Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises

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Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises

Confessions: A Life of Failed Promises

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Literary Review * Descriptions of life as a theological student have the mischievous, observant wit of an accomplished humourist. Before he came to London, as one of the “Best of Young British” novelists, and Literary Editor of the Spectator, we meet another A.

A “ceramic genius” from a family of seven generations of potters, Norman was headhunted by Wedgwood and became its managing director.

His chapter on the High Camp seminary which he attended in Oxford is among the funniest in the book. Had he been less “bloody wet”, he might not have married her and become a father of two by the age of 24. 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. The princesses, dons, paedophiles and journos who cross the pages are as sharply drawn as figures in Wilson's early comic fiction. Only in her 70s, when she developed dementia and he rushed up to Oxford several times a week to check on her, did his anger soften.

His book is a mea culpa, a self-appraisal so damning (“writings not so good, deeds not so virtuous”) that it becomes almost endearing. And he’s especially warm about his exasperating father, whose forced early exit from Wedgwood was unmerited and whose death happened at the same moment as a family landscape painting crashed from the wall in the room where his son was working. What the couple chiefly had in common was hypochondria: though Norman lived to 82 and Jean into her 90s, “they vied with one another as to which felt iller”. His memoir has many stories to tell: about Oxford, Grub Street, meetings with royals, tweed suits, Tolkien-olatry, religious muddle (as “a practising Anglican with periodic waves of Doubt or Roman fever”), travels to Israel and Russia, anorexia (his own and his mother’s), social drinking “on a positively Slavic scale”, near misses at becoming a painter or priest, and a career as a novelist, biographer and literary editor.There’s plenty more he might have said about the relationship – and about his happy second marriage. In truth his background was more modest and shaped by the childhood trauma of seeing his brother die after falling from a haystack they were playing on.

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