On Not Being Anthony Wilson

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.


  1. On my mum’s first day of her first job she was asked her name and she replied ‘Beryl’ only to receive the response, ‘Well you can’t be Beryl here we already have three of those, so what’s your middle name?’ Mum duly offered up her middle name – ‘Susannah’ and was told, ‘Well that’s too long you’ll have to be Susan’. Mum meekly accepted her renaming and has remained Susan to this day. I can’t help feeling that this was an opportunity missed.


  2. Interesting. I was born with a completely different name to what I have now, but only a few people know. Maybe I’ll come out about it, your post is tempting me! But my main fear is being found on the internet under my old name, which I’m definitely not ready for! Love that young photo of you btw.


  3. It’s a jolly good name in my humble opinion. I have always liked the first name Antony/Anthony, indeed using the name for the main character of a series of novels. That said, he’s almost always referred to by his surname only, because that (due to school and family) is how he tends to think of himself.
    I’ve taken a long time to accept my own name, so when someone said “Your name makes you sound like the main character in a novel…or the writer of one,” I was oddly relieved. Viviennes are rare beasts now by any spelling and so should be cherished lest they become extinct.


  4. It goes very deep, doesn’t it. Ursula le Guin tapped it wonderfully, the business of names and naming. Maskwearing and alter egos. I’ve rarely met anyone who wouldn’t rather have another name, a different self. But I’ll say this. You wouldn’t want to go through school with a name like Foggin.


  5. I enjoyed your post, Anthony. The stories behind our (various) names make for interesting reading. My first name is both both a bane and a pleasure. I was to have been Deborah Louise but my grandmother ‘bought’ my names, Jayne Elizabeth, with a half gold sovereign for her first grandchild (which I’ve mislaid over a lifetime of house moves…). For a while, as a child, I rather fancied Veronica (my mother had a 1940’s jigsaw of the ill-fated Veronica Lake, misted at the edges). I’ve grown into Jayne, although I’ve spent a lifetime adding ‘with a y’!


  6. You’ve set me off now, on the trail to the past I rarely tread and then only reluctantly. I loved Jennings and Derbyshire and some years back found a second hand copy in a Devon bookshop. I gave it to my daughter but Harry Potter and Hogwarts was her preference. I ended up re-reading J and D and giggling like the girl I used to be. Names, so important in an almost shamanic way. It was traditional on both sides of my family for firstborn boys to be given their father’s names and girls their mother’s names. So we had Big John and Little John, Big Anne and Little Anne, who incidentally grew to be 3 times the size of her mum but retained the nomenclature well into middle age. I too was smitten by this tradition. My mother didn’t receive her mother’s name. It was bestowed on her younger sister instead. This wrong was righted when I was gifted with my mother’s name. It was the bane of my life. As I’d always been called by my middle name I wasn’t aware of this first name till I started school. Oh the confusion! I eventually changed my name legally when I was in my twenties and shrugged off more than just a four letter word. I had felt my mother’s name as an unjust imposition and one more attempt to mould me in her likeness. Enough said.


  7. Love the photo, Anthony 🙂
    And love what you write about names. Your name in particular. For many women who marry and take their husband’s name it is also a strange experience. I was pretty comfortable with my name (both first and last) when I was a child. Although there was no Evelyne I didn’t feel the weight.
    But when you describe the pause you experience sometimes right before signing a book, I know what you mean. Once in a while I will also stop when signing (not necessary books) and wonder if the name I’m about to use is really mine.
    Although I chose to take my husband’s name when we moved to the US for practical paperwork reasons, I remain the person with her maiden name. Which is my father’s.
    So, yes, names, whether first or last, matter more than we think. Until we really think about them.
    Great post, as always, Anthony.

    BTW there are tons of Anthony guys in the States. Most are called Tony.


  8. I think Anthony Wilson is a great name for a poet! I hope the woman who broke into your party was not related to my mother who, at my baby shower for the first child said something similar when someone asked me what I planned to name the baby. “Isn’t that the worst name you’ve ever heard?” She, however, had given me a name nobody could pronounce or spell and I longed to be a “Liz” or a “Susan.” Much later, I dated a man who said, “Your name really doesn’t suit you. You are a – a – Molly!” Molly was my favorite secret name. I married him and have been Molly ever since, although he’s been gone for a while. Names are very important. Yours is wonderful.


  9. I’d have to agree with Miss Molly – Anthony Wilson’s a grand name for a poet.
    Always enjoy your posts.
    My surname is a chosen one with a too-long story to accompany it. I do enjoy the responses I hear in introduction – the assumptions, the funny, odd looks at times, and especially those who exclaim, “Oh, I just LOVE your name!”

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Anthony Wilson.


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