A.N. Wilson

A.N. Wilson is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction.

There’s a moment in this book – some time in the 1960s – when Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell have been asked to Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk to do a poetry reading. They ring the doorbell and a liveried footman tells them that they should go to the servants’ entrance. ‘I said, let’s leave. “No,” Adrian said. “We’ve come all this way. We’ll earn our money.” ’ They are given high tea in the servants’ hall: two pieces of Spam, sliced bread, margarine, an apple, a piece of seed cake. Water and/or tea to drink. When they are finally invited in to read, ‘Adrian and I decided to give our best … We read. By best, we meant bluntest. I added a number of “fucks” and “cunts” to otherwise quite decorous poems. Then we left.’’‘

I have been trying to explain to myself how such a book as this held my uninterrupted attention from first to last. I read it almost at a sitting. This was certainly not because of any previous obsession with either V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux. True, I regard Naipaul as one of the most enthralling writers of our time, even though the subjects he has covered – India, Africa, the putrefaction of the post-colonial world – are not ones which engage my interest or my imagination. It is him writing about them, rather than these places themselves, which fascinates me. For this reason, I regard as almost his most triumphant book the one which his true disciple, Paul Theroux, thinks marks the great falling-off: The Enigma of Arrival. This is a book about Naipaul having stopped writing. He is living in Wiltshire within a stone’s throw of a large house in which a scarcely-disguised Stephen Tennant is, like England, gathering dust and going to seed. Nothing happens in the book, yet the writing is hypnotic.’

This Trying Time: John Sparrow

A.N. Wilson, 1 October 1998

John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (1906-92) was a devotee of the poetry of A.E. Housman. He wrote a vivid introduction to Housman’s verse, whose tight control, both of metre and of homosexual passion, found obvious echoes in his own character. Sparrow was also co-author of A.E. Housman: An Annotated Hand-List, one of the few excursions into modern bibliography made by this great collector, 17th century bibliographer and connoisseur of Renaissance Latin, who counselled aspiring bibliomaniacs: (1) never lend anyone a book; (2) never sell a book; (3) never give anyone a book; (4) never read a book.

Gargoyles have their place

A.N. Wilson, 12 December 1996

G.K. Chesterton wrote every day of his life, seldom revising and missing as many targets as he hit. But because of the sheer magnitude of the output, that still leaves a monument of achievement, a mountain of words proceeding from a mountain of a man. Chesterton was the living contradiction of Cyril Connolly’s famous adage, since it could be said that, inside this fat man, there was an even fatter one wildly signalling to be let out. And in the newspaper articles, the editions of GK’s Weekly, the poems (most of them execrable), the Father Brown stories, the fantastical novels, the works of criticism, the religious apologetics, the travel pieces, the parodies, the many public speeches, the Introductions to other people’s books, the Even Fatter Man had many outlets for his energies.

Well, was he?

A.N. Wilson, 20 June 1996

What do we make of Shaw, the most ephemeral Great Man of early 20th-century literature? Naturally, he received the Nobel Prize, and he made himself very rich twice over, partly by writing perky, harmless plays, partly by marrying money. His outstanding virtue as a man was that he could be immensely kind: he was generous to spongers and – a big plus on anyone’s marksheet because it was so rare – was prepared to stick up for Wilde at the time of Oscar’s fall from grace. As a youngish and middle-aged man, he devoted hours of his time to the largely unrewarding work of a councillor in the St Pancras Ward of London. Thanks to Shaw, the first ladies’ lavatory in England was constructed at the top of Parkway in Camden Town. The campaign to build the loo was in its way an archetypally Shavian act of philanthropy, provoking gratifying howls from Tory shopkeepers and local residents who believed that such a provision offended against public decency. Nowadays, the (increasingly elderly?) fans who clamber from their charabancs for matinée productions of Major Barbara or The Doctor’s Dilemma have more cause to be grateful to GBS than they know. After all, thanks to the existence of public lavatories for women, the fans can settle back for two or three hours of facile paradox and wholly unmemorable epigram, safe in the knowledge that they can be in all senses ‘comfortable’.’’


