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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy 100th birthday William Golding

The author of Lord of the Flies was born on September 19, 1911, in Newquay, Cornwall.

His father, Alec, was a revolutionary thinker, being an atheist, a socialist, and a rationalist, while his mother, Mildred, was of more Gothic-romantic bent, infamous for terrifying her family with Cornish ghost stories. Both parents were accomplished musicians, and William and his older brother played violin and cello.

While working as a shoemaker, Alec became qualified as a science teacher, and went on to teach at Marlborough grammar school in Wiltshire, where his son, William, was a student. Alec became formally qualified, wrote science textbooks, and was appointed a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His practical, scientific bent of mind, combined with his atheism, had an enormous effect on his son William’s writing.

In 1930 William left home to attend Brasenose College, Oxford, starting off by studying natural science, and then swapping to English literature. He graduated in 1935, then studied for a diploma in education.

In 1934 he published a small volume of poetry, but this was not a commercial or critical success. The following year he left Oxford to move to London, and became involved in theatre. This, too, was not a success, and in 1939 he took up a teaching post at Maidstone grammar school for boys. In September that same year he married Mabel Ann Brookfield, and settled down to the life of a family man and schoolmaster.

It was the Second World War that decided the course of his life. William volunteered for the Royal Navy, enlisting as an ordinary seaman. When sitting an examination to become an officer, he answered a question on the difference between a propellant and an explosive in such erudite detail that he was sent to a secret research center.

While there, he was injured in an explosion, and after recovery, he asked his bosses “to send me back to sea, for God's sake, where there's peace.” Amazingly, the Admiralty listened. He was sent to a mine-sweeper school inScotland, then to New York to wait for a mine-sweeper that was being built on Long Island. By a quirk of fate, minesweepers were no longer used to the same extent when he returned to Britain, so he was given command of a small rocket-launching craft, instead.

The war changed William Golding’s view of mankind. As he wrote, “Before the second world war I believed in the perfectibility of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society.” The war forced him to decide that “anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head” – that when social controls collapsed, most people would end up behaving with brutality and inhumanity. It was an attitude reflected in all his writing from then on.

In 1945 Golding returned to Bishop Wordsworth's School to teach English and classics, and write several novels, all of which were rejected. Then came a manuscript that he had titled “Strangers from Within.” After being rejected by 21 publishers, in September 1953 it arrived on the desk of Charles Monteith, a young editor at Faber. Monteith recognized its greatness – and also its flaws. Luckily, William Golding was amenable to heavy editing, including the cutting out of several lengthy scenes, and cooperated, too, when Monteith suggested that he find a different title.

Golding’s suggestions were “A Cry of Children” and “Nightmare Island.” It was another editor at Faber, Alan Pringle, who suggested “Lord of the Flies.” The novel was published on 17 September 1954, exactly a year after it had been submitted.

Everyone knows that story that made Golding a household name – the marooning of a group of boys on a desert island, the struggle for supremacy, and the Gothic inevitability of violence and death. It is a grim, doom-laden rewriting of “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Coral Island.” Lord of the Flies received warm reviews, and endorsements by influential writers, including E. M. Forster, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot, who described it as “not only a splendid novel but morally and theologically impeccable.”

In America it initially made little impression, but by1957 the paperback edition had attracted a huge cult following among university students, and from there it moved rapidly into the mainstream. The novel became a classroom text at secondary and tertiary level in America and Europe, and by the end of the twentieth century it had been translated into over thirty languages, with worldwide sales estimated at over 10 million copies.

In 1983 Golding was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, one of only five British writers to have received the accolade. In 1988 he was knighted.

Golding died suddenly of a heart attack, aged eighty-one, on the morning of 19 June 1993.

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