I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Out with the New

Catherine Mulcahy

Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises, by AN Wilson, Bloomsbury Continuum, 312 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1472994806

Schooldays are seldom recalled as a particularly happy experience by the children of the English upper middle class. One need only think of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, George Orwell’s essay about his prep school, St Cyprian’s, a perhaps selective evocation of a prison world of ‘sweaty stockings, dirty towels, faecal smells blowing along corridors, forks with old food between the prongs, neck-of-mutton stew, and the banging doors of the lavatories and the echoing chamber-pots in the dormitories’. And of course bullying.

‘Prep’ means ‘preparatory’ and prep schools, to which the unfortunate children of wealthy or ambitious families were, and are, sent off to board aged seven or eight, are focused on preparing young boys for entry to public schools – Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and the like – institutions which in turn offer an excellent preparation for membership, later in life, of a Conservative cabinet.

If public schools seem, in most accounts, to be less frightening places than prep schools that may be down to a number of factors: that the pupil/victim is older and usually more robust, that some of the teachers can be inspirational, and even kind, and that bullying, typically by older boys, tends to fall away as one reaches middle and late adolescence. And then of course there are always the holidays.

The writer and journalist Andrew (AN) Wilson was lucky enough to spend parts of successive summer holidays (from Rugby School) at the home of the hospitable and intellectually stimulating Mme de Liencourt at Ploumanac’h in Brittany, where he worked on his conversational fluency and was told by Madame that it was really better to speak ‘Anthony Eden French’ than to replicate the quite affreux accent he had picked up at school from his teacher, Mr Schlick, a native of Alsace. But of course some time had to be spent at home with his parents too, who at this time were living, after numerous flits from one property to another across rural Wales, in the village of Llansteffan, not far from Dylan Thomas’s Laugharne/Llareggub. The Wilsons’ marriage had long been a bitterly unhappy one, and so it was natural that both father, Norman, and mother, Jean, would be keen ‑ if not to turn their children against the other parent ‑ at least to work quietly on not being the more resented.

Norman was lonely, so of course he craved my company, took me to tailors in Swansea in the days when he could still afford it and kitted me out as a toy sixty-year-old. As I sat there, a teenager in tweed coats and flannel trousers of pre-Second World War cut, with a glass of sherry in my hand, I had a friendship with him … [b]ut it was the sort of friendship a young man might have with a lonely old chap in the smoking room of a club.

Norman Wilson is perhaps the most colourful presence in Confessions and we will return to his son’s skilfully drawn portrait of him. But of course the book is also, and perhaps principally, a memoir of Andrew’s own life and this fleeting glimpse of him as a miniature teenage gent is intriguing since it seems to have anticipated a style of self-presentation that would endure across the decades that followed. The front cover of Confessions features a photograph of the author posing beside a bicycle with a large wicker basket in front of the old Spectator offices in Doughty Street in London. He is in his early thirties and dressed in a dark three-piece suit, striped shirt and neatly knotted tie. He looks – well, slightly self-satisfied. Inside the back flap there is another photograph, taken quite recently one imagines. This time the subject, in his garden, boldly returns our gaze, his expression rather severe. The black shoes are polished, though the trousers do not seem to be pressed. The jacket is slightly unstructured, ‘smart casual’ perhaps, but enhanced by a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. There is again some kind of buttoned waistcoat or cardigan, and the ensemble is topped off, not by a tie this time but by the loop and knot of a bright scarf, to hide the septuagenarian throat perhaps.

The overall look is what we call ‘fogey’, young in the first photo and old in the second. Fogeyism, which is, at least in its young variety, more a performance than a philosophy, may originally have been a reaction against the celebration of youth and freewheeling sexuality prevalent in the 1970s and ’80s. Its devotees, almost exclusively middle and upper class in origin, tend to affect an enthusiasm for anything old, but particularly architecture (Victorian and neo-Gothic) and religion (Anglo-Catholic or Roman) and are keen to discourse loudly in public places on these subjects or indeed on anything mildly arcane on which they have gleaned a few scraps of knowledge. The contemporary apotheosis of young fogeyism can be experienced in the frequently embarrassing practice on University Challenge misleadingly called conferring (conferring being a private, or at least a discreet, business), the masters of peacock display being the young men of Magdalen, Peterhouse, St John’s and Corpus: it is not really open to an intellectual woman, should she run a little towards eccentricity, to be a fogey of either kind: when young she may aspire to be a bluestocking, and later a daft old bat.

