Preview: The Dreams of William Golding

New BBC documentary reveals unseen accounts of Lord of the Flies author.

At 42, William Golding was known to his students merely as "Scruff", the schoolmaster who scribbled stories in exercise books during lessons. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, had been rejected by publishers and dismissed as "rubbish and dull". Feelings of growing insecurity drew him into a battle with alcoholism, whilst at night he was tormented by vividly disturbing dreams. Humble and perhaps unlikely beginnings for a man who would later go on to win the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature, and is now revered by critics and readers alike as one of the most influential British writers of the late 20th century.

This Saturday's edition of BBC 2's Arena will delve into Golding's turbulent life, examining his writing process as he sought to expose the darkest depths of the human condition. Featuring exclusive interviews with Golding's family, as well as the schoolboys he used to teach (the same youths who inspired Lord of the Flies), the documentary promises to offer a frank depiction of the novelist through times of both artistic success and personal despair. The filmmakers gained first-time access to Golding's journals and letters, piecing them together with a rich archive of video footage to reveal the man behind the works. Here, Golding's daughter Judy reads from her father's dream diary:

It's difficult to measure the influence of Golding - not only has his work been an important touchstone for bestselling novelists Stephen King and Ian McEwan, but the now infamous conceits of his most widely read works continue to permeate popular culture, from the strange tribal tensions in HBO's Lost to U2's track Shadows and Tall Trees. Many will remember Lord of the Flies from their schooldays, an experience shared with readers across the Atlantic - the novel recently overtook The Catcher in the Rye as the book most read by young people in the United States.

Golding's biographer, John Carey, also contributes to Saturday's programme. Writing last year for the New Statesman, Carey expresses the staying power of The Inheritors, the protagonist of which is a Neanderthal man: "Half a century later and however many times you have read it, it is still alarming, eye-opening, desolating, mind-invading and unique".

In this vein, the filmmakers suggest that Golding's unflinching take on the savage within is still just as relevant today as it was when he penned Lord of the Flies, a novel born from his reaction to the atrocities of the Holocaust. One only needs to recall the images of last summer's angry young rioters and re-imagine Golding's desert island boys, driven into alarmingly violent acts by a senseless rage. His novels are a lasting reminder that the lines between civility and savagery, it seems, are much closer than we like to believe. In the clip below, boys from Golding's old school discuss his seminal novel:

"Arena: The Dreams of William Golding" airs on Saturday 17 March at 9:30pm on BBC 2.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder