The high-ceilinged rooms of the Pall Mall club are lined with statues: an alabaster Venus here, a bronze Mercury there, a Lord Castlereagh in the Smoking Room and, in the library, framed by a large window, an AN Wilson. Or so you could be forgiven for thinking, for the novelist, biographer and journalist is perched, perfectly still, on an antique mahogany reading chair, looking like a victim of hit-and-run cryosurgeons, or at least of hairdressers who make too free with their lacquer.
Andrew Wilson is dressed as demurely as you would expect, in a bird’s-eye pattern three-piece suit, striped shirt, and checked tie. But the tableau vivant of which he is the centre could not be more blatant in its symbolism. Here is the gentleman of letters, it says. The Epicurean. The Thinker. All it needs to complete the effect is a little dust, a few cobwebs. Eventually, without moving his lips or looking round to see who has just entered the room, the monument speaks: ‘I’m keeping still.’
When you notice the wooden box-camera that’s pointing at him from a tripod in the middle of the room, it becomes apparent why. Except that there is no one manning the lens. The photographer has disappeared for the moment behind a bookcase, to check his light meter or load his film. And it seems that the sitter has deemed it courteous to hold his pose — exactly — until he returns. Maybe Wilson is just doing it because he finds it amusing. Such is his insouciance, it’s difficult to tell.
The photographs over, Wilson repairs to an upright leather sofa at the other side of the library, stretches out his legs and feigns surprise that his latest book, Paul: the Mind of the Apostle, is causing such a rumpus. It isn’t due to be published until next week — in time for Easter — yet already it has got everyone chattering feverishly, not least because of the public spat it has prompted between its author and a leading Pauline scholar, the Very Revd Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield. So indignant did the Dean feel after reading an early proof of Wilson’s book that he rushed into print his own version of the life of Saint Paul. The two men have since become an entertaining double act on radio current affairs programmes, each attempting to discredit and patronise the other.
The main difference of opinion is over the claim Wilson makes in his book that Jesus Christ was not a Christian at all, and that he had no intention of founding a religion. Rather, Jesus was a very minor Galilean exorcist, no more significant than dozens of other similar prophets who caused trouble for the Romans. The faith that bears his name, Wilson contends, was invented by the religious genius and visionary Paul of Tarsus. It was Paul’s brilliant mythologising of Jesus as Christ that ensured the immortality of his name, not some piece of magic in which a dead body was said to have come back to life.
Wilson speaks of the Dean with haughty disdain. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘I was inclined to dismiss this fellow Wright as a cheeky person whose books sell only a fraction of my own and who merely wants to attract publicity for himself on the coat tails of my book. Then I realised that there was something very sad about him.’
This sadness, Wilson believes, lies in the blinkered predictability of Wright’s position — his babyish defence of the literal truth of the miraculous. ‘I don’t know why he bothers,’ Wilson intones lugubriously as he lights up a cigarette. ‘No one with an open mind could believe it. That’s what is so extraordinary. He wants to tell us that Jesus really did rise from the tomb, that he really did walk on water and that his body really did whizz up in the air like a rocket after the Resurrection.’ He almost dares you to disagree with him.
The way in which Wilson rides out the various storms he has provoked over the years reminds you of the description of Bridey in Brideshead Revisted: as someone who emanates little magnetic waves of social uneasiness, creating a pool about himself in which he floats with log-like calm. Wilson’s taste for provocation was acquired when he was at Rugby. He wrote an article in the school magazine which called for public schools to be banned — not surprisingly, it excited the interest of the tabloid press. Since then our man has been to controversy what Eric Cantona is to football: God’s gift. Who can forget the time he ungallantly betrayed the confidences — though trivial in their way — of the Queen Mother by writing a profile of her in The Spectator based on a dinner-party conversation; or the time he interviewed a confused Lord Denning and printed remarks he made on the Guildford Four which were never intended for public consumption? More recently, in 1992, Wilson caused a stir with his bestselling biography of Jesus, in which he portrayed Christ as a married, cantankerous, gluttonous soak.
Wilson is the first to admit that he is on fertile ground when it comes to knocking the new era of Anglicanism. Surely, for all their goofy protestations of love, joyfulness and understanding, today’s evangelicals actually display much less tolerance than their predecessors? Wilson nods sagely and says: ‘Violent intolerance.’ This is a conversational quirk of his. When you make a point he agrees with, he repeats it. If you say ‘Mandelson is all powerful,’ he will repeat: ‘All powerful,’ as if ruminating on it. His voice is thin and, although his elegantly rounded Oxford English is crisp, his delivery is languid. Quite often he will pause between sentences, as though distracted. And every now and then he will purse his lips as if trying to suppress a smile. This just serves to exaggerate his supercilious air. It also makes him inscrutable. When he tells you, for instance, that he is surprised by the controversy his new book has caused, it is hard to tell whether he is being disingenuous. Still, his friends say he adores being the centre of attention, and that he himself once said he would hang upside down from a hot-air balloon naked if it would yield column inches.