Is AN Wilson, with his antipathy to the modern and the ‘progressive’, just another Tory reactionary, like the languid Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, a deep-dyed political reactionary hiding rather nasty political views behind a mask of studied – though no doubt to some appealing ‑ archaism? The fair answer would be No. Wilson’s conservatism is not that of the Conservative Party but derives from a more generalised, quixotic, aversion to change. And as any student of politics will know, the figure who engineered the greatest measure of change in British society over the last fifty years was Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

Andrew Norman Wilson was born in 1950 in Stone, Staffordshire, the son of Norman and Jean Dorothy (née Crowder), who had met when both were employed at the Wedgwood pottery factory at Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent. Norman came from a line of at least seven generations of potters and, Wilson says, inherited his own father’s combination of technical brilliance and aesthetic awareness. However, by the mid-1920s, Wilson and Sons was ‘slithering into ruin’ and Norman migrated to Canada where, for a number of years, he worked on a ranch breaking in ponies. He was persuaded to return to his old trade by Frank Wedgwood, managing director of the firm until his sudden death in 1930. The company narrowly survived the depression; unemployment in the Potteries (Stoke and surrounding areas) by 1932 affected 36 per cent of the workforce. A combination of temporary wage cuts, a hugely successful promotional deal with Cadbury and, eventually, significant innovation in production and design, sponsored by the new MD, Josiah Wedgwood V (to the Wilson family ‘Uncle Jos’), saved the firm from closure. By the mid-30s it was back in profit and was also again reaching in some of its lines a standard of artistic excellence that had been missing throughout most of the Victorian and Edwardian eras but which recalled the achievements of the founder of the dynasty, the first Josiah, also a noted anti-slavery campaigner and the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

The new profits were soon to be needed. The original Etruria factory had been built on top of disused mineshafts and by the 1930s was affected by serious subsidence. It was also unhealthy:

Etruria and the district of Shelton, where the majority of the workforce, by force of circumstance, had to live, was a death-hole of filth. The railway chugging through it coughed out smoke and smuts towards the works. If it snowed in Etruria, the snow was black by dawn. The nearby Shelton Bar steelworks belched fumes that contained metallic particles. Between seven and fifteen hundredweight of dirt was deposited monthly on Etruria by that steelworks, mainly iron or iron oxide.

The life expectancy of a potter was not high.

It was decided that it was essential to move Wedgwood to a greenfield site. The place chosen was Barlaston, about nine miles to the south. Norman Wilson was heavily involved in this project, whose aim was to ‘construct the first electrically powered industrial pottery in Europe, free of pollution’. As the foundation stone was laid in 1938 Norman made a speech, redolent of the characteristic Wedgwood benevolent paternalism, in which he expressed the hope that the workforce would have no fear for the future, that the wisdom and experience of older workers would be absorbed by the younger, that new recruits to management would quickly learn tolerance and that ‘silicosis and other industrial diseases be conspicuous by their absence’.

