Lord of misrule

The children at war in Lord of the Flies, published 50 years ago, sprang from the very English upbringing of its author, William Golding, argues Melvyn Bragg
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Lord of the Flies took a long time brewing. It is a story that reaches back to the storytelling of Homer, to Golding's beloved Greek classics; it is a story that scoops up and X-rays the boyish tradition of Empire realised in so many plucky tales of English children in the 19th and 20th centuries; it sees the clash of the two great tectonic plates of the last century, when the Christian belief system and the ideal of progress and perfection met the chasm of infinite evil; it is as layered as the city of Troy, as rifted with finds of our past as the archaeological terrain around Stonehenge, which was one of Golding's intellectual allotments. Simply told, it can be and has been read by children and adults alike in many countries for 50 years.

Lord of the Flies took a long time brewing. It is a story that reaches back to the storytelling of Homer, to Golding's beloved Greek classics; it is a story that scoops up and X-rays the boyish tradition of Empire realised in so many plucky tales of English children in the 19th and 20th centuries; it sees the clash of the two great tectonic plates of the last century, when the Christian belief system and the ideal of progress and perfection met the chasm of infinite evil; it is as layered as the city of Troy, as rifted with finds of our past as the archaeological terrain around Stonehenge, which was one of Golding's intellectual allotments. Simply told, it can be and has been read by children and adults alike in many countries for 50 years.

Twenty-five years ago, as a writer who admired not only Lord of the Flies but others of his books, especially The Spire, I went to see William Golding in his house near Salisbury, the house bought by the money from the novel that made his name. I had heard him speak at a literary festival and seen him briefly on television, an appearance which, reportedly, he regretted.

We had lunch, made by Anne, his wife, a scientist whose intellect and wit danced as teasingly as the thoughts of her husband drove quietly, steadily: she was like the sunlight on the flow of his river. Both of them were generous with conversation, generous with appreciation, generous with wine. I was not much used to lunchtime boozing. I was not used to that much boozing any time. And so merrily we two (Anne - tactfully leaving us alone? Washing up? Slipped upstairs for a nap?) rolled into the garden which Golding had worked on so hard and the rest is pretty much an embarrassment, although time has turned the scarlet cheeks to a warmer nostalgic ruby.

I do remember being dared to walk along a narrow wall near or over water. I do remember Golding dismissing all thought of an inhospitable taxi and insisting on drunkenly driving me back to Salisbury for the train. The roads must have been empty because we arrived safely and ripe for more embarrassment. The train was about due, but on the platform across the bridge. It was a bridge too far. We eased ourselves on to the lines and just about managed to ease ourselves up again on the other side. I was woken up in London by a cleaner. How I got home is a bit like The Lost Weekend.

His letter came two days later. "The Assyrians," he wrote, "would discuss all important matters twice. Once when drunk and once when sober." We had tea in the Savoy. Over the next three months we made a film, and 10 years later made another even longer film, and in that time I came to know both Bill and Anne quite well. I would not claim it as a close friendship. Geography, for one thing, an underestimated factor in the upkeep of friendships, was against us. London was not his favourite pounding ground, and when I made for the country I went to the opposite end of England. But from that 1980 film, which contained a long interview, from other times and other talks, I want to try to put together the story behind the story of Lord of the Flies, the journey taken by the author.

When I met him, he looked the part of a patrician Victorian, not entirely uncultivated, I thought. The flowing white locks, the Greek classical bust grey beard, the high domed forehead, strong nose, thick-set figure as might be Plato the wrestler. He looked a wise man, he looked a capable man, as he was with boats and gardens and carpentry, he looked a kindly man. I never saw him roused: I have an (unproven) feeling that a powerful arousal would not have been entirely out of character.

Since its publication in 1954, Lord of the Flies has sold about 12 million copies. Peter Brook made a film of it, and there is a lesser, Hollywood movie; Nigel Williams adapted it for the stage. It is not Golding's favourite of his novels: he preferred The Inheritors. Golding himself was childlike in his delight at this success.

In 1980, he had come out of eight years' "silence", reliably said to have included a time of deep depression, and finally written Darkness Visible, about which he would not speak. He had just published Rites of Passage, which again set him on a track to success, which he spun into a trilogy and which won the Booker prize and levered him into the Nobel prize. He was on good form.