Whether they are intended to or not, biographies often reveal a great deal about the biographer. Wilson has written seven biographies in all (as well as 16 novels) and they have been revelatory in varying degrees. In his life of CS Lewis, for instance, Wilson assumed that it must have been impossible for Lewis to live in the same house as his friend, a woman, without sleeping with her. Questioned about his motives for writing the Saint Paul book, be agrees that there is probably an element of self-examination involved — ‘of wanting to look back to a time when I was perfectly pious and I wanted to know what was going on.’ When the point is pressed, though — when it is suggested that a better understanding of the author’s nature should help us to appreciate his psychological analysis of Paul — Wilson is not so sure. ‘I’m not being cagey, but I find it difficult to understand why exploring my psyche would help you understand this book. It might. It might not. My being imaginative doesn’t mean I’m indulging in autobiography when I write about Saint Paul. I don’t think we are very similar characters for one thing.’
No? Saint Paul was famous for his inconsistencies and for changing his mind — he is, after all, the most famous convert in history. Of Wilson, one of his friends says this: ‘I like Andrew, but he can never keep to the same belief for two minutes together.’ Wilson happily concedes that this is true. ‘All minds are prone to change,’ he says. ‘I change mine about everything, 100 times a day. After the apocalypse Paul was very dogged. He had a profound belief in his visions. I’m an oblique person, not single-minded at all. I chop and change.’
Wilson thinks one of the reasons he changes his mind so often is that he is easily bored. This is why he always reads ten books at once, dipping in and out of them rather than reading one from start to finish. There is another reason why he keeps changing his mind: he can always see the argument against a belief as soon as he’s entertained it. He denies, though, that this means he is too clever for his own good. ‘No. I don’t think it’s cleverness,’ he says with that pursed-lip smile. ‘I’m just a flibbertigibbet.’
Another thing Wilson has in common with Saint Paul is an appreciation of the advantages of re-inventing oneself from time to time, indeed of founding a movement in one’s own image. Wilson himself has been mythologised so effectively in the media, that profiles of him now almost have to conform to a genre. As well as mentioning his reputation for controversy and prolificacy (someone once joked that AN Wilson must be the collective pen-name for a group of writers — six women and two men — operating out of a warehouse in Epping), they always have to allude to the famous photograph of him riding a bicycle with a basket on the front, while wearing a waistcoat and trilby. It was this that made him a young fogey icon.
‘I’m not young any more,’ says Wilson, now 46. ‘But I’m still a fogey. It wasn’t conscious at all. In fact — a good example of vanity this — I didn’t like it in the least when it started. Hated it. Hated it. I know it was ridiculous to mind. It’s just I didn’t like to be labelled. It’s rather like Saint Paul not meaning to have found Christianity when he started out. I didn’t mean to found the fogey movement. It just happened. One is as one is. It was all the fault of that photographer who took a photo of me in that silly hat, looking like Douglas Hogg riding a bicycle.’
Another central component of AN Wilson mythology is his early — and somewhat chequered — career within the Church. After Oxford, he drifted into a seminary for a year, probably to spite his father who had renounced religion. He went on to work as a lecturer at Oxford, became a high-profile, High Church Anglican, and then flirted with Catholicism, only to reject both around the time that his first marriage, to a lecturer ten years his senior, collapsed (he is now married to an art historian ten years his junior). That religious period, he believes, now gives him an advantage when debating with fundamentalists such as the Dean of Lichfield. ‘I know where the idea is coming from. He’s not a totally alien being. Although, of course, I wasn’t Low Church like he is. And I never had that evangelical certainty. I was always an honest doubter. More a Betjeman type of believer.’
Another important strand of the Wilson myth is the subtle way he combines his latent republicanism with his High Tory values and his occasional bouts of believing that we must all vote Labour. At the moment he says he hasn’t completely made up his mind for whom he wants to vote in the General Election. ‘I might vote for Mr Major, as no one else seems to want to,’ he says with a grin. ‘One hates to follow the majority.’
And then, of course, there is the freakishly high intellect. While writing his biography of Tolstoy, Wilson learned Russian in six months so that he could read all the major fiction in the language. And it is said that he only ever thinks about what he is going to write as he is writing it, sometimes at the incredible rate of 7,000 words a day.
