalism. At Rugby he edited the student magazine and, on the day the Queen was due to visit, he ran an editorial demanding that public schools should be open to all. The London press pack descended, asking to meet the “Public School Red”, and Wilson’s future as a gadfly controversialist had begun.

In the book’s closing chapters Wilson recalls how, at 20, he struggled with religion: should he embrace Cardinal Newman’s dictum that one is either a Catholic or an atheist? Seeking inspiration he visits Birmingham Oratory, where a community of Newman’s followers are living in the past. He considers joining them — but the fish pie at lunch changes his mind. Visiting his future mother-in-law afterward, he has to race to the lavatory and wakes up being treated for hepatitis A. Cured of Newman-worship, he marries a pregnant Katherine and decides to live in the real world after all.

Wilson is a torrentially readable autobiographer, capable of howlingly funny paragraphs, desperately sad scenes, gay slapstick, literary analysis and gossipy name-dropping in the same chapter. His pen portraits of his parents don’t express loathing but hard-won, slightly exhausted understanding. His rampant showing off (the languages he speaks, the breadth of his reading, his chats with the Queen Mother) seem driven more by glee than conceit. Although I don’t want to read another word about his fight with God, I look forward enormously to reading more about this talented eccentric’s grapple with the flesh.

John Walsh is a former literary editor for The Sunday Times and editor of The Independent Magazine