On Not Being Anthony Wilson


I haven’t always been Anthony Wilson. For a long time I wasn’t even Anthony. I spent most of my childhood being called Wilson, because that was how my school did things. Even my surname, an object of fun thanks to the beautifully timed put- downs by Arthur Lowe of John Le Mesurier on Dad’s Army, and the revolving door of Number Ten Downing Street during the 1970s, didn’t really describe who I was. If you shared the same surname as another boy you were given a numbered suffix based on your relative age to him. Because I had an older cousin at the school I spent three years being called Wilson 2, until he left. Because there were no other older Wilsons at the time, I reached the heady heights of Wilson 1, sending my brother up the league table from Wilson 3 to Wilson 2, and another cousin, a few months his junior, up to Wilson 3 from Wilson 4. Then my younger brother joined the school, and he became Wilson 4. I never found out if he became Wilson 1, or just saw out his days there as plain Wilson.

Being an Anthony meant being lonely. There were no other Anthonys that I knew. I was surrounded by Marks, Pauls, Davids, Jonathans, and Daniels. I used to scrutinise the film and TV credits in case there might be a famous Anthony I could admire and claim as a new hero. I was pleased to discover Anthony Quinn and Anthony Valentine, but the former seemed too wild and the latter too posh as role models for what might, exactly, constitute Anthony-ness. When I fell in love with the Jennings books of Anthony Buckeridge, it was the stories of prep school related japes that enthralled me, not the moniker of their author. It took me years to equate the idea of ‘Anthony’ with the concept of ‘writer’. (Perhaps I still haven’t.) Home was the mirror image of school, just with the names reversed. Either way, when you heard your name being called, it usually meant trouble.

None of this actually went through my mind, but when I was asked my name having been dropped off for my first night at boarding school, aged thirteen, I heard myself say ‘Tony’. From that moment, all the way through school, and most of university, that was who I became, Tony Wilson, or as my Factory Records obsessed flatmate Kevin used to remind me daily, ‘the other Tony Wilson’. As I say, it wasn’t a conscious decision. By the time I had heard of him, it was too late. But there I was, changing my name, off the cuff, without thinking, pretty much like most of what I did at school, for good and ill. At some level, I suppose, I wasn’t fully persuaded by Anthony as a name that described me, or saw myself as, or what I wanted to be. Only two masters ever referred to me by my real name, my housemaster, who I think pitied me, and a cricket master whom I hated. Friends used to ring up and ask to speak to Tony, prompting my mother to cry and ask out loud where she had gone wrong in her rearing of me.

It took leaving home, and by that I mean getting married and having children of my own, to discover that I might like the name Anthony after all, even that it might be who I was. My wife, like all the people I am close to, including my siblings and my parents, call me Ant. But that still feels relatively recent. I think it began with another university flatmate, Liz, who refused to call me Tony because my ‘aura was much more Anthony’. Whatever her motives, I am grateful. To a swathe of people, academics, the people I know through teaching, and poets I have given readings or corresponded with, I remain Anthony. I think of my neighbour the poet Lawrence Sail. When I hear him beckoning my name down our street I feel like a king. It’s handy, knowing I am no longer Tony. My students know that my colleagues address me as Ant, but that this luxury is not afforded to them. My wider family is a different issue altogether. To most of them I am Ant, but if the phone goes and the voice says Anto, I know immediately I am speaking to my wife’s sister. Sometimes her husband will go for Antoine de Caunes, but only at Christmas, after the port, or when I take a wicket in the family cricket, i.e. not often. To my brother in law I am Antoine, and to his older son Swiss Tony. My wife’s cousin’s husband has settled on Anton, while her uncle has snuck in with Tone, which makes him unique for getting away with reminding me of the aberration of my past nomenclature. (It’s probably my fault for accepting yet another glass of his rosé.) For reasons I will never understand two friends from different sectors of my life insist on calling me Sir. At the other extreme, one poet friend merely addresses me as A.

Only once in recent years have I baulked at my name as I used to in my youth. The wife of a famous poet, also an Anthony, had cornered me at a conference. Introducing herself to my group without asking permission, she began reading our name badges out loud. ‘Anthony Wilson!’ she barked. ‘That’s a terrible name for a poet.’ It took a lot of white wine and canapes to get over that one. Even now there are times, when I am in a bookshop, my pen hovering over the page I am about to sign in black ink, when I don’t really believe that it’s me doing the signing, or that the person who wrote the poems has any connection to me either. As I compose my best wishes to the book’s recipient, I look down at the name I am about to score out with a line. The person who wrote the poems isn’t there. I can’t believe that it’s me. I wonder if I’ll meet him when I get home.