A very long time ago – when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old – (according to my son that would be about the time Dinosaurs walked the Earth, but actually it was when trousers were judged by the width of their flares and hair by how long you could get away with it) – a very, very far sighted English teacher (he was Irish and dangerously mad and would later become a character in my book Billy Christ) gave us a great novel to read by William Golding. And it wasn’t Lord Of The Flies.
Not that there is anything wrong with Lord Of The Flies - I mean it is one of the greatest books of the twentieth century (or of any century come to that) but at the time everyone was reading Lord Of The Flies and had been for some years – my older brother had done it for O level and I would do so in my turn a year or two later. What that far-sighted teacher did was introduce us to Golding with his book ‘The Spire’, which in my opinion is one of the most dramatic, sensual, thought provoking and powerful books ever written.
I was hooked from the very first lines: ‘ He was laughing, chin up, and shaking his head. God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass….’
What?! I had never read anything so vivid, so powerful. So visual… and later this: ‘The most solid thing was the light. It smashed through the rows of windows in the south aisle, so that they exploded with colour…’
It takes a great, great writer to make light solid and colour become so vivid on the page of a book – to me it was like film and I was there pressed up against the screen, immersed in that ancient light – light that beat against me, dragged me into the dusty, stained-glass coloured world of the cathedral and thrust me into the recesses of Jocelin’s mind, wrapped me in his vanity, immersed me in his vision and warmed my back by the same angel that warmed his back (an angel I have mildly, and with deep respect resurrected in the story of Billy – mea culpa Mr Golding).
From then on I was obsessed. I read all of Golding’s books in less than a month or two (he hadn’t written all of his work at this time) and I decided there and then that English literature was my subject, what I wanted to do. I was lucky – the passion for words Golding had given me got me a place at Cambridge university but there I rather drifted away from reading literature to pursue another love, that of theatre. But then in my last year I was told I could choose any author to write about – what was known then as ‘the long dissertation’ – a part of the finals to be written over the course of a year and marked for the tripos.
It was an easy choice – my author could only be William Golding. This was 1974. This was in one of the greatest universities in the world, this was where the finest critics of English literature, the greatest professors of their art plied their trade and (this may come as a surprise, it did to me) not one of them wanted to supervise me. My director of studies explained that he and his colleagues considered Golding a ‘minor’ author and wouldn’t I rather write on Dickens (who at least according to Leavis had written one great book) or preferably Chaucer..?
I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t… I wasn’t going to. I was going to write about William Golding and I did so, largely unsupervised and more from passion than with any academic ability – and as a result I got a lousy mark – I did what you weren’t supposed to do in the English faculty – I had ploughed my own lonely and unappreciated furrow! And as result I was regarded as rather foolish and rather odd – I might as well have chosen to write about Iain Flemming or Enid Blyton and there was a lot of looking down academic noses at this silly and head-strong student and this ‘slight’ author, Golding.
I’d like to think that nine years later when wiser men awarded Golding the Nobel Prize for literature that a few of those old Cambridge establishment-farts felt embarrassed – but, of course, you can bet your bottom dollar they didn’t – they probably thought the world had gone madder than they had already assumed it was…
I can’t get Mr Golding out of my head. His work haunts me still. I am not ashamed, as I say, to admit that my new book Billy Christ has a little of his influence. I like to think that one day I might be able to persuade the Golding estate to let me write the project I have always wanted to do – a musical based on The Spire – don’t laugh, use the word opera if it makes you happier, and I would like to think that one day I will complete my collection of Golding First editions – but Lordy! That Lord Of The Flies costs a bob or two in the fine book markets nowadays.
So thank you Mr Golding – you opened up my imagination, you fired me up for reading and you turned me into a writer, for which I am grateful – and you created a canon of work equal to any in the history of literature at its very best – not bad for a man the university of Cambridge ignored even when he was at his peak. Glad you got the last laugh…