Given that such a large chunk of Wilson’s life is devoted to novel-writing — and given that he goes at it all at such a pace — it would be understandable if, in his imagination, the world of fiction occasionally collided with the world of fact. There have, indeed, been some notable examples of real people identifying themselves in his novels. Lady Lucinda Lambton felt so moved when she recognised passages from her life in his book Who Was Oswald Fish?, she went up to Wilson at a party and slapped his face.
It might be, too, that because he is a novelist, Wilson sometimes believes the world is actually populated with fictional characters, and so it doesn’t really matter if you upset them. ‘I’m very silly to think my acts don’t have consequences,’ he once said, after being sacked from The Spectator for changing a contributor’s copy — in order to turn a compliment to Clive James into an insult. But this tendency to blur myth and reality gives Wilson a distinct advantage when, for example, analysing Saint Paul’s complex psyche and his motives for inventing Christianity.
‘The trouble now is,’ Wilson says, ‘in a post-Enlightenment world we make all these distinctions between things that actually took place and things we have only imagined, whereas in the ancient world people did things mythologically: Did they really believe in Hercules? Some didn’t. Of course the Resurrection is not an historical fact. It’s a statement of faith that only makes sense in this very, very peculiar messianic Jewish tradition. Suppose I were to die tomorrow and the staff of the Evening Standard [where he is a weekly columnist] formed some curious belief that I was going to come back on the clouds. That would just be bizarre. It wouldn’t relate to anything.’
Perhaps not, but it would be delightful to behold. Is it, one wonders, Wilson’s capacity to imagine what it was like to see the world in mythological terms that allows him to live with the myths that have built up around his own life? To reconcile his reputation for being polite and affable in person but spikey in print? To dismiss Marina Warner as a charlatan and a bore, or compare AS Byatt to a blue balloon, or say things like: ‘If we were being snobbish, we should feel bound to say that Mrs Thatcher is irredeemably common.’? Richard Ingrams once told Wilson that he could always earn his living in journalism because everyone finds him so irritating. ‘I don’t quite see it myself,’ Wilson now says. ‘Nice if it’s true. I’m not savage now, though. I have been unkind in the past and I have regretted it.’
It is telling that he compares himself to a bully at school who feels guilty when he has made someone cry. ‘It’s not a cruel streak, just childishness,’ he says. ‘Of course one goes too far sometimes. But I don’t think it’s any deep-seated sadism.’ Like most bullies, he admits, he is sensitive to criticism himself. ‘One is touchy about one’s appearance. Obviously, if one looks perfectly ghastly, one would prefer others not to say so. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why I feel sorry that I’ve joined in the mockery of poor Ann Widdecombe. She could maybe improve her hair but there’s not much she can really do. She does look like Ann Widdecombe — which is pretty bad luck really!’
He can’t resist chuckling to himself as he says this — and it reminds you that, behind the withering put-downs and the brittle satire, there lies simply a sense of mischief. Who else but AN Wilson would have dared say what we would all like to say to Princess Margaret — and get away with it? At a dinner party, it may be remembered, the Princess said to him that she couldn’t recall which luxury she had chosen on Desert Island Discs. Wilson replied: ‘I believe it was one of your regiments, Ma’am.’
The thing about AN Wilson is that, for all the po-faced intellectual posturing, he is surprisingly, cheerily straightforward. For someone so obsessed with grand theological debate, he is disarmingly free of internal metaphysical struggle. The prospect of his own death, for instance, does not appear to fill him with a particular sense of panic. As for why this is, he says he’s really not sure. After all, he knew Philip Larkin when he was alive and so can appreciate more than most the extent to which some people dread extinction. ‘Horrible being him. When Larkin talked about it he just shook, as Dr Johnson did. Absolute terror. Johnson was such an intelligent man yet he was profoundly melancholic — just the sort of psyche which is naturally religious. I’m lucky. I’m that very rare thing: a happy person. I’ve no reason to be anything else. Nice parents, nice brother and sister, nice children, nice wives.’
The interview nearly over, it will soon be time for the celestial choir to sing the hallelujah chorus and for the saintly AN Wilson to ascent back to the clouds on which he arrived — or, failing that, to pedal back to his house in North London. In a pastiche of fogeydom, he now orders a pot of tea and anchovies on toast. As he pours, it seems an appropriate moment to ask him to explain a puzzling comment he once made about the collapse of the House of Windsor being tied in with the collapse of the Church of England.
‘Do you know,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘I haven’t the slightest recollection. Sorry about that.’