This is a collection of twenty essays, reviews and magazine columns written by the British novelist and Nobel laureate William Golding, from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. It’s a time capsule, packed with riches, and one stand-out comic essay on the body-soul dislocation experienced when flying across the USA. (Bourbon is involved.)
Much of the storytelling revisits the past. The opening essay, ‘The Hot Gates’, has Golding scrambling about on the Greek hillside where Leonidas and three hundred Spartans resisted the phenomenal numbers of the Persian army and gave hope to the Greek city-states that when their turn came to face the unstoppable Persians they could do the same. Which they did. It’s a favourite theme of many authors educated in the Classics, and was positioned here, I think, to book-end the collection by pairing it with a long and fascinating essay about Golding’s resistance to learning Latin (and by extension Greek also) as a boy, in a period when to refuse to touch those subjects was to close the door on any further education at all.
Golding was a teacher in his day job, and is a superb communicator. I enjoy his novels (I haven’t read them all: I may yet be horrified or disappointed) so much that I am often surprised to recall that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1983), which to me is a label that now means ‘intimidating, unreadable, not at my level’. (Having examined the list of laureates I see that I have read more of the winners than I had thought, and would like to read more, so that’s this year’s New Year’s Resolution sorted.) Golding’s sheer skill at telling and storying, bringing your attention wholly to focus on what he is saying, on his story, is masterful. He is fully aware of his storying role, and makes the point beautifully with two essays printed here, one following the other: ‘Digging for Pictures’ and ‘Egypt from my Inside’.
The dominant image in ‘Digging for Pictures’ is of a concrete runway creeping forward over roughly excavated earth, following closely behind archaeologists who are rushing to survey, record and dig a newly discovered prehistoric settlement that lies in the way of the this new, important, aircraft runway that must be built. It’s a rescue dig, and Golding is a volunteer excavator, hastily assigned a prehistoric rubbish pit (formerly a grain store, later reused as a bin to hold anything not wanted by the inhabitants because people of all periods like to keep their homes tidy) to work through to see if anything is in there that needs to be recorded. He digs, and begins thinking about the remains and fragments that he finds as things left behind by people, individuals like us, who also had feelings and voices and opinions. He reinvents conversations about the things that he’s finding, a common practice when your hands are busy. Then he finds a bone, attached to another bone, and realises that this is an old woman’s body that had been tossed into the rubbish pit. A supervisor appears, in a rush, to ask if he’s found anything, can they close this pit off now? The shock of finding a tossed-aside corpse appalls Golding so much that he assures the supervisor that the pit holds nothing, and the concrete can move yet further forward. The woman’s remains are reburied without anyone knowing about them, and so, in Golding’s mind, is the idea that we humans were once the kind of people who would throw a grandmother’s body into the midden.
So that was fascinating, with much to think about. Onto the next essay, ‘Egypt from my Inside’. Golding was fascinated by Ancient Egypt as a boy, and would pore over museum cases of excavated remains, studying them until he was word-perfect in their history, their significance, how they related to other items in the cases, and so on. One day a curator began to rearrange things in a case, a conversation began, and the curator was pleased to realise that the boy Golding knew a lot about Egyptian artefacts and funerary practices. He invited the boy to assist him with some work he was doing in the Museum offices, and Golding accompanied the man to the back rooms, rather like a warehouse with desks, where the curator proceeded to unwrap a mummy. Golding’s role was to take the pieces of brown fabric from the curator as it was unrolled from the corpse, and fold it, ends to middle like a sheet, as the curator did too. He did this for about an hour, partly horrified and partly thrilled at being so close to that most interesting of Egyptian artefacts, the dead body of a human who had once lived and knew about the other things in the cases. Then he went home to tea, and amazed his brother and parents with the tale of the day’s adventure. He won a prize at school for his essay on the subject. And in the next paragraph Golding tells the reader that this is a story, a made-up event. He as a boy had fantasised that this had happened, but it didn’t.
So this too was interesting. We have all fantasised wildly and extravagantly about a thing coming to pass, to see what might happen, to explore an avenue of interest, to wallow in glorious, impossible emotional fulfillment and excitement. But we don’t often move that fantasy into real life, tell people that it had happened. We even more rarely write it down as a happened event, and then tell the reader that no, it wasn’t, and it hadn’t.
What Golding was up to in that essay is the subject of a seminar on storytelling that you can arrange between yourselves. What struck me most forcibly was that I now no longer fully believed the story of the old woman tossed into the airfield rubbish pit. Was that too a fantasy borne of Golding’s skill in imagining human emotion and personality? Since the excavation story had a rough date and a certain location, and knowing archaeological excavation is always recorded to within a microgramme of shifted soil, I figured I could ask. I asked on Twitter, and less than 24 hours later the eminent prehistoric archaeologist Mike Pitts had sent me and others a six-page Twitter thread explaining what had happened, with pictures.
I need to read the article that Mike referred us to, to reconstruct Golding’s actions during the dig, but I suspect that ‘Digging for Pictures’ contains a bit of post hoc decoration. I think that Golding read the results of the analysis and built them (unconsciously? it’s quite a clue) into the essay, which was published, according to John Carey, Golding’s biographer, many years later in 1963. It’s not very easy to identify a skeleton as male or female, especially when it’s first exposed and is in some disarray. You can tell from the forehead, and possibly but not always from the pelvic bones. Golding saw the pelvic bones and described the skeleton immediately as being that of an old woman, without having seen the skull. Even at my first reading I thought ‘Gosh, he must be pretty good at forensics to identify that with no other evidence’. Now I think he added the female identification in the essay to accentuate his powerful feelings about a body dumped in a rubbish pit, left by people he had equally powerfully been imagining as just like us. Because two skeletons were recovered from the rubbish pits on that rescue dig on Boscombe Down in 1949, and both were female. One is in Salisbury Museum. Golding might have found her.