We walked around Marlborough, where he was brought up. His house is a recorded habitation since 1547, but he was pleased to point out that it was "much older" than that. It's a small house, and when we came on it the first thing he said was: "I was sent to bed early. I would look out of the window and watch the rougher children play on the grass. I fell in love with a little girl. She must have been about my age, about five." But he knew he could not join them because "I was one of us and she was one of them".

Class came into that conversation unprompted and emphatic. Marlborough, he explained, was rigidly divided at that time. There was the "middle range public school" and the "much older" but much lower on the social scale grammar school at which his father, a remarkable autodidact, taught. "My father was a rationalist and a socialist; my mother was a socialist and a suffragette," he said. Both were Spencerian optimists, seeing in the world sufficient proofs for the conviction that progress was inevitable and inevitably the bringer of good tidings.

We went into the small back garden of the old house and were met by the eastern end of a huge church which "towers over the house like a ship. It worried me terribly." The terrible worry was the boy's fear that there were dead buried under the garden. At the time he was reassured that this could not be the case but the worry did not go away.

Eventually, much later, the garden was dug up for some reason and bones were unearthed. Golding was very relieved that he had been proved right. His mother, a Cornishwoman, had, he said "an instinctive fear of the supernatural" and this fear, added to her belief, was something he seemed more pleased to inherit than his father's strict secular rationalism.

He describes "arguments" with his father, "not about where will the money come from or what to do", but about "the nature of the universe, his rational universe against which I defended my irrational one". Class, an early intimation of sex, rationalism vs the supernatural, the clear and neat order of an English back garden overpowered by a Christian east window and undermined by dead bones; and the boy seeing the world quite differently from the man. Every bit of that is in Lord of the Flies which, like many great novels, eviscerates the inner life of the writer, takes everything the author has to offer, which is then alchemised with luck by imagination into fiction.

The young Golding wrote poetry, and like many of us spent a lot of energy denying and hiding that awful fact from his family. In his late teens, however, a good friend took them, found a publisher, and brought out a book which Golding proudly claimed was now unobtainable. He had once found a very rare copy and burned it. "I always felt that I was a writer," he said, "although it took me until I was 40 to break away from doing things I didn't like." Lord of the Flies liberated him from daily breadwinning: the years up to 40 were passed in the Navy and then as a schoolteacher in Salisbury.

The war was the defining factor in the moulding of the philosophy which underlies that first published novel, and which is the richest seam in almost all the subsequent novels. The Second World War "changed my view of human nature. Here was this highly civilised race of people and they did unimaginable things... I remember saying to myself, 'I have a Nazi inside me.' If I'd been fighting over there, I'd have been a Nazi... It went beyond any country... it was an absolute evil and it changed my view of what human nature was."

A few years after the war, in 1952, in the classically ordered, civilised, Anglican moderate church-led cathedral city of Salisbury, in what for some is near the heart of England's green and pleasant land, while the wounds of war were still open and the outrage still hot, the schoolmaster who would occasionally supervise the boys at choir practice began a novel which many see as the truest fable to come from that absolute evil.

Before that, though, there were three unpublished novels, marriage to the dashing and brilliant Anne, two children and the slog of teaching. He told me: "We were living in a council flat inside a big house and I'd just put the children to bed and been reading The Coral Island or Cannibal Island or one of those islands in children's literature at the time. When I came downstairs I was exhausted. * * Anne was beside the fire, and I said something like, 'Wouldn't it be a good idea to write a book about what would really happen to children on an island.' Anne said, 'Write it.'"

The first draft, 85,000 words, took him six weeks while he was still a full-time teacher. There were two more drafts - the book was firmly edited by Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber - but the first draft, he says, "was substantially there. I remember, when I was working on it, supervising the boys' choir in Salisbury Cathedral, sitting there, writing away."

This raises the subject of writing coupled with other employment. The current view, which I think has no public opponents, is that to "be a writer" - here I am talking principally about poets, novelists and playwrights - you must have none of the wearisome obligations imposed by the public world of work. It strikes me that teaching and the direct input of those choirboys singing a few yards from the author, their Church of England trebles soaring in purity in the rich words of the ancient psalms and anthems, might well have fed the book more than it strained the writer. And who is to say that there is no good strain, the strain that feeds?

Golding acknowledged that when I raised it, but he was at pains to add: "I had the whole book in my mind and I just had to write it. It was like tracing the book on to the paper. I saw it like a film. I just had to retell what I'd already seen." Did he accept that it was a fable? Only up to a point. "In my view, it breaks through being a fable, it has a sort of power fables don't have. And it sells and sells and sells. If it was only a fable it wouldn't sell much more than Aesop."

