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. . . and Tempests and Doldrums

William Golding was the only writer I have ever pursued. An Angry Young novel I wrote in three weeks when up at Cambridge, The Breaking of Bumbo, outsold Lord of the Flies that year for Faber & Faber. This was ludicrous, but it was followed by Golding’s kindness when I wrote to him. He sent me an open invitation to visit him by the watercress beds at Bowerchalke, halfway between Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge –midway between the new and the ancient faiths.

Not long afterwards I was walking from Glastonbury to Canterbury along the Hard Way near Avebury with only a pound in my pocket, when the deluge from the heavens became too much, even for one trying to write a novel about the myths of Britain. Towards dinner and sodden, I knocked on Bill and Anne Golding’s door and they let me in and dried me out. Two bottles of red wine and chess with Bill followed, and then he played his gifted Liszt on the piano. Next morning he drove me back to the hill forts on the downs to complete my journey, sleeping out and hardly eating, trying to change my perceptions.

Bill liked the resulting novel, Gog, for its passion about the matter of Britain: ‘“The lie of the land” does give it an organic quality, which I think is what you were after, organic in a Goggish kind of way, ungainly, thumping, outrageous, arcane, savaging, the land’s history seen – there’s no help for it, I have to purloin Hazlitt or is it Kean’s Lear? – by flashes of lightning!’

I had learned the feel of the land from him, the harshness of place, the ravage of time. Yet his own obsession had more to do with the sea than with the earth. A teacher of Classics and a seeker after God, he found in the struggle of men against the deep his Odysseys and his Leviathans. ‘I was born by it,’ he said. ‘I’ve sailed on it, fought on it

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William Golding was the only writer I have ever pursued. An Angry Young novel I wrote in three weeks when up at Cambridge, The Breaking of Bumbo, outsold Lord of the Flies that year for Faber & Faber. This was ludicrous, but it was followed by Golding’s kindness when I wrote to him. He sent me an open invitation to visit him by the watercress beds at Bowerchalke, halfway between Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge –midway between the new and the ancient faiths.

Not long afterwards I was walking from Glastonbury to Canterbury along the Hard Way near Avebury with only a pound in my pocket, when the deluge from the heavens became too much, even for one trying to write a novel about the myths of Britain. Towards dinner and sodden, I knocked on Bill and Anne Golding’s door and they let me in and dried me out. Two bottles of red wine and chess with Bill followed, and then he played his gifted Liszt on the piano. Next morning he drove me back to the hill forts on the downs to complete my journey, sleeping out and hardly eating, trying to change my perceptions. Bill liked the resulting novel, Gog, for its passion about the matter of Britain: ‘“The lie of the land” does give it an organic quality, which I think is what you were after, organic in a Goggish kind of way, ungainly, thumping, outrageous, arcane, savaging, the land’s history seen – there’s no help for it, I have to purloin Hazlitt or is it Kean’s Lear? – by flashes of lightning!’ I had learned the feel of the land from him, the harshness of place, the ravage of time. Yet his own obsession had more to do with the sea than with the earth. A teacher of Classics and a seeker after God, he found in the struggle of men against the deep his Odysseys and his Leviathans. ‘I was born by it,’ he said. ‘I’ve sailed on it, fought on it, swum in it, photographed under it, been frightened by it and done most things you can do apart from drowning in it.’ In his essay on ‘The English Channel’, he wrote of his experience as the captain of a rocket-ship on D-Day. He saw five thousand ships at anchor. They oozed out like a stream of dark oil, milling about in a rising wind. Golding himself turned in for a few hours the night before D-Day, leaving his first mate on watch. When he awoke, he discovered that the first mate had lost sight of the whole of the vast armada.
I stood there all night catching up and felt history in my hands as hard and heavy as a brick. I was frightened – not immediately of the mines we might set off at any moment, nor of the batteries ashore, nor of the thousands of enemy aircraft we had been promised. I was frightened, of all things, of being late and jeered at. I find him funny now, that young man with the naval profile and the greening badge on his cap.
Golding arrived in time to take up his position with the other rocket-ships off the Normandy beaches, and he witnessed an Allied plane dive into the fatal curve of the first salvo of rockets. There his written account of D-Day ends, but one night he told me of his fear of his ship, the nagging knowledge that one spark, one tracer-bullet alone would be enough to blow up his floating fireworks factory. What he also confided in me was his doubt about the morality of choosing to risk his men’s lives by sailing over a minefield, so as not to be mocked for arriving late for the greatest sea invasion there ever was. (Only later did he discover that the minefield marked on the chart was a decoy to deter the enemy – there had been no risk at all, no moral choice.) He did not explain what he meant by the phrase, ‘history in my hands as hard and heavy as a brick’. The rockets he fired from his ship were called ‘bricks’. His job was to lay 750 ‘bricks’ over a hellish half-acre, obliterating it in fire, and then to do it all over again. At the invasion of Walcheren, too, he had to do his duty, creating his little infernos before the troops landed. That grey morning, the RAF did not appear to cover the landing, so that most of the other rocketships were destroyed by shells and bombs, his own ship one of the few to be spared. In the years that followed, Golding wrote about grace and mercy, chance and fate, struggle and survival for those who live upon the sea, culminating in his trilogy Rites of Passage, which won him the Nobel Prize. He himself gave up being the captain of any ship when his private yacht, the 23-ton Tenace, hit a cargo vessel in a Channel mist and went to the bottom. He did not go down with her in long revelation and revolt as did Pincher Martin, but was saved. He sailed no more except in his writing. ‘I never again wanted to be responsible for other people’s lives at sea.’ These experiences afloat infused the flow and currents of many of Golding’s novels. They charted the rocks, suggested the reefs, confronted ambiguous men with sightings and tackings, tempests and doldrums. To him, the sea was protean, including and reflecting all the varied appetites and contradictions of human beings.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Andrew Sinclair 2005


About the contributor

Andrew Sinclair sees his career as that of a horseman riding off simultaneously in too many directions. To have known William Golding has been his greatest inspiration and privilege.

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