Confessions is a family memoir above all else. Seven generations of the Wilson family were potters. Ceramics, the Pottery towns, Wedgwood business history and the despoiling of Staffordshire’s community spirit by a shallow opportunist called Sir Arthur Bryan provide the background to A N Wilson’s meticulous depiction of his parents’ unhappy marriage. The joys of reading English literature at Oxford, the premature marriage and parenthood that spoilt his undergraduate bliss in 1971, the insecurities of life as a precariously employed don, the false starts of an alert, mischievous but unformed mind, and escape to literary London in the 1980s provide the later themes of Confessions.
The result is an arresting, honest, memorable book, never naive or sloppy, tender and forgiving towards those who have hurt Wilson, contemptuous and merciless about his own cowardice, vanity and failings. Its prevalent tone can be described in a word: rueful. Confessions brims with unfeigned distaste for its author. Although Wilson’s emotional and professional hardiness are undeniable, he presents himself as constantly submitting to the demands of people who are weaker but nevertheless more purposive than him. While he can seem intensely self-conscious, he protests that he has always held to the maxim of his friend Iris Murdoch that ‘the chief requirement of the good life is to live without any image of oneself’.
His forebears’ example of practical creativity – the brisk, efficient, unpretentious making of fine objects – set the pattern of his working life. His father, Norman Wilson, was an aesthete-technician who took inspiration from ancient blue and white Korean ceramics to become an acclaimed designer of bowls and vases.