Andrew Wilson’s mother, Jean, had come to work at Wedgwood as a translator of business letters after spending more than a year in Germany, staying with a school headmaster and his family in Koblenz, a happy time, perhaps, her son speculates, the happiest time in her life. Norman Wilson’s skills – technical expertise, efficiency, ability to command, ‘brisk insistence on cheerful diligence’ – were valuable in the world of work if not necessarily on the domestic front. But ‘[t]he skills required of a good husband had been left out of his store of gifts. The capacity to make a woman feel loved; a fondness, even minimal respect for, the opposite sex; the capacity to curb impatience and smother irritability – he never showed any awareness that these were desirable qualities.’ Both Norman and Jean came from broken or semi-broken homes, Norman’s childhood blighted by the accidental death of a brother, Jean’s by her father’s early departure from home and her mother’s cruelty. As an adult, Norman was outgoing verging on bumptious, an irrepressible storyteller and untiring repeater of a clutch of favourite anecdotes and catch phrases, a natty dresser, lover of expensive cars and of male company, cigarettes and alcohol (Gordon’s and Noilly Prat his favourite tipple). Jean was agoraphobic, sour, short-tempered and with an ‘unrivalled capacity to extract unhappiness from any situation, however neutral or cheerful’. Her son much later discovered that his mother had suffered from a number of serious obstetric illnesses. He also, in retrospect, considered that her ill temper might be partially attributed to disappointments in life – there being insufficient money to send her to university for example, or the crushing of her strong affinity to German culture because of Nazism and the war. She was noticeably happier in the company of women friends than that of her ebullient, exasperating husband. One thing they did have in common was that both worried ceaselessly about their health, seldom leaving long between doctor’s visits. Norman lived to be eighty-two, and Jean into her nineties.

Andrew (AN) Wilson’s own story occupies roughly the same space in his book as that of his parents and is also engaging, if less lit up by English eccentricity. His account does not follow a strict chronological pattern, beginning with his early, ill-advised marriage to the Renaissance scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones: married at twenty, he was a father of two at twenty-four. Duncan-Jones was ten years older than him. Wilson felt trapped in the marriage and was unfaithful; eventually they separated, but many decades later, at a time when Katherine was beginning to fall into dementia, renewed their relationship in the form of a deep and rewarding friendship.

Little Andrew’s first experience of schooling was at the Dominican convent in Stone, near the family home in the village of Burston. A Catholic school was perhaps a strange choice for the fiercely anti-religious Norman and the quietly Anglican Jean, but the nuns had a good name. Wilson devotes several pages to the charismatic headmistress, Sister Mary Mark, who would seem to have been the original source of his later flagging, reviving, flagging enthusiasms for Roman Catholicism. After the Dominicans, in spite of his own loud protests and Sister Mary Mark’s advice that he was too young and too sensitive to be sent away, Andrew was enrolled at Hillstone School in Great Malvern, Worcestershire. As per long-established English middle class custom, a large trunk was bought and the child’s name stencilled on it. Then it was filled with newly bought items from the official school list: ‘football boots [which would not be needed]; grey socks, six pairs, grey shorts; grey shirts; teddy bear – optional – first term only’.

Hillstone was run by a sexual pervert and sadist, Rudolph Barbour-Simpson, ably abetted by his wife, Barbara. Young Wilson’s time there seems to have been miserable enough, though he was subjected by Barbour-Simpson only to what he called in a later newspaper article ‘mild fiddling about’. He was soon to learn that the headmaster’s behaviour with other boys had been a great deal more vicious and included anal rape, a crime which can leave a child with a lasting residue of shame and depression, even leading to alcoholism, drug dependency or suicide. In Confessions Wilson writes that ‘children are better than adults at coping with suffering. Believing that they can cure or remove their unhappiness only adds to the misery for millions of grown-ups; this is one of the many reasons why therapists, in my observation, tend to increase, rather than diminish, the sum of human misery.’ A very strange conclusion: one can only assume that the aspersions here cast on therapy and therapists, and what seems like a relativising of the damage caused by abuse, derive from Wilson’s deep suspicion of anything he deems to be ‘modern’.

Hillstone improved considerably for Wilson after the Barbour-Simpsons were forced out by some of the other teachers and his later experiences of Rugby seem to have been largely positive. But there were major developments also around this time on the home front, chiefly involving Norman’s involuntary retirement, aged only sixty, as managing director of Wedgwood, the circumstances surrounding which Wilson deals with in some detail.

Josiah Wedgwood V (‘Uncle Jos’), as well as being Norman’s best friend, was a man who knew his way around money. The son of a Labour MP and in his youth himself a radical advocate of the confiscation by the state of all inherited wealth – he wrote a book on the subject ‑ he had, by the 1960s, come around to seeing some of the positive aspects of the capitalist system, particularly in so far as they affected the Wedgwood family and himself. Certainly the firm was a well-established one, with much to be proud of ‑ 200 years of history, products known across the world and a largely contented workforce of about 2,000. But if Wedgwood were to be floated on the market and become a public company, the possibilities were limitless, particularly for the current shareholders, at that time chiefly a close-knit group of cousins, who might quickly move from being comfortably well-off to being fabulously wealthy. A public company is also a different kind of beast from a traditional family firm. Following the logic of its transformation, the new Wedgwood started hoovering up many of the other leading pottery firms around Staffordshire, at first assuring their workforces that their future was secure but before long ‘rationalising’ operations and consigning workers who had been taught by their mothers how to paint designs on pottery and attach handles to teacups to competing for jobs in the check-outs of supermarkets and service stations. Wedgwood was itself eventually gobbled up by Waterford Crystal. After the collapse of that entity, Waterford Wedgwood, in 2009, the remaining assets were transferred to a company called WWRD Holdings, which was in turn acquired by a Finnish firm, Fiskars, which demolished the factory built by Josiah Wedgwood and Norman Wilson in 1938 and sold the land for development as a housing estate. What remains today of Wedgwood in Barlaston is a museum. When his father was retired in 1962, Wilson writes, more than 75,000 men and women worked in the Potteries; now fewer than 15,000 do. Wilson does not spare Uncle Jos in his account of these developments, but he lays the principal share of the blame for the stock market flotation and its consequences on ‘a spiv’ called Arthur Bryan (‘Little Bryan’), who, in Norman’s amazed account, ‘couldn’t tell the difference between a Portland Vase and a packet of Corn Flakes’ but obviously knew something about accounting and sales. Wilson writes:

… I do sometimes feel sorry that I cannot share Dante Alighieri’s belief in a literal, physical hell. I am not naturally vindictive, but it would be satisfying to know that somewhere in the Inferno’s less comfortable circles Little Bryan was fixed, while some Dantean demons, mouthing appalling insults in the Stokey dialect, were perpetually cramming wet clay into his greedy chops, while some others, with even riper, crueller language, were shoving red-hot pokers up his arse.

One suspects that Wilson is not too interested in looking rigorously at either economics or politics. He clearly deprecates globalisation and the gradual decline of Britain’s manufacturing tradition, accusing Mrs Thatcher of cynical hypocrisy when she extolled the ‘corner shop values’ of her grocer father and arguing that ‘the so-called Conservatives’ in fact conserved nothing but rather ‘carved up Britain with motorways, polluted its farmland with dangerous chemicals and, in their avarice, destroyed all that had made up Britain’s wealth in the first two generations of the Industrial Revolution’. There are positive historical references to the postwar reforms of Bevan and Attlee, but the only politicians of his own period he seems to find praiseworthy are Labour leader Harold Wilson (‘a completely delightful, polite, humorous man’) and the Stoke-on-Trent MP Tristram Hunt, who resigned his seat and left politics when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of his party.

After Rugby, Wilson ‘went up’ to New College Oxford. The city, and its academic and social life, greatly appealed to him. Indeed he stayed on after graduation, being able, in spite of what he says was ‘a mediocre degree’, to string together a number of temporary lectureships teaching Middle English literature. In all, he spent twelve or thirteen years ‘in this beautiful place of enchantments, of bells and buildings and libraries, of St Hugh’s undergraduates in Laura Ashley dresses, cycling to lectures on Ancrene Wisse, and churches where the clergy wore Spanish birettas’. Beauty certainly, enchantment too; and not a little malice. Here is Wilson’s account of his superior at New College:

Anne, once a beautiful American, was now a strange, twitching, blinking obese figure who made … embarrassing advances to the undergraduates. She was sleeping with the English don from St Catz, Michael Gearin-Tosh. With his high-pitched Bloomsbury giggle, his flamboyant clothes (fur coats, silk scarves) and his shock of long curly silver hair, he seemed an unlikely lover for Anne, particularly as he shared her weakness for chasing his male students round the room, rather than teaching them.