His delight in the massive and continuing sales was undisguised and unsullied by false modesty. Later, I encountered a similar unbounded delight in Joseph Heller, whose wonder at the success of Catch-22 was equally infectious. I even remember his hopping with the happiness of it up the street in Cheltenham itself as we walked to the bar in the Queen's Hotel. "I conclude," he said "it's a good book."

Boys had appeared tellingly in fiction before, especially in English fiction, in comics, in popular fiction and in more literary fiction, as orphans, victims, rascals, little Emperors, sensitive solitaries, pocket heroes, Christian cadets and suburban fantasists. Golding used the innocence usually associated with them, (which generally underpins those previous variations), their other-end-of-the-telescope view of life, and what was thought, in large part, as the tabula rasa of their minds, to plunge us and them towards the basis and the baseness of human society.

The child is indeed the father of the man, but trailing no clouds of glory. The dream child of Rousseau and Wordsworth, firmly challenged by the dark, even perverse nightmare child of Freud, becomes in Golding's fiction the fundamental man whose nature can only be tamed by the arrival on their hell island of an alien, an officer, a grown-up, benign authority. Optimism triumphs, as it did in Golding's world view, despite Original Sin, despite Absolute Evil.

It would be interesting to know whether Philip Pullman would have felt as confident about His Dark Materials had not Golding's own dark material been, as I'm sure it was, part of his reading. Now, increasingly, we see authors sending in children to do battle for humanity. It can be difficult finally to prove that a cause has a consequence. Indeed, Golding said that this was the biggest of the arguments he had with his father. Golding senior saw cause and consequence as rationally and unquestionably related. Golding junior remembered very clearly that he just could not accept that. But, in any case, it is likely that Lord of the Flies has had a big impact on subsequent fiction "about" children.

Having proved that a full-time and arduous job was positively helpful to creating major fiction, Golding, in true English awkward-squad fashion, went on to prove the opposite. The bounty from the book set him free to write full time, and although that time, as happens with many writers, was often filled up with doubt, depression, drift and drink, his wide intellectual interests and the corresponding intellectual creativity of Anne sustained the best of him again and again. "I loved to walk with my son on paths which Neanderthal man had loped along so many tens of thousands of years ago" - and indeed, for Golding himself, the imaginative feat of The Inheritors, set in prehistoric times, outreached Lord of the Flies.

The Spire, of course, was in effect his parish church. He saw it through the window every teaching day, and "I was always puzzled by it. It seemed an impossibility given 13th-century technology. I wanted to find out how people did it."

He turned to his life as a naval commander and then as a bold yachtsman before he and Anne, in 1972, were run down in a fog in the English Channel and were lucky to escape with their lives. "What would those people have? Block and tackle. I knew all about that. What would sailors do? I copied that. It seems to work. People who read The Spire believe it..."

The central character in The Spire is Jocelin, a Dean whose vision or hubris it is to build the spire against all odds. An act of will? Of faith. Golding, when I met him then, and again for the much longer period of time the second film took, was never to abandon a belief which could be called religious. "The history of man and the history of religion are almost the same."

If Golding had one abiding interest, both intellectual and emotional, it was the sea. "The sea has this almost unimaginable depth in it - crystalline, Shelley would say - it is what it is..." We were sitting on a broad rock, waves pounded, leaden Channel sea all before us. "If it is an image of anything, it is an image of our unconscious, we have the sea in us. The sea is not a single image, it is anything the human mind could discover."

And, as it were, out of the sea came the idea for a novel which once again pitched him to great heights of acclaim and popularity. He read about an English parson aboard ship in the Bay of Bengal "who had gone naked among the sailors or the sailors had stripped him naked..." He went to his cabin and turned his face to the wall and set himself to die. "Lord Wellington came to see him and said, 'You'll be a better vicar for all this, buck up...'" But the man would listen to no one and died, and that wormed its way into Rites of Passage, another story.

Golding was rhapsodic about "the story". "What I am is a storyteller." Not a philosopher or a theologian or a historian or a social psychologist. "What I'm interested in is what gives power to a story. When I finish a story I think, 'I've done something.' Then, later, I haven't done anything, really. It's possible to make people more aware of themselves through stories," said Golding - and then, "or it could just be pour passer le temps."

Melvyn Bragg will be discussing Lord of the Flies with Beryl Bainbridge and John Carey at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Friday 15 October. (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk)