Interview: Messing with the Messiah: William Leith meets A N Wilson, the man of letters who upset the Queen Mother and is now set to upset others with his biography of Christ

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A N Wilson, novelist, biographer, controversialist and workaholic, purses his mouth and raises his eyebrows, an expression typical of him, his facial muscles twitching slowly, like a mischievous octogenarian. He is 42, but sometimes seems 40 years older. 'Ah yes,' he says. 'Um, well, you see, I'm sorry, but . . . something's come up. I've just had to dash something off.' Although Wilson has written 23 books, something still drives him to work a full week as a literary editor and newspaper feature writer. The thing that has 'come up' is the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist. Wilson rearranges the slant of his eyebrows, the tuck of his mouth. 'Yes, well, let's have a quick chat.'

With the genuine nervousness of a journalist who has just filed a piece and doesn't yet know if his editor is going to like it, Wilson sits birdlike at his desk, scanning his screen for messages. His latest foray into controversy is Jesus, a 'biography' of Christ. In the book Wilson attempts to depict the historical Jesus rather than the Church's version; the ordinary bloke rather than the deity you read about or see in paintings. With no evidence to go on, Jesus can be nothing but educated guesses. Wilson's guesses are as follows: Jesus was not the son of God. His mother was not a virgin. He was probably married with children. He did not rise from the dead. 'You might have supposed,' writes Wilson in Jesus, in the style of the many newspaper features which he is famous for knocking off at a moment's notice, 'if a man had truly risen from the tomb and appeared to 500 people at the same time, that this would have attracted some notice on the part of the authorities. Yet we read of no such occurrence in the history of the Jews by Josephus. No Roman historian makes any mention of it, and nor does any other Christian writer'.

Wilson once said that he would do anything, including 'hang upside down from a hot-air balloon, naked' if it would get him publicity. But now he is coyly surreptitious, smirking and blushing, fending off all questions about himself. 'I won't talk about me,' he says repeatedly. 'Just Him. I'm boring. My beliefs are neither here nor there.' Wilson here is obeying one of the rules of controversy: never appear to be too eager; as a media event, it works best if it is not overtly courted by its originator, but stoked by a third party - such as the Daily Mirror, which recently wrote an article about Jesus under the headline: 'Almighty Row: Writer who shopped the Queen Mum is set for new outcry'. This is a reference to another Wilson commotion; having dined with the Queen Mother, he reported her table-talk in the Spectator. The table-talk was boring stuff about the Duke of Kent mumbling into his beard. But like all Wilson's controversies, it depended not on the extent of the offence, but on the vociferousness of the offended. 'He has broken every convention of civilised society,' roared Lord Wyatt of Weeford, the host of the dinner, as Wilson must have known he would.

'I've got nothing very original to say myself,' says Wilson. Then, quietly, he says that Jesus 'goes absolutely in the face of Christian belief'. I nod appreciatively, urging him on. 'Well,' he says flirtatiously, 'by traditional Christian belief, I mean . . . post Emperor Constantine . . .' He nitpicks his way through a few minute biblical details, and then says: 'The really surprising thing would be a book that said that Jesus really existed, or that he definitely didn't. This book says that perhaps he did, in fact he probably did, and he was quite a decent, ordinary chap.'

Will people get steamed up about it? 'When Christians start thinking about Jesus,' says Wilson, 'things start breaking down, they lose their faith. It's perfectly possible to go to church every Sunday and not ask any questions, just because you like it as a way of life. They fear that if they ask questions they'll lose their Christ, the very linchpin of their religion. And then what will happen to their devotions to the blessed sacrament, their prayers and so on? These things are very important to them.'

WILSON studied for the priesthood and was, for much of his life, 'deeply religious'. He wrote in 1984: 'Any religion is better than none.' Last year, after his conversion to agnosticism, he wrote: 'The love of God is the root of all evil.' This change of heart, which produced a pamphlet in the Counterblasts series called Against Religion, was foreshadowed two years earlier by a similar blinding flash. In 1989, Wilson, a Tory, wrote in the Spectator: 'I have changed my mind about the whole matter. It now seems to me quite essential to support the Labour Party.'

