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Arena: The Dreams of William Golding, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Arena: The Dreams of William Golding, BBC Two

Arena: The Dreams of William Golding, BBC Two

The hopes and fears of an outsider Nobel Laureate

William Golding: all (alone) at seaLone Star Productions/BBC/Paul Joyce

If you’re one of those readers who likes to believe that a novelist’s work and the life he leads have little or nothing to do with one another, then I trust you were watching last night’s Arena: The Dreams of William Golding.

After an upbringing of lower-middle state schooling, immersion in the Classics and archaeology, uncompromising atheism (father) and superstitious eclecticism (mother), eventual Nobel Laureate William Golding was spat out into the world – with a reference from Oxford marked “Not Top Drawer” – chippy, resentful, and deeply susceptible to the wishy-washy of the unconscious. And for the rest of his life, little changed. Bitter about his struggles as a tyro ink-slayer, fatally wounded by his rejections from various publishers (including Faber, who did, eventually, take him on), distrustful of London literary cliques, even stung – quite reasonably – by a leaked dissenting judgement from his Nobel Prize panel, Golding all too often felt that he was on the outside looking in – a habit which, in his case, really didn’t need any extra encouragement.

'The Spire' is basically an extended day-dream written while staring out of the classroom window at Salisbury cathedral

As occasional glimpses of his dream diaries revealed, Golding inhabited a dark place. Wonkily religious, scared of actual darkness, filled with terrible self-loathing and horrified by what he had personally experienced of man’s inhumanity to man, Golding was perhaps a natural fantasist (it’s not beyond possible that he thought his mentally troubled son David was a punishment from God). He spoke of a “dream ego”, and he had a recurrent nightmare of being hanged, sometimes with his father looking on. 

But The Dreams of William Golding wasn’t really about his dreams, of course. With an imagination bordering on the visionary, he saw our wicked thoughts – what we might do – as fertile territory for books, and those books in some sense as prophylactic measures. Sleeping and waking, he seemed to live what would turn out to be his source material: “I am in a state of confusion between the imaginative world and the real world.” He literally (not to say “literarily”) lost himself, on occasion. 

With a little steering from family members, former pupils, fellow writers, philosopher John Gray and biographer John Carey (author of an excellently compelling Golding tome a couple of years back), Arena’s application of, for example, WWII footage over readings from Lord of the Flies was effective in re-blending Golding’s output with his various inputs.

Golding was an ideas man: schoolboys gone savage, conflict between early forms of man, the building of a spire to God, a sailor marooned on a rock. He was especially drawn to scenarios of a lone protagonist trapped in an environment against which he had to fight. He thought of himself, legitimately enough, as a sort of renegade scholar, and neither bowed to literary fashions nor shied away from a challenge. The Inheritors, about the decline of homo erectus, is a book with no developed language to describe things. Pincher Martin has a hero who dies on page two, and then spends the rest of his life(-story) in purgatory – without knowing it. Big themes occupied Golding’s mind, original sin being perhaps top of the list. Fascinated and horrified in equal parts by the “fragility of goodness”, Golding explored these focal human dilemmas in what were essentially modern myths. A natural precursor to the likes of JG Ballard, he was, at heart, a social anthropologist in narrative guise (a “novelist”, if you like).


Unlike most anthropologists, though, the English tutor Golding took his theories into the classroom to test. He decided, one chaotic Golding family bath-time, to write a book about what really might happen if children were unleashed in their natural state. Nigel Williams says, “It’s absolutely crucial to Lord of the Flies that it couldn’t have been written by somebody who wasn’t a schoolmaster.” The result, of course, was legendary, made Golding rich, and continues to foist its relevance on generations of schoolchildren today. The film showed footage of contemporary British pupils being encouraged to consider Lord of the Flies in the context of last year’s Tottenham riots.

It is a shame, in the circumstances, that the aspiring novelist known as “Scruff” by his pupils is recollected as having rather lost interest in teaching by the time Lord of the Flies was published. One boy remembers being made to count the words on draft pages of The Inheritors. And Golding’s fifth novel, The Spire, is basically an extended day-dream written while staring out of the classroom window at Salisbury cathedral.

William GoldingDomestic life with Golding wasn’t a breeze, either. In a wonderful segment, Mrs Golding (Anne) describes the typical fallout when she is asked for her notes on his works-in-progress (Golding, in shot, says nothing); his complicated view of pretty much everything predictably enough spilled over into a romantic involvement – if not actually an affair - with an American graduate student who was studying his work (“besotted”, she modestly calls him; she now a professor at Rutgers University). And the Golding’s son David had a mental breakdown while at university, from which he never quite recovered. The role of the saturnine father here was barely touched on.

Frequently of the view that life was almost just an imagining of itself (cue footage of Melvyn Bragg watching footage of Melvyn Bragg interviewing William Golding), it is eerie that Golding’s book The Spire, about the fanatical construction of an edifice (at great personal and social cost) was written just as Golding turned pro, and embarked on the fanatical construction of an edifice… An edifice which, with wondrous, almost mythical predictability, promptly collapsed.

Having achieved fame, and then been hit with a couple of bad reviews (of The Spire, indeed), Golding didn’t produce anything between 1967 and 1977. He had too much time on his hands, no schedule, and free access to booze. He got drunk, lost patience, was occasionally violent to Anne. In a late novel, Darkness Visible, he tried to work out his terrible depressions and frustrations regarding David through the spirit-dealing wunderkind character of Matty. “A kind of homage to David,” Carey calls it. A homage, and perhaps a correction. There is always a “There but for the grace…” quality to Golding’s novels (if one is being optimistic), and Golding’s pensive and cautious daughter Judy concludes that David, in his instability, was simply William gone that one step too far.

By the time he wrote the last of his bestselling To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, Golding had a Nobel, the Booker Prize, money and fame. But he was still writing about a man of troubled faith, stuck on a ship, about class, about myth, the border between reality and unreality, sexual discovery and perversion, battling against nature, about isolation…

It is absolutely crucial to 'Lord of the Flies' that it couldn’t have been written by somebody who wasn’t a schoolmaster

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