After many years at Oxford, during which his position began to seem increasingly insecure due to the hostility of the unloved Anne, Wilson was offered a post at an ancient Scottish university – ‘You’d love St Andrews. There are no shits here. No queers. No pinkoes,’ the chair of English assured him. After long reflection, he turned down the offer, opting instead to start making his way as what he had surely all along been meant to be – an English man of letters. In this career, in which a remarkably strong work ethic seems to co-exist in unlikely, happy combination with a talent for boozy friendship, he has been remarkably successful, with a string of well-received biographical studies and as many – not always quite so well-received – novels.

Some reviewers of Confessions have been sniffy about what they see as Wilson’s snobbery. He certainly has a tendency to namedrop: the phrase ‘my good friend’ seems to be appear dozens of times in the first fifty pages, almost always followed by a rather distinguished name. My favourite example of this – fairly innocent – foible involves a fondly recalled dinner to which he was invited by the granddaughter of his Breton hostess of old Mme de Liencourt, Isabelle de Yturbe, now married to Santiago de Mora-Figueroa, Marqués de Tamarón, Spanish ambassador in London, and attended by himself, ‘fellow journalist Matthew Parris, Santiago, herself and the Queen of Denmark’. What larks!

It may well be worth saying in closing something about AN Wilson’s quite strange relationship to religious belief. As a child and adolescent, he had deep affection for three remarkable women who happened to be Roman Catholics: Sister Mary Mark, his kind, working class ‘nanny’ Mrs Blakeman (‘Blakey’) and the formidably intelligent Mme de Liencourt. When, as an adult, he occasionally attends Mass in London, celebrated of course ‘according to the old rite’, he is transported back to the convent gardens at Stone and the girls throwing rose petals in front of the monstrance as the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament through the grounds. At the same time, if he attends ‘a well-rendered’ Anglican service, he feels immediately at home: well of course he does, Anglican means English. Towards the end of the book he writes:

I do not regret my fifty years of religious muddle, being for the most part a practising Anglican with periodic waves of Doubt or Roman fever, when I feel tempted either to give up Christianity altogether or to find some way back into the arms of Rome.

Incidentally, he forgets, in Confessions, to confess that at least at one stage in his life his Doubt became Certainty when, in 1991, he wrote the pamphlet Against Religion (‘The author argues that religion has inspired many of man’s worst evils: war, prejudice, bigotry, cruelty, race hatred and fear. Without it, man would be free to be God.’) It is not that Wilson does not know what Christianity is: he gives an eloquent account of it as exemplified in the life of  his friend Father Michael Hollings, ‘the most remarkable, extraordinary man I ever knew’, who was wounded in the Western Desert, received a military cross and began training for the priesthood immediately on his return. ‘In Michael’s company it was quite clear that God was real.’ Such sanctity is not of course going to be possible for everyone: many of us cannot believe; many of us see no reason to believe. But there is something in the solipsism of AN Wilson’s relation to religion – ‘Anglicanism actually suits me on many levels’ ‑ that is rather irritating and at bottom a little less than intellectually serious. One suspects that his periodic attraction to the Tridentine style in Catholicism is motivated more by a weakness for the thrill of atmosphere, the ‘numinous’, he likes to calls it – the Latin chant, the stained glass, the whoosh of the censer, the swish of the soutane – than any real engagement with religion in either its doctrinal or practical substance.

These minor qualifications aside, it remains to be said that Confessions is a wonderfully entertaining book written by an engaging and slyly witty storyteller. It is due to appear in paperback this summer and you could certainly do worse than slip it into your suitcase alongside those important books you know you should read but may not.


Catherine Mulcahy works in the education sector in Greater Manchester.



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