A.N. Wilson, 21 October 1993

‘My great new friend is Noël Coward’, Nancy Mitford confided to a correspondent in 1949. ‘Bliss. He shakes like a jelly at one’s jokes, I adore that.’ It was laughs Nancy Mitford wanted, much more than gran deur. She longs to make people laugh, and sometimes, almost in the manner of a nervous stand-up comedienne, interrupts her letters to make sure that the audience is suitably convulsed. ‘Are you shrieking?’ she implores her sister Diana, in the middle of relaying some mildly amusing malice about a friend. To her lover Gaston Palewski (‘Colonel’), she reports that Odette Massigli is having an affair with John Lchmann, who had never liked women before’. ‘Are you shrieking, Colonel?’ One hopes that he was. ‘I have been screaming with laughter for several days on end,’ Nancy reports, after reading a life of Queen Victoria. The French General Election of 1953? ‘Oh, the election! Never has anything been so hysterically funny.’ (Never?) In 1967, reading about the increased number of coloured immigrants to England, ‘of course I screamed with laughter.’ When a Spaniard suggests to her sister Lady Mosley mat Evelyn Waugh was only a Roman Catholic ‘for a joke’, ‘we screamed with laughter.’ And so on and so on. I am not being so puritanical as to deny that – at the time – all this must have been screamingly funny. On the printed page, I fear, it can seem dead and cold. I once asked Lady Mosley what she found so beguiling about Hitler’s conversation. ‘Oh, the jokes,’ she said at once.’

Complete with spats

A.N. Wilson, 27 May 1993

I have been reading again The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers. Barbara Reynolds says that this book – together with her famous series of radio dramas The Man Born to be King – is her greatest work. And Barbara Reynolds should know. She is the goddaughter of Sayers; she is a distinguished Italian scholar and collaborated with Sayers on her translation of The Divine Comedy (a collaboration fascinatingly written up in her book The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Encounter with Dante) and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of, and evident affection for, Sayers’s fiction – the detective stories about Lord Peter Wimsey especially. And now, she comes forward with what will surely rank as the definitive biography of Sayers. It is not a book which contains any surprises for those of us who have read the previous biographies. Indeed, Dr Reynolds gives us rather less, in the way of personal detail, than the recent study by David Coombes. There is far less about Sayers’s marriage, for example; but we do not feel – at any rate, I did not feel – that this is a case of suppressio veri. More an exercise in getting things in perspective. Yes, Sayers was a vicar’s daughter who gave birth to an illegitimate child (a consequence of her fondness for motorcycling ‘rough trade’); yes, in spite of being a very publicly self-confessed Christian, she was married to a divorced alcoholic who worked on the News of the World, but, Barbara Reynolds genuinely makes us feel – so what? This is not really the heart of Sayers or – to use Reynolds’s title – her ‘life and soul’. Indeed, reading this book, one feels that one of the reasons she had such an ‘odd’ sexual life is that, in all probability, she thought about it much less than she did about Dante, the Chanson de Roland and her own creations. The only child of elderly parents, she was precocious in her delight in European literature and languages, and early learnt that what goes on inside your own head is of far more interest than what passes for reality outside it. In this respect, she greatly resembles her friend and ally-against-the-pagans, C.S. Lewis, who, like her, was a lonely, intelligent child who preferred reading to life; like her, had a pretty ‘rum’ domestic ménage – which was completely contrary to the strictest rules of the Christian confession; like her, came before the public as a bluff, no-nonsense apologist for the faith. They even had certain physical qualities in common – fatness, baldness, an addiction to alcohol and tobacco on a heroic scale.’’


A.N. Wilson, 14 May 1992

Martin Stannard resisted the temptation to call this story Decline and Fall, but it would not have been a bad title. On one level, the last 27 years of Evelyn Waugh’s life make melancholy reading. The book begins with Waugh’s sometimes bizarre career in the Army; it chronicles his prodigious commercial success as the author of Brideshead Revisited. It watches him struggle with madness and depression and boredom. He could be said to have died of boredom, but, like the woman in Belloc’s poem, ‘not before/Becoming an appalling bore’ himself.

That Old Thing

A.N. Wilson, 30 January 1992

The Pope is the most interesting public figure in the Western world, because, among all the presidents and premiers who exercise power from Washington to the borders of the old Russian Empire, he seems to be the only figure guided by a sense of history. The Euro-ideals of Kohl, Mitterrand, Major and the rest are based on the presumption that it is more polite to behave as if the past had never happened: the Third Reich, the Pétain regime in France and the near-anarchy which followed it; the forty years when Spain kowtowed to the Generalisimo; the equally long period of happy fascism in Portugal; the ups and downs of Italy before, during and after the revival of the Roman Empire under the Duce; the Athens of the Colonels – these are not easy years for democrats to remember. And it is not surprising that the Delors plan seems attractive to those whose political history is so shady.


Let me guess

12 February 2009

When coming into college and seeing the flag at half-mast, Maurice Bowra said to the porter: ‘Don’t tell me. Let me guess.’ Surely a brilliant remark? Or looking up at the New Bodleian building opposite Wadham, adorned with strange squiggly motifs: ‘Lambs’-tails from Shakespeare?’ When thwarted in a committee by a don named Baker: ‘I’ve met my Bakerloo.’...

Sparrow v. Rowse

1 October 1998

I recently read A.L. Rowse's All Souls and Appeasement and can only hang my head in shame at J.B. Paul's devastating letter (Letters, 10 December 1998). The explanation, but no excuse, is that I wrote the Sparrow review miles from my books and had no chance to check. I stupidly thought All Souls and Appeasement was fired off during the early Forties … Mea maxima culpa. Rowse's attitude to the...

Genuinely humble

4 February 1988

SIR: Michell Howard’s survey of the Church of England (LRB, 4 February) showed worthy signs of painstaking research, with the cuttings-file and Crockford’s at his elbow, It did not always ring true as an authentic picture of contemporary Christianity. Nowhere was this more true than in his condescending dismissal of ‘Dr Frederick Coggan’. Frederick Donald Coggan is better known...

Mrs Shakespeare

18 December 1986

SIR: ‘You can’t get much lower than a woman.’ Miss Everett’s words (Letters, 5 February), not mine. It is silly to suggest that I was hinting at any such opinion. I was asking why, in a series of poems which appear to be addressing first a young man, and then a Dark Lady, we should suppose that Shakespeare was writing about his wife. It is not simply ‘the occasional Victorian...

Blame it on Darwin

Jonathan Rée, 5 October 2017

When​ the 22-year-old Charles Darwin joined HMS Beagle in 1831 he took a copy of Paradise Lost with him, and over the next five years he read it many times, in Brazil, Patagonia, Tahiti, New...

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Half-Resurrection Man

Keith Hopkins, 19 June 1997

There were many St Pauls in Antiquity. Even more are still being invented. About each, there are stories, doubts, ambiguities. One problem is that Paul is an icon of early Christianity, and of...

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It’s Mummie

Jenny Diski, 16 December 1993

‘It was not ever thus in England,’ says A.N. Wilson, stilting his prose in deference to the text he’s introducing. He’s speaking of the deluge of intimacies we can expect...

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Send them to Eton!

Linda Colley, 19 August 1993

The question is: what is the question? This summer has seen a bumper crop of books all ostensibly addressing the problems of the British monarchy. The blurbs have been in technicolour: ‘the...

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Tea or Eucharist?

Anthony Howard, 3 December 1992

‘We asked for bread, and you gave us a stone’: the cry that rang out from the gallery of Church House, Westminster, after one of the earliest debates over women’s ordination...

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Stephen Wall, 27 September 1990

In his new novel William Boyd returns to Africa, the scene of his first successes, but not to the west of A Good Man in Africa or the east of An Ice-Cream War. Brazzaville Beach goes for the...

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C.H. Sisson, 22 February 1990

C.S. Lewis was born in 1898, the son of a Belfast solicitor. He was educated first at home, then in England at a preparatory school, at Malvern (for one term only), and by a private tutor. So...

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Jack and Leo

John Sutherland, 27 July 1989

Jack London has had difficulty emerging from the blur of his own heroic lies, his family’s whitewash, and the libels of his biographers. All accounts agree, however, that London’s was...

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End of the Century

John Sutherland, 13 October 1988

It would be interesting to place Jay McInerney and David Holbrook as neighbours at E.M. Forster’s imaginary table. Both novelists are fascinated by decadence – that much they have in...

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Speaking for England

Patrick Parrinder, 21 May 1987

Here is the note of a quite distinctive sort of English novelist: Not everybody in Britain on that night in November was alone, incapacitated, or in gaol. Nevertheless, over the country...

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Liza Jarrett’s Hard Life

Paul Driver, 4 December 1986

Of the five new novels grouped here, only one, I think, breathes something of that ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’ which seemed to Henry James ‘the supreme virtue...

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Christopher Ricks, 21 November 1985

A.N. Wilson is something of an anachronism, and it was timely of him to make anachronism the nub of his new novel about the old days, Gentlemen in England. The title itself, in the England of...

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Literary Man

J.I.M. Stewart, 7 June 1984

In the third volume of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters George Lyttelton records Hilaire Belloc’s having told him that his mother ‘had seen Napoleon after his return from Elba and he...

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Tristram Rushdie

Pat Rogers, 15 September 1983

Four titles, and an abstract noun apiece – well, Melvyn Bragg has two, but it’s the well-known coupling as in (exactly as in, that’s rather the trouble) a fight for...

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Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden, 21 April 1983

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on...

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Dark Places

John Sutherland, 18 November 1982

With Wise Virgin, A.N. Wilson continues his bleak investigation of trauma. The Healing Art (his most acclaimed novel so far) scrutinised human sensibility under the sentence of terminal cancer.

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Another A.N. Wilson

Michael Irwin, 3 December 1981

The Sweets of Pimlico, published in 1977, was an assured and attractive first novel. It moved well. The light, fluent, shapely narrative encompassed with equal facility episodes of mannered...

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The British Dimension

Rosalind Mitchison, 16 October 1980

The first three books are studies within the narrow élite of landed society in a small, rapidly modernising country – Scotland. They concern men who took for granted the perpetuation...

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