Born in 1950, Wilson was sent away to Hillstone, a Welsh prep school, at the age of seven. At 13 he went to Rugby, where he read Mao and Marx and wrote an article for the school magazine recommending that public schools should be abolished. The press flocked to the school gates, but Wilson's headmaster would not allow him to give an interview. The Daily Express reported the affair under the headline: 'Red rebel in Tom Brown's school'.

After this taste of controversy, Wilson decided to become religious, partly because his father, a potter working for Wedgwood, had renounced God after the death of his sister. Norman Wilson loathed priests. 'Some Oedipal thing,' Wilson told Christopher Sylvester, writing in GQ magazine, 'made me want him to think that I was going to become one.' At Oxford, he read Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, and, having graduated with what he calls 'a very bad degree, a second', he decided to become a priest and spent a year at St Stephen's, a theological college in Oxford. 'There were about 40 men in the seminary,' he told GQ, 'and there were five or so who were either like me, married and living out (he had married his Oxford tutor, Katherine Duncan- Jones, a woman 10 years his senior), or for some reason did not want to take part in it. The 35 others had all been to bed with each other. It was beyond belief.' He based his novel Unguarded Hours on the experience.

Wilson dropped out of the seminary and became a schoolmaster at Merchant Taylors' school in London. He had two daughters with Katherine: Beatrice and Emily. Then he got lectureships at St Hugh's College and New College, Oxford, and started writing novels, beginning with The Sweets Of Pimlico (1977), which won the John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize. Over the next seven years, he wrote seven novels, but lost his lectureships in 1981. 'They rumbled me,' he said.

Wilson then spent two years as literary editor of the Spectator, but lost his job when he altered a contributor's copy, the effect of which was to insult Clive James. He began writing literary biographies, of Sir Walter Scott (1981), Milton (1983), Hilaire Belloc (1984) and Tolstoy, for which he learned Russian (1988). He insulted Marina Warner in a book review, calling her 'a charlatan and a bore'; was slapped in the face by Lady Lucinda Lambton, who thought his novel Who Was Oswald Fish? betrayed personal confidences; interviewed Lord Denning and printed his unsavoury remarks about the Guildford Four and Sir Leon Brittan; wrote the piece about the Queen Mum's table-talk; and said of the Queen on television: 'all she requires is sufficiently powerful reading spectacles to be able to drone through her speeches written for her by the Prime Minister.' 'If you know somebody is going to be awfully annoyed by something you write,' he told GQ, 'that's obviously very satisfying, and if they howl with rage or cry, that's honey.'

Wilson, still waiting for the verdict on his piece, says of his recent about- turn on religion (accompanied by a change of partner, this time for Ruth Guilding, an art historian who is 10 years his junior): 'I think that if you can't be loyal to the Church, it's best to get out. The Bishop of Durham says he believes in resurrection, but he doesn't think there was an empty tomb.' He looks at me, eyebrows down, an expression of utter disdain. 'Which means nothing as far as I can see. It's waffle. And the evangelicals . . . they read the Bible, and assume that Jesus endorses all their ideas.'

Everybody imagines Christ in different ways: Hitler wanted him to be athletic and blond; Beaverbrook, in his biography of Christ, took issue with the theory that Christ's overturning of the moneylenders' tables was an indictment of capitalism. For Wilson, Jesus is a mild, genial controversialist who went around irritating people. 'He doesn't really stand for anything,' Wilson says. 'He's not somebody who came to create a new system. He was just going round, stirring things up, asking questions . . .'

'Do you think he was a bit like David Icke?'

'No, of course he wasn't . . . because although his family thought he was mad, he wasn't mad.'

Wilson's editor, Stewart Steven, appears in his office, praising Wilson's piece on the wrong-headedness of the Booker judges. Wilson beams, blushes. He can't hide his pleasure. 'Thank you, thank you,' he says.

He gives me a coy smile. 'It's only when you get a figure like Tolstoy who says: 'here are these teachings of Christ like love your enemy and so on, and what have the Christian churches ever made of them?' that you suddenly get these violent confrontations between Church teachings and the figure of Jesus.' And a confrontation like this would be just fine for A N Wilson.

(Photograph omitted)

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